Democracy Grows

Largely abandoned to their fate, the labourers of Camross grouped together on many occasions in the late 19th Century in an effort to ensure that their voices were heard. One such example was The Irish Democratic Labour Federation (IDLF). An example of how the IDLF protected Camross tenants came in April 1893. The secretary of the branch, James Flynn, Gosbrook, represented a Camross labourer who was brought to court by the Mountmellick Board of Guardians for cutting timber with the intent of ‘stealing’ it. The trees in question were growing on a plot adjacent to the labourer’s cottage. The case generated a great deal of interest in the locality and the courthouse in Mountrath was packed to capacity on the day of the hearing. Flynn and the IDLF organised for Mr. D. J Treacy, solicitor, to defend the labourer in court. Treacy treated the case effectively and easily had it thrown out of court on the grounds of a careless error by the Board of Guardians. The case was the first in a series of challenges brought upon the Board as the tenants began to realise that they could stand up to the authorities of the state.[1]

However, despite the efforts of the IDLF, the attitude of the Board of Guardians toward the very people they were tasked with guarding was, at times, shameful. For example, in 1896 there was a very wet autumn and the prospects for the poor of Camross were very bleak. James Flynn wrote a letter to the Board appealing for assistance;

We the members of the I.D.L Federation, deem it our duty in view of the apparent difficulty of obtaining agricultural work in the coming winter in consequence of the very wet autumn which has left a number of farmers unable to pay rent, and the rise in the price of food, to call upon the Board of Guardians of Mountmellick and Abbeyleix to reduce the rent of labourers’ cottages in their respective unions to help the labourers get over the coming winter, which appears to be a severe one on them’.

The board reacted with derision and disrespect to Flynn’s earnest appeal. One member joked that Flynn might as well be there amongst them at every meeting due to the amount of letters he wrote to them. When one person asked how much was being paid by labourers in Camross for housing, ‘1s. a week’ was the response. Another member stated that they want the houses for nothing which was greeted with much laughter and mirth.[2] The following March, Flynn pleaded that a cottage under construction for a labourer called Brophy in Camross was far too small for his family. The Board stated that as plans had been submitted they could not be altered and nothing could be done. The ‘debate’ could not have lasted any longer than 30 seconds and resulted in an entire family living in cramped conditions, barely fit for habitation.[3]

However, change was coming, and in 1898 the Local Government of Ireland Act was passed in Westminster. It completely changed the way in which local government was run in Ireland. For the first time, the people, albeit a select amount of relatively well-off middle-aged and old men, would have a say in who would be their local representatives. The results of the poll for the first Mountmellick Rural District election in the Camross area was as follows (number of votes received in brackets);


Top of Poll

Second in Poll

Unelected Candidates


Martin Lyons (51)

William Keeshan (38)

Charles Hipwell (27)


William Leahy (17)

Edward Travers (15)

Edward Cullen (10)


James Collier (44)

Joe Burke (34)

John Burke (34)


Stafford Murphy (43)

Patrick Kelly (42)

C.P Hamilton (4)


Whelan (36)

George Betts (26)

Phelan (24),

Col. Despard (11)


Thomas Delaney

Thomas Phelan

Uncontested Election


Thomas Costigan

John Costigan

Uncontested Election

With such a relatively low electorate, the elections were always going to be tight affairs. The close nature of these early elections can be clearly seen in the very first results. This is most evident in the Clonin district which would go on to be the most-contested seat in the area in future elections. Joe Burke and John Burke received the same amount of votes; 34. In a move that would seem laughable today, lots were drawn between the men and Joe Burke joined James Collier in the council.

The County Council electoral area was called Coolrain. This electoral area also took in parts of the Capard and Ballyfin areas as well as the parish of Camross. The contest was fiercely contested and the results were as follows;

Coolrain Electoral Division 1899 Election Results

  • 1.Michael Fitzpatrick (186) - Elected
  • 2.E. Conroy (184)
  • 3.CP. Hamilton (24)

After the election of Fitzpatrick, there was a celebratory gathering in Crannagh, organised by the Camross Labour Federation. Fitzpatrick, who was a Justice of the Peace before the election, was not present at the meeting. Nevertheless, a bonfire was lit in his honour and there was great cheering and delight at the gathering. Stafford Murphy, who himself was voted to the Rural District Council in the Coolrain DED, thanked everyone who voted for Fitzpatrick and he paid particular praise to the voters of Ballyfin and Capard ‘who faced clerical opposition’. He also asked everyone to stand behind Fitzpatrick and forget about the unpleasantries that were abound during the campaign.[4]

There was another election in 1902 but it did not have the vigour or novelty of the previous contest as most members of the County Council were returned unopposed and there were only a handful of electoral divisions in which elections took place. Indeed, no County Council election took place in Coolrain. The only contested DED election for the Rural District Council took place in Clonin and the result was as follows;


Top of Poll

Second in Poll

Unelected Candidates


Joe Burke (37)

T. Phelan (30)

James Collier (29)

Despite not securing the seat he had won in the previous election, James Collier found himself on the Council in rather unusual circumstances. In what seems a little anti-democratic from a modern perspective, the council was permitted to ‘co-opt’ three more unelected candidates to the council. Collier was nominated as someone who should be given one of the places. But it was another nominee, Stafford Murphy, which generated much controversy and heated debate. Murphy had topped the poll in Coolrain three years prior. He was a widely respected representative as is evidenced by his frequent role as Chairman of the Mountmellick Board of Guardians throughout 1901 and 1902. However, it is clear that he was not universally liked by his elected peers. When discussing nominees for co-option it was stated that ‘Stafford Murphy resigned [his seat] and put in an old tinker in his place’. This obviously raised the ire of several of Murphy’s supporters and the room burst into argument. The Leinster Express reported that ‘shouts of “liar” and “traitor” were freely exchanged’. It was also inferred that Murphy was not as capable of defending the local branches of the United Irish League from elements of local Orangeism as he let on. The arguments led to a vote on whether the practice of co-option should be permitted at all. Luckily for James Collier, who stood to lose out had the practice been discontinued, the co-option of candidates was continued on a vote of 37 to 17. Collier came second in the co-option vote with 33 votes and was duly elected. Stafford Murphy came second last with 12 votes and lost out. Collier, who was in attendance, immediately signed his declaration of office.

Three years later, Clonin was once again the only DED that had a contest. James Collier and Joe Burke were returned at the polls as they had been in the first election in 1899. The results were as follows;


Top of Poll

Second in Poll

Unelected Candidates


James Collier (31)

Joe Burke (30)

Kieran Phelan (24)

There was no election for the County Council in 1902 or 1905 in the Coolrain electoral area. It was not until 1908 that Michael Fitzpatrick’s seat was challenged. James Flynn, the dominant character of the IDLF in earlier years was Fitzpatrick’s opponent. Despite this stellar work in times gone by, Flynn was defeated by 27 votes as Fitzpatrick retained his seat. The result was as follows;

Coolrain Electoral Division 1908 Election Results

  • 1.Michael Fitzpatrick (135)
  • 2.James Flynn (108)
  • 3.Joseph Lyons (2)

The contest was noted for its very low turnout and some polling stations in the more northern parts of the district did not have any votes cast at all. It should be noted that Joseph Lyons was not the unpopular man that this result indicates. He had withdrawn early in the race but did not complete the sufficient paperwork on time and his name ended up appearing on the ballot. The two votes that he did receive were probably cast by people unaware of his withdrawal.

In the rural district elections, the Clonin district was again contested very closely. The result was as follows;


Top of Poll

Second in Poll

Unelected Candidates


Kieran Phelan (34)

Joseph Burke (27)

James Collier (26), Martin Gorman (10)

Kieran Phelan, a United Irish League Candidate, originally from the Mountrath area, managed ten more votes than he received three years earlier and was duly elected to the council. Meanwhile, James Collier lost his seat by one vote to Joe Burke whose good luck in elections continued.

There is no doubt that the introduction of the Local Government Act gave the Irish people more control over how their local area was governed. However, no one truly believed that this would be a great panacea to the sickness of under-representation of the poor of rural Ireland. In practice, local loyalties and ‘understandings’ led to the status quo becoming entrenched in most of Camross. After the initial excitement generated by the first election in 1899 there was little in the way of democratic expression in the years that followed. Indeed the DEDs of Marymount and Neilstown never had an election for members of the rural district council. The Costigans remained unopposed for years in the Neilstown DED and local arrangements led to no contests taking place in Marymount DED either. Clonin DED was the only one where the vote was regularly exercised. 

[1] Leinster Express, 22 Apr. 1893.

[2] Leinster Express, 28 Oct. 1896.

[3] Leinster Express, 25 Mar 1899.

[4] Leinster Express, 15 Apr. 1899.