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DODGY DEALINGS INVESTIGATED BY 'MAHON' STYLE TRIBUNAL IN 19TH CENTURY NAAS

Dodgy dealings investigated by “Mahon” style tribunal in 19th century Naas


The “Mahon” tribunal which investigated the behaviour of some national and local politicians in Dublin has been dominating the headlines and talk shows over the past number of days.  The report depicts a bewildering web of personalities, contacts and payments which led, in some cases, to the enrichment of individuals at the expense of the common good.

But it is far from the first time that a public enquiry has revealed evidence of dodgy dealings in public life.  The county town, Naas, had its own “Mahon” tribunal in 1833 when an inquiry was set up by the Westminster Government to investigate the Corporation of Naas and to examine claims of impropriety and nepotism in the running of the town.

Two inspectors appointed by Westminster, John Colhoun and Henry Baldwin, took evidence in Naas in September 1833.  The thrust of their report was that the Corporation of the town was dominated by one powerful individual, the Earl of Mayo who lived at Palmerstown House, near Johnstown.  They heard evidence that the townspeople were suffering while Lord Mayo helped himself to the tolls and rents and, in a particularly brazen case of irregularity, attempted to have large sections of the common lands of the town signed over to his personal ownership.

Colhoun and Baldwin first took a look at the membership of the Corporation of the town. It was easy to see how the Earl of Mayo monopolised the running of town in his own interests. Of the fifteen members of the Corporation thirteen were either related to Mayo or were his tenants and workman. None of the senior members of the Corporation lived in the town nor appear to have set foot in it from one end of the year to the other. As a result law and order in the town was neglected – Colhoun and Baldwin wrote: “The inhabitants of this district are deprived of the only advantage which commonly results to the public from the existence of a corporation in a small town, namely, the superintendence of a local magistrate.”

If things had been run properly election to the Corporation should have been open to all the property-owners in the town. However Mayo kept a grip on access to the Corporation to ensure that it was only his own kind would take seats on the town’s local authority. He operated on a disturbingly sectarian basis: “There is no modern instance of a Roman Catholic or a Protestant Dissenter (Presbyterian) being a member of the Corporation” said the Inspectors adding that a Roman Catholic freeholder in the town, a Mr. Wilson, had in 1832 attempted to gain nomination to the Corporation but was rejected by the Mayo cabal.

The degree to which the business of the Corporation and the interests of the Earl of Mayo were intertwined took on more tangible forms. The accounts of Naas Corporation and the accounts of the Mayo seem to have been one and the same. The Inspectors quote an example whereby the British Government paid a rent of £55 (a whopping sum in 1833) for the military barracks site to the Corporation of Naas. But in fact the amount was credited to Mayo’s estate receipts.  The fact that the land agent for the corporation was also the land agent for Mayo must go a long way to explain this coincidence of interests.
 Another potentially solid source of income for the corporation was similarly diverted into the Palmerstown coffers. There were seven fairs held in the town in the course of the year. The tolls and customs paid by dealers at the fairs should have been received by the Corporation but, as with the property rentals, were credited to the Mayo accounts. The Inspectors, Colhoun and Baldwin,  in exasperation wrote: “Why the receipts of the tolls of any of the fairs should have been credited to his Lordship instead of to the corporation was not explained.”  

And nineteenth century Naas had its brush with rezoning too. One of the few positive legacies of Mayo might have been the Market House built at the canal in 1813. But even this – otherwise fine building – was the subject of controversy. The old market house had stood in the town’s square: it was in need of refurbishment but instead it was pulled down and Mayo insisted that the new Market House be built at the canal harbour. The relocation devastated trade in the town centre and the shopkeepers told the Inquiry that “from the time of the removal of the market, the town has been declining.”  And there were question marks over whether Mayo had paid for the new Market House – as he claimed on the foundation stone – or whether it had been paid out of income due to the Corporation.

A feature of the modern tribunals such as the “Mahon” tribunal has been their glacial pace of progress caused largely by the difficulties in getting access to the documents of individuals under investigation. And so it was with the “Colhoun & Baldwin” inquiry in Naas in 1833. When they went looking for the Corporation’s accounts and records they found that all papers were “ locked up in his lordship’s house , and that the keys were in the possession of his lordship.”

And that was not the extent of the dodgy dealings between Mayo and the Corporation of Naas. The “Colhoun & Baldwin” report found that the Corporation at one time had at  least 279 acres of land mainly in the Maudlins and Gingerstown districts for the benefit of the town. However in a series of convoluted land dealings some of this had been transferred into Lord Mayo’s estate to add to his already big holdings around his Palmerstown estate.  But to get to the bottom of that saga will take years of investigation … just like the “Mahon” tribunal! Series No: 274

There were dodgy deals and tribunals in 19th century Naas writes Liam Kenny in his Looking Back series No. 274. Our thanks, as always, to Liam


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