The Irish Independent’s hints for the polling day. (Image: Irish Independent, 14 January 1920)

“Smashing Sinn Féin Victory in Meath” is how the Meath Chronicle headed its front page article on the results of the local government elections of June 1920. There would be a “National majority on all Boards” with “a clean sweep in some areas.” When  all the counting had been concluded by the following week the paper’s headlines announced “Meath Solid for Sinn Féin”, National Candidates Win Easily” and “Huge Majority on all Boards”. The Drogheda Independent declared what had prompted the over whelming result “it is now that the struggle, for independence enters fully upon the new phase designed for it.” An editorial in the Drogheda Independent noted “It may be said that (National) politics have little or nothing to do with the business for which County Councillors or Guardians of the Poor are elected; that the aim of such bodies should be to well and truly administer the somewhat humdrum, but essentially necessary business which devolves upon them.“ The editorial goes on to explain the abnormal circumstances and the break down in order for the electors choosing to put national issues before local.[i]

The Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898 firmly established the county as the central unit of local government with the County Council administering its district’s affairs.[ii] Between 1898 and 1953 the normal term for a borough and county council was three years so local elections were held in 1899, 1902, 1905, 1908, 1911 and 1914 but were then postponed until 1920 due to World War One.

County and Rural Council elections were held in 2 June 1920 in the middle of the War of Independence. Earlier in 1920 an election was held for the Urban District Councils. The urban councils elected in January remained loyal to the Local Government Board in the Custom House and did not support the new Dáil department of Local Government. These two local elections provide a useful barometer of public opinion at the time in Ireland. Sinn Féin treated these elections as internal Irish elections for local authorities that were expected to swear allegiance to the new Irish Republic. Controlling local councils politically was deemed another step further to obtaining more political freedom from Westminster.

The 1920 local government elections took place using proportional representation, a system of voting which provides seats based on the proportion of votes each party receives. Following the 1918 election the British Government introduced the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1919 which provided for future elections, local and parliamentary, to be on a proportional representation (PR) basis. This system would give minorities, and minor parties and unionists in the South and nationalists in the North a voice in elected assemblies. Another reason for the introduction of the PR system was the hope that Sinn Féin would perform worse than they had in the “first past the post” system which had been used in the General Election of 1918. Contrary to claims that PR elections were too complex for many voters to understand, this first major experiment with PR returned relatively few spoiled ballot papers. Of the 331,503 votes that were cast across about 127 Irish municipalities in January 1920, just over 9,000 of them were spoiled – a number deemed ‘virtually negligible’ at the time. Meath Chronicle’s editorial of 10 January 1920 outlined the process of voting in a proportional representation process.[iii] Lectures had taken place in Trim, Kells and Navan to explain the process.  The PR system worked well for the Council elections. The Navan count was the most complicated requiring thirteen transfers in order to elect five councillors.[iv]

One issue that influenced the council election was education reform. On 14 November 1919 the Chief Secretary for Ireland, John McPherson, attempted to introduce a bill which would lead to radical administrative and structural reform of the education system in Ireland. The proposal was for a department of education, local education committees, school meals and various other reforms. Sinn Féin TDs rejected it as against Catholic control. The proposal drew widespread criticism and objection. The Education Bill was eventually withdrawn in December 1920.[v] At the March meeting of Meath County Council Councillor P.J. Kennedy proposed a motion denouncing the Education Act. It was passed with only two abstentions.[vi]

The national question was the one to the forefront of politician’s minds. David Llyod George, the Prime Minister, was committed to implementing Home Rule. On 22 December 1919 the Better Government of Ireland Bill was introduced into the House of Commons. It proposed two parliaments; one for the six counties of north-east Ulster and one for the other twenty-six. The Bill’s second reading debates in late March 1920 revealed that already a large number of Irish members of parliament present felt that the proposals were unworkable. Irish nationalist opinion was aghast at the proposals.

At the Navan Rural Council in March Mr. Thomas Bowens condemned the action of the British Government in foisting a Home Rule Bill upon the people of Ireland with the establishment of separate parliaments in Belfast and Dublin and said there was only one Ireland. He condemned the action of the English government. Another member, Mr. Dunne, said “It was now made clear to all, and to those who hesitated and were doubtful hitherto should no longer waver but cast in their lot with Sinn Féin.” Other members disagreed and laid the blame at the door of the Irish Party and John Redmond who they said had accepted partition. The members condemned the Education Bill which was an issue which should have been dealt by an Irish parliament.[vii]

The 1918 Representation of the People Act tripled the electorate in Ireland. The Act extended the franchise in parliamentary elections, the right to vote, to men aged over 21, whether or not they owned property, and to women aged over 30 who resided in the constituency or occupied land or premises with a rateable value above £5, or whose husbands did. At the same time, it extended the local government franchise to include women aged over 21 on the same terms as men.  The 1898 Local Government (Ireland) Act gave women the vote at a local level on the same level as men. Women were allowed to stand for district councillors and town commissioners but had to wait until 1911 to be allowed to become county and borough councillors. In 1899 Mrs. Priscilla Sylvia Everard, Randalstown was elected for Navan Rural Council and Mrs. Annette Mary Leonard, Warrenstown, Killeen, was elected onto the Dunshaughlin Rural District Council. There were no women candidates for the local elections of 1920. [viii]

From October 1919 raids for guns and ammunition, attacks and other incidents became commonplace in Meath. The Big Houses were raided for guns. Smaller rural RIC barracks were evacuated and their garrisons transferred to the larger towns and most of these abandoned barracks were burned by the IRA on the night of Easter Sunday, 3 April. [ix]

The existing councils pre-1920 had concentrated on local administration and had not involved themselves in national matters. The councils had distanced themselves from the Home Rule party but were also distanced from Sinn Féin. [x] In Meath there was a strike by the employees of the Council which began 13 January and ran till 26 February 1920. At a special county council meeting to consider wages for the workers who had been on strike P.J. Kennedy resigned from the council as he felt the terms which had been agreed previously were being changed. Kennedy may have been using the strike as a reason for avoiding taking a position on the national question or losing his seat in the next election.[xi] Compensation claims for malicious injury increased hugely as the raids and burnings of police barracks continue to increase. In 1919 the total claims from Meath County Council had been approximately £10,000 but in March 1920 alone claims for over £31,000 were made. This increased the financial pressure on councils.[xii]

Nationalist politics and the campaign for independence continued. In April and May about twenty of the deserted police barracks in Meath were burned to prevent their re-occupation by police. In April 1920 a large number of prisoners in Mountjoy went on hunger strike in demand of special treatment. These included Frank Loughran and Patrick Clinch of Navan, John Mangan of Bective, Frank O’Higgins of Kilskyre and Patrick Gilsenan, Kilallon.[xiii] Concerns for the treatment of Republican prisoners in England resulted in a special meeting of Kells Urban Council on 12 April and a public meeting in relation to prisoners in Mountyjoy later that day in the town. Navan Urban Council also passed a motion condemning the treatment of Irish prisoners in England.[xiv] On 10th May a young man, Mark Clinton, was shot on the 10th May in north Meath.[xv]

Nominations for the council elections closed on Saturday 1st May at 5.00 p.m. Nominations were slow coming in with a surge of candidates being nominated in the last few days.[xvi] The Chronicle reported that there was a plethora of candidates nominated for county council and rural council elections. A large proportion of the candidates had not previously run in local elections. [xvii]

An opinion piece in the Drogheda Independent noted that many of the candidates had dropped the old system of house to house canvassing in favour of meetings and propaganda.  It also noted that the Sunday before the election was only time real active campaigning had taken place. Election meetings for the Sinn Féin candidates were held all over County Meath on the Sunday prior to the polling day. On that Sunday a well attended meeting in support of the “Republican” candidates in the Square in Navan was presided over by Rev. N. Cooney, Administrator. A meeting after Mass at Johnstown was presided over by the curate Fr. Gibbons and addressed by the “National” candidates Seaghan Mac Na Midhe and Patrick Clinch. [xviii]

Among the early voters in Navan was the bishop, Dr. Gaughran, who along with his clergy took Sinn Féin papers. The only party to show any activity at polling stations was Sinn Féin. Police were absent from polling stations. The returning officer and staff coped well with the PR system. The count for the county Council continued over the weekend and finished on Monday night at 11.00. [xix]

Only eleven of the outgoing members sought re-election and only four of these were returned, these had stood as Sinn Féin candidates.  They were James Boggan, Enfield; Laurence Rowan, Stackallen; Patrick Moore, Clonee and Patrick O’Growney, Castletown, Athboy. In 1914 out of the thirty one councillors elected twenty six had served before the election.  Sinn Féin candidates took eighteen seats while two councillors were elected under the label of Sinn Féin Labour.  The only county councillor who was not a member of Sinn Féin was Farmer’s Union candidate, Major T.G. Collins-Gerrard of Wilkinstown. He may have been assisted in his election by the success of his horse, Troytown, which won the Aintree Grand National a few months earlier.  For the first time the Meath Chronicle began assigning party affiliation to each member of the council. [xx]

The new council met on 19 June with Major Gerrard absent. Patrick Clinch was elected Chairman and Martin O’Dwyer as Vice-Chairman. Clinch had been an unsuccessful candidate in the January Urban elections. There were two co-opted members John (Seán) Boylan, Dunboyne and John McNamee (Seán MacNaMidhe). The new council pledged its allegiance to Dáil Éireann.[xxi] Cllr. Rowan proposed that Sir Nugent Everard be elected as a member of the County Committee of Agriculture and this was seconded by Cllr. Boggan. A counter proposal was put by Cllr. Ginnety and seconded by Cllr. Hall which was passed a sign that the old order had passed. At the next meeting of the council the minutes were headed “Cómhairle Conndae na Midhe”. The Rural District Council and Board of Guardians also gave their allegiance to Dáil Eireann instead of the Dublin government. New chairmen from Sinn Féin were elected in each council and board. [xxii]

The Labour Party, which had sat out the 1918 general election, took part in the 1920 local elections The Labour movement was active with trade unions seeking increases in wages and also in the nationalist cause. In May trade unionists in Dublin’s docklands refused to handle British military equipment or supplies, a decision which would be quickly adopted also by railway workers.  At the election meeting held in Navan on the Sunday prior to the polling day Mr. Charles Kenny of the Connolly Labour College declared that the only question before the electorate was national self determination, and that was the limit of what he said – short and sweet and no mention of any Labour agenda. That meeting was told by Fr. Gibbons CC Johnstown that the only candidates to be voted for were the Sinn Féin and Labour candidates as selected and no others.[xxiii] Over a third of rural councillors elected were elected under the joint banner of Sinn Féin-Labour. Only 5% were elected under the Labour banner solely. Transport candidates representing the ITGWU won three out of the four seats in Summerhill.  Countrywide the party won 394 seats, a credible performance behind Sinn Féin, which won 560 seats, but ahead of the unionists with 355 seats. At the first meeting of Trim Rural District the chair was contested by Seamus Finn of Sinn Féin and Christopher Mathews from Labour. Having both succeeded in gaining the same number of votes in the first vote, the two men met privately and it was agreed that Seamus Finn be approved as chair and Mathews as vice-chair. [xxiv]

Rural District Council were formed along with urban district councils and county councils under the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898. In 1920 the Rural District Council system was reformed with members reduced for each area. There had been absenteeism with meetings being cancelled due to lack of a quorum. Of those elected where party allegiance is given there were 29 Sinn Féin councillors, 26 Sinn Féin–Labour councillors, 10 Independent councillors, 4 Labour councillors and 3 Transport councillors. Newly elected Rural Councillors included Sean Boylan, Séamus Finn and James Keogh who were leading members of the IRA and Volunteer movement. In 1925 just three years after independence rural district councils were abolished.[xxv]

The vast majority of voters supported the cutting of the connection of Ireland to England for good and all. The 1920 local elections allowed Sinn Féin to undermine the British administration and replace it with native institutions. These efforts complemented the military struggle.

[i] Meath Chronicle 5 June 1920 p. 1, 12 June 1920 p. 1, Drogheda Independent 12 June 1920, p. 2.Oliver Coogan, Politics and War in Meath 1913-23 (Naas, 1983) p. 215.

[ii] Arlene Crampsie ‘A forgotten tier of local government – the impact of rural district councils on the landscape of early twentieth century Ireland’, (2014)  Irish Geography, 47(2), p. 29.

[iii] Meath Chronicle 10 January 1920, p. 2.

[iv] Meath Chronicle 12 June 1920,  p.1.

[v] John Coolahan Irish Education: Its History and Structure, (Dublin, 1981) pp 72-3; E. BrianTitley, Church, State, and the Control of Schooling in Ireland 1900-1944 (Belfast, 1983) pp 52-70.

[vi] Meath Chronicle 13 March 1920, p. 1.

[vii] Meath Chronicle 6 March 1920, p. 1.

[viii] Drogheda Independent 11 March 1899, p. 5, Mary Cullen, ‘Women, Emancipation and Politics 1860-1984’ in edit Jacqueline R. Hill A New History of Ireland Volume VII: Ireland, 1921-84 pp 844-5.

[ix] Coogan, Politics and War in Meath  pp108-119.

[x] Coogan, Politics and War in Meath  pp219-220.

[xi] Meath Chronicle 13 March 1920, pp 1,6; Drogheda Independent 13 March 13, 1920, p. 3.

[xii] Drogheda Independent 17 April 1920, p. 2.

[xiii] Coogan, Politics and War in Meath   pp221-2.

[xiv] Drogheda Independent 17 April 1920, p. 2; Meath Chronicle 17 April 1920, p. 1. .

[xv] Coogan, Politics and War in Meath  p. 230-6.

[xvi] Drogheda Independent 24 April 1920, p. 2; Meath Chronicle 1 May 1920, p. 1.

[xvii] Meath Chronicle 8 May 1920, p. 1.

[xviii] Drogheda Independent 29 May 1920, p. 2, 5 June 1920 pp 2, 3; Meath Chronicle 29 May 1920, p. 6.

[xix] Meath Chronicle 5 June 1920 pp 1, 5; 12 June 1920, p.1.

[xx] Denis Boyle, A History of Meath County Council (Navan, 1999) p. 78; Coogan, Politics and War in Meath  p. 241.

[xxi] Boyle, A History of Meath County Council pp 78-9.

[xxii] Drogheda Independent 19 June, 1920, pp 2, 3.

[xxiii] Meath Chronicle 5 June 1920 p. 4.

[xxiv] Meath Chronicle 19 June 1920 p. 1; Drogheda Independent 19 June, 1920, p. 3.

[xxv] Coogan, Politics and War in Meath  pp 242-251.