On the run and in disguise: why WT Cosgrave dressed up as ‘Br Doyle’ and dyed his hair blazing red

An extract from ‘Judging W. T. Cosgrave’, a new biography of the Free State leader

 

When the First Dáil convened, in April 1919, its president, Éamon de Valera, appointed WT Cosgrave minister for local government in the new “rebel” Irish cabinet. This was an appropriate post for someone with his long and varied experience of municipal administration.

The Dáil was banned in September 1919, and its government was forced to go underground. The Department of Local Government went on the run. Its offices were moved from one location in Dublin to another, from Harcourt Street to Clare Street, then to Parnell Square, O’Connell Street and, finally, Wicklow Street, where it masqueraded as a company providing advice on taxation. Many years later one of Cosgrave’s officials wrote to him that it was “probably the happiest period of our lives”.

They all operated under extraordinary difficulties: files were seized, offices were burned and several of the office staff, rate collectors and auditors were arrested.

On the day the Dáil was suppressed Cosgrave’s house was one of several that was searched by crown forces. His stepfather was arrested. Cosgrave had a price on his head of £3,500 – the same reward as for his fellow revolutionary Austin Stack but less than would be paid for the arrest of the military leaders, Cathal Brugha, Michael Collins and Richard Mulcahy.

One of Cosgrave’s colleagues remarked of him later that as a Dubliner and a long-serving member of the corporation “he was known personally to perhaps one hundred times as many people as any of the rest of us”. In November 1920, after the killings on Bloody Sunday and the arrest of Griffith (who in de Valera’s absence in the United States was the acting president of the Dáil and its government), Cosgrave realised that someone had informed on him.

He went on the run. An Oblate priest drove him from Dublin to the order’s monastery in Glencree, in Co Wicklow, where he remained for some time. He shaved his moustache, he was called Br Doyle, and his real identity was known to only two members of the community.

In December 1920 Mark Sturgis, a Dublin Castle official, quoted the belief that Cosgrave was dressed as a priest or a monk and that, like other wanted men, he walked about the city almost daily. He wore disguises, and accounts varied as to their effectiveness. A French journalist remembered that his hair had been coloured a blazing red. A colleague recorded that on January 9th, at the first cabinet meeting after de Valera’s return from the US, “when he entered the room all of us thought for a moment a stranger had thrust his way in. His hair and moustache were dyed black or dark brown, and his appearance was therefore very substantially altered”.

Another recollection gives a different impression. On one occasion in late May 1921 he left his office on Wicklow Street (“Greene and Lloyd, consulting engineers”), disguised to his own satisfaction until, in the hallway leading to the street, a loitering beggar accosted him with the words “spare a copper, Mr Cosgrave”.

His apprehensions were well founded. In raids on his family’s house and in Drumcondra, British forces made inquiries about him, and later his stepfather’s premises on James’s Street were searched. British forces disrupted a meeting of the corporation in May 1921 at a time when Cosgrave acted as mayor; it was assumed he would be present and that their objective was to arrest him. Sturgis recorded an objection that had been made to the idea of a truce: “under it Cosgrave for instance would expect to come home unmolested to visit his wife”. The British authorities’ determination to arrest him must be seen as a tribute to his importance and effectiveness.

Although some members of the government took daring risks, most notably Collins, Cosgrave’s caution was not unusual. No meetings of the Dáil were held for four months between September 1920 and January 1921, and it was suggested that the only way in which a TD might express his opinions was to write to the newspapers.

No meetings of the Sinn Féin party’s standing committee took place for almost four months, between October 14th, 1920, and February 10th, 1921.

Cosgrave’s deputy, Kevin O’Higgins, also lay low after Bloody Sunday; he stayed in his fiancee’s family home for some weeks, and a priest even warned him not to go to Mass. But he was less well known and less recognisable, and he remained at his post for much of the time that Cosgrave was away. The contrast between their responses to British repression may have worsened the frosty relationship between the two men.

After the truce in summer 1921, the Dáil administrative machinery could operate with few inhibitions, and it succeeded in consolidating its control over most of the country. Cosgrave was able to concentrate on departmental matters. He announced new reforms: rates were to be reduced, the old poor law unions were to be abolished, and each county should replace them with one “home” and one well-equipped hospital. He hoped to eliminate bureaucracy and inefficiency, so that “a far greater proportion of the money collected for the benefit of the poor will reach those for whom it was intended than was hitherto the case”.

Despite occasional criticisms it was generally recognised both at the time and subsequently that between 1919 and 1921 the Department of Local Government was faced with exceptional responsibilities. Under the joint leadership of Cosgrave and O’Higgins it proved not merely that the Dáil’s government could administer a complex system with considerable efficiency in challenging circumstances but also that it could carry out long-overdue reforms neglected under Dublin Castle rule.

On December 6th they signed an Anglo-Irish Treaty that was significantly changed from the draft that had been rejected by the cabinet only three days earlier. In particular, the oath of allegiance to the king was replaced by an oath of allegiance to the constitution of the new Irish Free State and a separate oath of fidelity to the king.

Cosgrave remained silent on the subject of the treaty until the rump cabinet of four members met after the terms had been published. De Valera rejected the agreement and wished to dismiss the three ministers who had signed it, but Cosgrave argued that the delegates should be given the opportunity to explain their action.

According to de Valera later, this was the first indication that Cosgrave disagreed with him. If Cosgrave had acquiesced in the president’s proposal it is probable de Valera would have used his majority in the cabinet (four members present, as opposed to three who were absent) to sack and replace Griffith, Collins and Robert Barton, and a new cabinet would have rejected the treaty. In that case it is virtually certain that the Dáil would not have had any influence on the treaty.

At a lengthy meeting of the full seven-man cabinet on December 8th, 1921, the three ministers who had signed the treaty gave it their support (although Barton soon changed his mind), and three of the four who had remained in Dublin (de Valera, Brugha and Stack) opposed it. Erskine Childers, who had acted as secretary to the Irish delegation in London, noted in his diary that after other members had expressed their opinions “all hung on Cosgrave’s vote”. His was the crucial swing vote, and he sided with the delegates who had negotiated the agreement. Afterwards he described his support of the treaty as “the one big event in the whole of my life”.

In the subsequent treaty debates Cosgrave’s interventions were characterised by wit and by a meticulous attention to detail and procedure. He was unusual if not unique in amusing his audience, and he was probably justified in his concluding belief that the Dáil was in a better mood at the end of his principal speech than it had been at the beginning. One chapter of a book on the debates published a few months later was titled “Alderman Cosgrave’s Humour”.

The aftermath of the Easter Rising had seen a bloody purge of radical Irish leaders. The treaty split provoked a second, bloodless purge, and senior ministers, such as de Valera, Brugha and Stack, went into opposition. Together with Griffith and Collins, Cosgrave was now one of only three survivors in office of de Valera’s original cabinet of eight members that had been approved by the Dáil in April 1919.

Compared with de Valera, Griffith and Collins he was relatively unknown, yet the deaths of Griffith and Collins, in August 1922, would force him to emerge from the shadows cast by other men. Even as late as the formation of the two new pro-treaty administrations in January, many people – probably Cosgrave most of all – would have been astonished by the idea that before the end of 1922 he would become the leader of an independent Irish state.

In subsequent months he watched in dismay as republicans continued to undermine the treaty. The most extreme among them were anxious to resume the war against Britain and seemed prepared to establish a military dictatorship. He was frustrated by their defiance of the Dáil and of public opinion.

“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 regarded de Valera with particular loathing and contempt; like other supporters of the treaty he blamed the former president for the Civil War. (He cited a newspaper report in which de Valera was quoted, already three months before fighting broke out, as saying that only by civil war could the country gain independence. Cosgrave concluded that if the report were correct it showed an absolute bankruptcy of statesmanship on the anti-treaty side.)

He had de Valera in mind when, at Griffith’s funeral, he referred to “those magicians of political metaphysics who say one thing and mean another”, and also when he wrote some time later that the people “must be free to dispense with politicians who may have rendered good service but whose period of usefulness has for some time been eclipsed”. He asked of the republicans “why don’t they pitch de Valera to the devil? . . There is nothing in the fellow.”

In an interview towards the end of the conflict he declared bluntly, “I am not going to hesitate if the country is to live and if we have to exterminate ten thousand Republicans, the three millions of our people is bigger than this ten thousand.”

This is an edited extract from Judging W. T. Cosgrave, by Michael Laffan, to be published on Tuesday by the Royal Irish Academy

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