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Wednesday 18 September 2019

Pride in father's service to the nation inspired a gentleman of Irish politics

A skilled statesman in often difficult times, Liam Cosgrave's career was informed by heritage

Former ministers in Cosgrave cabinet L to R Patrick Cooney, Richie Ryan and Tom O Donnell. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/
Former ministers in Cosgrave cabinet L to R Patrick Cooney, Richie Ryan and Tom O Donnell. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/

Anthony Jordan

I got to know Liam Cosgrave well through my biographical writings. He came across as a thorough gentleman, though well able to mix it politically and with a highly developed sense of gallows humour. He was at all times proud of the sometimes unacknowledged record of his father, WT Cosgrave, and the role he played in establishing a democratic state in Ireland.

WT Cosgrave was in the South Dublin Union in 1916 where his step-brother was shot dead. He won one of the famous bye-elections for Sinn Fein in Kilkenny in 1917. When Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins died in 1922, WT Cosgrave succeeded to leadership. He steered the new state through a vicious civil war and established its credentials internationally.

After election defeat in 1932, he handed over power peacefully to Eamon de Valera, despite rumours of an impending coup d'etat. He lost out on leading the country through the Eucharistic Congress that summer, for which he had done much preparation. WT died in 1965 before the 50th anniversary of the Rising.

WB Yeats, whom WT had appointed to the first Senate, has written in a poem titled Parnell's Funeral of the conflicts:

Had de Valera eaten Parnell's heart

No loose-lipped demagogue had won the day,

No civil rancour torn the land apart.

Had Cosgrave eaten Parnell's heart, the land's

Imagination had been satisfied…"

Liam was very conscious that this was his legacy from his father and keen it be recognised. Despite such a powerful legacy, there was also negativity towards WT Cosgrave that Liam was conscious of.

I first got to know him after I sent him a copy of a letter featuring references to his father in the 1992 Gonne Yeats Letters.

WB Yeats wrote to Maud Gonne about her husband Major John MacBride on September 29, 1929:

"Your husband was never one of my heroes - his brave death did not abolish his treatment of you - but he is a hero to these men. Cosgrave was in the next cell to him in 1916 & was to have been the next executed".

Liam subsequently attended a lecture I gave on that book at the Military History Society. I was in awe when I discovered that the Vote of Thanks was to be made by Risteard Mulcahy and seconded by Liam Cosgrave.

I outlined how when MacBride was seeking a post with Dublin Corporation in 1910, his main supporter was WT Cosgrave. Again, they were both in Richmond Barracks together and were notably close to each other, as executions loomed. They were in adjoining cells in Kilmainham and WT heard the shots that executed MacBride, later saying: "I thought my turn would come next and waited for the tap on the door."

It was at a conference on Eamon de Valera in UCD in 2000 that I discovered that no biography had been written about WT Cosgrave or John A Costello.

I soon set about this task and Liam was most supportive. I published a biography of his father in 2006, titled WT Cosgrave 1880-1965 Founder of Modern Ireland.

Pat Wallace, director of the National Museum, invited me to give a series of lectures on my book at Collins Barracks in April 2007.

On the final night, Liam took to the podium and entertained the audience with a hard-hitting but witty summary of what his father had been up against. He ended by thanking me and expressing the wish that the lecture series could go on and on.

I immediately set out to complete a biography on John A Costello. Again Liam was most helpful, identifying some people in photographs of the two Inter-Party Governments of 1948 and 1954. His letter illustrates his wry humour.

He wrote:

"Thank you for your letter enclosing photographs of the Ministers in the two Inter-Party Governments. All of these are now dead. I was Chief Whip (Parl. Secretary) now Minister of State to Taoiseach and to the Minister for Industry and Commerce 1948. Dan Morrissey was Minister but was seriously ill for long periods, when I acted for him. I have named the Minsters and their departments in each case.

I hope you are keeping well.

Yours sincerely

Liam Cosgrave

Small point there is no T in my name.

Excuse typing old man and small typewriter.

The next day he wrote again to correct one item, adding: "No need to reply."

In 2013, when I invited him to the launch of my biography of Arthur Griffith, he replied:

"I regret I cannot do what you ask as my wife is not well & I have to do less work."

Liam himself faced many crises while in government as Taoiseach and, like his father, did not flinch from decisive action. In 1974, legislation was being introduced in the Dail to regulate and allow for married couples to obtain contraceptives. A free vote was being taken which led to consternation when Cosgrave, without any warning to colleagues, voted against the measure being proposed by his own government.

Elsewhere, Liam understood the need to counter extreme republicanism. In 1983, he defended his father's hand in the executions during the Civil War, writing:

"No civilised Government likes to have to do these things, but a Government's first duty is to govern by vindicating and asserting the will of the people…the Government considered the Executions shortened the Civil War and saved more innocent persons being killed by the Irregulars. My father accepted responsibility for the action of the Government".

Like his father, Liam had to face down extreme republicanism in his day. During the Troubles, he sought the passage of the Emergency Powers Bill in 1976. This led to one of the most controversial and confusing episodes that occurred during Liam's tenure as Taoiseach.

Minister for Defence Paddy Donegan criticised President Cearbhall O Dalaigh as a "thundering disgrace" after he referred an Emergency Powers Bill passed in the Dail to the Council of State for consideration. He subsequently submitted the Bill to the Supreme Court. This entailed some unwelcome delay.

The Bill was found to be constitutional and was signed by the President. It read 'An Act for the purpose of securing public safety and the preservation of the State in time of an armed conflict'. Two days later, Paddy Donegan made his offensive remarks. O Dalaigh sent a letter of protest to the Taoiseach, threatening resignation.

Donegan had already offered to resign, but Cosgrave refused to accept it, saying that a letter of apology would suffice. O Dalaigh refused to see Donegan. Cosgrave spoke by phone to O Dalaigh twice but did not make any apology or indicate that he wished to see the President.

O Dalaigh refused to have any substantial discussion by phone, though he indicated that "he had already taken preliminary decisions". Fianna Fail raised the matter in the Dail.

A motion reading 'That Dail Eireann affirms its confidence in An Taoiseach and his Government' was passed as the coalition government remained united on the issue.

Word arrived that a message from the President was on its way to the Government. Cosgrave then accepted Donegan's proffered resignation and tried to contact the President, who was unavailable. O Dalaigh's letter of resignation duly arrived, saying it was "the only way open to assert publicly my personal integrity and independence as President of Ireland and to protect the dignity and independence of the Presidency as an institution".

Speaking after the event, Conor Cruise O'Brien told me: "I felt at no time any urge to join in the public pounding of a colleague who had erred and apologised."

Sunday Independent

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