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KILDARE COUNTY COUNCIL - First Elections & First Meeting 1899

Kildare County Council
 
First Elections & First Meeting
 
January to April 1899
 
 
by Liam Kenny
 
THE year 1899 marked both and end and a beginning. It was the end of a century which had seen Ireland convulsed by famine and agitation; a century which witnessed the mobilisation of campaigns for religious toleration, land distribution and national aspiration under the leadership of figures such as O’Connell, Parnell and Davitt.
 
Kildare had not escaped from the impact of such influences. True, the famine did not strike with the same ravaging intensity as in the poorer counties of the west but it had taken its toll. The county’s population was on a downward slide and at the turn of the century was barely half of its pre-famine figure.  
 
The political mobilisation of land or nationalist agitations did not affect the county with the militancy seen in other parts; yet Kildare’s legacy of its leading role in the 1798 rebellion had not been forgotten. And on the agrarian front the Clongorey evictions which saw upwards of fifty households evicted from their holdings near Newbridge in the early 1890s still touched a raw nerve.
 
It was against this background that a Westminster parliament translated a scheme for local government to Ireland, and for our purposes. to Kildare. The 1898 Local Government (Ireland) Act was an extraordinarly piece of legislation which established the basis for the network of county councils which has remained a strikingly consistent feature of the map of Ireland.
 
The Act achieved breakthroughs on many fronts. It extended the right of voting in local government elections to all householders and, for the first time, opened up the vote to women.
 
It was not a perfect franchise; women, for instance, had to be over thirty and while they could vote they could not stand as county council candidates. However the extension of the franchise to all householders gave ‘ordinary’ people the right to participate for the first time in choosing their own representatives.
 
In organisational terms the 1898 Act redrew the local authority map of County Kildare. The Grand Jury — an elitist body which had run county business for almost three centuries — and its subsidiary Baronies were erased as units of local government. They were replaced by the County Council and its dependent Rural District Councils.
 
Similarly the Boards of Guardians districts based on the workhouses at Athy, Celbridge and Naas were transformed into newly created Rural District Councils for sanitation and housing purposes although the Guardians remained in place for health and welfare functions. The Guardians who had been set up as poor relief authorities in the years before the Great Famine had opened the door to participation in local democracy; while property ownership was a qualification to vote for them they at least had allowed some middle-class farmers and businesspeople to come through into public life. However their role as a forum for local democracy was to prove minor compared to the excitement generated by the advent of the County and Rural District councils where, for the first time, every household in the county had a stake in choosing its local representatives.
 
From the first weeks of 1899 electioneering was in full flight. Elections for the Town Commissions in Athy, Naas and Newbridge were set for January of that year. Thus the the political fires were being stoked in the first few weeks of the year well in advance of the county wide poll for the County Council and Rural District Councils scheduled for April.
 
The Commissions were town councils which had existed for forty years or more; the 1898 Act offered the prospect of a new status as Urban District Councils. Although confined to the immediate town areas the Commissions were seized on by local worthies aiming for a profile at the county, thence the competitive nature of their mid-winter election contests.
 
 The Kildare Observer newspaper headlined a report of a raucous pre-election meeting in Naas Town Hall with the description “Laughable Scenes” — a description merited by the proceedings which saw the candidates’ appeals to the electorate punctuated by jeers and heckles. What the newly enfranchised women voters of the town thought of the reaction described as ‘’loud laughter’ from the largely male audience to news of their addition to the voters list is not recorded!
 
In Athy interest was equally vibrant; 565 out of a possible 745 voters cast their Town Commission ballots on January 10 putting Matthew J. Minch of the well-known grain merchant family at the head of the poll, a name that was to loom large in county council circles in subsequent years.
 
The ink was barely dry on the Town Commission election proclamations when the County Council contest started in earnest. And if the political pundits of Kildare in 1899 thought they had their fill with the municipal elections it was to prove minor compared to the bitter battles contested in the most public way possible by the rival candidates from the northern to the southern districts of Kildare. As a local commentator observed:
 
‘ The taste of power which the electorate have observed in the construction of the municipal bodies according to their own desires has helped to whet their appetite for the further display of that power ... the time is drawing nigh when they will be called on to construct the more important bodies — County and District Councils.’
 
Certainly the electors had no shortage of information about the candidates as the Leinster Leader of February and March 1899 carried columns of advertisements from the candidates appealing to their sympathies. The notices revealed the contention between the Unionists, almost to a man members of the country gentry, and the Home Rulers, who were, in the main, middle-class farmers or town-based merchants. But the dividing lines were not always clear; not all gentry were unionists.
 
 The Parish Priest of Ballymore Eustace, Very Rev. H. McCarthy eulogised Mr. George Wolfe ‘ the scion of a grand old historic family in the land’ as having ‘ emblazoned the spirit of Home Rule’ on his manifesto. The fact that Wolfe also supported‘ a Catholic University for the Catholic education of a Catholic people’ was no doubt the primary source of his reverend father’s enthusiasm but the endorsement highlighted another facet of the 1899 elections — the pervasive involvement of the Catholic clergy in the contest.
 
Controversially banned from taking part in the election by a clause inserted in the 1898 Local Government Act to placate the unionist population the clergy ensured that their influence was felt. In Athy Rev. Fr. Rowan chaired a selection meeting for candidates for the town’s rural hinterland while in Monasterevin the parish priest, Fr. Kavanagh, went into print to support the candidacy of Mr. Edward J. Cassidy of distillery fame.
 
Some unionists like Cooke-Trench of Millicent were given enthusiastic support in their localites — to quote from a Leinster Leader report of a meeting in Clane “the Clane electors ... will support him, not as a politician but as one of the ablest of the minority to whom it is expedient to give representation’’. 
 
On the other side of the political divide the Home Rulers were often a house divided; and there were also voices for the labour movement even if there was no party of that name.
 
Such competing agendas led to a heady political atmosphere with candidates pressing their claims through the public notices of the two newspapers in the county.
 
Edward Delany of Feighcullen advertised his appeal to the electorate of Kilmeague as follows ‘ I offer myself as a County Councillor for your division. You know my politics since the good old days of the Land League.’’
 
 Hendrick Aylmer of Kerdiffstown House near Naas hedged his bets in an appeal to the voters of the Kill Electoral division: ‘ As a large farmer and employer of labour I shall strive to improve the condition of these classes -- so far as is consistent with the welfare of the rest of the community.’’
 
William Smith of Carbury made his pitch to ‘the Free and Independent Electors’ of north-west Kildare as follows‘ My political opinions on all national questions are now and always have been — Home Rule, a Catholic University, a complete Land Purchase system ... and the release of all prisoners convicted of political offences.’’
 
Charles Greene of Kilkea was modest in his message to the voters of south Kildare ‘ Having passed most of my life amongst you I need not say much about my political opinions as they are well known.’
 
Peter Timmons of Monasterevan knew where the priorities lay for the county council voters of the Barrowside town ‘ The heavy taxes on tea, on the cheaper kind of tobacco and beer, should be taken off in the interest of the labourers.’’
 
Baron de Robeck of Gowran Grange near Punchestown hoped that familiarity would breed support ‘ I address you as an old friend, being settled among you for some fifty years.’
 
Such modest proposals however were often overshadowed by bitter head-to-head contests in a number of electoral areas with the local newspapers abandoning any editorial objectivity to give explicit advice to the voters.
 
The Leinster Leader had this to say about the contest in north Kildare:
‘ Mr. James Cummins of Windgates ... has the temerity to pit himself against Mr. John Field of Kilcock, the chosen candidate of a duly convened public meeting recently held in Rathcoffey.’
 
Things were also hotting up in Maynooth. A meeting called to endorse the candidature of a Mr. Ronaldson was broken up by ‘ a howling mob, whose most conspicuous features were turmoil, disorder and drunkeness.’ The fact that the meeting took place on St. Patrick’s Day, 1899 may explain the latter vice as the rival candidate, Lord Edward Fitzgerald of the great Carton family, was absolved from involvement in what the writer declared was ‘ a disgrace and blot on the fair name of Maynooth.’
 
Monasterevin too had a near brush with electioneering excesses with supporters of the rival candidates, Dowling and Cassidy, contesting ground. The Kildare Observer report noted: ‘ Those best informed attribute the ultimate outbreak of hostilities to a narrow section, who having seized control of the local fife and drum band — originally established on neutral lines ... refused to allow this band to attend the meeting at Kildangan, which on this occasion, was in favour of Mr. Cassidy. This was the first genuine Irish row witnessed in Monasterevin for a considerable number of years ...’
 
Punctuated by such drama the build-up to the county’s first democratic local elections moved to its April climax. Fortunately the date of election had been fixed for the week before Punchestown week — otherwise the attentions of Kildare voters may have been diverted from their democratic duty!
 
Apart from the political propaganda the Kildare electorate benefited from a public information campaign run in the press to educate them on the detail of exercising their new found franchise. The material yielded such gems as:
 
‘ ... anyone who is not quite sure of his ability to avoid serious mistakes that may lead to a waste of his vote should not be ashamed to consult those who are better informed. It is no disgrace to be unacquainted with the regulations of a new and unworked system.’
 
The electorate of Kildare went to the polls on 6 April with the polling stations opened from 10am to 8pm. There was potential for confusion in that every elector was voting for at least two local government bodies — the County Council and the relevant Rural District Council. However the authorities had got around the problem by an innovation described as ‘colour voting’ with voters being given different colour ballot papers: white for the county council elections and yellow for the district councils.
 
The votes were counted in Naas Courthouse on the following day under the supervision of Mr. Charles Daly, Sub-Sheriff and Returning Officer. News of the results spread on the telegraph wires to the furthest points of the county. In the north-west extremity of the county the Broadford Fife and Drum Band took to the roads of Carbury to celebrate the election of Mr. Moore O’Ferral.
 
The bonfires blazed also in Monasterevin where Mr. Cassidy’s sucess was feted with banners such as ‘ Cassidy our Councillor’ and ‘Cassidy for Ever’ being displayed across the streets. A grateful Mr. Cassidy rewarded such enthusiastic local support by presenting his distillery workmen with a new set of instruments for their band!
 
In the neighbouring town of Kildare Mr. John Heffernan’s election sparked rejoicing. The inevitable fife & drum band was in action there too and the crowd stopped outside Mr. Heffernan’s house to hear him addressing his victory speech from an upstairs window.
 
In Naas where one of the few bitter contests had taken place the victorious Stephen J Brown was chaired through the streets in a torchlight procession; his vanquished competitor Thomas J d Burgh was left to lick his electoral wounds in his estate at Oldtown.
 
His rejection must have been all the more severe when he read that another member of the county aristocracy, Lord Walter Fitzgerald, had been elected despite questions about his committment to Irish aspirations. Such reservations were put aside by the populace of the town on his election for the Maynooth and Leixlip electoral division of the County Council. He was met at Maynooth station by a brass band and amid scenes ‘ of wild enthusiasm was carried to his carriage outside where a procession was formed ... and escorted all the way to Carton, the crowd cheering vociferously.’
 
 
However such excitement regarding the elections was to be short-lived and indeed never quite repeated for any subsequent county council election. The electioneering for the county’s first democratic local elections was now over. It was time to get down to the gritty business of convening the first council meeting and getting to work on the many roads, sanitation, housing and health issues which were confronting the county.
 
 An essay by Liam Kenny on the first County Council in Kildare in 1899. Our thanks to Liam.
[note - look also at the actual Minutes of the first meeting on this site - Part 1 and Part 2. ]

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