Sunday 4 December 2016

Review: The Cosgrave Party: A History of Cumann na nGaedheal 1923-33 by Ciara Meehan

Royal Irish Academy, €29.99

John-Paul McCarthy

Published 24/04/2011 | 05:00

Reminiscing in 1866 about Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli told the Commons that he hoped "the time may never come when the love of fame shall cease to be the sovereign passion of our public men".

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Most books about our first government seem to have forgotten Disraeli's brazen insight. Invariably stressing stoicism, self-sacrifice and Roman nobility, most scholars of the Free State paint in sadder, Gladstonian colours.

Ciara Meehan's beautifully produced book is best read as an attempt to add some empirical rigour to the old morality tale while downplaying John Regan's The Irish Counter-Revolution, a book that showed Kevin O'Higgins' ambition to be more lurid than Dizzy's.

Meehan emphasises WT Cosgrave's leadership skills, and presents evidence that he was still directing events during the Army Mutiny in 1924 even while ill in bed. Meehan also underlines his electoral prowess, and emphasises his personal vigour in the 1927 election. While some contemporary journalists questioned Cosgrave's motives when he forced FF into the Dail in 1927, Meehan sees chivalry and foresight by contrast.

While offering fascinating new details, including O'Higgins' early inclination towards the priesthood and the bizarre discussions in the late Twenties about reuniting the old Sinn Fein party, her book nestles happily at the end in familiar folds.

Her diligence in various archives does, however, encourage some tantalising thoughts about the peculiarity of the Free State, and its chaotic birth. This strange entity was baptised in Downing Street when Lloyd George asked de Valera for a literal translation of the Irish compound noun "Saorstat". And, as Bill Kissane noted, it shared a name with the Orange and Congo free states in Africa, bad company in any decade.

Unhappy associations led to unhappy habits.

The overwhelming sense of aggression that colours Meehan's main characters may well have been a product of the state's early brush with force majeure.

To that extent, the Free State was a frustrated one.

One of the most deeply Catholic states in Europe took its first clanking steps under the weight of an impeccably liberal constitution, and a generation of dreamy Gaelic Leaguers was saddled with JS Mill's minimal state.

In The American Language, US critic HL Mencken noted the equally incongruous mismatch between Cosgrave's audaciously ambitious language policy and the pessimistic Poujadism that suffused economic thinking.

One wonders if the executive aggression that Meehan recounts might actually be a product of these existential frustrations, and if Cosgrave's brisk managerialism was an unconscious protest against the more profound cultural constraints under which he and his team laboured?

Death is everywhere in Meehan's account, whether in the complex legacy of 1916-21, or in the shadows cast by the shattering funerals of Collins, Griffith and O'Higgins. And while most scholars note the rooted sorrows of our first cabinet, these psychological deformities have never really been properly analysed.

Meehan's main characters all functioned in an atmosphere marred by the threat of violent or sudden death, and her portrait calls to mind Johan Huizinga's great book, The Waning of the Middle Ages.

Referring to that age's "vision of death", Huizinga examined the strange emotional rhythms of a society that knew only two antagonistic modes of thought, lamentation about the briefness of earthly glory or jubilation over the soul's salvation.

Cosgrave was no 14th- Century troubadour, but the careworn hearts in his cabinet also lived in a culture of death.

Cumann na nGaedheal was not unlike Prometheus, the tragic figure in Greek mythology who stole fire from Zeus to give light to mankind, only to be horrifically punished for his altruism. Cosgrave, Mulcahy and O'Higgins also established law via a stupendous act of violence, in their case one directed against the best-men at their own weddings and former comrades in arms. (Zeus came for them in 1932 bearing a Spanish surname and a Limerick drawl).

It is this violence that makes piety about the Free State's "nobility" seem so out of place. Moist hankies do not help when assessing the hard men in Meehan's account. Cosgrave's own brush with death in 1916 gave him a life-long sensitivity to the pedagogic potential of firing squads.

O'Higgins emerges again as a kind of Irish Edwin Stanton, the belligerent asthmatic who prosecuted the US Civil War as Lincoln's war secretary. And the hilariously intemperate Ernest Blythe acts like Henry Adams' depiction of John Bright, another no-nonsense Dissenter who told a dinner party in 1863 that the English "ought to be exterminated to the last man".

These fairly dark impulses shaped our sad state's first attempt at language. They await a Hibernian Huizinga to parse them.

Meehan notes that Cosgrave's defeat in 1932 prompted references to Brian Boru. This seems too joyous somehow as an obituary for a Free State born old. Lenin's image of the enamoured youth works better, the one who learned to regard all persons without sentiment and who always kept a stone in his sling.

JP McCarthy holds a doctorate in history from Oxford

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