Only one of the benefits of being a burgess of the old Corporation of Tralee, set up under the Charter granted by King James I on 26 September 1612, was that it was a job for life: you never had to face the electorate. In fact, the burgesses, all twelve of them, had never been elected in the first place, just nominated by Denny, the patron of the new borough. The Corporation thereby created, consisting of a Provost (Mayor) and twelve burgesses, lasted down to 1840. The last Provost was the famous antiquarian Archdeacon A. B. Rowan and he wrote a book about his father, an eminent provost of Napoleonic times, entitled “Tralee and Its Provost by the Last of Its Provosts”.
If we can succeed in putting to one side our modern preference for representative democracy, and its corollary of regular elections, we may begin to see some potential benefits in the old system. One is that the burgesses could take a real and sustained interest in the running of the town. Being free of the kind of pre-election pressure placed on politicians of our day, and therefore not fearing the wrath of the electorate if policies were seen to fail, they could resist the temptation to outreach everything to the permanent officials. (It is very common in our own time to hear elected councillors announce to the public, with unconscious irony, that they have “complete confidence” in the work of the non-elected officials!)
The Great Reform Law of 1832 brought the beginnings of the system we have today. It sent a shock through places like Tralee. That year, before an expanded and more representative electorate, Denny was defeated by Maurice O’Connell, son of the Liberator, for the Tralee seat at Westminster. It was the seat in Parliament rather than the governance of the town which generated the controversies of those years and thereby provided us with the evidence for Tralee’s nascent democracy. 1826 started it all, the year when a Catholic candidate took the seat in Waterford, the same year that a number of people were shot on the streets of Tralee after Lord Ventry’s electors were brought to town to vote the way he instructed them to vote. Then in 1828 Daniel O’Connell won the Clare election and became the first Catholic to sit in Parliament.
The fact of the parliamentary seat in the gift of the borough patron was not unusual. What made Tralee different – indeed notorious – was not so much the rearguard action of the oligarchy to keep out the democrats, as the fact that the possession of the seat had become tangled up in one of the Denny marriage arrangements. What happened was this. In October 1794 the Denny heir was shot dead in a duel at Oak Park by a partisan of the Blennerhassetts. Denny’s brother succeeded, and then barrister Robert Day, a future judge, got his daughter married the new heir. Later, in 1806, Judge Day had a private Act of Parliament passed to provide for the children of the new couple (there were by then a number) and to provide also for the young widow of the dead duellist (no children). These were the days before life insurance and so property had to be entailed to provide for women and children. But when, following the Act of Union of 1800, the Judge began to sell the seat in Parliament to the highest bidder in order to shore up the parlous finances of the Denny estate, the Tralee democrats were having none of it, and they were still fuming about the Judge’s arrangements when the Municipal commissioners arrived to take evidence in the early 1830s, before the abolition of the Corporation in 1840.
The Commission report shows in impressive detail the good governance of the town. The town was in a state of ruin when the Charter was granted in 1612, after two Geraldine rebellions and the Nine Years War of Hugh O’Neill. We are by no means certain that the Geraldine earls of Desmond were accepted universally by the Irish: they were, after all, the Old English. An eye witness to the ruined condition of Tralee in 1580, published in the state papers, seems to attribute the town’s ruin to the Irish themselves. In many ways the Charter of 1612 marked an end to the recent blood bath. Throughout Ireland, chiefs made Surrender and Regrant arrangements with the government. Recently these included some vassals of the Earl like MacCarthy Mór and FitzMaurice of Lixnaw. MacCarthy faded from history but the FitzMaurices survived and became Denny partisans for two centuries to come.
The Charter marked the end of the Middle Ages, though the document retained some remarkable medieval and Catholic references. These included the use of saints’ feast days, which must have added much-needed colour and pageantry to high-points in the Corporation year. The Feast of St John the Evangelist (24 June) was the day on which the new Provost was elected, and he was installed on the Feast of St Michael the Archangel (29 September). In a ceremony typical of towns and cities in Ireland and England, the new Provost “rode the circuit” of the town. Col. Arthur Denny and the Burgesses rode the circuit when he became Provost in September 1736. The annual Fair was on the Feast of St James the Apostle (25 July). Commerce was regulated effectively. There was a Tuesday Market. Two Sergeants at Mace (beadles, or constables) ensured the decisions of the borough court were given effect.
Denny tried to keep his and the town’s affairs separate. The original Denny grant had included the estate of the Dominicans, including the Abbey itself. In 1627 he granted the Provost and Burgesses “the circuit and liberty of the Abbey” in return for his family’s appointment of the Town Clerk. Then, by royal grant of 25 June 1630, Denny received his own annual Fair Day, 28 October, and his own weekly Market, Saturday. To him and his successors would go the tolls of each of these days.
Near the end of the campaign to defeat the first Desmond rebellion, back in the early 1570s, the English had hoped to bring some order to the governance of Kerry. The viceroy of that time, Henry Sidney, had hoped that the Earl of Desmond could be a part of this process. But Kerry had never been easy to rule from the Dublin government’s point of view. Part of the reason was that the earls of Desmond had become very gaelicised (much more so than their great rivals to the east, the Butlers, earls of Ormond), with the result that their jurisdiction was only partly English in character and the rest of the time used the Brehon law of the native Irish. During the 1540s there was some success in rehabilitating the earldom within the English sphere of institutions and the rule of English law. Then the climate changed again as Catholic Spain became England’s enemy and the religious revolution started in Henry VIII’s time became more extreme. The last ruling Earl of Desmond cut a pathetic figure near the end of his life. After a long man hunt he was killed near Ballymacelligott in November of 1583.
The Castle of Tralee took on a huge symbolic importance when the Dennys made it the seat of their rule. Kerry used to be the liberty jurisdiction of the Earls from the time the earldom was created in 1329, and we have every reason to believe that, like the Normans (Old English) before them, the New English (Denny and Blennerhassett) stressed continuity and played down the upheaval of war and subjugation that had brought them to power. Tralee lacked an official mansion for its public activities, so the Castle of Tralee, occupied by the Dennys from the 1620s, doubled as the venue of the Corporation. It gives Castle Street its name and it stood at about the point of intersection of Denny Street and Castle Street. The Castle was demolished in 1826 to make way for the construction of Denny Street, with what degree of controversy from antiquarians like Archdeacon Rowan only further research can reveal.
Whatever we may say today about its shortcomings, Tralee’s Charter belongs to the long history of representative institutions as much as it belongs in the history of Ireland’s subjugation by the English. To be sure it was a symbol of Catholic exclusion: no Catholic could become a member of the Corporation or sit in Parliament. Yet in many ways the old Corporation offered a kind of flexibility we find difficult to imagine today. Burgesses did not have to worry about re-election, and it is difficult to imagine the permanent officials with the degree of power they enjoy in the average corporation of our time. The upheavals of the 1830s brought challenges which must have seemed unsurmountable, infrastructural upheavals such as the construction of the new Canal from Blennerville, and new institutions like the county police. How Tralee dealt with these is for another article.