“Well may Kildare, indeed, be proud of its first County Council …”
The first meeting of the newly elected Kildare County Council taking place this week will mark the twenty-fourth convening of a council elected by the people of the county since the first council was elected 115 years ago.
The first meeting of Kildare County Council took place in the Courthouse, Naas, at 11 o’clock on 22 April 1899. A small group of people gathered at the courthouse steps to witness the arrival of the newly-elected councillors. Recognising the historic nature of the occasion the Leinster Leader had commissioned portraits of the newly-elected councillors and given a commentary on their merits. Few elected bodies in the decades since have received such flattering endorsement from the Fourth Estate:
‘Well may Kildare, indeed, be proud of its first County Council. It will be manned by men of intelligence, independence and strength of character …’
The meeting began with the Secretary, Mr. Gilbert de Laval Willis, who had carried over from the Grand Jury, administering declarations of office to the twenty-one successful candidates. However, the peculiarities of the first council did not stop there: under the Local Government Act, the chairs of the five subsidiary District Councils were entitled to ex-officio membership as were three nominees from the defunct Grand Jury. And the Council also had the power to co-opt two further members thus bringing the total membership of the 1899 council to thirty-one. Interestingly the 2014 County Council membership has been increased to forty seats from the twenty-five for the council elected in 2009 and indeed had been the number of councilors on the county body for many years previous.
The first meeting in April 1899 lasted seven hours during which a vast amount of business relating to the establishment of the new council was transacted. Obviously, most interest centered on the election of the first chairman of the County Council. And true to the political character of the new body there was a contest between Edward Fenelon of Kilcullen and Stephen J. Brown of Naas. The roll call vote was not without its tensions. According to an eye-witness:
‘For the first five minutes the voting was pretty equal but as the list of members was gone through the number for Mr. Brown steadily increased, until at the close he had secured double as many as his opponent.’
So incensed was the defeated candidate that he refused the offer of the vice-chair position.
The political tone of the meeting continued with the first resolution adopted by the new Kildare County Council carrying the following message:-
‘That we affirm the right of the Irish Nation to a full-measure of self-Government. We accept the Local Government Act of 1898 as a first instalment of the same, and call on the Imperial Parliament to proceed with the further restitution of our rights’.
Mr. Mansfield of Newbridge voted against and several of the ‘old guard’ who had carried over from the landlord controlled Grand Jury such as Mr. Medlicott of Kildare and Sir Gerald Dease of Celbridge abstained but the motion was carried overwhelmingly setting the Home Rule influenced tone of the council for many years to come.
Three other motions standard to all of the new councils and relating to the demand for a Catholic University, the over taxation of Ireland, and the excessive freight charges imposed by the railway companies were passed before the more practical business of that first meeting continued.
Personnel and finance are the twin essentials of any new organisation and the new Kildare councilors had to make immediate arrangements. The Council was over £1,000 in debt from its first day and overdraft facilities were approved with the Hibernian Bank. Committees were appointed to investigate staff and financial requirements while the first real county business was to assess a detailed roads programme put forward by Mr. Glover, the long-serving CountySurveyor, who noted that there were 1,131 miles of road in the county of which 54 miles could be classified as mail coach roads.
But among the minutiae of committee business, coroner’s salaries and courthouse accommodation the odd note revealing the human background to the new experiment in local government broke through the dry record of the minute books. The Secretary read a letter from the Celbridge Board of Guardians recommending the County Council to ask support for giving relief to Kate Tyrrell of Saggart, a woman who presumably had fallen on hard times. Administrative reality precluded any note of compassion and the Secretary was instructed to reply that the council could take no action because it was outside the bounds of the county.
However, welfare matters within the county did feature on the agenda of that first meeting when Cllr. John Heffernan of Kildare town asked the council to discuss with the Trustees of the Duke of Leinster the re-opening of the county infirmary in the town. Another plan which dominated the minutes of the early meetings was to convert the abandoned county jail in Naas into a county asylum as an alternative to sending Kildare people to Carlow.
Both of these issues are representative of the topics of practical local administration which occupied the business of the County Council once the atmosphere cooled in the council chamber following the elections. The agendas for the remainder of 1899 are taken up with discussions on the terms and conditions of the council’s staff (who were at that time appointed by vote of the councilors); with responding to demands from the rural district councils for road funds; and with considering appointments to new agricultural and technical education committees. Much of the detailed work was carried out by the district councils who had first-hand responsibility for road maintenance, for water supplies and for housing. However the demand for funds was routed through the County Council which had to make provision in the rates demand which it calculated each year.
In this way the newly elected council settled down to the unspectacular but essential work of providing the people of Kildare with the services and facilities that would equip them to face a new century. Its successors in the Kildare County Council which will hold its first meeting this week will face an equally daunting agenda. Leinster Leader 3 June 2014, Looking Back Series no: 385.