Kildare’s first County Council elections in 1899

The posters have gone up.

The posters have gone up.

The canvassing is at full throttle. And by the end of this month the people of Co Kildare will go to the polls to elect their County Council representatives.

They will be following in the footsteps of generations of previous Kildare voters. The elections at the end of May will mark the occasion on which the county electorate will have chosen its County Councillors.

The first County Council elections took place in the spring of 1899 making an interval of 115 years since the first exercise of democracy at County Council level.

Indeed it is interesting to reflect on the fact that the people have been voting for their County Councils from long before they began to elect representatives to the Dáil and the Presidency of the modern Irish State.

The first County Council elections set the pattern for an engagement between candidates and the voting public which from the very start has been vigorous and full of incident.

Local newspapers such as the Leinster Leader and the Kildare Observer carried columns of comment from journalists and messages from the candidates.

Certainly the electors had no shortage of information about the candidates.

For example, the Leinster Leader of February and March 1899 carried columns of advertisements from the candidates appealing to their sympathies.

The notices revealed the contention between the Unionists, almost to a man members of the country gentry, and the Home Rulers, who were, in the main, middle-class farmers or town-based merchants. But the dividing lines were not always clear.

Not all gentry were unionists.

The Parish Priest of Ballymore Eustace, Very Rev. H. McCarthy eulogised Mr. George Wolfe ‘ the scion of a grand old historic family in the land’ as having ‘ emblazoned the spirit of Home Rule’ on his manifesto.

The fact that Wolfe also supported‘ a Catholic University for the Catholic education of a Catholic people’ was no doubt the primary source of his reverend father’s enthusiasm.

However, the endorsement highlighted another facet of the 1899 elections — the pervasive involvement of the Catholic clergy in the contest.

Banned from taking part in the election by a clause inserted in the 1898 Local Government Act to placate the unionist population the clergy ensured that their influence was felt.

In Athy Rev. Fr. Rowan chaired a selection meeting for candidates for the town’s rural hinterland.

While in Monasterevin the parish priest, Fr. Kavanagh, went into print to support the candidacy of Mr. Edward J. Cassidy of distillery fame.

Some unionists like Cooke-Trench of Millicent were given enthusiastic support in their localites.

To quote from a Leinster Leader report of a meeting in Clane “the Clane electors ... will support him, not as a politician but as one of the ablest of the minority to whom it is expedient to give representation.”

On the other side of the political divide the Home Rulers were often a house divided.

There were also voices for the labour movement, even if there was no party of that name.

Such competing agendas led to a heady political atmosphere with candidates pressing their claims through the public notices of the two newspapers in the county.

Edward Delany of Feighcullen advertised his appeal to the electorate of Kilmeague as follows,

‘“I offer myself as a County Councillor for your division. You know my politics since the good old days of the Land League.”

Hendrick Aylmer of Kerdiffstown House near Naas hedged his bets in an appeal to the voters of the Kill Electoral division:

“As a large farmer and employer of labour I shall strive to improve the condition of these classes -- so far as is consistent with the welfare of the rest of the community.”

William Smith of Carbury made his pitch to ‘the Free and Independent Electors’ of north-west Kildare as follows,

“My political opinions on all national questions are now and always have been — Home Rule, a Catholic University, a complete Land Purchase system ... and the release of all prisoners convicted of political offences.”

Charles Greene of Kilkea was modest in his message to the voters of south Kildare:

‘“Having passed most of my life amongst you I need not say much about my political opinions as they are well known.”

Peter Timmons of Monasterevan knew where the priorities lay for the county council voters of the Barrowside town,

“The heavy taxes on tea, on the cheaper kind of tobacco and beer, should be taken off in the interest of the labourers.”

Baron de Robeck of Gowran Grange near Punchestown hoped that familiarity would breed support,

“I address you as an old friend, being settled among you for some fifty years.”

The messages from the candidates were typical of the intensity of the coverage in the local press regarding the elections.

And intensity reflected by the interest of the readers in knowing about the policies of the candidates vying for their favours at the ballot box.

Turning to a political situation of a violent nature, a recent talk to by renowned local historian Seamus Cullen has revealed some new information on Kildare links with the 1916 rising.

Speaking to the St Mochua (Timahoe) History Society, he gave a compelling account of three Kildare people whose lives were impacted by the Rising:

Michael Cosgrove of Timahoe, J.Kavanagh from Ballinafagh, and William Mulraney, also Timahoe.

An unusual fact of the tragedies was that Cosgrove died fighting with the republicans, Mulraney died fighting for the republicans, and Kavanagh was killed while resisting the commandeering of his cart by rebels for use in erecting barricades.

As well as its programme of talks the Timahoe group has been busy with its recent journal “The Bridge” being well received locally and abroad.

Series no: 380.