Officials of Westmeath County Council, 1917-1918. The council played an important role during the years 1914-1923, especially during the War of Independence when both Dáil Éireann and Dublin Castle sought its allegiance.
In the latest of our guest blogs we discuss the role of Westmeath County Council during the Irish Revolution. In the first of two articles, Gretta Connell describes how the council responded to the transformations in Ireland between 1916 and 1920.
The Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898 set up County Councils, Urban District Councils and Rural District Councils, after which elections were to be held triennially. Councillors were to be elected on a parliamentary franchise and for the first time women were allowed to vote and stand for elections. Administration was to be distributed between these bodies and the boards of guardians. It was democracy at a local level, giving people a choice in who they wanted to represent them in government.
In 1916, at the time of the Easter Rising, the sitting councillors in Westmeath were those that had been elected in 1914. They were mostly middle class and Roman Catholic and they took a dim view of the Rising. During a council meeting on 27 April 1916, Mr. D. Flood J.P. proposed a resolution deploring the disturbances which had taken place in Dublin and other parts of Ireland, going on to say that they were organised against the best interests of the Irish people. The resolution went on to re-affirm confidence in Mr. John Redmond, the Irish Parliamentary Party and the constitutional movement, and resolved to co-operate with the lawful authorities in maintaining peace in the country. Mr. E.A. Shaw further proposed:
That we, the Westmeath County Council, in special meeting assembled, resolve ourselves into a committee for the purpose of ascertaining and inquiring into the origin and cause of the seditious rising in the city of Dublin, and for reporting later to the competent authorities.
However, the attitude of the councillors began to change after the Rising. At a meeting of the council in May 1916, Mr. P. McKenna J.P. proposed a lengthy resolution in which he claimed that, while the rebellion was foolish and hopeless, the punishment meted out to the rebels was excessive. He was critical of the actions of the British military authorities and regarding the rebels he stated: ‘I hope that no Irishman would ever be so unkind or uncharitable as to utter a word against them.’
McKenna’s resolution was a sign of changing times. At the annual general meeting of Westmeath County Council in 1916, Councillor Algernon Briscoe proposed a resolution, which showed strong confidence in, and absolute loyalty to, John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party, although a feeling of dissatisfaction with Redmond’s leadership was expressed by others. It appears that some councillors were concerned that Redmond would agree to Home Rule, excluding part of Ulster and partitioning the country. Councillor Chapman felt that the exclusion of any part of Ireland from the control of an Irish parliament would make Home Rule impossible and that a divided Ireland would be disastrous. Indeed, Mr James Eighan felt that Redmond had betrayed the country by allowing Lloyd George to dictate the terms of settlement.
Throughout 1917, Sinn Féin corresponded regularly with the council, on items such as the party’s request for the use of a wall for a ball alley and the use of the County Hall for a fund-raising concert as part of the National Aid Fund. This fund was set up after the 1916 Rising to provide support for the families of those executed or imprisoned. During this time, the council frequently called on the government for the release of prisoners, a policy that was reiterated after the death of Thomas Ashe, when the following motion was proposed by Mr. Robins and seconded by Mr. McDermott: ‘That we the members of Westmeath County Council join with our Countrymen in sympathising with the relatives of the late Thomas Ashe and we protest against the Government treating political prisoners as criminals.’
Sinn Féin made frequent demands on the councillors, accusing the chairman of failing to support the protests against conscription. At the same time, the party made efforts to gain more power in the council. At the Annual General Meeting in 1918, Sinn Féin disregarded the usual practice in which the existing chairman – in this case Mr. James J. Coen – was re-elected unopposed. Instead, a Sinn Féin man, Mr. Hugh O’Neill J.P., was also put forward. Coen, amid much public interest, won the vote and held his position.
Sinn Féin was increasingly functioning as an alternative government at this time but the British military authorities continued to fight for control. In August 1918, the military entered the county buildings and stated that they had come to occupy them. After a discussion with councillors they left the secretary’s office undisturbed but took over the remainder of the building. They also raided the ganger’s house (an official who organised and supervised work crews) and burned his account book, apparently while looking for deserters.
Further evidence of the changing political environment was provided by the general election of 14 December 1918, in which Sinn Féin won seventy-three of the 105 seats, the Irish Parliamentary Party won six and with the remainder won by Unionists. Laurence Ginnell, the first Nationalist MP to join Sinn Féin, was returned for Westmeath. Ginnell, who had been imprisoned for most of 1918 and the early months of 1919, was again arrested at the end of May 1919 before being brought to the courthouse handcuffed and in a dog cart, a scene that enraged people in Westmeath. At a meeting of the council a few weeks later, in June 1919 after Ginnell had been again imprisoned, the following resolution was proposed by Mr. Gillivan and seconded by Mr. McNaboe:
That we, the Westmeath County Council, condemn the Government for their tyrannical treatment of Mr. Ginnell, M.P. While professing to up hold the rights and liberties of small nations, the power that holds Ireland in subjection cannot allow their representatives to walk even under arrest, without having them manacled.
The Sinn Féin TDs elected in the 1918 general election refused to take their seats at Westminster and those who were not in jail met as the first Dáil Éireann in January 1919. The opening of the first Dáil Éireann led quickly to the creation of the Dáil’s Department of Local Government, beginning the process of taking over local authority from the British administration. It was also the start of major financial difficulties for Westmeath County Council.
The existing Local Government Board, an agency of Dublin Castle, informed the council that it would be deducting arrears of land purchase annuities from the grants payable to the council. It also warned that, unless the council’s portion of the expenses incurred in the preparation of the register of electors was paid, then the Local Government Board would proceed by order to direct the contribution of that sum. The council had no option but to agree to pay. The British Government, in an effort to maintain its control, passed measures to make things difficult for the increasingly rebellious local authorities. The Criminal Injuries (Ireland) Act 1919 caused serious financial problems for county councils, as it enabled applications to be made to the courts for compensation for injuries to the person. It also made it mandatory on the treasurer of the local authority to pay decrees so obtained out of county funds.
The 1920 Restoration of Order (Ireland) Act worsened these problems as it enabled regulations to be made whereby sums payable to local authorities from the Local Taxation (Ireland) Account or from any Parliamentary Grant could be withheld for the purpose of paying criminal injury claims. In addition, the Criminal Injuries (Ireland) Act 1920 extended the powers of the 1919 Act to include decrees for damage to property. These measures were introduced at a time of increasing violence and they resulted in the council being pressured to pay compensation for deaths, injuries and the destruction of property – such as after an act of arson in Athlone’s military barracks which resulted in the burning of a large quantity of hay.
The developing situation, as we have seen in an earlier blog, was of grave concern for the councillors. Yet the violence and upheavals of 1919 and early 1920 were merely a forerunner to the events of later that year – a year, as we shall see in the next article, in which the council would make a momentous choice.
Ginnell Papers, Westmeath County Library; Westmeath County Council Minutes 1916-1922; Westmeath Examiner and Midland Reporter & Westmeath Nationalist. For more detail, see: Vincent Browne with Michael Farrell, The Magill Book of Irish Politics (Dublin 1981); Gretta Connell, ‘Westmeath County Council and the Struggle for Independence, 1916-1922’ in Seamus O’Brien, (ed.) A Town in Transition: Post Famine Mullingar (Mullingar, 2007); Virginia Crossman, Local Government in 19th Century Ireland (Belfast 1994); and F.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine (London, 1990).
Gretta Connell is a library staff officer with Westmeath Library Service. She is author of Tracing your Westmeath Ancestors (Glenageary, 2012) and ‘Westmeath County Council and the Struggle for Independence, 1916-1922’ in A Town in transition: Post Famine Mullingar, edited by Seamus O'Brien (Mullingar, 2007).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 09/11/2020