Margaret Rossiter - The end of an era for Tipperary County Councils

TIPPERARY S.R. County Council is now in the final months of its present format.

TIPPERARY S.R. County Council is now in the final months of its present format.

Following a period of 115 years of existence, the two administrative divisions - the North and South Ridings - will be re-united after the local elections in 2014, and will become just one Council.

In a recent article, published on this page (October 10) Sean Keating, the Director of the Merger, gave some indication of how the functions of the Council will be administered, while still managing offices in Clonmel and Nenagh.

The establishment of the County Councils in 1899 presaged the most revolutionary and turbulent period in Irish history, in the context of a new and free Ireland. The Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1889, which replaced the old non-elected Grand Juries system, was interpreted, rightly, as not just a genuine aspiration to give more power to local people but was also a “sop” to contain the growing demand for Home Rule.

While some limited provision was made to give representation to members of the Old Unionist and (mostly) Protestant Grand Jury members, the Tipperary South Riding Council was dominated by Nationalists and Catholics. Nationalism, at the time, was still riven by the divisions of the Parnellite split, but some effort was made at achieving consensus and from its inception until 1920, The Irish Parliamentary Party held the majority membership.

In the first three decades of its existence, the Council had a far wider jurisdiction than it does today. And while there are undoubted instances of partisanship, especially in local appointments, it seems to have carried out its responsibilities of initiating public works, road maintenance, urban housing and the building of labourers’ cottages. In addition, the authority was also responsible for many areas of public health - now expensively covered by the HSE. The existing Board of Guardians, however, looked after poor relief, workhouse hospitals and dispensaries, with headquarters in the old workhouse administrative centre - now the Clinic - in Western Road.

It should be noted that members of the Council, many of whom had to travel long distances to meetings, gave their services voluntarily, and, in contrast with today, were not awarded expenses. Many, too, brought their own expertise and special knowledge profitably into the business of the Council.

While that business was primarily rooted in locality, national politics were a recurrent factor in decision making. In the first ten years, there were repeated resolutions demanding Home Rule; the fostering of the Irish language; and a protest against the wording of the Coronation Oath, which was “offensive to Catholic doctrine.”

The Councillors strayed also into world politics. In 1906, they passed a resolution protesting against “the injustice and injury to China by the Anglo Indian opium trade.” In 1907, they viewed “with dismay the action of the French Government in dealing with the Catholic church in that country.” This was a Government which, the resolution said, purported to have “as its motto Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.”

The Councillors were well informed on national and world events through the excellent reportage of the newspapers of the time. And the people of Tipperary were equally well informed on the business of the Council meetings through the comprehensive and often verbatim reports in the two South Riding newspapers - The Clonmel Chronicle and The Nationalist.

A former, and now late, editor of this newspaper, Brendan Long, wrote an interesting and very readable history of the Council to mark the centenary of its existence in 1999, using these reports as the major vehicle of his research. “Tipperary S.R. County Council 1899-1999 - A Century of Local Government” had a limited circulation. In the circumstances of the changes now taking place, it deserves a much wider readership.

But times were rapidly changing in the second decade of the 20th century. The Council, being implacably committed to constitutionalism, not surprisingly condemned “the outbreak in Dublin” in 1916, “in common with the overwhelming majority of Irish people.” With the subsequent execution of the leaders, all of that was to change, as it also changed for the overwhelming majority of Irish people.

Those changes brought the first woman, Marian Tobin of Tincurry into the Council in 1920. She, an active member of Sinn Fein, was elected under the recently introduced Proportional Representation system, which replaced the old limited franchise (property-owning men). Civil War politics permeated the local elections of 1926, and subsequent reports of Council meetings refer to accusations of “conspiracy,” “stormy” exchanges, and hints of “jobbery.”

But, somehow, some progress was made, and new offices were built in Emmet Street in 1927/28, on the site of, and incorporating some of the ruined structures of, the old Tipperary Militia Barracks, later the RIC Barracks which had been burned down.

The year 1934 saw the end of an era, when the Council was dissolved, following a public inquiry. It was a victim of the Economic War which so decimated agriculture, that farmers either could not pay, or refused to pay, the Rates assessed by the Council, and thus deprived it of funds. A Commissioner, Mr. P.J. Meghen administered the affairs of the South Council until 1942, without any elected representation.

When the Council was restored in that year, its powers were retricted under new legislation and under a new dispensation - that of a presiding executive - the County Manager. That era is now ending, and a re-united Tipperary administation stands on the edge of, some would say the precipice of, yet another incarnation.