Fascinating insight into society, economics, politics and war in Donegal in 1916


Speech by Niamh Brennan, County Archivist at launch of Digitisation and Online access to 1916 minutes of local authorities of County Donegal, Archives Service on 4 May 2017.


Thank you. Failte roimh go leir, chun seoladh digitiú Mhiontuairiscí naoi deagh se deag chuid Údaráis Áitiúla Chontae Dhún na nGall.


In 2016, the Centenary of the 1916 Rising, the Archives Service, in cooperation with three of the other Cultural Services of the County Council:  Museum, Heritage Office and County Library, produced and published a  history & heritage education pack entitled ‘County Donegal in 1916: From the Edge.


This was part of Cultural Services’ 1916 -2016 Commemorative programme. This successful pack followed similar Archives projects and was rolled out to schools across the county last year.


A second Archives led project in 2016 was the digitisation of the Minutes of meetings of County Donegal’s local authorities still extant in 1916. These were the eight Board of Guardians (the authorities managing the county’s 8 workhouses), the ten Rural District Councils, three Urban District Councils and the Ballyshannon Town Commissioners.


We are very fortunate to have in the County Archives so many surviving varying local authority records, though unfortunately the County Council minutes for this period do not survive, except for Jan- Feb 1916, and these had already been digitised.


The digitisation project was part-funded by the Donegal/ Ireland 2016 Commemoration Committee, under the Community Commemorative Grant Scheme. Quotes from reputable digitisation companies were sought and the project was given to Mallon Technology Ltd.


Our plan was that the minutes of meetings would be digitised into useful pdfs which would be easily downloadable online, with high resolution tiffs to be stored as part of the Archives Service’s permanent Digital Archive.


A lot of work is needed in order to put each pdf online. For example, each bound volume is divided into between four and six pdfs for the purposes of easy access to readers. This part of the project – the uploading- is ongoing. At present we have the Boards of Guardian 1916 records online and a number of the Rural District Council minutes, also a sample meeting from 1916 of Donegal County Council.


The varied content in the archived minutes offers researchers the opportunity to research the political, social and economic history of the county of Donegal in 1916, such an extraordinary year in our recent history.


In general the minutes of the meetings of the various local authorities in 1916 concern themselves with local matters of importance, such as managing the eight workhouses of the county; public and environmental health; the building, maintenance and tenancies of labourers’ cottages and houses ‘of the working classes’; maintenance of roads and footpaths; sewerage works; elections and school attendance. However local authorities sometimes passed or made efforts to pass resolutions at various times on a variety of national political issues.


The impact in County Donegal of the Rising in Dublin and tumultuous events elsewhere in Easter Week was slow to be felt, due to the lack of communications that week.  When news filtered through to the county at the end of April and early May,the Rising, its implications, and its aftermath in the weeks and months that followed were frequently the subject of comment and motions at Council and Board meetings.


The first reaction by some local authorities was to condemn the Rising.  On 8th May, Inishowen Rural District Council, stating that it was ‘representative of the nationalist people of Inishowen’ condemned  the Rising and the loss of life during Easter Week. Members expressed renewed confidence in John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party, which it stated ‘was quite capable of safeguarding the interests of the nation without outside interference’,


Other reactions were more confused, with some members of councils and boards unsure how to react or what to feel. At a meeting of the Donegal Board of Guardians on 5th May, vice-chairman Edward Melley had protested a resolution condemning the Rising. A week later the Donegal Board read a letter, dated 13th May from Melley stating that members of the press seemed to believe he was in favour of the ‘recent disturbances in Dublin and in other parts of the country’, and stating that his remarks at the last meeting had been made on the spur of the moment.


But with mass arrests, executions and martial law, opinion began to change in County Donegal as well as elsewhere. In Donegal town, on 10th June, Donegal Rural District Council protested against the continuance of martial law ‘more particularly in this county where not a rebellious symptom was demonstrated’. The Council called on the Irish Parliamentary Party to take measures to influence the removal of coercive measures ‘always repugnant to the Irish people.’


Dunfanaghy Rural District Council condemned martial law on 10th June 1916. The Inishowen Rural District Council Minutes from May to July also include a motion from the board to the government not to exclude Ulster from a Home Rule settlement; and to withdraw martial law and release deported prisoners (imprisoned and sent to gaols in England in the weeks following the Rising). On 13th May, Ballyshannon Board of Guardians protested against marital law, the executions of the leaders, and the long terms of imprisonment imposed on the rebels. On 12th  June, Stranorlar Board of Guardians passed a resolution proposed by Cork Poor Law Union opposing any division of the country and demanding the immediate putting into operation of the Home Rule Act.

On 8 July Glenties RDC adopted a resolution condemning military rule. In December Dunfanaghy Rural District Council adopted a resolution condemning the ongoing imprisonment of Irishmen in English gaols.


Therefore, from the autumn of 1916 the tone of the minutes across the county is of widespread support for prisoners and a gradual move towards greater radical nationalism as seen in the country generally.


But the minutes reflect more than just the seismic political events taking place far away from the county. They also provide a direct insight into the social and economic situation in the county, and at a very local level.  For example, because the district councils were responsible for public health, there are references to vaccination programmes and to efforts to prevent the spread of diseases.  For example, in Stranorlar in June 1916 scarlatina broke out, due, according to the medical officer, the presence of an ‘objectionable drain coming from the laundry.’  In Ballyshannon, between  April and September four cases of scarlatina and one of TB were mentioned in the Rural District Council’s minutes: all patients were removed to the fever hospital.


The building of Labourers’ cottages was stalled throughout much of the World War I, but Letterkenny RDC minutes in 1916 refer to many difficulties encountered with rental and maintenance issues.


The economic effects of the ongoing War across Europe are obvious, for example, in December 1916 Dunfanaghy Rural District Council passed a resolution stating that it was a duty of landowners to increase tillage. Labour shortage as a result of the War, combined with bad weather caused many potatoes to rot that year, resulting in increasing prices and a shortage of potatoes.  Glenties Union asked the Donegal Committee of Agriculture to impress on the Department of Agriculture the seriousness of the situation, “ that during the coming spring, 75 of the 81 tenants of labourers’ cottages who held half acre plots would be unable to procure seed potatoes.’  In December 1916 a resolution was adopted by Letterkenny Rural and Urban Councils “pointing out to the Government the necessity of prohibiting the exportation of potatoes from Ireland.”


The many effects of the War is referred to many times, sometimes due to employment problems it brought with it. Letterkenny Board of Guardians minutes of June 1916 refer to an application by Miss S. O’Donnell to be released from her duties for six months as she had volunteered to be a Red Cross nurse in a military hospital in Belfast. In Letterkenny in 1916 the War became the central issue in a dispute over the appointment by the Letterkenny Board of Dr J. P. McGinley as dispensary doctor. There is myriad correspondence relating to this issue in 1916 and it is covered minutely in the minutes of meetings of the Board. The Local Government Board objected to his appointment as it was felt he should have joined the war effort, and tried to impose a Dr Walker instead, an older man. But the Board of Guardians held firm, and by November the younger McGinley was still in place. The Buncrana Urban District Council minutes reflect the unique situation there, with its Royal Irish Fusiliers base causing local friction, and problems with water supply and roads infrastructure and traffic during the year.  Although Ballyshannon Town Commissioners was nationalist in general, it still expressed its hope that Finner Camp would be used on a more regular basis for members of the ‘Irish brigade’ in training.


Members attending the quarterly meeting of Donegal County Council in February 1916 included An Cathaoirleach James Dunleavy, William Gallagher, Edward Gallagher, Hugh O’Donnell, James O’Donnell and John E Boyle. There were also members there only referred to by surname including Callaghan, Clarke, Davidson, Doherty, Hanna, McFadden, McGee and McNelis.


Overall the minutes of the varying County Donegal local authorities offer a fascinating insight into society, economics, politics and war in the county in 1916. By digitising them we are preserving them for present and future generations; by putting them online we are making them available now for the current generations on a global basis. We will keep you posted on the progress in uploading the remainder of the minutes online, and plan to continue with similar projects, as stated in our Strategy, Cultúr, over the next few years.


Digitised records can be accessed here.