W. T. Cosgrave, The Quintessentially Pragmatic Republican

William Thomas (Liam) Cosgrave was not one of the iconic figures of the early 1900s, nor indeed was he a man who had any real status of leadership in the 1916 Rising, although he was a chief adviser to Eamonn Ceannt during the 1916 Rising at South Dublin Union. It was an apt role because the vicinity was his home turf and he knew all of the alleyways.

Since Cosgrove retired in 1944 he has quite literally been confined to the margins of Irish history (much like Bulmar Hobson). A neglected principal figure, he deserves more accord. A quiet unassuming man, Cosgrave was softly spoken, and dedicated his life to the principles of his faith and convictions, working to bring about some semblance of normality to the Irish people. He always put the welfare of the Irish people at the heart of government policy reforms. His skills lay in the face of his ordinariness, which has some sources suggesting that he was an effective and good chairman rather than a colourful or charismatic leader.

W.T. Cosgrave was born in June 6, 1880, at 74 James Street, in Dublin, the second son among three surviving children of Thomas and Bridget [nee Nixon] Cosgrave. He also had a stepbrother and sister from his mother’s second marriage to Thomas Burke of Seskin, County Tipperary. He was educated at Francis Street Christian Brothers School and the O’Brien Institute. His father was a licensed vintner who had a small premises in one of the poorer areas of Dublin.  Growing up in such a place, Cosgrave was to observe and gain first-hand knowledge and insight of the harsh realities of the poverty and deprivation [read "That’s Just How it Was"] endured by the people of Dublin in this era. Raised in the Roman Catholic faith, he adhered to this faith and its principles in all aspects of his life. He followed his father into the licensed vintner’s trade for a while, always considerate and kind to the people who frequented his father public house.

His devotion to the ideal of an independent Ireland, where Ireland could make its own policies to enrich people’s lives, drove him into politics. He joined Arthur Griffith's Sinn Féin nationalist movement and attended the very first Sinn Féin convention in the Rotunda in 1905, sitting proudly beside Eoin MacNeill and Patrick Pearse. So it was from this background of being a publican, he gained ready insight into the poverty and deprivation that the Dublin people faced on a daily basis, which helped shape his conviction that if Ireland was free of the encumbrance of the Crown Forces, that nation would be free to serve its people better. 

Toiling at a municipal level first, he was elected to Dublin Corporation in 1909 as a councillor at Usher’s Quay, along with Michael Flannagan (whose daughter Louisa he would marry) as a reforming Sinn Féin councillor right up to 1922 and it was here that he forged his way into main stream politics, learning “his trade” so to speak, becoming chairman of the Finance Committee, and although he did not know it at the time, it was a very good training ground for him for when he would be elected into the role of political leader.  

By 1913 he had joined the Irish Volunteers and encouraged his stepbrother Frank ‘Gobban’ Burke to join with him in training with the Volunteers on all mountain manoeuvres. Cosgrave always refused overtures by the Irish Republican Brotherhood to join its ranks. Despite this, by 1916 he had become heavily involved in the Irish Volunteers and fought under Eamonn Ceannt, based at the South Dublin Union which was adjacent to his home. Using his detailed knowledge of his own locality, he was an advisor to his commander, Eamonn Ceannt, on the best disposition for his small force of volunteers around the complex area.

Cathal Brugha (see article on Brugha) was among the men who were shot and seriously wounded in the fighting at the Union -- Cosgrave’s stepbrother Frank was killed by a sniper while on guard duty. Cosgrove always felt responsible for his brother’s death because it was he who encouraged Frank to join the Irish Volunteers. After the Rising, he, too, was imprisoned, like all the rest of the Volunteers, and sent to Frongoch and sentenced to death like de Valera, with 94 other men. W.E Wylie (barrister for the Crown), who prosecuted Cosgrave, noted his dignified demeanour in the face of a likely execution, as Cosgrave gave his statement to the Court. Cosgrave emphasized that the Rising was an autonomous and legitimate act by the Irish people, and not, as was being suggested, an outbreak that had been conceived by and carried out under German sponsorship.

While in a Dublin prison, before he was sent to Frongoch, he conferred daily with Major John MacBride and Eamonn Ceannt, on the conduct of the courts and their probable outcome. He was to witness through a crack in the door, MacBride being taken from his prison cell, and the next thing he heard was the sharp crack of a rifle, and then deathly silence. He thought he would be next -- his death sentence, however, was commuted to life imprisonment, due in part to the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Sir James Michael Gallagher, who testified to the inordinate amount of good work that Cosgrave had done for the Dublin people and his exemplary reputation in the affairs of Dublin Corporation. By January 1917, Dublin Corporation had passed a motion calling specifically for the release of Cosgrave, citing the respect that he had earned from every member of the staff in all departments.

While he was in prison, he was elected a Sinn Féin candidate for Kilkenny City in the by-elections, and 1918 saw him win an Irish seat in the general elections, this time for Kilkenny North. Only 27 Sinn Féin members were free from prison to take their seats in Parliament. In accordance with the Sinn Fein party manifesto, they refused to go to Westminster, and instead formed the First Dáil. In the role-call of the Dáil's first meeting, it states “Liam MacCosgair (Irish for Liam Cosgrave] is absent" - described as “fé ghlasag Gallaibh” -- imprisoned by a foreign enemy).  Cosgrave was freed in 1919, and immediately took his seat in the Dáil, and that same year saw him marry his long-term girlfriend, Louisa Flanagan. They moved into their first home, bought for them as a wedding gift by Louisa’s father Michael Flanagan, at Beechpark, Templeogue. Flanagan had been Cosgrave’s colleague, fellow councilor, and friend from Usher Quay. The Cosgraves went on to have two sons.

Although Cosgrave was one of the most politically experienced TDs [teachta Dála] of Sinn Fein's first Dáil, he was not among the major leadership men of the Sinn Féin party. However when Cathal Brugha resigned as the first president of Dáil Éireann and de Valera took over (with the help of Michael Collins, who had just escaped from prison with a key that had been made with candle grease), Cosgrave was appointed to de Valera’s cabinet in April 1919, as the Minister for Local Rebel Government. Being de Valera’s friend and, more importantly, with his long experience on the Dublin Corporation Finance committee, he helped sway the rest of the TDs' opinions.

In 1919, his chief task as minister was the job of organizing the non-cooperation of the Irish people with the British authorities, and establishing an alternative system of government for the people of Ireland by proportional representation, a system that the Irish people fully endorsed. Suffice it to say, he was very successful in this role at the Department of Local Government.

By September 1919, the British authorities had banned the rebel Irish government, and they were forced to go underground. The Department of Local Government went on the run, moving from office to office; Harcourt Street, Clare Street, Parnell Street, Sackville Street [now O’Connell Street] and finally settled in Wicklow Street, operating under extraordinarily confined, cramped conditions and masquerading as a company providing advice on taxation. 

During this whole period of moving offices, the Crown forces seized files, offices were burned, staff were arrested, including his father-in-law, and Cosgrave had a price on his head of £3,500 (a lot of money in this era). Even Michael Collins was not accorded this amount of money [dead or alive] as a price on his head! Cosgrave and those others in the government had their homes searched.

After the killings on Bloody Sunday at Croke Park on 21st November 1920, and the arrest of Arthur Griffith, Cosgrave realised that they had been informed on, and that because of his long service in Dublin Corporation, he was better known than any of his Cabinet colleagues, so he decided to go on the run. An Oblate priest (Oblates shape their lives by living the wisdom of Christ as interpreted by St. Benedict) who was a friend, drove him from Dublin to the order's monastery in Glencree, County Wicklow, where he resided for some time. He wore varying disguises, colouring his hair and shaving his mustache; he was even arrested and jailed at one point. When he did return to Dublin, some sources suggest that he walked the streets of Dublin in a monk’s habit, calling himself Brother Doyle. At the first Cabinet meeting, 9th January 1921, when de Valera had returned from the United States, Cosgrave walked in and nobody recognized him as his hair, mustache and eyebrows were all dyed black. On another occasion in May 1921, as he left his office on Wicklow Street, a beggar accosted him with the comment, “Spare a copper, Mr. Cosgrave?“ -- this completely destroyed his own perception of his disguise.

When the truce was called by Lloyd George in the summer of 1921, Cosgrave was able to again concentrate on departmental matters, new reforms were introduced, rates were reduced, the old poor laws were to be abolished and each county was to have one ‘home’ (residential) and one well-equipped hospital. However, when the Treaty was negotiated and the debates on them began, de Valera and Cosgrave’s paths separated, and they found themselves at odds over the content and the feasibility of it on the whole country. De Valera wanted all those who had negotiated the Treaty sacked, while Cosgrave argued that the delegates should be given the opportunity to explain themselves. This was the first time that de Valera realised that Cosgrave was openly disagreeing with him. 

Then on the 8th of December 1921, all seven of the cabinet members met. It was at this point that Cosgrave decided to remain silent on the subject until they had all expressed their opinion. Three of the members who had signed the treaty gave it their support; however, Barton [Childer's cousin] later withdrew his support, Brugha, Stack and de Valera opposed it . Noted in Childer's diary is that after all the other members had expressed their opinion, everything now rested on Cosgrave’s vote. In the subsequent debates on the treaty, Cosgrave’s attention to detail and procedures, characteristic of his time spent in Dublin Corporation, were noted; he voted in favour of the treaty.   

If the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising was seen as a bloody purge, the treaty split provoked a second, bloodless purge, with de Valera, Brugha, and Stack resigning and then going into opposition, extending the existing conflict which became known as the Civil War. Cosgrave, along with Collins and Griffith, were the only three of the senior ministers of eight left out of de Valera’s original cabinet. 

Yet when Griffith died of natural causes Aug 12th 1922, and Collins was assassinated on the 22nd of Aug. 1922, this quiet, unassuming, relatively unknown man was catapulted into the eye of the nation, emerging out of the shadows cast by the other well-known men. From this period on, Cosgrave regarded de Valera with particular loathing and contempt -- like other supporters of the treaty he blamed the former president for the Civil War.

It was therefore in this context of political strife within the new Free State government that this soft-spoken, small, quite unassuming man, was capitulated into the highest honour of Irish politics and history, becoming president of the Executive Council created in 1922 by the establishment of the Irish Free State, replacing the previous offices of president of the Irish Republic and chairman of the Provisional Government. Only two individuals have held the office of president of the Executive Council during its existence -- W.T Cosgrave being one, from 1922 to 1932, and de Valera, thereafter. He watched in dismay as the republicans continued to undermine the treaty and issued a statement which read “Is there to be government by majority, or is there to be government by autocracy? It is not a question of whether one thing is worth a civil war or not. It is a question of whether the people have a right to elect a government.”

Cosgrave’s hard-line policies helped bring an end to the civil war. Childers [see here] was the first man to be executed under the Special Power Act in September 1922, whereby the Irish army could hold military courts and impose the death sentence for a variety of offenses, including possession of illegal firearms. Childers was the first to be charged under this Act and duly executed. In 1923, Cosgrave’s home and more than 100 other homes were razed to the ground by anti-treaty forces.

By the time of the next General Elections in April 1923, Cosgrave had founded Cumann na Gaedheal and become its first leader. It has been noted by some sources that during Cumann na Gaedheal's term in high office, it was Cosgrave’s government that lay the foundations for the Free State. Cosgrave has been given credit for being the stabilizing force during the economic storm that broke out worldwide by the Wall Street crash in 1929. At this time, measures were put into place to deal effectively with the endemic inefficiency and corruption in local government.

However, there were also weaknesses -- areas neglected by Cosgrave’s Government -- including housing and social welfare. There was the Army Mutiny of 1924 [due to staff being cut]. Also the Boundary Commission fiasco of 1925 -- this left Cosgrave in a very awkward position with Westminster, as he had relied heavily on the negotiations of the treaty and what he believed were its terms. (He had hoped for the transfer of considerable amounts of border land, especially in the nationalist areas of the north of Ireland, to the Free State]. When this proved not to be the case, he then had to concede that the boundary agreed to in the treaty, separating the north from the south of Ireland, would remain in place as it was [like 'a lamb to slaughter,' some sources have said about this meeting at Westminster with Stanley Baldwin, then the UK-Prime Minister and Sir James Craig, minister for Northern Ireland.)

Stanley Baldwin British Prime Minister 

The assassination of Kevin Higgins [Minister of Home Affairs] in July 1927 was a personal blow to Cosgrave, and seriously undermined the authority of Cumann na Gaedheal. However, despite the apparent strength of Cosgrave’s initiatives and his apparent ruthless actions taken under the Public Safety Act 1922 against the Anti-Treaty Forces, whereby at least 77 men were executed, despite the intervention by the Catholic Church, the general public were shocked. The general elections of 1927 proved difficult for Cosgrave’s party, and his adherents were becoming increasingly unpopular. The Irish public were in effect labeling Cosgrave as pro-British, and he only managed to form a government with the support of the farmers and the independents. However, by 1930, Cosgrave and Cumann na mBan were now losing out to the newly founded Fianna Fáil party headed by de Valera.

By February 1932, Cosgrave had called another election because of the growing unrest, knowing that a fresh mandate from the public was required, and not least because being a devout Catholic, the pending Eucharistic Congress was to be held in June 1932 and he did not want any tensions arising at this international event, as both he and his cabinet had invested much of their time in the build up to this important event.

During the election campaign of 1932, Cosgrave fought the election on the grounds of providing stable government over the 10-year period he had been in high office, and then he and his government played the “Red Card” by portraying the Fianna Fáil party as communists -- a huge error of judgment which backfired on them. This tactic utterly failed Cosgrave and Cumann na Gaedheal. Fianna Fáil gained control of a coalition government with the fresh and popular manifesto of social reform, more housing, more infrastructure. The Irish people thought that Cosgrave would fight to remain in power, however, this did not happen and the transition of government went off peacefully. Fianna Fáil walked into high office with 72 seats plus the independents, the farmers and others against 57 for Cumann na Gaedheal.

By 1933, de Valera was not happy that he had to depend on other political parties votes to fulfill his policies so he called a snap election in January 1933. This time Fianna Fáil won 77 seats and flew into high office on the wings of a majority. This left Cosgrave with few options but to assume the role of leader of the opposition. After this defeat, Cosgrave joined with the National Center Party and the National Guard, forming a new political party – Fine Gael - the United Ireland Party. Cosgrave became the first parliamentary leader of this party and remained as leader in opposition until he retired from its leadership and politics in 1944.

Cosgrave died on the 16th of November 1965. The Fianna Fáil government led by Seán Lamass accorded him the honour of a state funeral, which was attended by family, friends, colleagues in the opposition party, all of the Finna Fáil cabinet, and not least, President Eamon de Valera, his old nemesis. He was buried in Goldenbridge Cemetery, Inchicore, Dublin.

The eulogy was read by Richard Mulcahy [TD Fine Gael] which reads as follows: "It is in terms of the nation and its needs and its potential that I praise God who gave us, in our dangerous days, the gentle but steel-like spirit of rectitude, courage and humble self-sacrifice that was Liam T. Cosgrave."

Perhaps the best endorsement of Cosgrave and his Government was from his old nemesis and rival, de Valera, who had reconciled with Cosgrave before his death, and made two major statements, one to his own son, Vivion, within weeks after taking power in 1932, after reading the files on the actions of Cosgrave's government in Ireland and in relation to its work in the Commonwealth, he said of Cosgrave and Cosgrave's ministers, "When we got in and saw the files, they did a magnificent job, Viv, they did a magnificent job." Closer to de Valera’s own death, when asked by an interviewer what was the biggest mistake he had made, without hesitation, de Valera answered, "Not accepting the Treaty."

(1973–77) Taoiseach 

Liam Cosgrave's son, [left] also named Liam, succeeded his father as a TD and went on to become the leader of  Fine Gael from 1965-1977, assuming the role of Taoiseach from 1973-1977. His grandson who was also called Liam, served as a TD and as a senator, while his granddaughter Louise, not to be outdone in the family tradition of serving in politics, served as a councilor for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown from 1999-2009. 

Cosgrave's Legacy of Leader of the Provisional Government and the Irish Free State is as follows: 

  • 1st Provisional Government  (22–30 August 1922)  5th Executive Council of the Irish Free State 2nd  Provisional Government   August 1922–December 1922)
  • 2nd Provisional Government (August 1922–December 1922)
  • 1st Executive Council of the Irish Free State (December 1922–September 1923]
  • 2nd Executive Council of the Irish Free State (December 1923–September 1927)
  • 3nd Executive Council of the Irish Free State (June 1927–October 1927) 
  • 4th Executive Council of the Irish Free State (October 1927–April 1930) 5th Executive Council of the Irish Free State April 1930–March 1932)

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Tags: Founding Fathers, Free State, Irish Freedom Struggle, Legislators, Politicians, Politics

Comment by Eoin Mac Lochlainn on April 3, 2016 at 3:44pm

Thank you for the really informative post, go raibh maith agat, eoin

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on April 3, 2016 at 4:17pm

Thank you Eoin ... I have a grandson called Eoin ... I am ashamed to say that while I do have a smattering of Gaelic ,,, but do not know how to spell the words . 

Comment by Joe Gannon on May 6, 2016 at 2:06pm

I'm reading a biography of the old IRA leader Tom Barry and it mentioned that in the mid-20s, when the Republicans still had arms, in spite of having supposedly "dumped" them at the end of the Civil War, they used to use Cosgrave's photo as a target in firing drills. His nose was the "bull's eye."

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on May 7, 2016 at 11:10am

That does not surprise me Joe .... De Valera was also one of these men whose photo was used as target practice.... It just depended on which side of the Treaty they were on !

Arms were still around long after the Civil War was over... In Bray Co Wicklow. where I hail from .. arms were stored in the caves in  the cliff under Bray Head... and it will not surprise you to lean that the Bray  Volunteers still continued to train in the Hills around Co Wicklow and Dublin  around.. as they bordered one another. 

Comment by Joe Gannon on May 7, 2016 at 3:00pm

By the mid-30s the Republicans may have been using Dev's photos for target practice too. 

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on May 11, 2016 at 6:33am

Joe , by the mid- 30s Dev was well entrenched in the higher echelons  of High Office....... At this time I rather doubt that he woudl have cared what they threw at his photo...  After his initial step into High Office 1932 ... with the support of Labour and Independents . In the snap elect he called only months late  ;, so that he had a full majority of Fianna Fáil in governnment...

. Hence he flew itto High Office on the wings of a majority  .. He the set about demolishing everything that tied Ireland , he abolished the allegiance to the Crown... He build anywhere between 80.000 - 120.0000 Homes depending on which sources one reads, and importantly he retrieved the Treaty Port.. ...

When I was growing up in Ireland , Dev was revered...... its only when I started researching all these Leaders that I could fully understand , how pivitol all of them were in their different roles .. They were magnificent, each and every one of them .. and all of those who remain nameless,,  .....Ireland 100 years on is Country that has claimed its place in the world , and can hold its head high... But lest we forget all of these brave men and women deserve all the accolades / plaudits that have been heaped on their heads in this 100 centenary ....  

Without their sacrifices, I dread where we woudl be now. Slainte  



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