Hold the Front Page: Charlie Lenihan and the Kilcow Cottage Affair

In December 1957, the first issue of The Taxpayers’ News appeared in Castleisland carrying an editorial, ‘Charlie – V – The Rest’ which alluded to the conduct of members of Kerry County Council.  ‘Charlie,’ otherwise Kerry County Councillor, farmer and victualler Charles Lenihan of Woodville, Castleisland, was behind the production, its editor Con Houlihan.[1]


To Have a Little House: First edition of The Taxpayers’ News December 1957.   On the left, Charlie Lenihan and (right) editor Con Houlihan, from an image in the Con Houlihan Papers held by Castleisland District Heritage


Councillor Lenihan, a member of the council since about 1955, had concerns about officials of the council withholding information from him, and in an effort to protect the ratepayers and keep them informed, had taken on the publication of a newspaper.  He was thus now attending council meetings in the dual capacity of elected representative and a representative of the press.


Kilcow Cottage

‘This cottage has become as famous as Kate Kearney’s’ 
– Charlie Lenihan, The Taxpayers’ News, 1958

In the months leading up to the publication of The Taxpayers’ News, Councillor Lenihan had been in the public eye regarding the tenancy of a cottage at Kilcow built on a site that had been in the possession of the Coffey family for almost fifty years.  The land had been transferred to Michael Coffey twenty years earlier, who had grazing there while the cottage was being built – evidently for him.


Some years earlier, Michael, a land steward at Edenburn Sanatorium, had been appointed gatekeeper and it was proposed to build him a cottage at Edenburn at a cost of £2,200. Councillor Lenihan had objected because there was an old cottage in the grounds that could be repaired at less cost.  However, the stance of the council was that ‘none of their employees would reside in a house that once was occupied by a serf of Sam Hussey, the landlord’s agent.’[2]


In these circumstances, the council had taken a plot from Coffey for the erection of the cottage elsewhere.[3]  However, by July 1957, the cottage, completed for a considerable time, remained unoccupied. What happened next is described by Jeremiah Kehoe, Housing Engineer, Kerry County Council:


On 7th July 1957, Mr Lenihan came to my office and made some enquiries with regard to some cottage sites and asked me when the cottage at Kilcow had been completed. I wasn’t too sure but said I thought it had been completed for a number of months.  He informed me that he had installed his own tenant, that he had removed the lock from the door which he had given to an official upstairs, had placed the new lock on the door and would be looking for the amount of 12/6d from me for the new lock.[4]


The following day, 8 July 1957, a meeting of the Housing Committee of Kerry County Council took place, and the subject of the occupancy of Kilcow Cottage came up for discussion. Mr Lenihan asked Mr Patrick Palmer TD, Chairman, when the tenancy of the cottage would be given.  Michael Louis O’Connell, Solicitor and former Chairman of KCC, rose to address the Chairman as follows:


Mr Palmer, you are the only person in this room who doesn’t know that a councillor has broken open a cottage and put a friend of his into it at Kilcow.


‘I take no notice of what Mr O’Connell says,’ responded Councillor Lenihan, ‘as a politician he is a crook and in his profession he is a crook.’[5]


A little over a week later, solicitor Maurice O’Sullivan, Main Street, Listowel advised Councillor Lenihan that he had been instructed by Michael Louis O’Connell to institute proceedings against him for slander.[6]


There was bad news too for Michael Coffey. In October 1957, the County Council applied for a Decree for possession of the plot at Kilcow.[7]  During the hearing, which took place in Castleisland Court before Justice Johnson, Michael, who was living with his mother and brother, explained that the plot had been in his family for 47 or 48 years.  The rent had been paid until the collector, John J O’Connor, refused to accept it.  He had been trying to get a cottage built there for two or three years because he wanted to get married, and a cottage had recently been built. He believed it was for him and hoped to get married after Christmas.


Charlie Lenihan argued that it was not necessary for Coffey to make application to the council for the cottage because ‘when a person had a plot belonging to his father he was automatically returned tenant when the cottage was built.’


It was to no avail, ‘the County Council were entitled to recover the plot’ and Coffey was subsequently served notice to quit.


Red Tape

‘He may have gone the wrong way about it, but he was entitled to this information and did not get it’

– The Kerryman, 26 July 1958

In early 1958, advertisements for the tenancy of the cottage at Kilcow – which still stands and is inhabited – were published in the local press.  On 26 June 1958, a man named Lacey, who was living in England, was appointed as tenant by Order, which soon came to the notice of Councillor Lenihan.


The following day, 27 June 1958, Councillor Lenihan attended the council offices at Ashe Memorial Hall, Tralee.  There he met two members of staff, clerk typists Miss V Lawlor and Miss M O’Sullivan but was unable to meet with the secretary.  He tried to make telephone contact and after waiting for about half an hour left the secretary’s office:


After Mr Lenihan had gone the two girls heard somebody inside in the Co Secretary’s private office.  They first had heard a push as if the lock was being forced and they looked out the window and saw a number of files being thrown out and papers being scattered.


Councillor Lenihan also hurled a dictaphone out of the window, the cost of which was £150.  He strongly favoured the use of recording equipment and believed ‘it would be a very good idea if an occasional Dail debate were broadcast over Radio Eireann. It would keep people politically conscious and show them what a sorry lot of hacks we have in Leinster House at present.’[8]


However, he had been prevented from using such equipment himself and the sight of the dictaphone machine was ‘like a red rag to a bull.’[9]


Later the same evening, Councillor Lenihan travelled to the council’s Housing Offices located near the County Home in Killarney where ‘he was seen by a person in the gate lodge attempting to open a door leading to an office of Mr O’Keeffe, who was in charge of the housing section.’[10]


Unable to force the door open, Councillor Lenihan broke a pane of glass in the window to enter the office:


When he got in he was confused with the quantity of files in the Housing Department and as it would take weeks to go through them he took a sack of them to peruse at his convenience.[11]


The following day, Councillor Lenihan attended Castleisland Garda Station to state he would return the documents to Kerry County Council in one week when he had read them.  He said he had been asking to see the files for three years without success.


Councillor Lenihan was charged with malicious damage to council property in Tralee and Killarney but, tellingly perhaps, not with taking the documents.[12]  On 24 July 1958, in the District Court Castleisland, he was convicted and sentenced to two months imprisonment with hard labour.


Councillor Lenihan appealed the sentence with some success the following year.[13] The proceedings alluded to earlier charges against Mr Lenihan, and the judge asked his barrister, Dermot Kinlen BL, ‘Why does he turn up every February?’ to which Mr Kinlen replied, ‘Phases of the moon, my Lord.’ [14]


Slander Case


On the front page of the March 1958 issue of The Taxpayers’ News was written: ‘It is very hard to report a Kerry County Council meeting.  By telling the truth it is nearly impossible to avoid slander actions.’[15]  Michael Louis O’Connell interpreted the statement as a personal attack, and said, ‘There could be no question of a settlement after the newspaper appeared in March.’[16]


In May 1958, the case was heard in the High Court, Dublin before Justice Murnaghan when £250 in damages was awarded to Michael Louis O’Connell.[17]


Two Sides of the Story: Councillor Lenihan gave his account of events in The Taxpayers’ News.  On the right, an illustration of his butchers shop in Main Street, Castleisland as it appeared in The Taxpayers’ News




The Taxpayers’ News continued to be published for some years though it had evidently discontinued by 1960, when Councillor Lenihan thanked all who supported him in the County Council Election:


Now that I have got such a vote of confidence in my own district, and that the people who believed in my ideas have so greatly influenced the election in the other areas, I intend to resume publication of our paper, The Taxpayers’ News so that my own opinions and yours may have a fair platform.[18]


In the issue of December 1960/January 1961, members of Kerry County Council remained target:


Moss Lawlor, Chairman of the Kerry County Council, is considering looking for the services of a Garda or police dog for rounding up the members of the Council that keep ducking around to the offices instead of staying in the Council Chamber.


As far as can be seen, the edition of April/May 1961 was the last.  A report in this issue of the escape of two patients from the Mental Hospital (as it was then termed) in Killarney was delivered in direct style by Councillor Lenihan:


There were people kept in there who were cured … the patient population of the hospital was being kept over 1,000 so as to give some officials a higher salary.[19]


Councillor Lenihan died on 24 August 1971.  It was said of him, ‘Charlie Lenihan was a folk hero long before he officially entered politics.  There are times that try a man’s soul and certainly the 1930s in Ireland were such.  In that sour generation when farming was a dirty word, Charlie was an inspiration to the people of the Maine valley; he approached agriculture in a bold and optimistic spirit and experimented with techniques that were then considered heretical.’[20]


A collection of The Taxpayers’ News, held in Kerry County Library, is available online.[21]  It represents a valuable resource for social historians, and for researchers of the early writings of Con Houlihan.



[1] http://www.odonohoearchive.com/con-houlihan-and-the-taxpayers-news/

[2] The Kerryman, 7 February 1959. 

[3] The Taxpayers’ News, July/August 1958, ‘Councillor Lenihan Tells His Side of the Story’ Kilcow Cottage and the O’Connell-Lenihan Case.’

[4] The Kerryman, 17 May 1958.  ‘I was directed by the Co Manager some time later to make an inspection of the cottage which I did, and I reported to the Co Manager on what I’d found.  The cottage wasn’t occupied when I inspected it; it merely showed signs of fires having been lighted and nothing other than the fact that there was a new lock there.’

[5] The Kerryman, 17 May 1958.  ‘I did lose my temper and I regretted it immediately after using the words I used.  I never had it at the back of my mind that Mr O’Connell was a crook in his profession but he disappointed me that he should have known more about the Housing Acts.’

[6] In ‘Councillor Lenihan Tells His Side of the Story’ Kilcow Cottage and the O’Connell-Lenihan Case,’ The Taxpayers’ News, July/August 1958,  Lenihan published the correspondence between his and O’Connell’s solicitor conducted during 1957 and 1958. Maurice O’Sullivan, a native of Ballylongford, died in March 1977.  Obituary in The Kerryman, 18 March 1977.

[7] The Kerryman, 5 October 1957. 

[8] The Taxpayers’ News of July/August 1958.

[9] The Kerryman, 7 February 1959.  Councillor Lenihan had attempted on occasion to bring to the meetings of the council a tape recorder in order to record the deliberations but exception was taken by certain councillors to having recordings made of their speeches. In January 1958, he was suspended and ejected by Gardai from the Council Chamber when he refused to turn off his tape recorder.  An account of the proceedings is given in The Kerryman, 18 January 1958.

[10] Description of break-in from The Kerryman, 7 February 1959. 

[11] Ibid. 

[12] He would later state, ‘When I broke into the Council offices to get access to the files there was more concerned than the Kilcow cottage.  The officials themselves know this well.  To state or insinuate otherwise is to draw a red herring across the trail’ (Irish Examiner, 13 May 1958).

[13] The Kerryman, 7 February 1959.  The appeal was heard before Judge Barra O’Brian in Tralee Circuit Court.  In a description of his character, Lenihan was credited with breaking four boycotts, one at Ataglass, another at Reidy’s near Tralee, a third at Foley’s near Firies and the Anderson Boycott in Castleisland.  ‘This was the case of a Protestant married to a Catholic.  There was a question of the religion of the children and Anderson was boycotted.  Mr Lenihan went in and threshed his corn under police protection.  Mr Anderson later sold his farm at full value.’

[14] The Kerryman, 7 February 1959. The earlier incidents included Mr Lenihan being pushed down to the barracks in Tralee in his van when he refused to get out of it when asked to do so by Guard O’Neill. The District Justice formed the view that Mr Lenihan was ‘setting up a one-man republic.’

[15] In the February 1958 issue, an image of flooding outside The Moo Cow was captioned: ‘Kerry County Council, working hand in hand with Bord Failte, have great plans for the future of Tralee.  They are devising a scheme for the permanent flooding of the town and when their plans are fulfilled, they will advertise Tralee as the Venice of Ireland.’

[16] Kerryman, 17 May 1958.

[17] The Kerryman, 17 May 1958. Michael Louis O’Connell died on 18th January 1988.  Tributes in The Kerryman, 22 January 1988.

[18] Kerryman, 9 July 1960.

[19] In the issue of December 1960/January 1961,  an item on the same subject stated, ‘It is sincerely to be hoped that mental illness, will in the very near future, be regarded as just another curable illness, and not something of which one should be ashamed.’

[20] http://www.odonohoearchive.com/con-houlihan-and-the-taxpayers-news/

[21] https://www.kerrylibrary.ie/taxpayers-news.html