The recent government decision that the county of Tipperary, divided into two administrative areas, the North and South Ridings, is to be put together again, does not, as yet, seem to have excited much public interest. The fact that, as a result, the county may lose one TD and a substantial number of local representatives, has not evoked a whisper of public protest, nor a shrug of tired resignation.
This public disinterest is in sharp contrast to the decision taken in 1838 to divide the county into two separate administrative centres. While this may not have been of interest to the ordinary poor person in the street at the time, it meant much to the still powerful land-owning Protestant Anglo Irish, who wanted to hold on to power, and a newly emerging and educated Catholic middle-class seeking access to power.
The then precursor of the County Council - The Grand Jury - held considerable power. It was responsible for raising funds, for the building of roads, for the development of health institutions, and for a very broad range of functions in the implementation of the law. It was local government in the true sense, in comparison to which, the functions of modern local authorities are but a pale reflection.
Because of very limited franchise, membership of the Grand Jury was confined to a specific “class” - the so-called landed gentry, but reform was already on the administrative horizon in the early decades of the 19th century. In fact, it was a remarkable period in the range of reforming legislation, paving the way for modern times.
Trading in slaves had been abolished in 1807. The access of Catholics and Dissenters to Parliament followed. There was the removal of certain offences, such as sheep-stealing, and house-breaking from the list of offences punishable by death. Working hours were regulated - a 48-hour week for children under 11, and a 69 hour week for those under 18. In the modern context, the mind boggles, but this was progressive reform. Perhaps the most significant, in a corpus of social change, was the introduction of national school education for Irish children.
Concurrent with these changes, it was a time of development: roads were built, and early development of the railways, which was to revolutionise travel, had already started with the building of the first Irish railway line in 1834 from Dublin to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire).
In this period of remarkable legislative progress, changes in local government were inevitable, and the Municipal Reform Act of 1835, paved the way for new bye-laws and the regulation of local financing, and indeed for the division of Tipperary.
All of this is the subject of a most scholarly and now, historically, very relevant book - “The Two Tipperarys” written by Donal A. Murphy and published in 1994 (and reviewed then in this column). Donal Murphy is a native of Nenagh, and had a very extensive and distinguished career in public administration. He and his wife, Nancy, are the authors of a diverse range of books and papers, ranging from local government, superannuation and trade union law, to the local history of North Tipperary.
In “The Two Tipperarys” it might seem as if he anticipated the changes which are now happening, the re-unification of the county into a single administrative centre. His book, however, does not give any hint that he foresaw the circumstances which have now precipitated this proposal to put the two halves together again - essentially the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and the necessity for economic reform.
Clonmel, in the early 19th century, was the centre of power. It was the meeting place of the members of the Grand Jury and the location of the Assizes courts (which replaced the old Ormond Palantinate courts). These events, and the clienteles which they attracted, created not only a buzz in the town but were the source of major commercial interest. They brought money into Clonmel.
But Tipperary is a big county, ranging from the borders of Waterford and access to the sea, to the midlands and the borders of the gret Bog of Allen. Travel, for members of the Grand Jury living in the north of the county to Clonmel, in those pre vehicular-traffic times, was lengthy and expensive. (Even nowadays, the twisting narrow roads from Thurles northwards do not make for easy driving).
But travelling times and expenses were not the over-riding factors in the division. Power, influence, control were the catalysts in negotiations and bargaining between an astonishing collection of aristocratic titles (Barons, Earls, Viscounts and Lords), all Grand Jury members, which trip off the pages of Donal Murphy’s book.
There was, of course, the imperative in the control of finance - rates assessments, but there was also the genuine aspiration of getting the best possible perks for one’s own area, and in the increasing urbanisation of Ireland, this meant one’s own town. Clonmel and Nenagh emerged as the designated towns, and though other Tipperary towns threw their hats into the ring, they did not have a chance.
The forces which drove the division of Tipperary into two administrative areas - a division unique in Ireland until the divisions in local government areas in Dublin in 1994 - were complex, and Donal Murphy has done much to make them understandable.
Clonmel became the headquarters for the South Riding. It was described as a sophisticated town, with existing accommodation for the Grand Jury: members met in the still splendid jury room in the Court House. The town retained the facility for the Assizes Courts (now the Circuit Courts). Cahir’s Earl of Glengall and John Bagwell of Marlfield were the advocates for Clonmel.
Nenagh, hitherto a market town, was afforded status in its designation as the headquarters for North Riding, and was given a splendid new Court House with facilities for the Assizes Court and a Jury Room, together with offices and a new prison. This is a complex of buildings which still dominates, and enhances, the streetscape. The advocates for the town were the Barons Bloomfield and Dunalley.
The dividing line between the two Ridings was the subject of much debate, and its final delineation was influenced by Knocklofty’s Earl of Donoughmore and Viscount Hawarden of Dundrum.
The division of Tipperary took place 174 years ago, and has been interpreted as illustrating “the Irish genius for politics.” Donal A. Murphy has told a fascinating story, of politicing, compromising, soul-searching, self-serving and bureaucracy at its most opportunisitic.
And now the Ridings are about to be disentagled in the interests of good economic house-keeping, and without even a whimper from the public.