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When Westport chose not to have a council

County View

County View
John Healy

THE 1919 Westport murder of Resident Magistrate, John Charles Milling, recently referred to in this column, had an unusual sequel which is still worth recalling.
In the aftermath of his death, his wife Lilla submitted a malicious injury claim for the sum of £6,000 to Westport Urban Council. At that time, and for many years later, malicious injury awards to persons or property were levied on the ratepayers of the local administrative area. Both household rates and malicious injury claims are now long gone, but it was once a regular occurrence for the costs of damage to property, arson, smashed windows or vandalism to be levied on the ratepayer. And since the body of ratepayers included householders, business owners and landowners, the impact of an award, if made, would be a heavy burden on the local citizens.
When the Milling claim came before Westport Court in June of the same year, a number of the larger ratepayers - notably Lord Sligo and Dr O’Rorke - sought to be exempted from any levy that might be awarded on the grounds that, as friends of Milling, it would be unfair to penalise them for his death. This appeal, however, was dismissed by Judge Doyle.
Matters then moved on to the question of which local authorities should be held liable for the malicious injury costs. James Fitzgerald-Kenney, counsel for Westport UDC, and later to become a Government Minister, eloquently argued that since Mr Milling had sat as a magistrate all over the county, it was quite possible that his murderer came from outside Westport, in which case the levy should be imposed on a county-wide basis.
Fitzgerald-Kenney even went so far as to suggest that the murder might have been a personal vendetta, having nothing to do with civil unrest, and hinting that the District Inspector, Captain Scott, might have been complicit in the crime. This was on foot of local rumours, later shown to be unfounded, that Scott may have been involved in an illicit affair with Mrs Milling.
In any event, the ruling of the court was that three fifths of the claim should be levied on Westport, the balance to be applied across the rest of the county. The award - quickly labelled ‘The Milling Tax’ by The Mayo News - was to become the subject of huge controversy over the following year.
The reaction of Westport public opinion was as original as it was ingenious. Within a year, an election to the UDC was called, but to general consternation, there were no candidates. No candidates meant no council, no council meant no striking of the rate, and no rate meant that the Milling Tax was not going to be collected. Nobody, it seems, wanted to grasp the nettle of a rise in local taxation.
When, in June 1920, a new first ever Republican controlled Mayo County Council was elected, the members were shocked to discover that the previous council had paid off the Milling Tax, on the grounds that the levy would later be recouped from the Westport taxpayer. The new County Council resolved to sue the members of the previous council for the recovery of the monies, but nothing came of the threat in the end.
By this stage, Westport was in debt to Mayo County Council to the tune of almost £6,000, and it was not until 1923 that a resolution was found which finally allowed for closure of the file on the Milling Tax.