Electoral Practices in Cashel in 19th Century

Post Advertiser, June 10, 1986, Vol 2 No 2


In order to understand the corrupt practices obtaining in the Cashel Westminister constituency in 1868 it is important to understand the part corruption played in 19th century elections in Ireland. It was widespread. The Nationalist estimated in 1859 that at least 27 of the 33 borroughs were significantly corrupt. Towns with electorates under 500 were the corruptionist's native habitat, not only becasue they were cheaper, but because money could more effectively smother other considerations within their narrow and intimate political worlds. 

Corruption took two forms, direct, in the form of actual cash payments and the like. In his book on the subject Theodore Hoppen quotes a song that was sung at Portarlington in the general election of 1332: 

Oh! tis cash, tis cash, tis cash, 
That makes the world go round
And with the cash, the cash, the cash, 
Doth our candidate abound. 
When we return our friend
He'll make our tyrant quake; 
His cash he'll freely spend
On us, for justice sake. 

Indirect forms of corruption included everything from subscriptions to local charities to providing jobs for voters and their relations. Both were more common in the boroughs than the counties. The towns of Ireland were the home of the outstretched hand, the bulging pocket and the floating voter adrift on seas of whiskey, beer and stout. According to Hoppen town elections were at all times supported upon a deep cushion of cash. Boroughs supplied three-quarters of the politicians alleging bribery or treating in the period 1832-50, four-fifths in 1851-68 and almost two-thirds in 1869-83. 

Bleeding Freely!

Corruption produced a culture and language of its own. Generous candidates were said to be 'bleeding freely', and they lad a bye word 'crap' which stood for money and it was also designated 'twine'. Everything proceeded upon the nod and wink principle. Sums were only vaguely agreed, cash was never paid on the spot. People did not insist but they did expect. Elections stood outside conventional morality and otherwise respectable pleople took bribes as a matter of course. 

The Galway Town Corrupt Practices Commission revealed the following: 'You are an advocate for Justice?' - 'Yes! And an honest man.' 

'You are an honest man and you would sell your vote for £10 and would have liked £30 better?' 


Corruption flourished most where power was relatively difuse, according to Hoppen. Cashel was a notorious example. Here blocs of voters, sometimes grouped along occupational, sometimes along merely ad hoc lines, auctioned themselves in return for communal or individual benefits. In 1852 more than half the electorate agreed publicly to support whoever would promise money for railway construction. Weeks before the 1868 contest one of the candidates deposited £5,000 in a local bank and had his agent parade the town waving the deposit slip for all to see. 

In such a context Archbishop Leahy's remark that voters could quite 'conscientiously' prefer the candidate who would promote the material prosperity of the town took on meanings clear to all. Others made the message even less ambiguous. The voters, according to Fr. John Ryan, P.P., were entitled to any money going, they would be very great fools if they refused it. 

Only in private, according to Hoppen, was Leahy brave enough to summon up the mood of moral outrage: 'The men who would determine the election are to a man corrupt. They are divided into two parties. If one of them takes up a candidate, the other is sure to, oppose him. And those parties are Catholics ....'No one would have any business in Cashel that would not be prepared to look for places for themselves and their children (or) ... spend money Iiberallv.'

Such an atmosphere encouraged the activities of electoral groups. Occupational groups voted together, not because issues of importance to particular crafts were at stake but because occupation constituted the most obvious basis for association. In Cashel in 1868 twenty-six of the 203 voters were butchers. Twenty-five voted for Henry Munster not because Munster represented interests congenial to butchering, but becasue their support had jointly been, purchased at £30 a head. Becasue of such enticements the turnout of borough voters was exceptionally high, in some cases in excess of 90 per cent of registers which must have contained their share of dead and departed. 

Group Voting

Cashel Protestants voted as a group. Cashel electors included a large number of farmers because the borough had been extended into the outlying Commons in 1832'in order to give a sufficiently large electorate the vote. 

The occupations of voters in the Cashel constituency in 1832 were as follows: Gentlemen 12.4, professional 2.6, merchants, manufacturers and commercial 4.5, shopkeepers 25.9, drink interest 4.5, artisans 6.8, farmers 39.9, labourers 0, others 3.4. 

At Cashel in 1868 the publicans behaved as informal clearing-houses for information and as brokers between the dispensers and receivers of favours. As such they themselves received favours usually in the form of extravagant hiring fees for their premises or huge orders for drink to be distributed among the electors and their hangers-on. 

Wealthy carpetbaggers were attracted to Cashel like flies to manure. 'Cashel.' chortled Lord Donaghmore, 'is a delightful mess. There are Hemphill, Hughes, late Solicitor-General, Lanigan, V. Scully and last, but not least, John Carden, all hard at it.' 

In 1859 one candidate reminded the voters of their P.P.s denunciations of bribery. 'Votes is riz,' came the unflappable reply, 'they were selling at between £5 and £6 on Saturday but, after Sunday, when we heard our souls would be damned for selling them, no vote will go under at least £20.' 

There was another fallout from 19th century electorate corruption. Donations, large and small, to local charities, chapels, clubs, societies, brass bands and religious orders were extracted from candidates with a sleight of hand that would have flattered the most practised of pick-pockets. 'Twas asked for charity', moaned the clean-picked Captain Trench at Galway in 1872, all over the county, 'as soon as I became a candidate.' Even the niceties were bogus. 'l am not,' a Galway nun concluded her begging letter, 'entirelv influenced on this occasion by your being a candidate for the representation of the town, but from your general character.' 

A Cashel carpetbagger, who had already distributed almost £2,000 among the Christian Brothers, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Thurles Cathedral Building Fund and the nuns of the Fethard Convent, spoiled the whole costly effect by being heard to mutter more loudly than was nice that Holy Mother Church had a very wide mouth. Clergymen, Protestant and Catholic, were invariably at the head of the queue.


Equally important with the ability to hand out largesse was the ability of the candidate to hold his liquor. William Keogh's electoral success at Athlone was in part the result of attendance at the bedside of the companion of his debauch the next morning with a brandy and soda in his hand and the Christian name of his scarcely-recovered inebriate in his mouth. In contrast an English contender for the same borough had to be shipped home in a violent fit of delirium tremens. Sergeant Barry at Dungarvan complained of how he was expected to inbibe large quantities of punch, day and night, with successive batches of electors and how failure in this terrible duty would seriously imperil his popularity. 

Few aspects of life remained untouched by electoral largesse. Loafers received scatterings of coin in the streets or payments to start a riot. Workhouse inmates were given meat teas. Newspaper proprietors grew fat on direct bribes and inflated political advertising. The editor of the Cashel Gazette claimed 'some influence by my family and otherwise'. In 1868 John Davis White was paid £50 by Henry Munster for services othef than advertising. Everything written and published in favour of a candidate, be it a leading article or a letter, was charged and paid for at the same rate as the advertisements. A paper published three times a week, therefore, made a good thing out of an election. Money could also be made by printing the thousands of placards and leaflets, which covered constituencies like confetti during elections. Candidates were supposed to act as employment agencies. Influenctial M.P.s had a strong say in the direction of Government patronage. Ministers had at their disposal a great numbers of jobs. 

It cost a lot of money to get elected. Few candidates could escape spending hugh sums. In 1868 votes cost £30 per head in Cashel. In 1865 J.L. 0 Beirne spent £3,000 to get himself elected in Cashel. In 1868 Henry Munster spent £6,000 and failed to get elected. Appeal petitions, against the successful cimdidate, were made regularly after Irish elections. In the fifty years after 1832 over 100 Irish petitions ran their full course while three or four times that number failed to stay the course. The moderate cost for such a petition was £2,000 and in bad cases it could be three or four times as much. Many had spent so much getting elected it was their one way of recouping. The costs included the hiring of lawyers, the paying of sleuths to dig up local dirt and the transportation, until 1868, of witnesses to London and paying for their food, drink and lodgings. 

Membership of clubs was important. By 1870 at least 11 clubs flourished in Dublin and 13 in provincial towns like Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, as well as in smaller places like Nenagh and Clonmel. The last three M.P.s to be elected for Cashel, Timothy O'Brien, John Lanigan and James Lyster O'Beirne were all members of the Reform Club 

Belonging to the hunt was also important. Over 66 mounted packs existed in the country in 1875. Not to hunt was the certain sign of a fool or an ass, for as Lord Dunsany remarked, any man who is utterly unconnected with the fox lives a little apart. 


Much electoral rioting took place during elections. Twentysix people were killed in the Kerry election of 1826. Rioting gave the voteless a voice by enabling them to bring countervailing pressures against the influence of property, money and patronage. Large gangs took control of small towns and made their influence felt. 

At Cashel in 1865 young and old were to be found shouting, whistling, groaning, dancing and foaming with irrepressible rage. In many places candidates were obliged to deal with popularly recognised mob leaders, who negotiated pay and contracted to supply crowds as and when required. At Cashel in 1868 Mary Glasgow ruled 40 women during the election; speeched and agitated day and night, for six weeks in the interest of 0'Beirne 'and begs to submit to him a bill of £3'. Women often took a prominent part in riots carrying plenty of stones in their aprons. 

The average election mob was large enough to intimidate and destroy but small enough to retain a high degree of mobility, energy, and socal cohesion. Violence or its threat was the raison d'etre of election mobs. The full cycle of mob activity usually began with hooting, continued with hitting (spitting was an optional extra) and concluded with shouting. Sticks and cudgels were the usual weapons. These were augmented with crutches, spikes, hatchets, knives, axes, cleavers skewers, sword canes, loaded whips and sticks, pikes and paving stones, iron bars and bottles and half-pound weights with straps. Injuries were more extensive than dangerous but there were some bloody and horrendous results when a crowd became frenzied. 

Election riots and disorders provided the most common outlet for women's political feelings as for those of the disfranchised generally. Women could be the most violent and savage of all: 'By God, Smith,' yelled one woman in Cork in 1852, 'if you attempt to vote I will rip your bloody Protestant guts out'. At which another female demon seized one of his hands in her mouth and tore it with her teeth. At Cashel in 1865 well-looking well-dressed girls, one a perfect Amazon, bared her arms, wound their shawls tightly around them and rushed into the melee. 

The levels of violence at election time can be shown by the demand for a greater commitment of police and soliders in 1865 and 1868 than in previous years. In those years every single polling place was crammed with troops and police. All the violence was to aid the victory of one candidate over another. Other expressions of high spirits at election time were the burning of tar barrells, the illumination of windows, the lighting of bonfires, music and flags, banners, arboreal arches and the like. Tipperary town was enfete during the O'Donovan Rossa by-election in 1869 gleaming with a thousand lights, some brilliant and gorgeously coloured, others shining with the lustre of half penny dips. Each window was a sheet of flame, tar barrells flamed' everywhere and were surrounded by crowds, shouting and dancing. 

Elections definitely enlivened towns and they lasted as long as six weeks. The 1868 election was one of the most exciting events in the history of Cashel and in future issues it will be possible to see why.