Municipal Government and Urban Decline in Downpatrick, 1829-1888

Bowden Conner, Nicola Jane (2020). Municipal Government and Urban Decline in Downpatrick, 1829-1888. Student dissertation for The Open University module A826 MA History part 2.

This dissertation was produced by a student studying the Open University postgraduate module A826 MA History part 2. The research showcased here achieved a distinction.
Please note that this student dissertation is made available in the format that it was submitted for examination, thus the author has not been able to correct errors and/or departures from academic standards in areas such as referencing.
Copyright resides with the author.


Demographic and economic decline were common features of towns in nineteenth century Ireland, although less so in the industrial north-east. This study concerns the decline of the Irish county town of Downpatrick in the economically successful region of north-east Ulster during the nineteenth century. It focusses on the role of the urban elite as a factor in the processes which turned Downpatrick from a prosperous place into what a contemporary source described as a ‘dilapidated’ one.

This study challenges Matthew Potter’s thesis in The Municipal Revolution in Ireland on three main grounds. Firstly, the development of Downpatrick Town Commissioners as an urban authority is shown to question Potter’s emphasis on the centralizing tendencies of parliamentary legislation as a major factor in the ‘municipal revolution’. It is here argued that localism was a stronger force, which in Downpatrick meant a failure to develop meaningful municipal government. Secondly, it refutes Potter’s contention that Ulster was significantly different to the rest of Ireland. Engagement and disengagement with improving legislation was not dependant on location. Thirdly, it disagrees that government intervention after 1840 displaced the partnership between proprietors and tenants, instead arguing that in Downpatrick the urban elite continued to be over-reliant on the proprietor, despite his increasing impoverishment. Accordingly, the elite missed opportunities to improve the town’s economic infrastructure.

The final section is a case study of the operation of the Sanitary Act 1866, in which the inadequacy of the Lighting Act as a foundation for municipal government is demonstrated, and the pursuit of narrow self-interest on the part of the urban elite is shown to have fostered urban decline. The study concludes that, despite external factors which influenced Downpatrick’s decline, the attitude of the elite was fundamental. Their failure to cooperate in order to develop a level of local government which could have facilitated urban improvement was one aspect of this. Failure to invest their significant wealth in developing industry, was another.

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