Local Government in Nineteenth Century Ireland, Virginia Crossman (Institute of Irish Studies, Belfast £4.95)

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, Reviews, Volume 3, Volume 4

Over the past three decades historians have documented fully the rise and successful mobilisation of Irish national consciousness during the nineteenth century and the subsequent establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. What is not so well known is that by an evolving, if often haphazard, process of reform in county and municipal administration beginning in the 1830’s and culminating in the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898, the Irish people had virtually secured representative local government. Virginia Crossman’s Local Government in Nineteenth Century Ireland underscores the extent to which gains in local democracy, beginning with the establishment of town commissions and the Poor Law Boards in the 1830’s, and the municipal corporation reform of 1840, helped to nurture a grass roots popular demand for representative government on the national level that is usually ascribed principally to the campaigns of O’Connell and Parnell. Service on municipal corporations, poor law boards and eventually on country and district councils often provided apprenticeships for nationalist politicians who subsequently took leading roles in the struggle for Home Rule in the pre-World War I era.
After a brief description detailing the medieval origins, personnel and operations of both the grand juries and the town corporations, Crossman points to a growing recognition in London of the inadequacies of these ascendancy-dominated structures by the early nineteenth century. Thirty-six out of ninety-nine chartered boroughs were eliminated as corrupt and inefficient by the Act of Union in 1801. Subsequent to a series of damaging select committee reports on the grand jury system in the 1820s, legislation regulating annual salaries for county officers, instituting uniform methods of assessing county cess and providing for limited representation of cess payers when grand juries were deliberating road expenditures, brought some minor improvement in the 1830s. Yet Sir Robert Peel was not alone in expressing concern that reformist measures should not open up the door to ‘provincial demagogues’ who would ‘inflame the people against the grand jurors’.
Nonetheless, the reformist thrust could not be stifled completely. Up to mid-century most government sponsored reform initiatives were motivated by concern to eliminate the graft and corruption practised by the landed and town elites who controlled local affairs, by a desire to control rising expenditure as well as by a broader Whig commitment in the 1830s to ‘no-taxation without representation’ at the local level. Yet even Whig government measures to correct the democratic deficit were often tempered by fears that locally controlled Irish bodies, whether dominated by landlords or later by nationalists, would provide yet another stage for sectarian rivalries or worse yet for the advancement of the nationalist political cause. Hence, throughout the century democratic concessions were balanced by a greater measure of centralised control by government-appointed officials on bodies such as the Poor Law Commission or the Irish Local Government Board than was exercised over similar English bodies.
In the post-Famine era, the motivation driving much local government reform and expansion was a mid-Victorian awareness that the representative town commissions and poor law guardians boards were more appropriate bodies than the grand juries upon which to confer responsibility for improved standards of public health and sanitation through local regulation of sewers, water supplies, public markets, dispensaries, fever hospitals, lodging houses and bake-houses, etc.. These expanded responsibilities were reflected in rising union expenditure from about £750,000 in the mid-1850’s to £1.4 million by 1886 while expenditure by town commissions rose from £100,528 in 1866 to £174,549 in 1876. Meanwhile, expenditure by the ascendancy-dominated grand juries remained relatively static over the same period.
The most significant leglislative measures in democratising local government were the 1828 Town Commissions Act, the Poor Law Act of 1838 and the Municipal Corporation Act of 1840. Under the first measure boroughs were empowered to establish town commissions elected by residents rated at £20 to provide for basic needs such as lighting, cleaning and paving streets, constructing drains, sewers and digging wells.
In the post-Famine era, the basic needs of rural communities were increasingly transferred from the grand juries to 130 poor law guardian boards established in 1838. Although landlords initially exercised the dominant influence by virtue of double votes as owners and occupiers, the conferring of the poor law franchise on tenant occupiers and the heightened political activity occasioned by the Land War of 1879-81 ultimately reduced landlord influence
on rural affairs in all areas except Ulster by 1886.
Crossman shows that the Local Government Act of 1898 represented the completion of a process begun seven decades earlier. It abolished the governing, though not the legal functions, of the grand juries and put most aspects of local administration firmly in the hands of popularly-elected county and subordinate urban and rural district councils. Boards of guardians were retained to provide for the destitute and sick. Landlord opposition to the measure was bought off by the Tory government’s grant of £750,000 which eliminated landlord obligations to pay county cess on their leased properties. The first county council elections were a triumph for the nationalists who won seventy-five per cent of the seats while unionist victories were confined mostly to Ulster.
The Irish suffragist movement scored some early suc
cesses in connection with local government reform. The Women’s Poor Law Guardian Bill of 1897 and the Local Government Act of 1898 allowed women to  run for district councils and poor law boards. The first elections in 1899 returned thirty-one women district councillors and eighty-five women as poor law guardians.
This informative and detailed analysis rests on a wide variety of sources, including the records of grand juries, town commissions and poor law boards as well as private collections housed in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Extensive use has been made of relevant parliamentary papers, the existing secondary sources of local government proceedings. In conclusion, Virginia Crossman has provided a valuable guide to the mechanics, expansion and democratisation of Irish local government.


Catherine Shannon

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