Decade of Commemorations
Kildare County Council 1899-1924
by Dr Thomas Nelson
Elected county councils were established under the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898 to replace the unrepresentative landlord-dominated grand juries as the bodies responsible for the administrative and financial management of their respective areas. Nationalists welcomed them as a preparation for Home Rule while unionists were uneasy about them for the same reason. The democratisation and rationalisation of local government had been ongoing in Western Europe since the middle of the nineteenth century and had occurred in England in 1888. The delay in its advent in Ireland reflects the political, sectarian and economic dynamic of the time. Eventually the promise of a halving of the rates on agricultural land and a treasury grant to make up the difference helped to overcome any lingering opposition to the move even among the landlords who were losing their centuries old control of local government and the patronage that went with it.
The first council elections in 1899 were hotly contested along nationalist versus unionist lines and the future partition of Ireland can be read in the results. Nationalists overwhelmingly dominated the councils in the part of Ireland that became the Free State and unionists in that which became Northern Ireland.
The first Kildare County Council reflects this pattern but perhaps a little more subtly, in that unionists were returned in three of the county’s twenty-one electoral divisions, two by ballot and one unopposed. The other members elected were all firmly home rule supporting nationalists. They were from the catholic middle class, a mixture of large tenant farmers, town businessmen and professionals. As ratepayer they all shared a desire to keep the rates (a combination of the former county cess and the poor law rate) as low as possible. They were all men. A limited number of women got the right to vote in council elections if they were the rate-paying head of household and from 1911 women could be elected as councillor, but it was 1934 before Kildare got its first woman councillor.
Political issues tended not to intrude on the day-to-day business of Kildare County Council which involved the setting and collecting of the rates and disbursing it to the rural district councils and the Poor Law Unions for their functions, as well as for its own county-at-large works such as roads, bridges, jails and courthouses. That said, the significant national events of the day do resonate in the council chamber: the transfer of land to the tenants under the Wyndham Act 1903, the introduction of an old age pension in 1908, the passing of the Home Rule Act in 1914, the formation of the National Volunteers, and most memorably perhaps, the Easter Rising which the council condemned at the time, a response repudiated by a newly elected Sinn Féin supporting council in 1920.
Full council meetings were open to the public and the local press, but important decisions were often made in sub-committees, such as the Finance Committee, sitting privately in advance. Minutes had to be submitted for approval by the Local Government Board in the Custom House in Dublin thus they are often terse records of decisions, but a flavour of the council chamber debates can be gleaned by using them alongside the reports in the two local newspapers, the nationalist leaning Leinster Leader and the unionist inclined Kildare Observer.
See also: Nelson, Dr. Thomas, Through Peace and War: Kildare County Council In The Years of Revolution 1899-1926 (2015)