In the second of Gretta Connell’s guest blogs, she discusses Westmeath County Council from summer 1920 to the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922.
The local government elections in January and June 1920 brought to the fore the supporters of an independent Ireland but they also showed that sections of support remained for the old Home Rule Party. The June elections were a particular success for republicans. On Polling day the role of the police was taken over by the Irish Volunteers, cars flying Sinn Féin flags were busy bringing in voters and a tricolour was suspended from the flagstaff of the county council building. When the results were returned Sinn Féin and Labour led the polls.
At the subsequent annual general meeting Mr. Thomas Noonan was elected the first republican chairman of Westmeath County Council. He proposed: ‘That at a duly convened meeting they, as elected representatives of Westmeath, acknowledge the Authority of Dáil Éireann as the duly elected Government of the Irish people.’ This meeting was held privately on 24 August 1920 and the press were excluded. The official report states that the entire local government was handed over to Dáil Éireann. From now on, all business was to be transacted with the Local Government Department of the Dáil.
The meeting then turned its attention to events of the recent past and the following motion was proposed by Mr. Robins and seconded by Mr. Gaffney: ‘That the resolution passed by the Council in 1916 condemning the Rebellion and resolution in 1917 demanding the blood of Sir Roger Casement be torn from the Minute book and burned.’ This motion was agreed and carried out. A note was then added to the minute book for 1916: ‘Resolution in regard to Rising ordered by the Council to be torn out of book and destroyed. Cut out accordingly and destroyed in the Council Chamber.’ This was an illegal act but the councillors were in the midst of a struggle for independence and were seemingly anxious to destroy evidence of the council’s past decisions.
As part of their duties, the councillors were attempting to manage the safe keeping of public funds. They received correspondence from the Local Government Board and Dublin Castle regarding their financial obligations while, at the same time, keeping Dáil Éireann up to date on their financial position. The rate collectors were at the centre of this struggle and they themselves did not appear to be united as to the best course of action to take. There were still Home Rule supporters within the local government apparatus of the county as is evident with Athlone Union or Rural District Council apparently not acknowledging the Dáil. Some secretaries within the council were also hostile to Sinn Féin, a cause of complaint for William T. Cosgrave, the Dáil’s Minister for Local Government.
In other aspects of local life, Dáil Éireann was also posing a direct challenge to British rule. For example, the council refused to pay the salaries of the local sub-sheriffs because they felt it should not be paying officials for enforcing the orders of an English court. As we have seen in an earlier blog, the first Sinn Féin arbitration court in Mullingar was held in the council chamber of the county hall on 21 July 1920, following earlier courts in Moate and Athlone. The Mullingar court was disrupted by the police and military for being an ‘illegal assembly’.
As with the republican courts, the council also saw its activities being disrupted by the Crown forces. At their meeting on 4 November 1920, Thomas Noonan, Chairman, drew attention to the dwindling numbers attending the meetings. Some councillors were active republicans and the first member to be arrested was Mr. James Gaffney, Chairman of Mullingar Rural District Council. By November Mr. John Gavin was also in prison. The Crown forces raided the offices of the council on 22 November 1920 and seized records including the minute book, account book and letter book. These books held valuable information and led to further arrests by the Crown forces, with Councillor Patrick Brett and Thomas Noonan the next to be arrested. During this time, the Crown forces also raided the homes of councillors seeking to make arrests or gather information.
National events impacted greatly on Westmeath County Council throughout the subsequent year and six councillors resigned from their posts. They may have decided to take a more active role in the independence struggle and it was the wish of Dáil Éireann that interned councillors step down. The continuing struggle for power between the Local Government Board and Dáil Éireann was evident throughout the meetings of this time. Dublin Castle and the Local Government Board made repeated attempts to get a full list of county councillors. They had the police raid the offices of the council on 1 June 1921 and take away all motorcar and motor licence registers and the current Agenda Book.
Mr Thomas Noonan, Chairman, and Patrick Brett, who had resigned his position after being interned, were in prison when the annual general meeting was held that year. As always, financial matters were to the fore, especially the issue of compensation. Dáil Éireann was adamant that malicious injuries carried out by the forces of the British government were the responsibility of the British Government and injuries to individuals and property caused by the ‘National forces’ would be distributed over the nation as a whole.
The truce arrived soon after in July 1921 to be followed by the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December of that year, an agreement that divided the country and the council. At a special meeting in January 1922 following the signing of the Treaty, Westmeath County Council adopted the following motion:
That whilst experiencing our fullest confidence in An Dáil we request Deputy Ginnell and Deputy Robins, the Dáil representatives of the County to support by their vote and influence the ratification of the Treaty signed by the Plenipotentiaries of Dáil Éireann, that copies be sent to the Secretary of An Dáil and deputies Robins, McGuinness and McKeon.
Mr. Seán O’Hurley delivered what the Westmeath Examiner described as a striking speech in support of the ratification of the Treaty. Mr. O’Reilly proposed an amendment that they re-affirm their confidence in Dáil Éireann and leave it to that body to settle the question. This was not agreed to and three councillors left the chamber in protest. The Treaty was ratified by Dáil Éireann on the 7 January 1922: sixty-four votes for and fifty-seven against. Mr. Thomas Noonan, Chairman of Westmeath County Council, returned to his chair on the 2 February 1922 having being interred in Ballykinlar for fifteen months. He returned to a council that would soon face the immense challenge of conducting local government in a time of civil war.
To conclude, we can see that the elected members of Westmeath County Council played a brave and active role in the struggle for independence by obeying the orders of Dáil Éireann and by ignoring the instructions of the Local Government Board, as far as was possible. The actions of those councillors required great strength and determination and they should be remembered accordingly.
Ginnell Papers, Westmeath County Library; Westmeath County Council Minutes 1916-1922; Westmeath Examiner and Midland Reporter & Westmeath Nationalist. For more detail, see: Vincent Browne with Michael Farrell, The Magill Book of Irish Politics (Dublin 1981); Gretta Connell, ‘Westmeath County Council and the Struggle for Independence, 1916-1922’ in Seamus O’Brien, (ed.) A Town in Transition: Post Famine Mullingar (Mullingar, 2007); Virginia Crossman, Local Government in 19th Century Ireland (Belfast 1994); and F.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine (London, 1990).
Gretta Connell is a library staff officer with Westmeath Library Service. She is author of Tracing your Westmeath Ancestors (Glenageary, 2012) and ‘Westmeath County Council and the Struggle for Independence, 1916-1922’ in A Town in transition: Post Famine Mullingar, edited by Seamus O'Brien (Mullingar, 2007).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 10/11/2020
This article was published on: 10th November, 2020
Filed under: Decade of Centenary