"They are going to confer the freedom of the city upon him," perhaps in Waterford or some other corporate town. How often we hear, or read the above phrase, how often the ordinary reader voices the newspaper gossip with the same effect, to a crowd, mayhap, of interested listeners; and how often does it happen that perhaps not one in that crowd reflects for a moment upon the meaning of the proffered honour or the nature of the distinction or dignity which it bears. To the uninitiated the "Freedom of the City" runs as a civic honour akin to a dukedom, or some coveted title, which only the few selected can enjoy.
To the representative man the honour conferred is above that in the gift of kings, as it comes from the people, whose hearts pulsation's quicken at the thought of being able to show themselves the possessors of some mark of their signal esteem, of their just and candid appreciation Yet, it is but right to review what it all means, the more so, as we are aware the City of Waterford has lately conferred its Freedom upon some of the leading public men of our own time.
Anciently, cities were not governed by corporations. At first, trade and wealth naturally moved to protect itself, and each trade had its guild. These guilds usually met in the common hall, and passed laws for the regulation of the city, frequently electing the wealthiest to the best positions. Such at least was the custom in England and Wales. This system naturally brought its evil consequences in its trail. The persons so favoured by the guilds sought to keep their position of power as a permanency, and hence continued turmoil was the state of many cities down to a late period. One of the customs of this time was the electing of freemen, who were allowed all the privileges of citizenship without fee or tax. For in-stance, in those early periods a citizen should pay a fee for being allowed to carry on a trade within the city. Tolls were also exacted in numerous cases, and the power of voting was confined to the few. All these privileges a freeman possessed without hurt, or harm, or emolument by way of tax, and hence the coveted position of being a freeman was sought for with an avidity, which frequently led to bloodshed and loss of life. All this was, however, changed by the Municipal Reform Act of 1835, which made every citizen free to trade wherever he pleased; and over a certain valuation and rating to enjoy the privileges of voting for the Municipal Council, as well as for members of Parliament.
But the new Reform Act could not be so cruel as apparently to sweep away all the privileges of the old freemen by placing everybody else upon equality with them. Hence, the Act not only preserved to the freemen all their rights, but also to their sons and daughters, wives, widows, and apprentices; and which rights they wore for over to enjoy, although in most cases they could have enjoyed them equally well by being citizens under the Reform Act.
So far, we have been referring to England and Scotland, yet the circumstances, which regulated cities in Ireland, were not very different except in one particular. viz., that the governing body in Irish cities, founded by the English, wore almost exclusively of English descent down to the reformation; while after that period very few Catholics were allowed municipal privileges until 1843. This does not refer to the Irish portion of the Irish cities, which were sometimes under distinct corporations, as in the case of Kilkenny, where two separate corporations existed down to 1843.. The electing of freemen in Ireland went on with as much zest as it did in England. Every corporate body had its roll of freemen who regarded their proud position upon that page as a heritage to be worth cherishing, but who never thought that in a few years the general liberty of the subject, by contrast, apparently swept away any little advantage which they thus possessed. by making theirs a 5imilar lot to that enjoyed by the whole community.
But what harm is there in keeping up the custom. If in olden times it was a great treat and financial advantage to become a freeman; in the present day, honour takes the place of emolument; and if the compliment of freedom was formerly conferred because it was considered deserved by some worthy person in the community who loved it for lucre sake, surely the compliment of "Freedom" at the present day is no less enjoyable because it brings no money or other real advantage, but because it remains one of the few distinctions in the gift of the people to bestow.
That the privilege of becoming a freeman of the City of Waterford was sought after in olden times with much anxiety the records testify. Even so far back as 1662 there was trouble in Waterford respecting freemen's rights, for in that year some Irish here petitioned the Duke of Ormond, Lord Lieutenant, upon their rights as freemen, which they held were taken from them by the then Mayor of Waterford, William Bolton. William was asked to explain why he demanded tolls, duties, &c from these persons, to which he replied that 1st. The persons complaining "set not their names to the petition. 2nd. That "they being not Protestant, and refusing the oath of supremacy," rendered them unworthy. How he made out the latter fact, while holding the former to be good, history leaves a mystery.