Brian Maye: An Irishman’s diary on WT Cosgrave’s role as state-builder
‘A fourth byelection took place in Kilkenny City on August 10th, 1917 and was won by a man who was to play an important role in the subsequent history of his country’
WT Cosgrave: piloted the ship of state through the extremely choppy waters of the first 10 years of its independent existence. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
Three bylections in six months in Ireland 100 years ago revealed that political power was being transferred from the party that had dominated nationalist politics for almost the previous 50 years to the new movement that had grouped together under the banner of Sinn Féin.
Those byelections occurred in North Roscommon in February, South Longford in May and East Clare in July. A fourth took place in Kilkenny City on August 10th, 1917 and was won by a man who was to play an important role in the subsequent history of his country: WT Cosgrave. Unlike the three other winning candidates in 1917, Cosgrave had previous experience as an elected politician.
Together with his brother Philip and his uncle PJ, he attended the founding convention of Sinn Féin, which was held at the Rotunda, Dublin in 1905 and Arthur Griffith, the founder of the organisation, was the abiding influence on his career. Cosgrave formed a Sinn Féin branch in the Usher’s Quay ward of the Dublin Corporation and in 1909 he was elected to the corporation for the party.
He became chairman of the corporation’s finance committee in 1916. When the Irish Volunteers were formed in 1913, he and Philip and their stepbrother Frank Burke joined. WT was a lieutenant with B Company, 4th Battalion, which under Commandant Éamonn Ceannt and Vice-Commandant Cathal Brugha sought to establish a stronghold within the scattered complex of the South Dublin Union on Easter Monday 1916. Brugha had curiously chosen to occupy a timber-built structure, which Cosgrave persuaded him to abandon in favour of a substantial, stone building, the Nurses’ Home, which was in a tactically more advantageous position.
His stepbrother Frank was shot dead early in the Rising. WT, who was nearby, rushed to his aid but to no avail. His brother’s death affected him deeply and he blamed himself for involving his younger sibling in the fighting.
He was court-martialled on May 5th and sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted and he was deported to Portland and subsequently Lewes Prison. Released in the general amnesty of 1917, he was selected as the Sinn Féin candidate for the Kilkenny City byelection in August.
The local Kilkenny Journal backed him and during the hard-fought campaign he made a number of characteristically short speeches. Griffith, de Valera and Eoin MacNeill were among those who campaigned for him. He won the contest by 772 votes to 392.
While his defeated Irish Parliamentary Party opponent, John Magennis, described the result as “a victory for intolerance, low mean lying and scurrilous abuse, terrorism and intimidation of the grossest type,” Cosgrave simply said the campaign had been “an exercise of national self-restraint typical of the Irish race”.
On the run
He was imprisoned again in May 1918, elected for North Kilkenny in the general election in December 1918 and, released by April 1919, he was appointed minister for local government in the first Dáil. His ministry was one of the most successful of the 1919-21 administration, a feat all the more remarkable given that he and his staff were “on the run” for most of that period. He wanted the strongest possible Dáil delegation to go to London to negotiate with the British at the end of 1921 and was astounded when de Valera announced to his cabinet colleagues that he would be remaining in Dublin.
Cosgrave was unique in that he made his opposition to de Valera’s decision known in the Dáil when, on September 14th, 1921, he introduced a motion proposing that de Valera should lead the delegation.
Declaring that they were sending a team to London, in a memorable and oft-quoted phrase, he said he could not see the sense in keeping their ablest player in reserve. In the immediate aftermath of the signing of the Articles of Agreement in London, he played a crucial role. When de Valera told the cabinet members who were not part of the London delegation that the ministers who signed the agreement would have to resign, Cosgrave urged that they at least be given the chance to defend themselves first.
His subsequent support for the agreement in the cabinet – he was the only non-signatory in the government to vote for it – meant that acceptance in cabinet was by the narrowest of margins, four votes to three.
Cosgrave’s greatest achievement, the one on which his reputation ultimately stands, was as a State-builder; he piloted the ship of state through the extremely choppy waters of the first 10 years of its independent existence and, true democrat that he was, “he quietly left the bridge and handed over the wheel to the rival captain”, as historian JJ Lee remarked, in 1932.