There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
Offaly Archives’ local government collections cover an extensive range of local government organisations – from grand juries, infirmaries, rural district councils, town commissioners, poor law unions, county councils, committees of agriculture and urban district councils. The material from the collections was acquired since the 1950s and covers roughly two hundred years of history.
Recently, the local government collections, as well as a number of donated collections of private origin, have been relocated from Offaly County Library to purpose built archival facilities at Offaly Archives, Unit 1F, Axis Business Park, Clara Road, Tullamore. Offaly Archives is the joint archival repository of Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society (Offaly History) and Offaly County Library, and is administered by Offaly History.
During the summer of 2019, I worked on providing online catalogue descriptions for the local government collections in preparation for their move. Descriptions for the collections were created using Michael Murphy, Anne Coughlan and Gráinne Doran’s 2003 publication Grand Jury to Áras An Chontae, which provides breakdowns of Offaly Archives local government collections, as well as detailed information relating to the formation of Offaly’s local government structures, their various duties, lists of members and historical points of interest.
The following provides an overview of the available material from the various collections:
The King’s County Grand Jury collection documents various elements from the functions of the grand jury, such as presentments granted at assizes, coroners’ report books and lists of jurors, from 1830 to 1898. Grand juries existed as the county level local government authorities – in much the same way as county councils function now, and were responsible for public works operations, such as the construction and maintenance of roads. They also played a role in the financing of dispensaries, through local taxes. Grand juries were generally rather exclusive in nature, as they predominantly consisted of mostly wealthy Protestant land owners were generally considered to be elitist and undemocratic.
The assize judges arriving at the county courthouse escorted by mounted RIC about 1900
The collection of the King’s County Infirmary (1837–1921) covers several elements of the hospital, including patient books, infirmary minute books, registers of patients and annual reports, covering a time frame of 84 years. County infirmaries were one of the first steps in creating a national health care system for Ireland, and by 1800, all Irish counties contained at least one infirmary. Offaly’s infirmary was based in Tullamore since 1767 the records prior to 1837 have been lost. The infirmary provided medical services on both an ‘extern’ and ‘intern’ patient basis, and provided a range of medical services, including inoculation against infectious diseases such as smallpox.
There are several poor law union collections included – Parsonstown (Birr), Tullamore Union and Edenderry Union. Ireland’s poor law unions functioned as the systems which provided local workhouses, institutions which ultimately became synonymous with treatment of the poor, high mortality rates and inmate suffering. Parsonstown Union’s records include minute books, dispensary district records, and workhouse records amongst others. Like its neighbouring unions, Parsonstown union was formed in 1839, although it was the smallest of the three unions, at 234 square miles. The Tullamore Union’s first meeting took place in September of 1839, and its workhouse opened in April of 1842. The collection includes minute books, account books, and workhouse records. Edenderry’s union came into existence in May of 1839, and covered an area of 290 square miles, with its workhouse opening two years later in 1841, and capable of housing 600 inmates, eventually closing in 1921 as part of Dáil Eireann’s amalgamation scheme. The Birr workhouse met the same fate. The Edenderry Union collection features minute books for the years 1879 – 1919, unfortunately with many gaps.
Offaly Archives’ local government collection also features records from the county’s rural district councils, including Roscrea, Tullamore, Parsonstown, Kilbeggan and Edenderry. These collections include minute books, sanitary officers report books, registers and rentals, accounts statements, local government acts, bye-laws and notices, and rent and rate books. Rural district councils were created as part of the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898, and functioned under the level of the county councils, and were responsible for a range of local government operations, including local transport infrastructure, health and sanitation, and the construction of labourers’ cottages, as well as more unusual duties such as ensuring school attendance and the defence of malicious injury claims. Some saw the rural district councils as a means of maintaining British control over Ireland, even at a local level. However rural district councils were ultimately abolished in 1925.
Records, especially those of the grand jury, were lost with the burning of the courthouse in July 1922 during the Civil War.
Both the Offaly County Council and the Offaly County Council: Board of Health collections are featured in Offaly Archives’ local government collections, and constitute some of the largest collections, containing a wide variety of material. Offaly County Council was established in 1899, as part of the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898. The council was headed by an elected chairman, who would also serve as a justice of the peace, with Henry Egan elected as the county’s first chairman for its initial meeting on the 22 April 1899 in Tullamore and served as chairman until 1910. County councils were responsible for setting and collecting rates, as well as approving the budgets for the subordinate urban and rural district councils. The Offaly County Council collection includes minute books, registers of electors and valuation lists concerning electoral divisions, as well as material relating to drivers’ licencing, housing, cemetery records, correspondence and Offaly County Library material. The Board of Health collection contains material relating to the county hospital and county home, as well as fever hospital and tuberculosis minute books.
Below, courthouses at Edenderry and Daingean (Philipstown)
Like rural district councils, urban district councils functioned at a level below the county councils, although they served urban town areas, with responsibilities for roads and public lighting in the towns which they served. Urban district councils were eventually replaced by town councils, which were abolished in 2014. Offaly Archives contains records relating to two urban district councils – Birr (Parsonstown) and Tullamore. The Birr collection contains minute books, rate books, material relating to water rates, rent collections and valuations as well as slaughter licences and registers of dairymen, amongst other records, spanning over 70 years of twentieth century history. The Tullamore collection also includes minute books, registers of dairymen and slaughter licences, as well as material relating to the Tullamore Royal Irish Constabulary barracks and Garda station, the ‘national flag incident’ involving Tánaiste Sean T. O’Kelly (a storm in a teacup in 1938) and records regarding Charleville Castle.
There are two town commissioners’ collections featured – Parsonstown, which includes material relating to the Parsonstown Burial Board, and Edenderry, which features rate books, valuation lists, water rent charges and letting books. Town commissioners existed in Parsonstown/Birr from 1852 and Tullamore from 1860 and also in Edenderry (post 1899). Provision was made for commissioners under the 1828 Lighting of Towns (Ireland) Act, and through a subsequent act of 1854 they were charged with providing lighting, water, sewerage, footpaths and roads for local towns. The commission records for Tullamore do not survive save what was published in the local press.
Finding aids for the collections will be available to view on offalyarchives.com along with details on how to access the collections. This is a short overview only of the statutory records and more detailed descriptions will be provided on line.
The county courthouse Tullamore, home of the Grand Jury from 1835 and the county council from 1899 to 2002. To the right is the county jail from 1830 to 1921.