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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Thirteen

                         Local Administrations II

 Summary of chapter. Cities and corporate towns had powers granted to them by their charters, and were separate from the governments of the counties in which they were situated. Their powers were not uniform but depended on their individual charters. Government was placed in the hands of a corporation elected by the guilds of merchants. Some like Dublin had their own mayor and sheriffs, and local courts. They were represented separately in Parliament, and the franchise depended on their freedom of the city, i.e. being recognised as freemen. Lesser towns had fewer powers, and were governed by the terms of their respective charters which often gave the right to be represented in Parliament. From 1829 onwards the Government made increasing efforts to bring them under democratic control and to set common standards for them. Some minor jurisdictions like manor courts survived in places from the Middle Ages. Very importantly, provision for the sick and the poor was a responsibility for the local authorities, however much nationalist historians tried to place the blame for the Great Famine on the British Government.

(i) Corporate Towns and their 'Policing'

(ii) Other Administrative Units

(iv) Provision for the Sick and Poor


(i) Corporate Towns and their 'Policing' 

            Policing in the eighteenth century meant the administration of a town (Greek polis). This section deals with those cities or 'corporate towns’ that were administered by corporations of merchants. Such towns had their own magistrates and courts separate from those of the county in which they were situated. The powers conferred on the corporations varied with the charter of each, and there was no common system until some regularity was imposed by the Government in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless they had several common features. 

            By royal charter they were outside the jurisdiction of the sheriff of the county. They therefore had sheriffs of their own. The controlling body was not the select Grand Jury of ratepayers but the corporation of merchants selected from among the masters of the trade guilds. The chief executive official was not the sheriff, who however still had judicial functions, but the mayor of the corporation. As Catholics were excludable by law from membership of the trade guilds it was possible to keep Catholics out of town or city corporations. In any case they could not become mayors or sheriffs. Much of the information which follows concerns the corporation of the city of Dublin, but is applicable in general to the other Irish cities and corporate towns. 

            In Dublin the masters of each trade guild sent a specified number of representatives to sit on the Common Council of the Corporation. The Trinity guild, or guild of merchants, sent 31 delegates, the tailors 4, smiths 4, barbers 2, bakers 5, butchers 3, carpenters 3, shoemakers 4, saddlers 3, cooks 2, tanners 2, tallow chandlers 2, glovers and skinners 2, weavers 3, sheermen (cutters) and dyers 2, goldsmiths 4, coopers 2, feltmakers 2, cutlers and stationers (quill pen makers) 3, bricklayers 2, hosiers 2, curriers (leatherworkers) 2, brewers 4, joiners 2, and apothecaries 2 (SNL 29 Dec 1819). (A hundred years earlier barber surgeons were allowed 4 and there were no apothecaries.) 

            The members of the Common Council elected two sheriffs for the year, at the end of which they became 'sheriff's peer' and so eligible to be elected to the 'upper chamber' or Board of Aldermen. These sheriffs were elected, not appointed by the crown. The duties of the sheriffs were much the same as in the counties and need not be detailed here. (Other cities had different procedures.) 

            The chief officer for the year was the mayor. Dublin, like London and York, had a Lord Mayor; other towns and cities had plain mayors. He was elected in Dublin by the Common Council from a short list sent to it by the Board of Aldermen. The mayor presided over the meetings of the aldermen, while one of the sheriffs presided over the meetings of the Common Council.  The mayor was the chief magistrate, and at one time had been the only magistrate in the city. By the year 1800 the sheriffs and all the aldermen had been given the powers of magistrates. They presided in the lesser courts in Dublin, sometimes sitting with the Recorder. 

            The mayor presided over official assemblies. He was a justice of the peace, and was the chief justice in the city court. At quarter sessions he sat along with the Recorder and two other justices. He had a general duty of overseeing the 'policing' of the city. He was also in theory the military governor of the city and his permission was required for any unit of the king's army to enter his city. By 1800 his power to refuse permission was also theoretical, but in the seventeenth century the role as military governor was paramount. He was also the escheator of forfeited goods. He too had control over all theatres and his consent for all performances even in theatres with a royal patent. The mayor particularly had to personally check that the markets were properly run, that they were kept clean, that proper weights and measures were used, that the goods were fresh and of marketable quality, that no short weight or measure was given. He had to ensure that no trading was done except in the markets appointed for that purpose. He had to prevent abuses like regrating and forestalling in accordance with the statutes of the 17th of Edward II and the 8th of Edward IV. Forestallers and regraters bought goods cheaply outside the market, creating an artificial shortage, and were able to re-sell them at a higher price. The Act of Edward IV forbade anyone who already had a sufficient store of corn for his own use to buy more for resale.  The mayor still retained the power to regulate wages and to fix the prices of articles like bread, but in many cases free market prices were allowed to prevail. 

            The mayor and corporation were also responsible for the general 'policing' of the city, which according to Edward Gibbon, meant maintaining 'safety, plenty, and cleanliness'. This involved providing a nightwatch, an adequate water supply, placing contracts for the cleaning, and lighting and the maintenance of the streets, and preventing or removing public nuisances like smells or noises or dangerous buildings. They were responsible for maintaining the city walls, and calling out and training the militia, though it does not seem that Irish towns or cities had any obligations to provide ships in times of war. They were also responsible for maintaining the port, and quays.

            It became customary to have Acts of Parliament passed to set up boards of commissioners with powers to levy special taxes for particular purposes. A medieval port had an officer of ballasting and lading, or ballaster, who for fees supplied ships with ballast. His duties also included preventing ships from dumping ballast next to the quays. In Dublin commissioners for ballast were appointed, the Ballast Board, and this was subsequently given wide powers along the Irish coasts by the Government. 

            Other boards or commissions in Dublin were concerned with widening the streets and laying metal pipes for the supply of clean water to the houses. These set and collected their own taxes, which might take the form of a levy on coal imports or such like. 

            The official citizens of the city were the freemen. A freeman was not the same as a freeholder, who was someone who held a lease of land on particular conditions. One had to be officially admitted to the freedom of a city. Sons of freemen, and those who had served a seven-year apprenticeship to a freeman could be admitted as freemen. The freemen traditionally were bound to furnish themselves with arms and be exercised in their use, but by the nineteenth century this was no longer required. To vote in parliamentary elections a freehold was required. 

            Both the corporation and the boards kept their permanent staff as small as possible, the work being 'farmed out' to contractors for fixed annual sums. As the profit of the contractor was the difference between his costs and what he was paid there were endless complaints that costs were being cut. The contractor was not always to blame, for individual lamplighters might just sell the oil they were supplied with. 

            The Irish Municipal Reform Act (1840) made considerable changes, but only with regard to the manner of electing the governing bodies and the powers of the guilds to regulate trade. Aldermen and Common Councilmen were henceforth to be directly elected by the freeholders of the cities who possessed property worth £5 annual rental. Dublin was divided into wards, and each ward elected an alderman and three councilmen. The Act was aimed chiefly at political reform, and did not try to organise the management of the various towns. In the case of Dublin this was remedied by the Dublin Corporation Act (1850) brought together the various powers exercised by the various boards under the direction of the corporation, and it is from that date that the modern organisation of Dublin and other Irish cities may be said to have commenced.

            Belfast got a series of Acts passed to enable itself to act as a modern city. The Towns Improvement Act (1854) set out the powers that towns could exercise if they adopted the Act. This Act formed the basis for municipal government in most Irish towns thereafter. [Top] 

(ii) Other Administrative Units 

            All towns in Ireland possessed a royal charter that designated who should exercise legal authority therein. No two charters were exactly alike, though they followed a pattern. Details of many of them are given in Marmion. Dundalk had a 'bailiff, sixteen burgesses, freemen, and commonalty of the borough of Dundalk' which also had considerable property vested in it. Newry was made a free borough by James I under the name of 'the provost, free burgesses, and commonalty of the borough of Newry'. The corporation of Belfast was described as 'the sovereign, free burgesses, and commonalty', and this latter was further describes as the lord of the castle, twelve other free burgesses, an unlimited number of freemen, a town clerk and two serjeants at mace. (Marmion) 

            By corporation is meant here a body of men capable of performing legal acts as a body. A town therefore possessed a seal that was affixed to official acts. Most studies of the corporations of Irish boroughs dealt only with either the exclusion of Catholics or parliamentary corruption during the eighteenth century, so no real studies exist with regard to their effectiveness in promoting trade and the welfare of their inhabitants which were their primary purposes. It seems in general that the burgesses, or full freemen, of the town kept control of everything, and nominated the chief officer, the bailiff, or provost for the approval of the Lord Lieutenant and Privy Council. Burgess and freeman of the town are strictly speaking synonymous though in the charter of Dundalk they are distinguished. One became a full freeman only by co-option. Commonalty seems originally to have meant the journeymen (a single reference in the OED), but probably later meant those in the town who were not co-opted as burgesses. (In the Middle Ages belonging to a town brought particular privileges such as being allowed to stay within the walls at night, and to drive animals within the walls in time of danger but in settled times these privileges were meaningless.) 

            The bailiff and the burgesses were responsible for the election of members to Parliament, if the town was a parliamentary borough, for holding the manor or record court and executing its judgements, and for supervising the markets. They were not outside the jurisdiction of the sheriff of the county except in the exercise of those powers given to them by charter. They were also responsible for 'policing' the town, providing for the nightwatch, the cleaning of the streets, the provision of fresh water, the maintenance of the port, if any, and the regulating of porters and carmen (SNL 20 June 1803). The Irish Towns Policing Act (1829) allowed for the appointment of a board of commissioners to undertake these duties. Before any town could avail itself of the powers under the Irish Municipal Reform Act (1840) it had first to apply the 1829 Act, unless like Belfast it was covered by a private Act. The town of Skibbereen did not apply either Act and so was not separate administratively from the county. 

            Baronies were divisions of the counties, like hundreds in England, and may be regarded best as failed political divisions. A barony Grand Jury could be summoned for local purposes, and could set a baronial rate, and in the eighteenth century an attempt was made to make the barony the unit for the constabulary. Each barony had a Chief Constable in charge of 'policing' but the office lost its importance with the establishment of the 'New Police' in 1822. For local purposes it was superseded by the poor law union, while the county became the vehicle for administration. 

            The parish in Ireland, unlike in England, had few functions left to it by the year 1800. But traditionally the Irish parish officers had been responsible for maintaining the watch, the lighting of streets, assisting the destitute, dealing with beggars, the paving of the streets, scavenging (street cleaning), keeping militia lists, seeing that the Sabbath was observed. In Dublin most of these duties had been handed over to Boards or other bodies by 1800. The Irish Towns Policing Act (1829) made provision for municipalities to take control of these functions themselves, but a special study would have to be made to see what was the practice in each town and city before that. 

             Except in Dublin and the more Protestant parts of Ireland, few parish officers were appointed. In England, each parish had its churchwarden, overseer of parish relief, clerk, sexton, constable, road surveyor, tax assessor, tax collector, and bailiff of the manor court. The tithe proctor was appointed independently by the rector. In Ireland there was no general poor law, the roads were made a charge on the county, the constabulary a charge on the barony or county. Such parish schools as existed were payschools. The parish officers were responsible for the church, the graveyard, and the divine service. The rector was paid out of tithes, and there was no provision at all for a house for him. The parish clerk was apparently a paid official or at least entitled to various fees for discharging various functions. If the remuneration was insufficient there might be no clerk and consequently no parish records.  

            Indeed it is difficult to determine how many of the civil functions of the parish still survived into the nineteenth century, or in the absence of parish officers who, if anybody, discharged them. But it would seem that by the time the Vestry Act (1826) was passed the civil functions of the parish had come to an end. By parish was always meant the legal parish, or parish of the Established Church.  

            The parish vestry was a meeting of all of the men of the parish. (In England a select vestry could be chosen after the manner of a grand jury, but it is not clear if this could be done in Ireland.) The functions of the vestry were to appoint the parish officers like the constable, clerk, and sexton, and to set the parish rate or vestry cess. In theory Catholics could attend and speak, but they could not vote or be elected. At the beginning of the century the cess amounted to about a penny an acre, payable by all tenants in the parish, including Catholics. In the towns the property was assessed  for the Ministers' Money. In the nineteenth century much greater attention was paid to the maintenance of the church and to divine worship, and so there seems to have been a tendency to increase the cess. There were, in fact, no rules concerning what might be charged on the cess apart from what was customary. The Vestries Act (1826) made custom into law, and prevented such additional charges as payments to bible societies. Catholics were given the right to appeal to civil courts if such charges were made. The cess itself was abolished by the Irish Church Reform Act (1833). The vestry ceased to have any civil functions and became only the concern of the Protestants in the parish. 

            Manors and liberties were jurisdictions of manorial courts. They had considerable administrative functions, and their Grand Jury, and executive officer, the seneschal, carried out the usual 'policing' functions of towns, holding a local court, providing for the cleansing and lighting of streets, regulating the markets. The authority of the Seneschal was derived from the various medieval lords who themselves enjoyed very extensive powers of jurisdiction. By the nineteenth century most of these manorial jurisdictions had lapsed. The manorial courts will be dealt with under courts.

            The townland was the basic unit of taxation, and one can presume originally the basic unit of production. There was no townland vestry or jury presumably because originally it was occupied by a single extended family. Hence the familiar 'Ballymac---' the townland of the sons of ---. There were about 60,000 of them compared with about 2,000 civil parishes, and they varied in size from 50 to 150 acres. Their boundaries probably date back to pre-Norman times, and they were probably originally farming units, or units of husbandry. The boundaries were quite vague and it seems that the townland was taxed according to the extent of its cultivated lands, bogland and mountainland not being included. The boundaries were first mapped accurately during the great Ordnance Survey that was accompanied by a revaluation. Before that the townland was a traditional parcel of land to which a traditional assessment for taxation was attached. The cess was a property tax, and so did not apply to serfs, to hired workmen, to fishermen, huntsmen, turf-cutters, and so on. Nor did it apply to lands reclaimed from bogs or forests at least until the next valuation. Nor did it vary with the increasing or decreasing productivity of the land either until the next valuation. Following the Ordnance Survey and the revaluation that followed it every part of the island formed part of a townland, but there is no reason to believe that legal townlands actually covered the whole island before that. The Griffith valuations and the county cess continued to be based on the townlands, but the Poor Law established Unions as a basis for administration and taxation and adopted a much wider definition of property.

            The townland retains its importance in civil administration until the present. It is the basis for postal and legal addresses, it is used in the accurate description of the sites of proposed developments or the sites of houses for planning purposes, in the boundaries of rural electoral wards, and for the delimitation of areas for the eradication of agricultural pests like sheepscab. [Top] 

(iii) Provision for the Sick and Poor 

            Up to about 1770 it is true to say that Ireland had no universal Poor Law. Dublin had always been infested with beggars, both genuine and fraudulent, and far too numerous for the parishes to cope with. Parishes were allowed to issue badges to the genuinely needy to allow them to seek for alms within the bounds of the parish. A poorhouse or workhouse was also established as early as 1704. Similar arrangements were to be found in other large cities. County infirmaries for the relief of the sick poor were erected from 1754 onwards. An Act of 1765 allowed counties to set up and maintain hospitals or 'county infirmaries', one in each county for the sick poor. From that date until the Poor Law in 1839 successive pieces of legislation imposed on the counties various duties with regard to the destitute sick, the aged, and the insane. Much of the legislation at the beginning was permissive, for it was usual for a local authority to seek permission for acts for which there was no precedent.  An Act in 1772 allowed the counties to establish 'houses of industry' for the unemployed industrious poor, including orphans. The famous house of industry in Belfast into which textile machinery was first introduced was established under this Act. An Act in 1805 enabled counties to provide dispensaries for the distribution of medicine to the poor. As most people went to the apothecary rather than to the physician this was an important Act. 

            In 1804 Sir John Newport got a Parliamentary committee set up to examine the possibility of some legal provision for the poor in Ireland, but it was felt that conditions in Ireland were not suitable for that. It was argued that if relief was set at subsistence level, say £5 a year, at least a quarter of the population would qualify for relief. Not only that, but many others earning little more would leave their occupations to enjoy the free handout. The burden on the rates would compel the better off to dismiss their servants, reduce their purchases from shop-keepers, tailors, dressmakers, milliners, harness makers, and so on, again increasing the numbers seeking poor relief. The burden of the rates too would prevent the accumulation of capital for investment, causing Ireland to fall still further behind in the economic race. If the poor were to be effectively and permanently relieved the Irish economy must grow and develop, and provide permanent employment for all. Experience in England had shown that it was difficult to establish any system of public relief that was not liable to widespread abuse. These arguments were indeed valid and strong. The framers of the Irish Poor Law were well aware of these views. 

            The Irish Secretaries William Wellesley Pole and Robert Peel felt that more could be done for lunatics instead of merely shutting them up in gaol. Pole established the Richmond Lunatic Asylum in Dublin but it soon became overcrowded as the other counties just sent their lunatics to Dublin. Peel tried in 1814 to get an Act passed enabling counties to build their own asylums, but did not succeed until 1817. The counties were in no hurry to spend money, so it was not until the Thirties that most county or regional asylums were built. The standard of care in them was not high. The Lord Chancellor, acting for the king, had a special duty to take care of lunatics. Lord Chancellor Sugden (1841-46) offered a prize for the best essay on the care of lunatics. An Englishman won it. The Dublin Evening Mail at that time considered that only three asylums in Ireland could be considered 'curative hospitals'. 

            In England at this time there was the Elizabethan Poor Law in force, and also what was known as the 'Speenhamland system in which the magistrates of a county undertook to make up the deficiency of wages out of the rates. Many Irishmen were at this time travelling to England to work, thus depressing wages further. In England feeling was growing that Ireland should make provision for its own poor and the Sturges Bourne Act (1818) enabled English parishes to send destitute persons back to their native parishes. 

            By 1829 support for an Irish Poor Law was growing in Ireland too. Dr James Doyle persuaded the Catholic bishops to back his campaign for compulsory assistance for the poor from the rates. Thomas Spring Rice, arguing in Parliament against the proposals, stated that already a tenth of all rates collected in Ireland was being used to assist education, and for the support of the sick, the aged, and the lunatic poor. Those who advocated poor relief in Ireland invariably envisaged 'make-work' schemes, or public works such as drainage or road-making to enable the able-bodied industrious poor to earn wages. They also assumed that such works would be self-financing because of increasing trade they brought, and were ultimately self-limiting as the increased prosperity would bring poverty to an end. Public works were eventually to be adopted on a considerable scale and became notorious for their general uselessness. 

            England was in the process of reorganising its own poor laws, and abolishing the Speenhamland system.  The chief architect of this reform was Sir George Nicholls who had become convinced that the Speenhamland system was wrong in principle, and that a system of poorhouses providing only 'indoor relief' was essential. The new system was intended to be unpopular, so that only those who had no other possible resource would apply for public relief, and it was (Nicholls DNB). The Irish Government was persuaded by his arguments. 

            The Irish Poor Law (1838) did not impose the duty of poor relief on either the counties or the parishes but set up new Poor Law Unions. Existing parish and electoral boundaries were respected as far as possible. Each Union was to be of such a size that no destitute person should have to walk an excessive distance to get relief. Poorer areas with much mountainous or bog land, such as was to be found near Dundalk or Ballycastle, were included with the richer urban area. The administration was given to new directly elected Boards of Guardians. These were empowered to value the property of the Union independently and to set their own rate. Being the only directly elected representative bodies in most of Ireland the boards were regarded as being nurseries for democracy. If the Famine had not occurred there is no reason why the system should not have worked. There were criticisms of course. It was claimed that excessive sums were spent on buildings that could have been spent on improving drainage. On the other hand it was argued that large, airy, dry, healthy buildings, built to last a hundred years or more, were being provided for the destitute. 

            During the Famine the principle of 'outdoor relief' had to be admitted. The framers of the Poor Law had not recognised the tenacity with which the very poor held on to pieces of land totally inadequate for their support. Outdoor relief under the direction of the Board of Works became a permanent feature of Irish Poor Relief. In 1881, a bad year, there were 364,000 in the workhouses, with 226,000 relieved in their homes. Gradually however the figures of those on relief descended to near what was originally envisaged. By 1911 there were 38,000 in the workhouses and 39,000 on outdoor relief, though the population of Ireland by that time was scarcely more than half it had been in 1839. The more prosperous twentieth century can afford more comprehensive systems of relief, but the nineteenth century methods undoubtedly did very much good in their time. 

A separate Board of Poor Law Commissioners was established for Ireland in 1847 in the middle of the Famine crisis, and was charged with the general oversight of the administration of the Poor Law. In 1872 it was changed into the Board for Local Government, and this was in turn changed into the Ministry for Local Government and Public Health by the Irish Free State Government (Lyons). 

            It should be noted that between 1770 and 1839 it was never questioned that relief of the poor was a proper charge on the counties. During the Famine some gentlemen, especially but not exclusively nationalists, tried to contest this and to force the central Government to take full responsibility for famine relief. Though offering assistance the central Government refused to relieve local gentlemen of their responsibilities in the matter. Failure to appreciate where responsibility lay mars studies of famine relief, even such an otherwise excellent one as that of Professor Desmond Williams who consistently misinterprets communications from the Castle. 



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.