One of the most important figures in Irish history, and certainly in the history of independent Ireland, retired from active politics just 60 years ago but, amazingly, no full-length, biographical study has yet been published about him.
Born in 1880, William T. Cosgrave was brought up in James's Street in Dublin. Together with his brother Philip and his uncle, P.J. Cosgrave, he attended the first convention of Sinn Féin at the Rotunda, Dublin, in 1905. He formed a Sinn Féin branch in Usher's Quay ward and was elected to Dublin Corporation for the party in 1909. He became chairman of the corporation's finance committee in 1916.
His proposal to the corporation in July 1911 that the eminent Celtic scholar, Kuno Meyer, be made a freeman of the city was unanimously carried. When, as a result of the anti-German hysteria caused by the first World War, the corporation passed a motion in 1915 to expunge Meyer's name from the list of honorary burgesses, Cosgrave protested vehemently: "In a country rent almost in twain by different schools of politics, and distracted by sectarian prejudice, the associations which have undertaken the preservation of the national language have attracted all that is best of every shade of political and sectarian thought."
He joined the Irish Volunteers on their formation in 1913 and was a lieutenant with B Company, 4th Battalion, which, under Cathal Brugha, established a stronghold within the scattered complex of the South Dublin Union on Easter Monday, 1916.
Brugha had chosen to occupy a timber-built structure which Cosgrave persuaded him to abandon in favour of a more substantial, stone building, the Nurses' Home. Cosgrave helped to give first-aid treatment to Brugha, who was seriously wounded when their position was attacked. He and his brother Philip, who fought with the Marrowbone Lane garrison, were court-martialled and sentenced to death but the sentences were later commuted.
In 1917, after the general release of internees, Sir Philip Vane, who was in charge of the counter-attack on the Union during Easter week, told Cosgrave he had reported that the position held by the rebels in the Nurses' Home was virtually "impregnable".
Released in June 1917, Cosgrave was elected as an abstentionist Sinn Féin MP for Kilkenny in a by-election that August. He was imprisoned again the following May under the so-called "German Plot" allegations. In the general election of November 1918, he was elected for North Kilkenny. Like the rest of the Sinn Féin members who were released by April 1919, he attended the second session of the first Dáil and was made minister for local government in the new Sinn Féin administration, a post in which his many years' experience as a councillor and alderman were to be of great benefit. His ministry was one of the most successful of the first Dáil.
He wanted the strongest possible Dáil delegation to go to London and was astounded when Eamon de Valera announced he would be remaining in Dublin. He introduced a motion to the Dáil proposing that de Valera should lead the delegation. In a memorable phrase, he said that as they were sending a team to London he could not see the sense in keeping the ablest player in reserve.
His role in the immediate aftermath of the signing of the Treaty was crucial. When de Valera told the cabinet members who were not part of the London delegation that the ministers who had signed the Treaty would have to resign, Cosgrave urged that they should at least be given the chance to defend themselves first. Subsequently he was the only non-signatory to support the Treaty in the cabinet, which meant that acceptance was by the narrowest of margins - four to three. Had this not happened, the Dáil might not have had the opportunity to vote on the agreement. His speeches during the protracted Dáil debates on the Treaty - incisive, practical, reasonable and, at times, humorous - were among the finest in favour of the settlement.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, Cosgrave became leader of the Provisional Government. His uncle, P.J., was murdered during the bitter conflict. When it ended, to Cosgrave fell the onerous task of starting the recovery after six years of ruinous warfare and setting the nascent State on its feet. He had to cope with the inevitable deflating experience that the reality of independence brings, when people realise how complex are the social, economic and political problems once thought to be simply attributable to foreign rule.
Cosgrave experienced much tougher conditions than any other leader in independent Ireland. Many of his measures were institutional and therefore unexciting, but they were none the less crucial, and have remained since as corner-stones in the structure of the State.
He never aspired to be a charismatic leader, always stressed that he was captain of a team and emphasised consultation with ministers before taking decisions.
He played a vital role in the survival of Irish democracy after the murder of Kevin O'Higgins with the Electoral Amendment Act of 1927. In 1932, he handed over the reins of power peacefully to his erstwhile enemies. He led Fine Gael in opposition until his retirement. He died in November 1965.
The historian J.J. Lee's appraisal of him is a good one: that W.T. Cosgrave had leadership thrust upon him in dreadful circumstances; he had basic decency, a sense of the duties of one who serves on behalf of the public and a steady judgment in matters of government; most of all, he was a moderate who reluctantly had to accept the fact that for civilised public life to survive, moderates must be prepared to resort to extreme means.
He deserves recognition as the founder of the modern Irish State.