Origin and Development of Local Government in Ireland

  • Petros B. OgbazghiEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_3945-1



Local government is generally defined as a subnational government, comprising a complex set of democratically elected local councils and representative authorities that are created by constitutional or statutory parliamentary provisions for the purpose of providing and administering social services to the inhabitants of a particular local area or district, with a degree of autonomy and structural independence from the central government.


A characteristic feature perhaps peculiar to contemporary Ireland in terms of the tenacity and persistence of exogenous institutional forms is that the origin and structure of its local government had its roots in the long history of conquest and invasion that began with the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century, culminating in British colonial rule over Ireland. Indeed, much of the pre-nineteenth-century local government system of Ireland was the result of reform trajectories that evolved out of the long course of Irish history in which different groups had profoundly shaped the system, leaving in their tracks, a trail of political and administrative imprints that endured to this day. Specifically, the origin of contemporary Irish local government can be traced to two closely related historical developments: the Anglo-Norman invasion and the English colonial rule.

Local Government During the Anglo-Norman

While the Celts, who arrived in England and Ireland around 500 BC, were the first group in a long chain of settlers to institute a locally oriented administration, the Anglo-Normans, who established a colony of the region during the twelfth c., were said to have introduced rudimentary forms of municipal administration. Although the bulk of Irish towns and urban centers had emerged on the heels of a series of invasions and successions, they were, by and large, the creation of the Danish Vikings: barbarian invaders from northern Europe who conquered Ireland in 795 AD. These latter bands of foreign raiders, which came in a series of waves, soon began to settle and establish fortified structures, which subsequently transformed into urban settlements that came to be known as the Norse cities. Thus, for example, a number of Ireland’s major cities, including Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Wexford, and Waterford, are considered to have been of Danes origin (McManus 1993, p. 32; Haslam 2003, p. 17). They existed as a conglomeration of independent kingdoms and autonomous principalities mainly located along the long strip of the eastern coastal areas of the island of Ireland.

It was the Normans, however, who, originating from England and Wales, expanded the already existing towns all the while establishing new settlements and urban centers further inland. With the Norman castles, military forts, abbeys and cathedrals forming as centers of political, military, religious, and social organization around which new towns and urban centers revolved, they provided further impetus to the growth and emergence of new settlements, which went deep into the heartland of the island. Moreover, it was following the Norman conquest of Ireland that spatial, demographic, and economic criteria were devised in which towns and centers of population were granted the status of boroughs. The granting of royal charter to larger towns not only provided the legal framework which contributed to the conditions that enabled self-government but also marked the transition from the static land-based serf-landlord relations to market and tax-based burgess-crown relations.

Once organized and established, these towns and urban centers were subsequently opened up for new settlers from England who were induced by privileges, promises of land and tax exemptions in the venture to make Ireland their new home. The general body of town dwellers, which came to be referred to as burgesses were vested with charter land, hitherto in the possession of the town, as well as land that was acquired from the surrounding territories by expansion and occupation. Despite interwoven by deep running sentiments of local loyalties, these settlements were, however, devoid of any form of central authority. And this lack of a centrifugal political force, combined with the effects of regional and physical geographic fragmentation, gave rise to a complex situation where endless inter-tribal rivalries, which were accompanied by a new set of conflict between de jure and de facto feudal lords spilt over into carnage and bloodshed, taking on sometimes epic and mythic proportions.

More often than not, the Norman kings ruled from outside Ireland proper through their representatives called justiciar. The whole territory of the island and its major towns were designated as liberties: a cluster of towns or a fixed amount of territory that the Norman king distributed to his immediate family members or to the royal knights. Alternately, the king entrusted the administration of nonliberties territories and subregional enclaves to the royal sheriffs who ruled their respective locality on behalf of the king (Otway-Ruthven 1980, p. 176). In the regions of early Anglo-Norman settlements, while large territorial administrative areas were commonly referred to as cantred, whose jurisdiction compares to the modern day barony, the smaller territorial subdivisional areas were commonly referred to as commote – a designation, which corresponds to the Irish tuath – a term synonymous to the medieval Latin theodum (Moody et al. 1982, p. 74).

With the Norman king of England exercising Lordship over Ireland, and the Lord Lieutenant forming the personal representative of the king, the Anglo-Normans had been able to lay down the rudimentary political and social institutions, which in time evolved into more complex forms. Indeed, the ever growing degree of political and administrative prowess, which meant the establishment of organizations and filling them with a corps of professionals and administrators: a form of civil service that bore a vague resemblance to the modern system of administration, establishing an accounting and budgeting systems, which were banded together under a presiding treasurer.

Perhaps most significant in terms of the process of state formation and consolidation was a legal system that the Anglo-Normans transplanted to Ireland. It was a form of legal order, which encapsulated a jury system that foreshadowed the beginning of a county organization. Out of this jury system gradually evolved a permanent representative body of law-makers called parliament. Rather than legislation in any conventional sense of the word, parliament was more of a transient and less prolific nature as gatherings were sporadic and momentary and only much later that they became a permanent and regular feature of a law making institution. Nonetheless, it could be described as an innovative mode of political and legal organization, in terms of its configurations, which denoted rudimentary parliamentary mechanisms of debate and its nexus of communication and decision-making. Moreover, it led to the cultivation of a sense of political belonging that was inspired by common identity features of an exclusive class of Anglo-Irish, whose single-minded and exploitative pursuit of self-interest further spurred the development of a new set of political and legal institutions, marking the emergence of the perceptions and expressions of Irish statehood (Boyce 1995, p. 32).

As far as local government during this time was concerned, there were various levels of territorial subdivisions where townships and urban settlements were redefined and restructured with the chartered borough of England serving as a benchmark. Having added newly conquered towns to the already established tribal lands, a similar form of government was extended to the newly acquired regions. More specifically, the town government was organized around an elected mayor and town council. The mayor, also known invariably as portreeve or sovereign, who exemplified what could be considered a very close approximation to the contemporary form of municipal local government system, where the mayor is chief executive of the town council, enjoyed wide ranging powers and tremendous prestige. The mayor was backed up by an army of administrative staff, which involved the shire reeve, who was the chief magistrate of the town and the coroners who looked after the private property and financial interests of the king.

Similarly, the organization of the functions of the town council involved dual bodies. Whereas an inner circle, which worked closely with the mayor, assisting him in carrying out the day to day administration of the town, the assembly or the common council, on the other hand, concerned itself with legislative matters of the town. Rudimentary forms of municipal functions and services, which encapsulated the maintenance of law and order, town defense, construction and upkeep of town conduits, causeways, bridges, asylums, houses of correction, and public buildings, chartering of markets and fairs, and the organization of town celebrations, and religious events were performed. Besides, there were a band of clerks, butlers, stewards, chamberlains, and constables manning and running the day to day affairs of the royal courts, including the judicial services and local military orders. Similarly, it was part of the administrative staff duty, especially of the exchequer to collect revenue required for the upkeep of the town. It was mainly derived from geld, which was a form of land tax levied on the king’s land owning subjects as well as taxes levied on income, in the form of sheep poll taxes and rents exacted from movable and immovable municipal properties.

The notion of self-government was always there and was bestowed as an honor and privilege exclusively to a few select towns. Self-government meant the vesting of electoral rights, which applied categorically to those dwelling within the town proper, in terms of electing the mayor and the establishment of the town council as well as courts of law and judicial tribunals. Those who resided without the town, however, merely enjoyed access to markets and fairs. Overall, the structure, organization and process of the municipal government of Ireland during this period paralleled more or less to what obtained erstwhile elsewhere in Western Europe. At this stage, however, the establishment of corporate governance, which constituted the mayor and town dwellers as a body of citizens, was unknown, not even a vague notion of it until much later. In fact, it emerged during the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century, which coincided with the ascendancy of the Tudor dynasty, where all the major towns acquired the privileged status of chartered towns in the reign of Henry VII, and subsequently grew to become self-governing boroughs modeled after the English model. The government features of the towns, which qualified remotely anything as municipal regimes, had their own courts of elected officials and magistrates, who managed their own affairs free of royal interference – common example of local government patters that obtained across Europe (Webb 1918, pp. 1–20).

Local Government Under the Tudor Re-Conquest of Ireland

The sixteenth century was a period, which saw the emergence of central authority, where English Reformation and re-conquest under the Tudor dynasty altered the hitherto Lordship of Ireland into the Kingdom of Ireland, with Henry VIII at the helm. Initially, he asserted and consolidated his rule over areas around Dublin. Eventually, however, he spread his rule across the whole of Ireland through the king’s writ – known as the county sheriff (which later on came to be known as the Lord Lieutenant). This event, which could be regarded as watershed in the history of Ireland, marked the beginning of a long-standing and bitter antagonism that was expressed in racial and religious relationships, often descending into open rebellion and warfare. Land ownership and economic rights, including the introduction of draconian penal laws and commercial codes, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which curtailed religious and economic freedoms were some of the key underlying drivers of the conflict that further fuelled sectarian tensions.

In order to consolidate their rule over Ireland, Tudor kings established exclusive royal lands and conferring the same to loyal tribal lords and clan chiefs. Moreover, they managed to centralize power at the center by entrusting the local administration into the hands of an appointed official, called the Lord Lieutenant who was responsible to a royal council called the Privy Council. Similarly, they expanded the role and power of the Justices of the Peace – local officials who were responsible for the maintenance of law and order, the administration of justice, and the organization of local defense and mobilization of militia. The administration of justice and the adjudication of local cases operated under a system of a roaming circuit of judges called Assize Courts. They were drawn from the clergy and landed nobility and owed their power directly to the king. The local administration was buttressed by an array of local officials, including record keepers, church-wardens, constables, mayors, and city aldermen who carried out the-day-to-day local functions and were responsible to the Lord Lieutenant. What was peculiar during the Tudor period was the development of a town charter based on the fundamental notions of legal existence, where towns were organized as a body corporate with clauses that granted powers not only to the general citizenry but also to the mayors and burgesses (Haslam in Callanan and Keogan 2003, p. 17).

The political dynamics between England and Ireland would culminate in what came to be known as the Acts of Union 1800, which dissolved the short-lived Irish parliament of 1782–1800 and incorporated the hitherto kingdom of Ireland into a new state – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Political, social and economic relations, which were more animated by class and commercial considerations and ethno-religious sentiments were further reinforced by British policy of indifference which manifested itself throughout the height of the ravages of famine and the ensued emigration whose severity was sometimes placated, if not checked, within a political context of a parliamentary form of British state that appeared to bear the hallmarks of colonialism. In this age-old conflict, where reforms on almost every issue could be vigorously challenged by every aggrieved and discontent social force at every social and cultural level, it would appear that the very reforms that had been introduced to remedy a situation did not always suffice and indeed backfired, making matters even worse. Thus, for example, the apparently well-intentioned land reforms that sought to give access and security of land to tenants were accompanied by contingent consequences that widened rather than bridged the chasm of sectarian tensions, which resulted in permanently partitioning Ireland politically and ideologically between two protagonists: loyalists and republicans.

The period under English rule largely followed the prevailing model in England, culminating in what came to be known as the Victorian era. Ever since the early nineteenth century, the prevalent local government model in Ireland was that of Westminster. It pretty much reflected the long-established framework of a centralized authority into which Ireland had been integrated. Much of legislation affecting local government of Ireland during this time was the result of policies, which had been formulated in the Imperial Cabinet rather than in Ireland. As a result, the local government system of Ireland came to reflect that of the English local structures and practices, where cities, towns, and boroughs operated under a few appointed councils of professionals and oligarchies chaired by the mayor.

Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act, 1840

Starting from the middle of the nineteenth c. on, however, a more elaborate form of local government was established. Specifically, as a result of the Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act, 1840, which sought to reform municipal boroughs, major cities were incorporated and hence handled their affairs like a corporation managed by elected bodies. Similarly, while towns were reorganized under town commissioners – who were also elected representatives – villages and rural counties were set up under the leadership of the Grand Jury: a group of people made up of substantial property owners, who were accountable to the county sheriff. Overall, while mid-nineteenth-century Ireland saw a reform that established Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act, 1840, the end of the nineteenth century was marked by the establishment of what came to be known as the foundation statute of Irish local government, the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898. The ultimate goal of the Act was to eliminate the inefficiencies and corruption by the Grand Jurors, which was best thought to be achieved by abolishing the entire system of Grand Jury and by broadening the democratic representation of tax payers in the county administration.

Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898

The introduction of the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898 represented a watershed in the history of the development of the modern local government system of Ireland. This reform Act ushered in drastic changes that fundamentally transformed the structure, organization, and process of the local government units in Ireland. Introduced by the conservative government of Gerald Balfour, the reform wrought drastic changes in terms of the replacement of all forms of political appointments, including the Grand Juries and Poor Law Guardians (hitherto largely appointed officials who were legally responsible for the administration and running of indoor relief services for the poor) with elected representatives. The Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898, which enfranchised women for the first time, granting eligibility to vote in local elections, did also massively broadened the franchise to male householders and people occupying part of a house, making it possible for them to vote, thereby allowing parliamentary electorates to became electorates of local government elections. Indeed, it was a landmark piece of legislation, establishing for the first time democratically elected councils on a much broader popular franchise.

Moreover, the scope and substance of current local government functions were expanded and, not least, the Act introduced at the territorial level, regional, and local government units by creating a two-tier system. Whereas in the major cities and urban centers, both county-boroughs and county-councils formed the upper tier, the rural and urban district councils, in the rural and larger towns, respectively, constituted the lower tier. As much a democratic as a legal-administrative project, the local reform Act of 1898 was intended to be representative enough to warrant mass participation in politics, which drifted down the lowest levels of the local government units. But, perhaps most importantly, the 1898 reforms produced contingent consequences, which were crucial in generating nationalist sentiments in the psyche of the new-generation of locally elected representatives who identified local democracy with the wider national agenda of independence. The reforms were instrumental in not only mobilizing local solidarity needed for national agenda but also in creating new political opportunities and resources for political schooling and civic leadership for the new office holders who often put national issues ahead of the local ones.

This single-minded pursuit of national objective further entailed the need to lay the groundwork for national strategy in terms, not only of the creation in 1905 of a political party called Sinn Fein, but also the reordering and reorganizing of political priorities and roles, including the compilation of a national constitution and the formation of a legislative assembly, in 1918, called the Dàil Eireann – all in anticipation of independence. Moreover, it was during the years leading up to the independence of Ireland in 1922, that the restructuring and reforming of the local government system was conceived as an ideal, which Sinn Fein leaders had envisioned and held in the highest esteem to implement when they came to exercise power at the local and later on at the national level. Having established first, their own independent parliament, Sinn Fein they then proceeded to establish a local government department and local government units that encapsulated the desire for self-sufficiency and independence. To this end, they undertook major policy changes involving the geographic modification of regions in order to override what they saw narrow regional sentiments, which proved instrumental in expediting the progress towards national independence. As such, the 1898 reforms could be considered as a harbinger of epic political transition, in terms of advancing and accelerating the formation of Irish statehood that would eventually be realized.

In the immediate pre-independence period, the local government structure, including the overall direction and finance of local government was overhauled by British authorities who operated through the British Local Government Board whose headquarters was in Dublin Castle: the seat of British administration in Ireland. In spite of the appearance of formal democratic processes and elections, the board continued to exercise considerable central control. In fact, the exercise of tight central control could be demonstrated by the number of inspectors employed by the Board to overhaul local authorities, which was by far greater than what one would find in England or Wales. Direct central control was accompanied by strict control over the use and sources of financial resources. Indeed, the restrictive effect of these provisions, which had the secondary goal of ensuring loyalty and allegiance to the British Crown, was further augmented by the threat of withdrawal of the annual grants on which local government units depended. It was in their bid to break away from the constant alerts and demands that the British authorities were making over the local government units that Sinn Fein leaders embarked upon an ambitious and daring project of creating a separate local department. Once established, it began to drift away with complete structural and organizational independence, serving as a gateway to new financial access, which helped the nationalists to shore up local funds sufficiently, if not desirably, as they had to collect the somehow unpopular local rates secretly from the prying eyes of the Royal Irish Constabulary.


The foundation and development of local government in Ireland is attributed to the Anglo-Normans who established a colony of the region during the twelfth century. What was more peculiar during the Norman period was that these features encouraged new town settlements that came into existence as a result of new Anglo-Norman wave of population movements from England into Ireland, which through conquest had now become part of their kingdom. These new settlements were often founded around castles and were largely driven by external incentives in the form of granting settlers powers of self-government, which encapsulated the election of town officers, councils, courts, magistrates, enabling office-holders to wield enormous administrative and economic powers over their jurisdiction. To this end, the Norman royal charter designated two categories of land: royal land and town land. While the charter for the use of royal land rested with the king or his heirs and successors, the charter that provided for the use of town land was conferred upon the whole citizens or burgesses. The Norman period was also marked with the introduction of a relatively complex set of municipal administrative structures.

However, it was during the Tudor conquest of Ireland that a centralized and more consolidated state and local government structures appeared to emerge. The modernization of local government and the consolidation of democracy at the local level, however, came much later with the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898, which could be regarded as a landmark in the history of the development of local government in Ireland. Particularly, the provision, which extended the franchise both to women and to male householders or occupiers, so that the parliamentary electorate would become the local government electorate, ultimately resulted in the emergence of local representation in which elected councilors took control of county, urban and rural districts councils. The contingent feature of this reform would give further impetus to the struggle for national independence. Following independence, and indeed long before it, Ireland has undergone a series of reforms designed to deal with new political, economic, and social circumstances, and as a result, it has been able to acquire its own unique political and administrative institutions. Yet, the British legacy has long permeated upon its national and local government institutions that the reforms often appear to heavily draw on institutional values and practices that had been preeminent under the British rule.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Public Administration, University of AsmaraAsmaraEritrea