Newry Set A Headline In Democratic Politics

NEWRY won the distinction of being the first town in Ireland to elect members of a local authority, which would take charge of all municipal affairs, in 1854.

A Town Improvement Act, drawn up by local barrister, Hugh O’Hanlon, was adopted by MP’s at Westminster. It provided the go-ahead for any town, which wished to set up such a commission. 25 leading Newry ratepayers petitioned the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to this effect.

A public meeting was convened in the local courthouse by two magistrates, Denis Maguire and Isaac Corry (junior) to endorse the action. So the Lord Lieutenant issued an Order in Council, bringing Newry under the provisions of the Act.

The frontier town was divided into three wards, to be administered by 18 elected commissioners. This was the first time that the municipal boundaries had been drawn for Newry, which was then given legal territorial status.

First chairman of Newry Town Commission was Denis Maguire, who was re-elected to the post 18 times, and whose portrait hangs in the boardroom of Newry City Hall. Other commissioners were Felix O’Hagan, Robert Greer, Patrick O’Rourke, Jim Linton, Richard Downey, James Fegan, Arthur Small, Thomas Marron, Thomas Irvine, William Henry, Thomas Cardwell, Joseph Lupton, James Francis Erskine, James McMahon and Robert Dempster.

Retiring in 1861, Denis Maguire, - whose uncle was a leading merchant, Denis Caulfield, commemorated in Caulfield Place, - was succeeded in the post by outstanding public figures such as John Moore, John James O’Hagan, James Fegan, Dr M.J. McCartan, Arthur Small and T.J. Nicholson.

Indeed, the Newry region has been fortunate in the quality of its public representatives over the past century, including Newry Urban Council. That body, established in 1896, had an uncertain beginning under chairman Hugh John McConville, suspended in 1922, when members refused to take an Oath of Allegiance.

Apart from chairmen like James Morgan, Max Keogh, Tom Kelly, Tommy Markey and Pat McMahon, sterling service was also rendered by dedicated officials like Newry Town Clerk, William Cronin, who held the post for 40 years. And Town Surveyor Charles Blaney was responsible for major housing, water and sewage projects, in a dedicated career lasting 57 years.

Responsibility for local government in the Newry region had originally been vested in Nicholas Bagenal, about 1550. Later, it came under the control of the Needham family, who were charged with “looking after public and legal affairs, moral and charitable issues, such as a Poor House for the destitute.” They were also to receive tithes, - one-tenth of every employed person’s income.

But in 1793 the Catholic Relief Act gave the same right of franchise to Catholics, which opened up official posts and political influence. And it made Newry one of the most democratic towns in Ireland. However, in 1824, Robert Needham, then Earl of Kilmorey, as well as Viscount of Newry and Mourne, defeated Isaac Corry to become MP for Newry.

He proposed a Public Commission to administer the affairs of the frontier town. Only 12 members would be elected, while the rest would be appointed by Lord Kilmorey.

There was widespread opposition from the local populace, so the proposal was defeated by MP’s at Westminster, who opted for Town Commissions. One national newspaper commented: “Newry, having been left without a proper system of local government for a century, has become a model of municipal administration throughout Ireland.”

The first chairman of the new Town Commission, Denis Maguire had vainly contested Westminster elections for the Newry borough, first opposing John Henry Knox, son of the Earl of Ranfurly, and son-in-law of the Earl of Kilmorey; and then Lord Anthony Cecil Hill, son of the Marquis of Devonshire. A local newspaper commented: “Never was bribery seen more blatant then in the course of those contests.”

Denis Maguire, whose uncle, Denis Caulfield had a thriving import-export business, owning distilleries in Bridge Street and Monaghan Street, as well as being a major land-owner, persuaded his cousin, Denis Caulfield Brady, also a magistrate, to stand for election in 1835 against Sir Thomas Staples.

Describing himself as a Radical Reformer, the candidate’s main platform was repeal of the Tithes system, which he referred to as “the bane and curse of our devoted country, cause of so much discontent and bloodshed. I pledge to work for the abolition of this odious impost.”

Since trouble was expected at election meetings, a local newspaper reported: “A strong force of infantry has been ordered in; the garrison has been greatly strengthened; three cannons with some troops and horses are expected.”

The Catholic Bishop of Dromore, Dr Michael Blake, urged his flock to vote according to their conscience. But a newspaper report stated; “A great number of electors, who occupy tenements in the rural district, have been served with notice of eviction.”

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008