WT became the most ruthless of them all
A major documentary series examines the 12 men who have led our country since 1922, writes John-Paul McCarthy
Published 10/01/2010 | 05:00
TV3 is to be commended for its major new documentary on the office of Taoiseach, the first episode of which went out last week.
While there have, of course, been many biographies of the 12 men who have been head of Irish governments since 1922, there has been relatively little written on the office of Taoiseach itself since Brian Farrell's classic Chairman or Chief? book.
While Taoiseach itself carried with it some initially unpleasant assonances with Caudillo, Fuhrer and Duce, all but one of the 12 men who wielded the prime ministerial sceptre have managed to keep their megalomanical tendencies in check.
TV3's first programme doffed its cap to W T Cosgrave, our first civilian chief executive after the deaths of Collins and Griffith in 1922 though he never held the office of Taoiseach per se, serving instead as President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State from 1922 until his defeat by a resurgent de Valera in 1932.
Though he led an Irish government for a decade, longer, in fact, than Costello, Lemass, Lynch and FitzGerald, and longer than the combined later tenures of Reynolds and Bruton, William Thomas Cosgrave remains a curiously elusive figure, a Charlie Chaplin lookalike who stares awkwardly back at us from many forgotten horse shows and dominion conferences.
TV3 is to be praised for encouraging us to reconsider the myriad paradoxes that still infuse the Cosgrave personality with its curious lustre.
Cosgrave was in many ways an essentially theocratic politician, a deeply devout Catholic who once proposed that an ecclesiastical commission vet parliamentary legislation for theological deviance as soon as the statutes emerged from the Dail print shop.
And yet he held office under a classically liberal constitution, complete with an American-style establishment clause banning preferential treatment for a state church and an essentially British division of competences between an executive, a lower house and an upper house possessed of some interesting delaying powers. The Catholic Gulliver was thus immobilised for 15 years by these delicate constitutional chains.Cosgrave was also mild-mannered, unambitious personally and prone on occasion to diplomatic illnesses which allowed him to avoid contentious cabinet tussles between his headstrong subordinates. (He was formally ill during the Army Mutiny crisis in 1924 and sought to direct events from hospital.) And yet, circumstances forced Cosgrave to become arguably the most ruthless civilian chief executive the Irish State has ever produced.
For all his personal inadequacies and inhibitions, he knew he could not avoid the
enormous responsibility which arrived at his house in Beechpark at 4am the morning after Collins was murdered in Cork in 1922.
Cosgrave would issue a chilling warning to the republican mutineers during the Civil War, worth recalling in full here as we excavate what might be called the DNA of the later office of Taoiseach which his son would hold.
As the Republicans threatened to shoot Dail deputies and unsympathetic journalists, Cosgrave declared in 1923: "I am not going to hesitate and if the country is to live and if we have to exterminate ten thousand Republicans, the three millions of our people are bigger than this ten thousand".
Cosgrave had in many ways a Victorian personality. When the eminent economist JM Keynes met him in Dublin in 1933, he thought that his insistence on balanced budgets and strict economy would not have been out of place in one of Gladstone's cabinets.
And yet, Cosgrave presided over what must rank as the most exotic group of ministers ever assembled in an Irish cabinet room.
For all his own simple pieties about pennies saved and 'my word is my bond', he chaired a cabinet which included a general who probably didn't believe all that strongly in democratic elections (Collins), a pseudo-imperialist who died dreaming of a united Ireland under a common British king (Kevin O'Higgins), a modernist poet from the New Age paddock in Edwardian London (Desmond FitzGerald, father of Garret), a puritanical, Irish-speaking northern Protestant who guarded the public fisc (Ernest Blythe), and another northern Gradgrind who warned the Dail that people may have to starve in the new Free State (Patrick McGilligan).
WT's son Liam would show a similar talent in the Seventies for keeping a flamboyant team in harness until electoral defeat intervened.
Perhaps the most extraordinary compliment Cosgrave ever earned was from a public enemy rather than from any cabinet colleague.
When WT died in 1965, then Taoiseach Sean Lemass gave a moving eulogy and suspended Dail business in his honour.
Lemass's beloved brother Noel had been tortured and then murdered by the Special Branch division in the Civic Guards during the civil war, which Cosgrave insisted would go on until every drop of blood drawn by the Derringer would be paid by another drawn by the firing squad.
Lemass's handsome gesture was no doubt in recognition of the fact that without WT Cosgrave's defence of the democratic decencies against the theological claims of Rory O'Connor and Liam Lynch in 1923, there might well have been no state left for his colleagues to transform after 1932.
Here's hoping the next 11 episodes prove as stimulating.
John-Paul McCarthy is a history tutor at Exeter College, Oxford.