Ireland's overwhelmingly rural nature, despite its sharply rising population, was clearly illustrated by the 1835 Report of the Commissioners Inquiring into Municipal Corporations, who found only four towns with a population above 33,500: Dublin (265,316), Cork (100,716), Limerick (66,554) and Belfast (53,287).
The earliest towns in Ireland were Viking foundations, but these and subsequent municipalities had developed along English lines and operated under a variety of individual royal charters granted from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries. In 1699 a visitor to Dublin gave a succinct account of the position of most, probably all, major Irish corporations when he commented that 'this is a city powerful in its Privileges, but weak in its Exchequer, empty in its churches but full in its prisons.'
Throughout the eighteenth century Dublin was the centre of the social, economic, political and administrative life of the kingdom. Irish towns primarily provided goods and services for rural communities. Conversely, in the case of the larger towns, the agrarian practices of the surrounding countryside adjusted to meet the urban demand for milk, vegetables and other agricultural produce. Most sizeable towns had a multiplicity of small enterprises operating for surrounding largely self-contained regions.
Waterford - An Example
Each sizeable town applied to parliament for its own individual statute, almost always modelled on an earlier statute for Dublin. These acts give an interesting picture of urban life. One of them, 23 & 24 Geo. III, c. 52 (1784), outlines the city government of Waterford. It reflects a (perhaps idealised) blueprint of the ambitions of the larger Irish towns.
Waterford was an ancient city with municipal charters going back to the Middle Ages. It was the port from which James II fled to France after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and it had suffered during the wars of the seventeenth century. Waterford's traditional privileges included the right of its Mayor to have a sword carried in front of him even in the presence of the viceroy. During the eighteenth century a number of fine stone-built public buildings were erected as the city gradually recovered from its seventeenth-century depredations. A mid-century visitor commented on the court house, the exchange, the gaol and the fish market. It had a charity school for 75 boys founded by Bishop Foy, the Anglican Bishop of Waterford from 1691 until his death in 1707. Bishop Foy's school was housed in a handsome stone building. Mrs Mary Mason founded a school for 32 girls with school buildings in the more usual brick. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the town was its long and impressive quay, whose only European rival was said to be that of Messina in Sicily.
An important commercial centre, Waterford had a court of conscience presided over by the Mayor or his predecessor or, if neither was available, an alderman. Originally this court had jurisdiction only over debts of under 10s, but under the 1784 act, 23 & 24 Geo. III, c. 52, this was extended to 40s. Defendants had to be at least 16 years of age, and the maximum sentence was three months' imprisonment for a debt of under £1 and six months for a debt between £1 and £2. Four times a year the Mayor or, in his absence, the Recorder could hear and determine cases involving civil bills of £2 to £10 and actions on promissory notes or bills of exchange. Despite their petty jurisdiction, these courts possessed the same powers over witnesses as assize courts. Witnesses who did not appear were fined and the proceeds of the fines applied to the widening of the streets. Following the example set by Dublin in a 1757 act, 29 Geo. II, c. 13, in 1784 Commissioners were appointed to improve the streets of Waterford, as 'the streets, lanes and passages of the city of Waterford and the suburbs thereof are too narrow, by means whereof the health of the inhabitants is greatly injured and the trade of the said city is greatly obstructed.' However, no street was to be laid out or widened without the verdict of a jury. Similar regulations governed other Irish cities.
The 1784 statute, 23 & 24 Geo. III, c. 52, outlined the parish's responsibility for appointing and paying the parish watch 'for the peace and safety of the inhabitants', as 'many idle and disorderly persons invest the streets, lanes or quays of the said city of Waterford.' The watch was to apprehend unruly persons and bring them before the Mayor or a Justice of the Peace the following morning. A percentage of the rates was assigned for the payment of the watch. Rates were levied on house valuations; houses with a valuation under £3 were to be exempted. The parish was also responsible for lighting the streets within its boundaries, and anyone breaking or injuring a light was to be fined £5 per lamp or sent to the House of Correction for one to three months. Wakefield found that at the end of the century one-third of its merchants were Catholic 'and some possess considerable wealth', while there were several opulent Quakers. This was not surprising, as much of the trade of Clonmel, a strongly Quaker town, went through Waterford. In addition to a Quaker Meeting House there were various churches: six Presbyterian, a French Protestant, an evangelical, an Anabaptist, a cathedral, two Church of Ireland churches and four Catholic churches, as well as a nunnery and a friary. At the end of the century De Latocnaye found Waterford a prosperous, orderly and well-administered municipality.
In Waterford householders were responsible for sweeping the street for eight feet in front of their house, tenement or stable before 10 a.m. (in Dublin it was 9 a.m.), when the scavengers were expected to remove the dirt and rubbish to a designated dump. Citizens were forbidden to erect doors, stairs or cellars that encroached on the street. If such 'nuisances' already existed then tenants or occupiers were to be directed how to alter them. If they did not do so the Corporation would, sending them the bill. Houses were to have adequate guttering for the removal of rainwater, and any attached signs were to be firmly fixed. In 1718 a similar statute for Dublin, 4 Geo. I, c. 11, pointed out that it was very inconvenient for citizens to walk the streets with rainwater descending on them from spouts on the roofs of houses. To obviate this, hollow tree trunks were to be attached to the sides of houses as drain pipes to take the water down to the street. At Waterford, as at Dublin, brick-making was considered an environmental hazard and there were to be no brickworks within a mile of the Tholsel or Market House.
It was probably better not to walk in the city streets if this could be avoided. Conveyances plying for hire within city boundaries had to have licences. The number of the licence - which was valid for 21 years - was to be inscribed on a large brass plate and attached to the side of the vehicle. Rates for hire were set at 5s for a four-wheeled carriage, 2s 6d for a two-wheeled 'noddy' or a sedan chair, 1s 6d for a car, dray or cart. A noddy was a special type of Irish hackney in which the driver sat out in front over the rump of his horse. This vehicle, which carried one person (uncomfortably) for half the price of a coach, was most usually found in Dublin, although not unknown elsewhere.
An important duty of the Corporation was holding an assize of bread. This was to regulate and fix the price of bread, for 'great frauds and abuses are daily committed in the markets of the said city of Waterford'. The Mayor was to base the assize of bread on the price of wheat, meal and flour as returned to him in writing and on oath by the bakers. During the eighteenth century the price of grain fluctuated wildly with seasonal supply and demand. Assizes of bread, published weekly, attempted to prevent bakers from taking advantage of these fluctuations to inflate the price. Waterford was in a grain growing area and the Corporation controlled the market and levied its tolls. On all market days a bell was rung at 11 a.m.; anyone selling before the bell was rung was liable to prosecution. Similarly, the Corporation controlled the harbour traffic, appointing a water bailiff to impose its regulations. For instance, light ships were to give way to laden ones and tarpaulins were to be used to prevent dirt from falling into the river. Trawling in the harbour was strictly forbidden under the penalty of a fine of £10 and the confiscation of the boat and equipment. Half of the fine was to go to reward the informer and half to the House of Industry. This and licences were the normal method of financing social institutions.
Feeding a large city was a major problem and, particularly in the case of Dublin, a number of statutes sought to resolve it: in particular, bounties were offered on the transport of grain to the capital. Clean water available to all was a necessity, and a particular problem. A number of statutes, including 6 Geo. I, c. 16, attempted to solve it. Fuel was a major concern. Dublin depended on coal, and proximity to the English and Welsh fields ensured a cheap and easy supply by water. Numerous statutes were concerned with trying to control the coal trade. Attempts were continually being made to hold the city to ransom by cartels and a variety of other restrictive practices, such as refusing to unload coal until the price rose. Quality, availability and marketing all enabled Britain to compensate for her diminishing forests with coal and iron, but throughout the century these necessities were a perpetual shortage in Ireland (see Chapter 10 above).
The principal responsibilities of a municipal corporation were the provision of urban services, the oversight of the welfare of those living within the boundaries of the municipality and, where it was enfranchised, the return of members to parliament. Corporations would apply to parliament for acts to regulate their affairs; consequently, 'the watching, lighting, paving, cleansing and improving of the town, and the supplying it with water when attended to, are frequently under the care of local commissioners under special acts of parliament.' Fire, as 2 Geo. I, c. 5 & 15, indicate, was an ever-present hazard, particularly in view of the overcrowded buildings and narrow streets. This encouraged the establishment of the Wide Streets Commission, 17 & 18 Geo. III, c. 46, with its powers to make compulsory purchases at an arbitrated valuation. Early street maps reflected the need for fire-fighters to find their way.
In the field of urban amenities, as in others, much eighteenth-century legislation was specific rather than general. Hence each town or city had its own individual act, although all of them were usually modelled on an earlier statute for Dublin. Many of them developed a civic pride as expressed in municipal buildings. One of the last acts of the Irish parliament was a statute, 40 Geo. III, c. 37, to pave, cleanse, light and improve the town of Belfast, while the penultimate statute, 40 Geo. III, c. 99, was 'an Act for paving, cleansing, lighting, and improving the streets, quays, lanes, and passages in the town of Sligo ... for establishing a nightly watch ... for supplying the said town with piped water'.