Wicklow's Local Government 1613-1920

Wicklow Historical Society Journal 1989

By John Finlay


On March 30th, 1613 during the reign of James I, a charterwas granted to the town of Wicklow stating that

“the aforesaid town of Wicklow and all and singular castles, mes­suages, tofts, houses, buildings, waters, rivers, lands, tenaments, heraditments with their appurtenances being and lying within the said town of Wicklow (The Castle of the said town of Wicklow with the privileges thereonto belonging, only excepted) be and forever hereafter, shall be one entire and free borough of itself, by the name of the borough of Wicklow”...

Town Charter, Town Hall, Wicklow.

Through this action James and the Government of the Realm accepted the rights of Wicklow to recognition as a town or borough.

The Corporation constituted by the Charter consisted of a Portreeve (portrieve) chosen annually from among the burgesses. These twelve burgesses were elected for life from among the freemen and by an unlimited number of freemen who were admissible by birth, apprentice­ship, marriage or grace especial (special favour).

The first town Charter granted the Portrieve and Burgesses of the new borough of Wicklow, the power of returning two members to Parliament.

The calendar of State Papers of Ireland of the Reign of James 1,1611- 1614, record the following interesting happening.

“The first acting Portrieve was one Patrick Conway. According to the terms of the Charter, two burgesses were to be elected to represent the new (Charter town) borough and Conway duly arranged an election. John Wolferson and Patricke Barnewall were elected. Later that same year, however, on a ruling from the Government of the day, the election was declared void as Patrick Conway himself had not been properly appointed portreive and therefore did not have the right to call an election. The newly appointed portrieve was Sir Arthur Usher, Esq. and with the permission of His Majesty James I, proceeded to hold a new election which returned Sir William Usher (the then Constable of the Castle of Wicklow) and Sir Lawrence Esmonde as Wicklow’s first official represen­tatives in Parliament.

It would certainly be true to say that in the early years of the new Charter town the ruling borough council was royalist in its attitude. Throughout the seventeenth century the number of freemen of the borough increased dramatically. First proposed and then vetted by the portrieve and burgesses, many were accepted, by right of birth costing £1 or some by grace especial costing £3. A special oath of a freeman had to be sworn before acceptance and went thus:-

“You shall swear, that you shall be true Leigman and bear loyalty and truth, to our Soverign Lord King/Queen ….., his heirs and lawful succes­sors and to your power shall aid and assist the portrieve and other officers of this town for the time being and to them shall be obedient and attendant concerning such things as they or any of them shall reasonably and lawfully will or command you to do. You shall also well and truly observe, perform fully and keep all such order and rules as are or shall be made or established by the Common Council of this town for the good Govern­ment thereof, in all things to your appertaining. You shall give, yield, and be contributary to and with the Corporation of this town so far forth as you ought or shall be chargeable to do and you shall with cunning and power uphold and maintain all the libertys, franchises, good customs, orders and usages of this town and corporation.

So help you God”.

With the approach of the 18th Century the borough council obviously needed a nudge towards accepting Catholics as freemen, as is evident form the decree from his Majesty’s Service to:-

“Ye Portrieve of ye towne of Wicklowe - June 27th, 1686. A command from His Majesty James II that the Catholics of ye towne of Wicklowe should be recognised as freemen and thus entitled to vote and be elected to the Borough Council.

Your Loving Friend,


A more balanced Corporation probably ensued although for many subsequent years Catholics were in the minority. Records of the acceptance of such as William Sherwood, Butcher July 30th, 1687 and Isack Bodell, Blacksmith, August 23rd, 1687, as freemen are to be found in Council records. The loyal support of the royalists is obvious from their acceptance of an order from Lord Deputy Tyrconnell of August 11th, 1687, “to set up a troop of dragoons and to make diligent enquiries to seek out those who harbour or succor Tories or Robbers and inform the powers of any robbery”

After the granting of a second town Charter in 1688 by James II, royalist power was still in the ascendancy and yet as is evident from another Tyrconnell order demanding that “Richard Butler or the Officer in Chief commanding his regiment at Tullough (Tullow), march to Wicklow to hold and observe strict discipline among the Magistrates and inhabitants of that fair towne” April 13th, 1689, there was not total acceptance or support.

Council records which throughout this period were badly kept show the turmoil of the period although an order from General Ginkell dated October 12th, 1691, Dutch Commander of William of Orange is recorded. Ginkell ordered “a regiment of soldiers to be marched to Limerick to support the said general and to raise the necessary funds for the support, provisions and entertainment of the officers and men of the said regi­ment”. The quandary of the Borough Council is obvious with orders coming both from James and William and yet the town survived. The spending of £3-4.00 celebrating “a day of thanksgiving for our glorious victory in Germany by our English army dated September 21st, 1704, is recorded in Council minutes, clearly showing the change of allegiance from James to William and possibly the happy excuse for spending funds. Regularly such occasions as the Queen’s birthday or the King’s (William’s) were celebrated in style with barrels of ale being given to the freemen or the garrison or often both. Records for 1714 show the following entries “Cash paid for entertaining the gentlemen at the Proclamation of King George £7.07.08” and even “Cash paid to a trumpeter brought from Dublin £1.03.00”.

Obviously they knew how to celebrate since a barrel of ale cost £1.05.00 at the time.

However, all was not fun as the Second Charter of 1688 required the Portrieve and Burgesses to set up a free school which they did at the Market House. It was in operation by 1694. Oaths of the freeman, Portreive and Burgesses, which seem to have been previously taken lightly were now more stringently sworn and even an oath of Allegiance in favour of “King George the lawful and rightful King” and denouncing the claims of “the pretender James II and his successors to the Crown", was included. Catholic freemen, although few in number, may have found this Oath difficult to accept. As a symbol of its newly gained status, the Councillors, i.e. Portrieve and Burgesses, obtained a Mace in 1712, which to this day is in the possession of the Urban Council.

The early 1700’s was the period of the Penal Laws and Fr. Michael Clarke in his history of Wicklow Parish 1844-1944 reports that in few other parts of Ireland did the Catholics suffer more from the full enforcement of the Penal Laws. "In no other town in Ireland was the administration preserved so long and so exclusively in the hands of a small representa­tive non-Catholic clique. In the mere struggle for existence there was little opportunity for and much danger in the collection and preservation of historic documents”* This is understandable, Wicklow being situated on the Southern extremity of the Pale and also influenced by its close proximity to Dublin. With the construction of the local gaol in the early 18th century, the Borough Council was certainly Royalist in its support. With the progress of the 18th century both the town and the port grew in affluence. Little record remains of Royalist or Republican leanings during these years. The Portrieve and Burgesses, seem to have conscien­tiously worked for the good of the town irrespective of leanings, and prosperity ensued.

The records of this period have a number of interesting entries, one of which concerns the by law passed in April 1728 which forbade “the picking or taking out of the piers and arches of the Bridge (build 1688) over the river of this town or within 20 yards of the said bridge, any mussels, periwinkles or other shellfish that are lodged in the holes or crevices of the said bridge, thus weakening its structure ... fine 1/=, or that the said person or persons offending shall be whipt at the Public Market House of this Corporation”. The older freemen of the Borough unable to work were paid an allowance (pension) annually. On September 29th, 1753, the Portrieve and Burgesses found a way of using these elderly freemen probably much to their displeasure. The old law, re winkle picking at the Bridge, was modernised thus:-

“Ordered that any person or persons that shall pick or take out any mussels or any other shellfish from the piers or arches of the Bridge over the river of Wicklow or within thirty yards of the same will forfeit and pay the sum of 5/= for every such offence and also that the three persons that are allowed charity by this Corporation do take their turns watching the said bridge and give information to the Portrieve of the person or persons they find offending and if they refuse or neglect so doing, their salary shall cease”.

An appeal by the Lord Deputy Dorset concerning the pressganging of Seamen for His Majesty’s fleet was answered enthusiastically (April 1734), but whether this was in support of the realm or strictly a financial consideration is difficult to ascertain as the bounty offered of 20/= for each seaman and travelling expenses of 6d per mile to a maximum of 20 miles was very appealing. Needless to report the vacancies were quickly filled.

The absence of records over the period of 1798 probably indicates some republican influence as local events such as the execution of Billy Byrne on September 24th, 1799, or the murder of the local Parish Priest Fr. Andrew O’Toole on August 23rd, 1799, more than likely split the unity of the people and forced them to take sides.* Two government acts passed in 1828 and 1854 placed the governing power into the hands of anew body of twenty one town commissioners headed by a chairman. As is evident from the new oath taken by the incoming Commissioners the pledge of loyalty was omitted thereby allowing a more representative body to be elected. The new oath was as follows:

“I ….. …… do swear that I am duly qualified to act as a Commissioner under the act made in the ninth year of the reign of King George IV, an Act to make provison for the lighting, cleansing and watching of Cities, Towns Corporate and Market Towns of Ireland and that I will faithfully, impartially and honestly execute the powers and trusts imposed on me as a Commissioner appointed by virtue of the said act, to the best of my knowldege and ability for the purposes of the said act mentioned -

So help me God!”

The famine more than likely united both Republican and Royalist but the land problems that followed certainly increased the divide. Differ­ences were occasionally forgotten for the betterment of the town i.e. harbour development, gaslighting of streets and the coming of the railway - all in the 1850’s but the rift continued to extend. On March 15th, 1867 it was resolved “that the Town Commissioners, representing the inhabi­tants of Wicklow beg to express our satisfaction that the present insane attempts to disturb the peace of Ireland, our town and neighbourhood have been uninfluenced by any sentiments of Loyalty”. Surprisingly, then a special meeting of the Town Commissioners was held on May 17th, 1867 for the purposes of scripting and forwarding a letter to the Lord Lieutenant praying that Her Majesty’s clemency might be extended towards the Fenian convicts now under sentence of death”.

The following was forwarded:

Town Commissioners Office,

Wicklow. May 18th, 1867.

To his Excellency,

The Lord Lieutenant,

General & General Governing of Ireland.

The Memorial of the Commissioners of the town of Wicklow humbly report that at a special Meeting of the Commissioners held on the 17th May inst. it was resolved that a Memorial should be presented to your Excellency praying that Her Majesty’s clemency might be extended to the Fenian convicts now under sentence of death and trust your Excellency would recommend same.

Your Memorialists are of the opinion that the remission of the sentence would do more to allay the disquiet now prevailing in Ireland that if the extreme sentencing of the law was carried out.

Your Memorialists would therefore most respectfully submit that not from any political motive whatever but mainly in the cause of humanity, that your Excellency would be pleased to recommend to her Most Gracious Majesty that the sentence of death of the Fenian convicts may be remitted,.

A letter was received in reply from Dublin Castle on May 28th:

“With reference to the letter of the 25th inst. relative to the convict Thomas Burke, convicted of High Treason at the late Special Commis­sion for the County of Dublin, I am directed by the Lord Lieutenant to acquaint you for the information of those who Memorialised on his behalf that on the reconsideration of all the circumstances of the case Her Excellency has been pleased to direct that the sentence of death, passed on him, be commuted to penal servitude for life”.

Photo:John Redmond delivers an address on Home Rule in the Market Square in 1912

John Redmond delivers an address on Home Rule in the Market Square in 1912

Photo:A Royal Proclamation is read from the Court House Steps.

A Royal Proclamation is read from the Court House Steps.

Another appeal for leniency for Fenian political prisoners was made on May 5th, 1868, at the same time as a letter of congratulations to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales on the occasion of his visit to Ireland was forwarded. This was typical of the years that were to follow and the 20th Century dawned with increasing division. The passing of the Local Government Act of 1898 brought the town under the control of an Urban Council and the occasions of republican and royalist division increased. On January 3rd, 1911 the following proposal was made by Joseph McCarroll and seconded by James Dunne.

“We congratulate the Irish Leader (Redmond) on his triumph over all the forces arrayed against Ireland at the late general election, Composed of Unionist, factionists, soreheads, deadheads, cranks and disruptionists of all sorts and kinds and we rejoice that all these anti-national forces have been smashed and pulverised by the wisdom, patriotism and manhood of Ireland”. No punches pulled there! Subsequently, over the next few years there were resolutions passed indicating the increase of Republi­can support, congratulating John E. Redmond on his leadership e.g. April 7th, 1914.

“It is with feelings of pride that we the Wicklow Urban District Council hereby place on record, our faith in the integrity, wisdom and statesman­ship of John E. Redmond and the Irish Party and that that we hereby congratulate the Irish Leader on his triumph attained under his infallible leadership”.

With the outbreak of World War I, Committees were set up to alleviate distress. Organisations involved included the St. Vincent De Paul Society, Sailor & Soldiers Society, Coal Fund Society, Methodist Chari­table Organisation Clothing Club and the Irish National Foresters. The Urban Council even offered the County Gaol “ for the purpose of and is in every way eminently suitable for a domicile for German Prisoners-of- War or with a small outlay could be converted into a large hospital for British wounded”. Republican and Royalist feelings existed side by side and such records as Thomas Gregory thanking the Nationalist members of the Council for their support in his co-option on to the Council (January 1915) and the congratulation of rate collector Patrick Clarke on his having obtained a commission in His Majesty’s army show the swings to green or red and blue. Yet, the Council in its entirety, strongly objected to the proposal by the Chancellor of the exchequer to introduce a drastic tax to raise War funds.

Amazingly little or no records exist re the feelings, concerning the 1916 Rising although there was a proposal “that the Tullamore & New Ross resolutions, condeming the recent Sinn Fein rising in Ireland” be adopted. The Chairman Mr. Laurence Byrne having put the motion - three voted in favour and three against. The Chairman did not give his casting vote and marked the resolution - no action taken. Yet later that year October 1916, a resolution demanding the release of Irishmen interned in English prisons arrested in connection with the Rising of 1916 was proposed. Delegates were appointed to attend the All Ireland Convention for the purpose of establishing a Political prisoners Amnesty Association and yet amazingly no mention is made concerning the executions of the 1916 leaders.

Over the subsequent years, the Royalist support dwindled with a stronger Republican faction in the ascendancy. 1920 was a year of great political unrest-and Nationalist feelings rose to the surface. A riot in Wicklow resulted in the destruction of police property. The ensuing court action against the Urban Council and the extensive costs awarded by the Court led to ill-feeling. Throughout 1920 as well as proceeding with the usual Council matters, many resolutions were passed showing clearly dissatisfaction with the political state of things.

April 6th, 1920.

“That we the Wicklow Urban Council beg to extend to the Lady Mayoress of Cork and her family, our sincere sympathy in their great sorrow caused by the dastardly assassination of the Lord Mayor, Aider­man McCurtain, who was a sterling and patriotic Irishman”.

April 6th, 1920

"That this Council of the elected representatives of Wicklow Urban Council at a duly convened Meeting hereby acknowledges the authority of Dáil Éireann as the duly elected Government of the Irish people, and undertaken to give effect to all decrees duly promulgated by the said Dáil Éireann in so far as the same effects this Council".

That copies of this resolution be forwarded to the Republican Minister for Foreign Affairs for transmission to the Governments of Europe and to the President and Chairman of the Senate and House of Representatives of the U.S.A.

July 6th, 1920,

Resolved “that we the Wicklow Urban District Council hereby direct our officials to refuse to supply any information to the Surveyer of Taxes in connection with the Councils property and we hereby also refuse to pay to the British Government - any tax whatsoever”.

Resolved: “That a new flag staff with, sheeve, haulyard complete and tricoloured flag - green, white and gold, be purchased for the Town Hall”.

Clearly things were never to be the same again and a remarkable postscript to these records reads:-

“Taken over by Free State Soldiers 30/6/22 at 8.00 a.m".

John Finlay.

With specific thanks to Wicklow Urban District Council for the use of their records and especially Joe Phillips for his assistance.

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