Free elections are the bedrock of our democracy. Later this year the country will go to the polls and using the proportional representation system of voting will elect members of a new Dáil Eireann. The PR system of voting was designed to ensure that the composition of elected bodies reflected the political affiliations of those voting and to protect minority groupings. It originated in continental Europe in the 19th century and from it was developed a British model of the system which was used in Ireland for the first time in the Local Government elections of January 1920. Ireland was then immersed in the War of Independence and was still governed from Westminster. The General Election of November 1918 had seen the defeat of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the emergence of Sinn Fein as the political leaders of the Irish people. It seems likely that the PR system of voting was brought in by the British government in an attempt to restrict the electoral success of Sinn Fein candidates and help maintain non Sinn Fein candidates within the Irish Local Government system.
The local elections in Athy were held on the 15th of January 1920 under the supervision of Joseph A. Lawler, the long time serving Town Clerk, who would die on the 4th of June 1927 after almost forty years in the position. He was a brother of Michael Lawler of the Hibernian Hotel in Leinster Street and was an important figure in local G.A.A. circles. The town of Athy, which was previously governed by Town Commissioners, was created an Urban District under the 1899 Local Government Act and the first Urban District Council was elected in April 1900. Fifteen councillors comprised the local Council and of these six members represented the East Urban Electoral area and nine members the West Electoral area of Athy.
The new PR system of voting involved a lot of preparation and training on behalf of the Council staff and the Local Government Board organised model elections in the Town Hall, Naas on 22nd November 1919 which J.A. Lawler, the Athy Town Clerk, attended. Following that Lawler organised trial elections in the Town Hall Athy on 11th September, at which he was assisted by a member of the Dublin based PR society. Further trial elections were carried out by the Town Clerk and his assistants on the 9th, 11th, 12th and 13th January in preparation for the real event scheduled for the 15th of January 1920.
On election day there were four polling stations, all located within the area of Emily Square. The Town Clerk presided at the polling station in the Urban Council offices, while David Walsh took charge of the booth in the “Leinster Offices”. This was from where the Duke of Leinster’s estate were administered locally and while I cannot definitely identify the exact location of the office within the Town Hall, it certainly was located there from the information available to me. P.P. Timmons was presiding officer in the Courthouse, while F. Gibbons had control of the polling booth in the “Magistrate’s Room” which was also in the Courthouse.
The number of electors in Athy east urban was 790, of which 555 were entitled to vote in January 1920. I cannot explain the discrepancy between the two figures. However, in the “Leinster Offices” booth the electors to vote started with No. 1, Mrs. E.R. Deane of Clonmullin up to No. 372, Mary Wall of Garden Lane. The “Council Offices” booth catered for the voters from No. 373 Mary Cooper of Emily Row to No. 543 Ann Ryan of Rathstewart. The West urban voters of which there were 899, with 646 entitled to vote, voted in the Courthouse. In the Courtroom itself voters from No. 127 Daniel Malone of Ardrew to No. 167 Mary Youell of Duke Street went to the polling booths, while No. 1672 James Fitzpatrick of Green Alley to No. 1913 Lucy Nash of the Fever Hospital voted in the “Magistrate’s Room”.
Prior to the election the local bill poster James Mulhall posted notices throughout the town advertising the names of the candidates nominated to contest the election. On the day of the election and the subsequent count which started immediately the polls closed and went on through the night, both Mulhall and George Lamon were employed to man the doors of the Town Hall and the Courthouse.
The East Urban elections saw the election of William Mahon with 135 votes where the quota was 55 votes, followed by the election of John Joseph Bailey, Patrick Dooley, James Darrigan, Daniel Twomey and Francis Jackson. The two unsuccessful candidates were Joseph C. Reynolds and John Doyle. In the West Urban area Peter Paul Doyle, the outgoing chairman of the Council, got 149 votes where the quota was 52 votes and also elected were Michael Malone, Patrick Dooley, Thomas Corcoran, Thomas Plewman, Thomas J. Whelan, Thomas O’Rourke, Joseph O’Rourke and Patrick Keogh. The only unsuccessful candidate here was William Plewman St. John.
The Patrick Dooley elected for West Athy lived in the Bleach, while his namesake in East Athy lived in Leinster Street. The two O’Rourkes were, I believe, father and son but if anyone can give me any information about them or indeed any of the other candidates mentioned in this article I would be delighted to hear from them.
Seven of the outgoing Council were re-elected and the newly elected members of the Council were Patrick Dooley of the Bleach, Thomas Corcoran of Woodstock Street, Thomas O’Rourke of William Street, Patrick Keogh of Woodstock Street, Joseph O’Rourke of William Street, Francis Jackson of Leinster Street, James Darrigan or Dargan of Butler’s Row and Daniel Toomey of Meeting Lane.
Thomas Plewman resigned from the Council on the 3rd of May 1920 following almost 50 years service as a Town Commissioner and an Urban District Councillor. Apparently his decision to resign was prompted by the Councillors’ decision to change the time of the Council meeting to 7.00 p.m. from the traditional morning meeting time. John J. Bailey resigned in February 1925 when he was replaced by P.J. Murphy of Emily Square.
The new Council elected in January 1920 under the PR system reflected the growing Irish nationalism of the time and some of its early decisions confirm this. On the 1st of March it approved the movement to have St. Patrick’s Day declared a national holiday and requested all local shopkeepers to close their premises on that day. It also accepted a request from the local branch of the Gaelic League to have the Council’s notepaper printed in Irish and later agreed to set up a committee to change local street names to their Irish equivalent (however, nothing subsequently happened in that regard). In a final act of defiance towards the British authorities the Council in August 1920 passed a resolution “acknowledging the authority of Dáil Eireann as the duly elected government of the Irish people and undertake to give effect to all decrees duly promulgated by the said Dáil Eireann”.
As 1920 came to a close the Irish War of Independence was still ongoing and its first casualty in this area was John Byrne of Gracefield, Ballylinan who died when the Luggacurran R.I.C. Barracks was torched on 20th April 1920. The Barrowhouse ambush, the Graney ambush and the other killings of the War of Independence and the Civil War were still in the future. However, the majority of the members of Athy Urban District Council elected in January 1920 reflected the changing mood of the emerging Irish nation and Local Government in this area in terms of the Council’s composition and the members allegiances had changed forever.