April 26: Poignant end of an era in local government

A sense of history hung over the Limerick County Council chamber this Tuesday afternoon while the very last meeting of that body was in session.

A sense of history hung over the Limerick County Council chamber this Tuesday afternoon while the very last meeting of that body was in session.

A few tears were shed, standing ovations were accorded, and even for the members of the Fourth Estate it was impossible not to be moved by the occasion.

For some time now there has been a pragmatic acceptance from a clear majority of those who sat in the Dooradoyle chamber that the imminent demise of the County Council was necessary if wider local administration Limerick is to move onto a more coherent and productive footing.

But that did not mean that there was not a degree of sadness at the passing of a council that held its first meeting on April 22, 1899 – 115 years to the day from this week’s final sitting.

“Most of them, at this stage, would probably not be well known names outside their own families or local communities, writes Sean Gallagher in his valuable and newly published Who’s Who guide to council members. “They tended to be very ordinary men and women ... [But] despite their ordinariness, they do deserve some recognition and acknowledgement for the largely unsung contribution that they have made to local government in County Limerick.”

For the vast majority of those 115 years, the members were also a by-product of different days and while they may have offered excellent support to farming organisations, community groups and bodies like the GAA and Munitir na Tire, they were not quite as representative as one would have wished.

Of the 339 people who served as councillors, a mere 15 were women.

One certainly hopes that, if another volume detailing the members of the amalgamated local authority were to be published a century into the future, the male-female ratio will be substantially different.

Let us also hope that the ethnic diversity which now characterises much of Limerick is acknowledged in the make-up of the joint authority, preferably sooner rather than later.

Perhaps one of the most pleasing aspects of Tuesday’s occasion was the sight of so many former members of the council in attendance – mostly men, of course, but also including the warmly received Nancy Wheeler, the only women elected back in 1979.

That was the year that saw the political emergence of the redoubtable Eddie Wade, whose emotion this week spoke volumes for the sense of camaraderie that long existed among the political class at County Hall – that is, when they were not going through one another for shorts over matters of import like potholes and public lighting.

Next week brings a similar occasion at City Hall and the sense of history will be all the greater among the members of that chamber, elected to represent a city that received its charter from King John I in 1197. We can expect poignancy then, too, and it’s fair to say that resistance within the City Council over the new arrangements was not inconsiderable, so the emotions may be stronger.

From a very stage, this newspaper strongly welcomed the merger of the city and county – and recent events at City Hall in particular have only strengthened the conviction that such a radical change will be in the best interests of all who call Limerick home.

Whatever about that, next Monday should also be a day – as was the case this week – when there was due appreciation for the men and women who, in the words of author Sean Gallagher, did done their fellow citizens some service through the generations.