Kieran’s Our City, Our Town, 11 April 2024

Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,

Cork Independent, 11 April 2024

Making an Irish Free State City – Calls for a City Administration

Set up in early June 1923, the Cork Progressive Association was formed by businessmen in Cork City. Their intention was to support proper schemes for the housing of the working classes, to lobby for the completion of land purchases, to improve and cheapen transport, and secure resilient administration in the public service. In particular they were dissatisfied with the politics at play at national and local level post the Irish Civil War, which limited progress in Cork Corporation.

By early spring of 1924, the Association’s strong calls for a proper and effective Cork Corporation led them to call for a national inquiry to look at the business and workings of the Corporation. An inquiry came to pass later in August 1924 but the journey to such an action is worth of reflection.

On 1 February 1924 Mr T F O’Leary presided at the weekly meeting of the Executive Committee of the Cork Progressive Association, in their offices at 40, Grand Parade. The Cork Examiner editorial summarised the view of the Association expressed views ranging from dissatisfaction with reforms to lack of street cleansing to problems with water supply; “Great dissatisfaction was again expressed at the manner in which the affairs of the Cork Corporation were being administered. Not only is there excessive waste in almost every department of the Corporation, but the officials are often transferred when they endeavour to carry out reforms. The streets for months past have been kept in a filthy condition; the scavenging is not satisfactory and excessively costly, the water is reported as impure, and the whole system is defective”.

The question of high rates was also raised; “The rates are now so high – in fact, even higher than last year – that the burden on the city is almost unbearable, and there is a universal feeling that the Government, in order to protect the ratepayers, should at once appoint a Commission of Experts to inquire into the whole of municipal administration”.

Over the next few weeks, the Cork Progressive Association explored the business management schemes for some towns in England and the United States. By 22 February 1924, their first collection of data of sites in the latter countries was presented to their Executive Committee. The committee was interested in the uniformity and administration and the non-clashing of one department with another and the saving in expenses. It was found that in some of these places a manager was appointed to carry out the general administration and necessary public works in conjunction with municipal representatives, all under one head, and coordinated.

A letter was read from the Town Clerk’s office in Leeds. There the City Council in 1914 authorised the appointment of a commercial manager that of a Mr JB Hamilton who also ran the cities tramways services. He did not superintend the work of the Corporation, but was responsible for the coordination of conditions of labour in the various departments. He also controlled the highways and cleansing departments. Mr Hamilton as commercial manager acted as an executive officer of the General Purposes Committee of Leeds council. That committee was appointed for the purpose of dealing with hours, wages and conditions of labour of all workmen employed in the Corporation departments.

The commercial manager obtained uncollated information as to comparable work in other towns and the conditions pertaining to private employers in the city and with trade unions where standard rates of pay have been established. The letter continued; “The information has been invaluable to the committee in assisting them to maintain uniformity of treatment between the various departments of the corporation and outside employment. The commercial manager is also responsible for the distribution and supply of labour to the various departments and the arrangement has been found beneficial in observing any over staffing issues”.

Amongst the correspondence read was a letter from Mr Earl C Elliott, President of the City Managers’ Association, United States. Established in 1914 as the City Managers’ Association, it worked with the National Civic League with support from US President Theodore Roosevelt, and others. The organisation’s core aim was to help professionalise local government and create reforms to reduce corruption. In 1924, the organisation changed its name to the International City Managers’ Association.

Mr Elliott in his letter to the Cork Progressive Association noted that the Association was correct in the assumption that a number of important cities in the United States were being administered by a city manager, under what was known as the Commission manager form of government. It was a form followed, in a general way through methods and organisations used by American business corporations. A small non-partisan Board of Directors was elected by the people at stated intervals; “The Board of Directors employ an executive, who is called ‘City manager.’ and who is in complete charge of the administration of the affairs of the city. The directors’ function is legislative only. The Manager employs and removes all men who are employed or dismissed, and has complete control, under the Board of Directors. of the enforcement of the ordinances and the conduct of the city’s affairs”.

  The letter continued that more than 300 cities in the United States and Canada were operating under the Commissioner form plan. It was found to be equally successful in a City of a million inhabitants and in a city of 2,000 inhabitants. Mr Elliott noted in his letter that the idea is growing very rapidly in the United States; “It would appear now that within a comparatively short time most of the important cities will be operating under the plan. Of all cities that have tried the plan in the United States, less than half a dozen have abandoned it”.

The Cork Progressive Association kept pressure on central government until an inquiry was called into the governance of Cork Corporation and this began in August 1924 (more in the next few weeks).


1248a. Offices of Cork Progressive Association were just on the right of this c.1920 postcard (source: Cork City Reflections by Kieran McCarthy & Dan Breen).

Kieran’s April Tours (free, two hours):

Sunday 14 April 2024, The City Workhouse, historical walking tour, meet just inside the gates of St Finbarr’s Hospital, Douglas Road, 1.30pm, free, two hours, on site tour

Sunday 21 April 2024, Douglas and its History, historical walking tour, meet in the carpark of Douglas Community Centre, 1.30pm (free, duration: two hours, no booking required, circuit of village, finishes nearby).