The Last Years of the Town Commissioners in Wicklow
LOCAL Government in Ireland underwent a major change in 1898 with the passing of the Act which set up the County and Urban Council system we know today. In Wicklow, the Town Commissioners handed over the care of the town to a more democratically elected Urban Council.
But while the new Urban Councillors could claim a wider electorate than the old Town Commissioners who represented mainly the property owners of the town, the agenda remained much the same — the provision of services like sewerage, housing and lighting. Indeed the Minutes of a Town Commissioners Meeting of one hundred years ago, with obvious modifications, could well make familiar reading to patrons of the Wicklow People in 1988.
There was usually a report from the Sanitary Officer, Michael Doyle, detailing his activities during the month, e.g.:
1st March, 1897
I respectfully beg to report that the public lighting of the town during the past month was well maintained … I have again to draw attention to a breach of the Laws relative to the removal of Gravel from the Murrough foreshore. I would suggest to your Board that the doors and windows of what is known as the Boat House, Murrough, be painted . . . The scavenger was careful and attentive to his duties”.
The Medical Officer of Health, James Halpin, reported on the state of health in the town; an extract from the Minutes of the same meeting, March 1897:
“I hereby report to you the filthy state of Strand Street, High Street, Dispensary Lane, Castle Street, Monkton Road, Ball- Alley—this is a source of danger to the public health and I recommend the employment of an extra scavenger”.
The Town Clerk, Francis William MacPhail, for the princely sum of £5 a month, kept a meticulous account of proceedings in stylish handwriting in thick journals which are still extant. Generally, no doubt, business was dealt with in an efficient manner but sometimes tempers might become frayed and the extraordinary happen, which might explain the reaction of the Commissioners to a Memorial (a written representation) from tenants for a reduction in rents:
“Proposed by Frank McPhail, seconded by John Neill — that the Memorial be put in the waste-paper basket”.
At a time when the automobile had just been invented, the railway was even more important to the town than today. Regular complaints were made about the service — Meeting on 9th February, 1894:
“The Managing Committee recommended the Town Commissioners to draw the attention of the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway Co. to the very unsatisfactory running of trains from and to Wicklow town, viz. 1st, the withdrawing of the first morning train from the old station on the Murrough, that train was most desirable to many parties going to town. 2nd, the one o’clock goods train from the old station to which was attached a third class carriage on Wednesday and largely used by buyers attending the Wicklow market. 3rd, a late train at night leaving Dublin would also be a great accommodation”.
The train service sometimes impinged even more directly on proceedings as when a presumably irate Chairman, Mr. Wynne on 26th August 1895:
“Telegraphed that the train being late, he would not be in time for meeting”.
One wonders what caused the damage to the Chairman’s Chair which lead to the following resolution being passed on 12th of December, 1894:
“That the Town Clerk have the Chairman’s Chair repaired”. The term Chairperson was not then in vogue since the Chairman and all the Commissioners were gentlemen.
The telegraph system obviously was efficient but the Commissioners were also interested in improving the mail service—Resolution on 14th November, 1894:
“That we the Town Commissioners of Wicklow respectfully call upon our County Members, John Sweetman and James O’Connor, Esquires, to support by every means in their power, the claim of the Irish Railway and Steamship Companies to carry the American Mails from Queenstown and Holyhead route”.
At the meeting of 7th January, 1895, a letter was read from John Sweetman, M.P.:
“Promising support by every means in his power the carriage of the American Mails via Queenstown and Holyhead”.
The modern age reached the Town Hall at a meeting on 27th July, 1898 when, following a letter from the National Telephone Co. “asking the Commissioners to have an apparatus erected in the Town Hall so as to connect with the Town, England and Scotland”, it was resolved that the proposal be adopted “subject to the Managing Committee making an arrangement with the Harbour Board to pay half the cost”.
The provision of a water service seems to have been a recurring problem:
Meeting on 4th April, 1894, resolved “that the water be turned off from 9 p.m. till 6 a.m. each day until further notice”.
Meeting on 3rd June, 1895, resolved “that the water be shut off from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. until further notice, intimation to the public to be given by posters”.
On the 8th August, 1895, following tests by the Waterworks Caretaker, a Motion was proposed by Frank McPhail:
“That persons wasting water of 300 gallons and over be prosecuted”, but fell through for want of a seconder.
However, some premises received a surplus of water, as suggested by a letter read at the meeting of 2nd December, 1895:
“H.M. Prison, Wicklow,
13 November, 1895
Please take notice that the hole in the Court House wall which the Chairman of the Town Commissioners on the 26th of October last said he was not aware of, has this day been built up so as to keep the water from the public streets from flowing in to the prison sewer.
I am Sir,
Your Obedient Servant,
T. G. Grant, C.W.”
Music and Merry-Making
On occasions there was some light relief from the more serious duties, as seen by an extract from the Minutes of 1st August, 1895:
“A Complimentary Dinner was given by the Town Commissioners on 29th July, 1895 to the late Chairman, Mr. Thomas Darcy, in recognition of his valued services during his three years of office. 25 sat down to Dinner, which was laid in the Board-room and supplied in a satisfactory manner by Mr. Walter Roche, T.C. May Brothers attended and discoursed a variety of music during the evening”.
The usual meeting of 5th August, 1895 was not held since a Quorum of the Board did not attend ‘‘in consequences of several Members being engaged at the Annual Regatta”.
At the meeting of 6th January, 1896 the following letter was read:
“Market Square, Wicklow,
January 5th, 1896.
We the Xmas Party wish to return our sincere thanks to the Town Commissioners and their worthy Chairman, who is doing so much good for the town, for their kind permission of the Town Hall on Xmas night. Wishing you all a Happy New Year.
Signed on behalf of the Xmas Party,
Mr Toft of Talbot St. in Dublin seems to have been a regular visitor to Wicklow during Regatta Week. Writing from “Tofts Gondolas, Enniscorthy” on July 17th, 1897, he said:
“I am prepared to attend the Regatta with my roundabout swings, shooting galleries, etc., and for the use of space on Murrough I will give the same amount, twenty pounds, on the same conditions as last year but I cannot go beyond this”.
However, the Commissioners demanded thirty-five pounds and at a meeting on 19th August, 1897 decided to draw up Bye-Laws with regard to “steam roundabouts, whirligigs, swings, shooting galleries, etc.”
Undaunted, Mr. Toft wrote to the Commissioners in March, 1898:
“I am now making arrangements for my Summer Tour and shall be pleased to know if the Commissioners will let me the use of the Murrough for my merry-go-rounds, etc., for the Regatta Week for which I am prepared to give £20 but no more”. But the Commissioners demanded ‘‘the same terms as offered last year viz. £35 for first working day and £1 per working day afterwards”.
Following a plea from Mr. Toft in a letter to the meeting of 27th July, 1898, the hearts of the Commissioners softened and they decided to accept his offer:
“To pay the sum of £30 for the use of portion of the Murrough from Saturday, 30th day of July, 1898 to Monday, 8th day of August, 1898 . . . the sum of £30 to cover all my plant viz. steam roundabout, swings, shooting gallery, tumbling show and small stalls”.
The Murrough is mentioned in the Minutes of most meetings and the seriousness with which the Commissioners guarded their control over the area is seen by a letter read at the meeting of 1st February, 1897 from Toomey and Toomey, Chambers, Upper Ormond Quay, Dublin.
“We beg to report to your Board that the cases have terminated successfully—
His Honor Judge Kane gave Decrees for the nominal damages of one shilling in two of the cases. In the third case, he gave the offender the benefit of a doubt, as to whether he was actually playing at football or (as alleged) only casually kicked at a ball which came near him, and struck out the case. The effect of His Honor’s decision, under his ‘Title Jurisdiction’ is to establish for ever the right of the Commissioners to prevent any games on the Murrough of Wicklow, unless by the express permission of your Board. In point of fact we are of the opinion that no one has any right to use the Murrough except for the purpose of promenading and perhaps for showing horses on fair days”.
Perhaps it was “horse-play” of a more vindictive type which occasioned the Resolution some months earlier at the meeting on 5th October, 1896, proposed by Major R. T. Welch and seconded by Thomas Darcy “that we apply to the County for compensation for the malicious injury to the seats on the Murrough”.
Bathing on the Murrough
A swimming costume was probably an expensive luxury to the ordinary person one hundred years ago or it may have been that the modern trend towards nude bathing, which is common on the Riviera, originated on the Murrough but the Wicklow Town Commissioners struck a blow for modesty on 9th August, 1894. On that date a code of rules for the better regulation of bathing at Wicklow sea shore was adopted and copies were printed and posted.
No. 1 That all men in future when bathing at Wicklow Murrough sea shore shall wear a loin drawers.
No. 2 That all bathing shall cease on Sabbath Days after 12 o’clock noon at the sea shore opposite the Promenade, Murrough, Wicklow.
No. 3 That no man shall bathe south of the north end of the old station goods stores.
No. 4 That no man be allowed to sit or occupy the seats or loiter about the ladies bathing place before the hour of three o’clock p.m.
That all these rules were not scrupulously obeyed is suggested by the Resolution of 13th May, 1895:
“That in future any persons bathing within the area from the Old Strand House up to the Chemical Works to use ordinary bathing dress, an infraction of this rule will be punishable according to law”.
Tourism may not then have been the major industry it is today but the Commissioners were aware of the advantages of attracting visitors to the town and vicinity and of opening up the beauty-spots of the County to travellers. The meeting on 4th May, 1896 read a letter and memorial from Mr. Thomas Kavanagh relative to the Town Commissioners seeking permission from Colonel Tottenham for tourists to pass through the Devil’s Glen and it was resolved:
“That we beg to support the application to Colonel Tottenham for permission to use the Devil’s Glen as a short route to the Seven Churches, thus diverting the tourist traffic through Wicklow if he can kindly see his way to grant it without damage or loss to his property”.
This humble appeal met with a less than enthusiastic and somewhat barbed response from Colonel Tottenham in a letter which was read at the meeting on 1st June, 1896:
Acknowledging receipt of your letter of 6th inst. enclosing Resolution passed by the Town Commissioners of Wicklow in answer to a Memorial submitted to them by the principal inhabitants of Wicklow on the subject of the road through the Devil’s Glen, I can’t help putting some suspicion that the Memorialists should have addressed their petition to your Board rather than to some person controlling or to make terms with the person controlling the road in question. I have long desired to make the road more useful to the public but have not been able to devise any plan other than that of giving special leave to individuals and for particular occasions now that the road is so narrow that two vehicles cannot safely pass and the conditions of the road are such that any accident must be serious if not fatal.
If the Railway Co. or some other body representing the development of the tourist traffic make any proposal for using the road on one (or perhaps two) fixed days in each week under certain limitations and conditions, I shall be happy to give my best attention to the proposal and I am entirely with the Commissioners in their wish to attract strangers and make our beauties known to the tourist world.
I am yours faithfully,
Charles J. Tottenham”.
The foresight of the Commissioners is also evident from their reaction to a letter from the Irish Tourist Association Ltd.— a Resolution on 6th June, 1898 :
“That the Irish Members of Parliament be requested to have inserted in the Local Government Bill now before Parliament a clause enabling County Councils to levy taxes and appropriate funds at their disposal for the purpose of advertising tourist resorts in their respective districts”.
The current campaign to sell Co. Wicklow as a major tourist area has a 90 year old precedent.
The present Councillors might also be happy to receive a modern version of a letter read at the meeting on 2nd December, 1895 from a Mr. J. Downing:
I am acting for an English Capitalist who has a large sum- say £200,000 — which he wishes to invest at moderate interest on Irish Securities. A friend of mine has mentioned to me that you may know of some who would be glad to avail of this information”.
Billy Byrne’s Monument
One group which was in the process of raising money soon afterwards was the “’98 Monument Committee” and naturally the erection of a statue in the town was a matter of interest to the Commissioners. At the last ordinary meeting of the Commissioners on 5th December, 1898 a carefully worded proposal by Frank McPhail, seconded by Dr. James Byrne, was unanimously resolved:
“That this Board of Commissioners composed as it is of different religions and political parties and therefore not desirious of supporting any question of a party character, hereby feel bound to acknowledge with pleasure the efforts made by a section of townspeople to ornament portion of the Corporate Estate by the erection of a monument in memory of a prominent County Wicklow man, which proposition has our sanction so far as any right to the site is concerned”.
The attitude of members at the first meeting of the new Urban Council on 23rd January, 1899 had a somewhat different nuance and was more direct.
In reply to a letter from the Wicklow “’98 Monument Committee” signed by Bernard Doyle, John Mooney and Charles Davis as Hon. Secretaries, applying for a site in the centre of Market Square of not less than 15 feet square for the purpose of erecting a National Memorial to the memory of the Wicklow leaders of the Insurrection of 1798, it was proposed by James Gernan and seconded by Charles Davis and resolved:
“That a suitable site in the Market Square be given for the erection of a monument to the memory of Billy Byrne of Ballymanus who was hanged by the English Government at Gallow’s Lane in the year 1799 for being true to Ireland”.
Reporting the affairs of the Local Authority was then, as now, an important duty for local reporters and the Town Commissioners, like many present-day politicians, were very sensitive about their public image. That times and politicians have not changed may be seen from the following Resolution proposed by Thomas Darcy and seconded by Mark Byrne on 7th December, 1896:
“That if reporters in future wilfully misrepresent in their reports statements made by Members of the Board, steps be taken to prohibit the representatives of the paper in which such false reports appear attending our meetings”.