WT Cosgrave: the simple life of a state’s architect

Liam Cosgrave talks about his father’s ruthlessness and efficiency, aspects of the Free State’s Civil War leader explored in a new biography, ‘Judging W. T. Cosgrave’


‘An extraordinary ordinary man” is how the former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave describes his father, WT Cosgrave, who led the Republic through its formative years. After the deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins within 10 days of each other, in August 1922, WT had the appalling responsibility thrust on him of guiding the fledgling state through the Civil War. Best known at that stage for political skills honed over more than a decade in Dublin Corporation, and for a self-deprecating sense of humour, WT showed a strength of character and ruthlessness that confounded the enemies of the State.

Speaking about his father in the context of the new biography by the historian Michael Laffan, Liam Cosgrave reflects on the challenge faced by the government of the Free State when republicans issued a manifesto claiming the right to shoot political opponents. WT drew up a testament saying that he would forgive his enemies if they shot him but that he would not see the will of the people thwarted by an armed minority.

“It is handwritten – and, I need hardly say, he had no scriptwriter. They had been threatened by a statement issued by Liam Lynch that all ministers, judges, TDs and senators were to be shot. One TD, Liam Hales, was shot on the quays. I think he was on a sidecar. Pádraic Ó Máille, the leas-cheann comhairle, who was with him, was wounded.

“This action resulted in a strong reaction from the government, in that they took four prisoners and executed them the following day. That evoked widespread criticism, but the government weren’t going to allow the irregulars to execute whom they wanted and expect that there be no reaction. War is war, and the interesting thing is that there was nobody else shot. It was most effective.”

Cosgrave is delighted that a proper biography of his father, who died 49 years ago, is finally about to be published. He co-operated fully with Laffan on the project.

“My father had said he never wanted a biography, but I felt his career deserved it,” says Cosgrave, who can recall events in his father’s life in precise, vivid detail.

Born in 1920, Cosgrave even has some memories of the trauma of the Civil War, such as when his family home, at Beechpark in Rathfarnham, was burned to the ground by republicans when he was just over two years old. The family was not home at the time, but Cosgrave remembers standing in the ruins. For a time he went with WT to live at his grandmother’s house on James’s Street; his brother and mother went to live with her family.

“I remember two things about that time. While we were in James Street I’m supposed to have said, ‘No more toast.’ The other thing I always associate with the burning of the house is the smell of burnt timber. It always reminds me of it.”

Another vivid childhood memory of WT is of a summer Sunday in 1927. “He drove us to Mass – himself, my brother and myself – to the Dominicans in Tallaght. We had a man who used to work with us. We got a puncture on the way back. We came back by Oldcourt, which is a side road.

“We didn’t take too long to change the tyre, as far as I can remember, but when we got home my mother was out to the car straight away. She was concerned because she had just got a phone call that Kevin O’Higgins had been shot. It was the same Sunday, July 10th, and because of being delayed she thought something had happened to us. After that he and the ministers had a military guard.”

A later childhood memory is going to Baldonnell in April 1928 to see the take-off of the Bremen, the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic from east to west.

Cosgrave remembers that earlier that year his father had visited the US, meeting a range of dignitaries, including President Calvin Coolidge and the mayor of Chicago. He travelled to Canada to meet Prime Minister Mackenzie King, with whom he struck up a fruitful relationship.

No pension for ministers

In office and out of it father and son were always very close. “He and I spent a lot of time together, I suppose from the time I was about five or six, I used to go for walks with him, and later we did a lot of things together, from religious functions – of which he was an expert on the rubrics: he knew them all very well – and we hunted and raced together. I attended political meetings sometimes with him before I went into politics, and later we were for a short time together in the Dáil.

“I always thought he had an easy disposition. On the whole he would speak quietly until aroused. And then he fought with great vigour. In fact I always felt he liked the battle; horse, foot and artillery, if there was any attack. He started in the Dublin Corporation, and that gave him an extraordinary knowledge of procedure. I don’t think I met anyone who knew it better.”

After he lost office WT was still party leader and active in the Dáil, as well as addressing meetings all over the country. “I don’t think there was anybody in the party who did more meetings and, of course, all the debates and discussions in the Dáil. I suppose he found it a bit frustrating not to be in office. He was very practical. He didn’t waste time on slogans or catch cries. He didn’t believe in verbal patriotism or verbal slobber but was focused on what needed to be done.”

Cosgrave says that this attitude fostered a good relationship between his father and Seán Lemass, and Cosgrave too had a good relationship with Lemass.

Health problems

“I was sitting with him at the fire after our tea when he suddenly collapsed. I got Canon O’Donnell and Dr Gallagher from Rathfarnham. Canon O’Donnell was the PP. They came and tended him. He spent the next night and day in bed, and he died the following evening. Vera” – Cosgrave’s wife – “and myself were with him when he died.”

WT Cosgrave was given a State funeral, but his son makes the point that it was not at the State’s expense. “There was an estimate being brought into the Dáil to pay for the funeral. The minute I saw it I got on, I think, to Whitaker, who was the secretary of finance at the time, and I said, ‘I’m paying for this. It’s not going to be on the State.’ So, whatever the cost was, it didn’t fall on the State. He wouldn’t have countenanced anything like being buried at public expense. The funeral was to the family grave in Goldenbridge.”

Asked to sum up his father, Cosgrave says, “Very accurate and punctilious about having things right. He led a simple life.”

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