Counties are ancient divisions which date back to the 13th to 16th centuries. Originally, assizes were held on a regular basis, often quarterly, dealing with the adjudication of legal disputes. They sat as grand juries and were comprised of the local aristocracy and upper classes. They had a role both in the judicial and the early origins of the administrative and, in particular, road system.
The high sheriffs chose the Grand juries from the largest landowners and wealthier classes. Over time, the grand juries developed an administrative and financial role.
Early legislation gave grand juries powers to maintain roads, bridges and other infrastructure. They raised a tax known as county cess on the county or subdivision of the county (the barony).
At the start of the 18th century, grand juries were empowered to make so-called presentments for a wider range of tasks, including courthouses, county officers, lunatic asylums, hospitals, dispensaries and compensation for malicious injuries.
The Grand Jury Act 1836 consolidated and updated the system. It allowed membership of the grand jury for at least one resident freeholder or leaseholder over a specific high valuation. The 1836 Act provided for presentment sessions for counties and baronies.
The sessions dealing with increment expenditure were conducted by grand juries composed of officers of the peace and cess payers. County sessions dealt with certain expenses of a county-side nature level. Baronial presentments dealt with subdivisions of the counties.
Most Irish towns are of ancient origins. Towns and cities were given charters by the monarch. They vested the common parts on the town and the inhabitants. Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, towns were incorporated, thereby having several separate legal entities.
The mayor and other officers had specific authorities and were indirectly elected from a narrow group of qualified persons. There were several officers, including the coroner, treasurer, and town sergeant, who, with their staff, conducted much of the affairs of the town, including the judicial and administrative affairs. Revenue for the management of towns is derived from customs, tolls, and rent.
Larger towns were independent of the county grand juries and were entitled to administer their own courts and regulate their own trade and market. Boroughs and towns were incorporated by grants of incorporation conferring powers. The systems were notoriously corrupt and inefficient.
Early 19th Century
Modern local government first emerged in the 19th century. Town commissioners could be granted power under legislation to deal with matters such as street cleansing, venting, water drainage, police and public lighting (gaslight)
The earliest comprehensive act was the Lighting of Towns Act of 1828, which was a facilitative act under which towns could be incorporated and obtain status and statutory powers.
The Municipal Corporations Act 1840 followed similar legislations in England and Wales. There were votes for persons with a raised rateable valuation of at least £10. The corporations covered the major cities and many of the major towns. Corporations were given a range of powers. They were given powers to make byelaws for the borough.
Many towns increased their powers through private acts of parliament. Legislation empowered them to raise rates to deal with local government needs such as water supply, drainage, et cetera.
A range of legislation was passed from the late 1840s to the early 60s, providing facilitative clauses or powers for incorporation in private Acts. This legislation dealt with what are now regarded as key local government functions, such as waterworks, markets, cemeteries, and bathhouses.
The Town Improvement Clauses Act provided a general piece of legislation giving local authorities a wide range of powers in areas from sanitation, policing, markets et cetera
The Towns Improvements Acts 1847, which could itself be adopted. Incorporated particular clauses and Acts and modernised and extended the powers of local government. These provisions were, in turn incorporated and updated Public Health Act of 1878.
The Town Improvements Act remained the basis of local government for town councils, which were now Urban District Councils, until the consolidating Local Government Act 2001.
Public Health Act
The Public Health (Ireland) Act of 1878 provided for urban and rural sanitary authorities with powers across a key range of areas. See our chapters in the section on Public Health Act. The Public Health Act conferred public health powers on corporations and commissioners and on certain towns. The poor law guardians became rural sanitary authorities.
In 1898, the urban and rural sanitary authorities were changed to Urban and Rural District Councils together with the new County Councils. Rural District Councils were abolished by the Free State Government in 1925.
Urban District Councils continued until amalgamated into the new Town Councils under the Local Government Act 2001. They were abolished in 2014 as a cost-saving measure.
The Poor Relief (Ireland) Act in 1838 created an entirely new layer of government. Poor law unions were established throughout Ireland and charged with the responsibility of construction of workhouses for the “indoor” relief of the poor. This meant that relief was only given to persons who were admitted into the poorhouse. So-called “outdoor relief” was instituted during the famine. This system was notoriously harsh and designed to constitute a disincentive to use.
The poor law unions were new divisions separate from the baronies under the county grand jury system. The poor law guardians charged a poor law rate and their district to finance the expenses of maintaining the poor relief system. The members comprised persons elected by ratepayers and justices of the peace.
In time the functions of the poor law guardians increased. Rudimentary health functions and the elimination of diseases were added. They were constituted burial boards. They were given functions in relation to the registration of births, deaths and marriages and early responsibilities in relation to housing.
Local Government Board
In 1871, the Irish Local Government Board was established and absorbed the existing Poor Law Commissioners. It was the rudimentary origin of the Department of the Local Government.
Many of the local government bodies mentioned above had powers to collect rates and taxes for their function. Ultimately, the local government legislation at the end of the 19th century merged the various rates into what eventually became the modern system of rates. Until the late 1970s, rates were charged on domestic, agricultural and commercial property.
The role of central government in administration was minimal in the 19th century. Over time, some of the functions undertaken by the local government came to part paid for by the central (UK) government or were eventually taken over by the central government. The central government assumed responsibility for police and law and order in 1836.
The current system of local government dates largely from a number of key pieces of legislation of the United Kingdom Parliament in the 19th century. The original local government bodies were formed for specific purposes and functions.
By the end of 19th century central government grants began to pay for particular shares of particular classes of expenditure. As central government made more contributions, it assumed a greater level of influence.
At the end of the 19th century, the Local Government Ireland Act brought together the existing local government bodies into County Councils at the county level and below them, Rural District Councils and Urban District Councils.
Under the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898, the functions of many desperate parties were conferred on the new councils thereby established. The powers of the sanitary authorities and grand juries were transferred to the council. Landlords were relieved of one-half of the poor law rate, and the central government met half the cost of rates of agricultural land.
The rural and urban sanitary authorities became District Councils. The District Councils took over the functions of the grand juries in relation to roads and public works. The cost was borne by the District. The poor law guardians’ functions were limited to relief of the poor and medical relief, and their rate-raising powers were transferred to the County Councils.
The right to vote was extended by the 1898 Act to most male householders. Female franchise and rights to become council members was introduced at the turn of the 20th century). Initially, the County Councils were residual, with the main functions vesting at the local urban and Urban District Councils.
The Local Government (Ireland) Act 1919 introduced proportional representation in elections.