Sunday 15 December 2019

Book review: A forgotten founder of the nation

Eamon Delaney on a new illustrated ­biography of WT Cosgrave that ­ re-establishes his importance in the ­ creation of our democratic state

WT Cosgrave and Bishop Michael Fogarty of Killaloe at the funeral of Paschal Robinson, the first papal nuncio to the Irish Free State, August 31, 1948. (Pictures courtesy of Liam Cosgrave/RIA)
WT Cosgrave and Bishop Michael Fogarty of Killaloe at the funeral of Paschal Robinson, the first papal nuncio to the Irish Free State, August 31, 1948. (Pictures courtesy of Liam Cosgrave/RIA)
WT Cosgrave, his sister Joan, Hugh Kennedy, Richard Mulcahy, Clare Kennedy at a Wolfe Tone anniversary.

It is often said that the myth of Michael Collins appealed because he died so young and that of Éamon de Valera because he lived so long! Of course, there are other reasons such as charisma, drive - and personality. But with all the focus on the big figures in our State's creation, we tend to overlook the real stabilising figures who were less flamboyant.

One such is William T Cosgrave, who as President of the Free State's Executive Council was effectively our first leader. He was a very substantive figure but has been deemed (wrongly) to be a somewhat grey and dour character, so this handsome biography, drawing on new and varied sources, does a tremendous job in balancing the picture.

It gives us a full and vivid picture of this determined individual whose energy and even ruthlessness secured the new State, its democracy and its rule of law - which was no mean achievement when anarchy was threatened by the Civil War of 1922-23, and by threats of renewed violence in the 1930s. Interestingly, his son Liam was Taoiseach in the 1970s when a similar threat arose.

This is the third book in the acclaimed 'Judging' series by the Royal Irish Academy - the first two were on de Valera and Seán Lemass. As well as being a most engaging read by UCD historian Michael Laffan, the book makes an extensive and stimulating use of old photos, illustrations and reproductions of original documents. It is a rich and compelling combination, like a scrapbook which brings history brilliantly alive. Thus, we have haunting pictures of the 1920s Cabinet, next to extracts from actual State documents outlining often draconian laws and even executions - as well as cartoons and personal memos.

Meanwhile, from the subsequent years, as the two Civil War sides settled into the political divide of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - a long-standing division which may finally be about to end - we have election posters with bitter slogans about Civil War atrocities, de Valera's Treaty sophistries and later the 'red scare' of a more radical FF.

By contrast, Cosgrave was a strong conservative and Laffan shows just how similar to the European Christian democrat tradition the ruling Cumann na nGaedheal (and then Fine Gael) party actually was. In Ireland, this was even more the case, given the deep influence of the Catholic Church, an influence Cosgrave respected and obeyed. Indeed, the book has a wonderful triumphant caricature of a righteous young man kicking off the island a horrible goblin symbolising 'Evil Literature'. From a modern perspective, it looks like a parody. But it wasn't - this was the closed and censorious State that was being created.

However, it is to the great credit of Cosgrave and others that they stabilised the nation's finances and built up an economy on a war-ravaged island with little or no manufacturing. And it is to the credit of his rivals that they built up our constitutional independence without further bloodshed.

Nor was Cosgrave a mean conservative. His experience on Dublin Corporation had alerted him to the slum landlords who had so many of the poor in the city living in abject misery. He himself came from James Street, the son of a publican, so he was a 'man of the street', as well as a legislator with a pen.

He was also a personally courageous man. Imbued with the Republican spirit, he joined Sinn Féin and participated in the 1916 Rising, for which he was sentenced to death by the British. This was later commuted to life imprisonment but, of course, rapid political changes took hold, and Cosgrave was elected an MP in a 1917 by-election and then re-elected in the 1918 election which saw a landslide for Sinn Féin.

The rebel MPs withdrew from Westminster and created their own parliament and Government. With the split over the Treaty and subsequent killing of Collins, Cosgrave became Chairman of the Provisional Government and thus of the new state. His real achievements were in then stabilising the State, creating a new civil service, courts system and an unarmed police as well as public economic projects such as the ESB and national electrification.

However, the bitterness of the Civil War was not forgotten by either side, and even when Cosgrave was on a visit to the US, the American authorities, no less, felt the need to censor one of his speeches, such were his denunciations of de Valera back home in Ireland and the bloodshed that he regarded Dev as having been responsible for. Many Irish agreed, but Dev would replace Cosgrave as leader in 1932, and could have done so in 1927 if he'd taken the British 'oath.'

Cosgrave only had a few years at the helm but he steadied the ship and saved the State - even if it meant the execution of many of those who were out to destroy it.

This is a fine book, a large format, beautifully designed hardback, full of photographs and illustrations, to bring to life the informative and authoritative text. It is worth every cent of its cover price.

Judging WT ­Cosgrave; Michael Laffan; Royal Irish Academy, hdbk, 412 pages, €30

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