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Judging W.T. Cosgrave

Michael Laffan
Royal Irish Academy


The beginnings were prosaic. There were no celebrations, no bands played, and no crowds sang in the streets. The Irish Free State, the end product of the Irish revolution, was inaugurated in a subdued and businesslike manner. On 6 December 1922 members of the Irish parliament took an oath of fidelity to King George V, as was required by the treaty with Britain that had been signed exactly a year earlier, and they elected a head of government. The new 'president of the executive council', W.T. Cosgrave, informed Governor-General Tim Healy of his election by the Dail and he received the three-word reply 'I appoint you'. Cosgrave then nominated his cabinet. Apart from journalists, no members of the public were present. Newspapers described the proceedings as decorous and dull, without pomp or panoply and 'devoid of spectacular interest'.

There were good reasons for this lack of ceremony. The creation of the new Irish state was bitterly controversial, and Cosgrave's government was, from the outset, fighting for its existence against opponents determined to destroy it. Ruthless provocation was soon followed by ruthless retaliation. The French consul in Dublin began his report to Paris on 9 December by declaring that the Free State had been born in blood.3 The circumstances could hardly have been less auspicious.

Yet the structure that was completed in December 1922 proved resilient and enduring; a stable and democratic political system took root after the storms of insurrection, guerrilla conflict and civil war. Much of the credit for this achievement lies with the man who led the government throughout its early years, but after he retired from public life he remained for decades one of the forgotten figures of Irish history.

Cosgrave did not deserve such neglect. He headed the first fully independent Irish administration, and he presided over a slow but steady expansion of the freedom provided by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. He led the victorious side in a brutal civil war, and once the fighting had ended he ruled with moderation and humanity. Although sometimes authoritarian he was nonetheless a committed democrat in a period when many newly-independent states lapsed into dictatorship. His party won three successive general elections, and with a single exception (in Luxembourg) his was the longest unbroken term of office of any democratic head of government in Europe between the wars. During his decade in power there were five changes of prime minister in Britain and ten in France. For most of the time he presided with little apparent effort over a talented cabinet, some of whose members had more dominant personalities or who outshone him intellectually. In this respect he resembles three successful British prime ministers during his lifetime, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Stanley Baldwin and Clement Attlee. To draw another foreign parallel, he might bear comparison with the US president Harry Truman, of whom little was expected when he succeeded the dominant and charismatic Franklin D. Roosevelt but who later proved himself in office.

According to one observer Cosgrave was 'greater as a party leader, as a master of men than as a statesman'. Other commentators have seen him as more a statesman than a party leader, and he frequently gave the impression of being bored by the mechanics of politics. He failed to appreciate the importance of creating a strong, disciplined party, and he despised populism—even if at times he felt obliged to make distasteful concessions to his supporters. He saw himself as the people's servant, but not their slave. His commitment to the Cumann na nGaedheal party was more dutiful than enthusiastic; he was seen to be above party politics, and he often acted as if he were. When he lost an election, against opponents who had been his wartime enemies less than a decade earlier, he accepted his defeat gracefully and moved to opposition. He was not successful in this role—to lose five general elections in a row is a melancholy record—but he minimised the impact and consequences of his party's brief, disastrous flirtation with paramilitary extremism. At the end of his life he established a pattern of dignified retirement that has been followed by most of his successors.

Cosgrave had what has been described as a 'constitutionalist' mentality, which emphasised the need for a state to provide social order, to uphold the rule of law and to protect individuals from the assaults of others. He tried hard, but with only limited results, to inculcate a sense of moral responsibility and a respect for authority in a people who for centuries had regarded 'the government' as an alien and hostile force—often with good reason. He saw the aim of independence as being to improve their conditions and to make them more self-reliant. He believed strongly, almost passionately, in 'the gradual education of the people by experience of political life and by the inculcation of proper standards of political conduct by all those in a position of influence'. He was a man of austere integrity, he did his best to practise what he preached, and subsequent generations have had cause to regret the limits of his impact and influence. One of Cosgrave's characteristics was a no-nonsense practicality, and he possessed 'an admirable tendency to distinguish between willingness to promise and capacity to deliver'.

Like many others, he began his career as a reformer and grew more conservative with age. He was a man of his time who represented its strengths and weaknesses. By the standards of later generations his concept of the state was narrow, and he assumed that a government 'can do little more than create conditions favourable for industrial development and after that the initiative must be left in most cases... to those who undertake the immediate responsibility of establishing new industries'. He is often seen as representing the cultural and economic values of the 1920s, values that have long been out of fashion. John Maynard Keynes went even further and described him as 'a nineteenth century liberal'. But he governed at a time of intermittent worldwide economic depression, and he was obliged to manoeuvre within the financial constraints imposed by a destructive civil war. He had good reason to be concerned with the cautious and conscientious management of a fragile state that had still to prove its viability.

He had no strong feelings about systems of government: 'I don't care what form it is so long as it is free, independent, authoritative, and the Sovereign Government of the people, and that it will be respected'. Although an Irish nationalist he was not anti-British, and he saw the Anglo-Irish Treaty as marking a fresh start in the relations between the two islands. 'With the British Government and the British people our peace is made'. Towards the end of his political career he regretted that 'hatred of England has been a cloak for inefficiency, incompetence, uselessness in the hard work or in the art and science of nation-building'.