Published by the Royal Irish Academy this is a very well written, and entertaining, account of the life of the founder of the Irish state.
It is illustrated with a great collection of photographs, of people who figured in William Cosgrave’s life, and of documents on the time, including of the death sentence passed on him for his participation in the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin. The sentence was commuted but he did go to prison.
WT Cosgrave was born in James Street in Dublin and his family had roots in Kildare and Wexford.
He joined the Sinn Fein Party of Arthur Griffith and was first elected to Dublin Corporation for that party in 1909 for the area in which he lived. He took a deep interest in housing policy, at a time when many Dubliners lived in terrible conditions.
Released from jail after the Rebellion in early 1917, he was selected to stand in the by election for the Kilkenny City seat in the House of Commons, that arose from the death of John Redmond’s closest friend and Parliamentary colleague, Pat O Brien.
Such was the dominance of Redmond’s Party until then, that O Brien had been re elected unopposed in the two previous General Elections. The Kilkenny City constituency was the smallest in the country, with less than one tenth the population of the largest (East Belfast).
The by Election took place 100 years ago on 10 August 1917. WT Cosgrave defeated the Irish Party candidate, a member of Kilkenny Corporation, John McGuinness , by 772 votes to 392.
Interestingly, notwithstanding the 1917 defeat, the McGuinness family are still prominently involved in Kilkenny politics at both local and national level.
In accordance with Sinn Fein policy, WT Cosgrave did not take his seat in the House of Commons. He did continue to be an active member of Dublin Corporation.
In his book, Michael Laffan deals with Cosgrave’s work in the shadow government established by Dail Eireann in 1919. This government was illegal in the eyes of the authorities, and its members lived in constant fear of arrest.
WT Cosgrave took no direct part in the negotiation of the Treaty of 1921, which provided the legal basis for the establishment of the Irish state. But within the Dail Cabinet, his vote tipped the balance in favour of acceptance of the Treaty, much to the disappointment of Eamon de Valera, who had been close to Cosgrave up to that.
During the subsequent Civil War over the Treaty, Arthur Griffith died, and Michael Collins was killed. As the most experienced surviving political leader the role of leading the pro Treaty government fell to WT Cosgrave. He prosecuted the Civil War to a successful conclusion and built a strong and stable state, on what appeared at the time to be very unpromising foundations.
He abandoned Collins’ policy of destabilising Northern Ireland.
As early as 1922, according to Laffan, Cosgrave
argued that military or economic pressure against the Belfast government would not bring about reunification, while a peaceful policy had at least some chance of protecting Northern Catholics.
During the Civil War, pro Treaty members of Dail and Senate were targeted by opponents of the Treaty. 37 houses belonging to Senators were razed. Cosgrave’s own home was burned. His uncle was murdered.
Even after the Civil War was officially over, on one night in 1926, 12 Garda barracks were attacked by the IRA. The cost of security and reconstruction after the Civil War made austerity in other areas of government spending inevitable.
Cosgrave was a constitutional democrat who accepted the results of elections, unlike many who held power in other European countries in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
As President of the Executive Council (Taoiseach), he had less power than one might expect. Under the Free State constitution, he could not, at his own sole initiative, sack Ministers, who were supposed to serve for the life time of the Dail. He did persuade a number of them to resign.
Cosgrave wanted to stamp out jobbery in the public service, and was responsible for the setting up of the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commissions, which provided for recruitment on merit rather than on the basis of political connections. This was vitally important, as recent experience in other countries, like Greece, shows.
While Cosgrave was a robust and witty election campaigner, right up to the time he eventually stood down as Fine Gael party leader in 1944, he was not much interested in the details of party organisation.
He stuck rigidly to the terms of the Treaty, and did not use it as a stepping stone to further independence as his successor, de Valera, did.
After his retirement, he served as a member of the Racing Board. He was a man of deep religious faith and counted members of the clergy among his closest friends.
This is an excellent book and well worth reading.
A Commemorative lunch to mark the centenary of WT Cosgrave’s victory in the Kilkenny City by election on 10 August 1917 will be held in Langton’s Hotel, John Street, Kilkenny on Saturday 15 July.
The guest of honour will be WT Cosgrave’s son, Liam Cosgrave.