Story of Cork’s lost Corporation

A new book examines the extraordinary events of 1924, when Cork Corporation was dissolved. COLETTE SHERIDAN spoke to its author, Aodh Quinlivan
Story of Cork’s lost Corporation
Aodh Quinlivan with his book

IF there was an inquiry into the efficiency of Cork City Council today, would the public flock to it as a form of entertainment?

Hardly, says Aodh Quinlivan, author of a newly published book, Dissolved: The Remarkable Story Of How Cork Lost Its Corporation In 1924.

Yet, back then, a nine-day inquiry, held in Cork’s Courthouse, was thronged.

“The public galleries were full,” says Quinlivan, from the department of government at UCC.

“That it was held in the courthouse was fitting because effectively, the inquiry was a trial. You had the corporation defending itself and a lot of business people who were upset over the state of the roads. They were paying high commercial rates and were arguing that the corporation should effectively be disbanded.

“The department of local government and public health appointed one of their people, Nicholas O’Dwyer, to investigate.”

What was highlighted during the inquiry was that Cork Corporation “wasn’t operating particularly efficiently”.

Quinlivan adds: “The streets, for example, were in a bad condition. There were a lot of question marks about nepotism in the sense that quite a few councillors had family members working for the corporation.

“So you could certainly argue that the inquiry showed that the corporation wasn’t operating at an optimal level.

“But whether that was enough to get it dissolved, I would say not. There was no corruption proved, for example.

“I think the investigator didn’t give enough credence to the fact that the corporation was existing in a very difficult time. There had been the war of independence and the civil war. City Hall had been burned to the ground and also the library. Cork city had been burnt in 1920.

“Cork Corporation was operating out of temporary accommodation at the courthouse. Their meetings were regularly interrupted by British forces pre-1922. Some councillors spent time in prison and one Lord Mayor, Tomás McCurtain was murdered.

“Had the local authority been working efficiently during that period, I think it would have been a miracle.

“So I think they were harshly judged. But what happened probably gives credence to the feeling that the whole decision was pre-determined.”

The first Free State government, after the civil war, passed legislation in 1923 that gave central government the power to dissolve local authorities if deemed to be inefficient.

“The blatant motivation was to have anti-treaty local authorities (dissolved). It was nothing to do with efficiency or finance,” says Quinlivan.

Across the country, any local authority that was the subject of an inquiry, ended up being dissolved. These included Kerry County Council and Leitrim and Offaly county councils. They were told that once their financial situation improved, they would be reinstated.

But in Cork and Dublin, where the corporation was also dissolved in 1924, there was no such promise.

“It was a bizarre situation in that from 1924 to 1929, you didn’t have Cork Corporation in existence in terms of an elected body,” says Quinlivan.

“Weirdly, you still had Sean French who had been elected as Lord Mayor in 1924. He was going around the city claiming he was Lord Mayor. And even more bizarrely, you had Philip Monahan as commissioner.

“He was basically the person who ran the corporation instead of the councillors. He would have had actual council meetings, effectively with himself and a few staff and some news reporters, but no councillors.”

It was, says Quinlivan “a fascinating period which to some extent has been neglected”.

He adds: “While the dissolution of Cork Corporation in 1924 is a very narrow story, the bigger issue is about centralisation. Central government gave to itself draconian power.”

There is a modern relevance. “We came close to having Cork City Council being dissolved permanently by way of a merger recently with Cork County Council.

“Again, that strikes me as a centralist mentality. The status of the city would have been reduced to a municipal district with a metropolitan authority within a super unified authority.”

Quinlivan points out that in November, Cork City Council and all the local authorities across the country will be trying to agree their budgets.

“If they’re struggling to agree them, the minister will threaten them with dissolution. So even though that power was put in place in 1923, you could argue that there was some context to it because the country was divided after the civil war.

“For it still to be on the statute books in 2017 is, I think, just plain wrong. It’s an assault on local democracy.”

How did Cork fare after the corporation’s dissolution in 1924?

“One of the benefits was that Philip Monahan didn’t have to reach compromise. He was able to make quick decisions. He did a very good job in transforming the public finances of the corporation.

“He put in a more efficient rates collecting method. He laid some people off. He slashed salaries. He was very managerial and hugely efficient. He didn’t have to get permission from a group of councillors. The problem was, he was effectively a dictator.”

The other part of the story that interests Quinlivan is the actions of a group of Cork people called the Progressive Association.

“This was a group of business people headed by a local lawyer, John J Horgan, who researched other systems across the world. He made a case in the late 1920s that while Cork Corporation was now running efficiently with Philip Monahan in charge, there was a huge democratic deficit because there was no elected council.

“He lobbied government so that there would be a city manager with an elected council. His lobbying led to that being introduced as an experiment in Cork city in 1929. It’s interesting that there was a piece of legislation written just for Cork city. It’s the Management Act of 1929. Elections followed from it and the councillors were returned to office.

“Interestingly, Sean French was returned as Lord Mayor and Philip Monahan was appointed as the first city manager. But there were huge tensions initially because the councillors didn’t trust Monahan because he was the guy in 1924 that came to town when they were kicked out of office.”

After a while, the councillors came round to the idea that power be shared between them and a manager. The Cork Model of 1929 became the prototype for the rest of the country.

Quinlivan, who worked for Cork County Council from 1994-2000 before moving to academia, says his book should be of interest “to anyone interested in local history, which is a growing group as it happens”.

He adds: “There’s an ongoing fascination with the period of 1916 through to the war of independence and the civil war. And there are people interested in how local government contributed to the foundation of the state. This is quite niche but is of interest to people in terms of how local authorities are operating today.”

Aodh Quinlivan’s book will be launched at City Hall on Thursday, October, 26 by the Lord Mayor, Cllr Tony Fitzgerald and the president of UCC, Professor Patrick O’Shea.

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