Name: William Thomas Cosgrave
Party: Cumann na nGaedheal (Later re-named Fine Gael)
Terms served: December ’22-March ‘32
Ask any American, regardless of their level of education or political engagement, who was the first President of the U.S. and they’ll be able to tell you it was George Washington. But ask an Irishman or woman who was the first Taoiseach and you’ll quite possibly leave them stumped. This is not because we’re all idiots (it’s a coincidence), but more reflective of the piecemeal, stop-start nature of Irish nationhood. In Shakespeare’s Henry V the Irishman MacMorris asks “What isht my nation?” and five hundred years later we still don’t knowsht. It’s not at all easy to say when “Ireland” first came into existence. I mean, there has been an island called “Ireland” and a people called “the Irish” since time immemorial. But when did the modern nation known as “Ireland” first spring into existence? Was it when Padraig Pearse stood outside the GPO and read the Proclamation to a tittering Dublin citizenry in 1916? Was it when Collins signed his own death warrant with the Anglo-Irish treaty? Or how about when DeValera brought in the new constitution of 1937 or when John A. Costello finally said “screw this noise” and declared a republic in 1948? Also complicating things is that if you said that the first Taoiseach was Eamon DeValera, you’d be technically correct.
“The best kind of correct!”
Eamon DeValera was indeed the first person to hold a title of that name. However, as I mentioned in the introduction, the current historical consensus is to retroactively count W.T. Cosgrave as the first Taoiseach.
He is also, in my uninformed opinion, the greatest. Why? And if he is, why is he, if not forgotten, so often overlooked? Firstly, let me explain who W.T. Cosgrave was. And, as I know most of my readers are American, I’ll use an American historical allegory. I want you to imagine that you’re one of the founding fathers. Not one of the big guys though. You’re one of the no-names who’s always in the background of the portraits.
To all the other Founding Fathers you’re considered dependable, but hardly exceptional. You don’t have a whole heap of legislative experience outside of a stint in local government. You run a tavern, that’s about it. You are, all things considered, a fairly normal Joe. The kind of guy who, when this is all over, will be lucky to get a footnote in some history book and maybe a school named after you in your home town.
So, the War of Independence kicks off and it doesn’t go as well it did in our reality. Oh, the Americans still win. But Britain manages to hold on to a few of the colonies. Washington, realising that the Revolutionary Army’s supplies of food and ammunition are running low, accepts a compromise with the British Crown that allows them to keep these colonies in exchange for independence for the rest. Jefferson, outraged, leads half of the constitutional conference in a rebellion against Washington and the newly freed colonies are suddenly plunged into Civil War.
So you’re thinking, wow, this got real bad real fast. But we’re still good. We’ve still got George Mo’Fuckin Washington and Benjamin “Lighting is my Bitch” Franklin on our side, how can we lose?
Then you wake up one day to be told that George Washington’s been fuckin’ SHOT, Benjamin Franklin has died in bed and, because half of the government went with that traitorous dog Jefferson, YOU, YOU anonymous tavern keeping, local government, back of the portrait guy, are now the President.
Have fun, pally.
Now, what if, ten years later, it turned out that you managed to hold everything together? You beat Jefferson, united the freed colonies and managed to establish a stable, functioning democracy? You’d have earned the right to feel a little smug, no?
W.T. Cosgrave was that guy.
He was just a minor member of the first Dáil who, following DeValera’s rejection of the treaty, the assassination of Michael Collins, and the death from illness of Arthur Griffith, found himself running a nation embroiled in a vicious Civil War. This explains why he looks so terrified in so many of his portraits.
Alright, I may have sold him a little short in that analogy. Cosgrave was actually one of the more experienced politicians in De Valera’s revolutionary government, having spent many years serving on Dublin city council. He fought in the Easter Rising and, like DeValera, just narrowly escaped execution. Upon his release from prison, he ran for election as a Sinn Féin candidate and won thanks to possibly the greatest election poster in the history of everything.
This country deserves a better class of criminal.
Remember back in the De Valera post I mentioned howSinn Féin were essentially able to create a parallel government to compete with Britain’s institutions? Well most of the actual sweat-work was done by Cosgrave in his role as Sinn Féin’s Minister for Local Government. (Pro-tip for any aspiring revolutionaries out there: Make sure you have a government set up to take over before you win. Don’t put it on the long finger). But still, the guy would not be your first choice to lead a nation through a civil war. In fact, he may have gotten the job purely because, at 42, he was the oldest member of the government (yeah, this was a young revolution). He was a small, quiet, totally normal bloke.
He was also something that is vanishingly rare in politicians of every stripe and nationality: Competent. That, I think, is the word that sums him up better than any other. WT Cosgrave got shit done.
Under Cosgrave’s leadership the Free State triumphed over the anti-Treaty rebels and the Civil War drew to a close in 1923. Cosgrave then had to get down to the hard business of actually governing. This, incidentally, is where the story of former colonies who win independence usually goes sour. The occupying power is kicked out, the victorious side gets into power and starts enjoying the perks, divvying up choice positions and privileges to their supporters. Resentment builds, the government cracks down, freedoms are curtailed, military dictators rise and before you know it we have to do the whole dance all over again. One of Cosgrave’s most important gifts to the country was an apolitical Civil Service. Instead of a patronage system, new applicants had to pass an entrance examination, meaning that whether or not you got a job depended on what you knew rather than who you knew.
He also had to deal with the problem of an army that had to be significantly downsized now that the war was over. By the mid-twenties, Ireland had an army of 50,000, i.e. one soldier for every sixty people and, making it one of the most militarised nations on earth. Clearly, something had to be done. Unfortunately, the army were all “Point one. We like having jobs. Point 2. We have guns.” It was looking pretty hairy for a time but fortunately Cosgravestuck to his metaphorical guns and the army never used their not so metaphorical ones and the expected army mutiny never materialised.
Internationally, Cosgrave worked to set Ireland apart from Britain, claiming a seat at the League of Nations and becoming the first British Commonwealth nation to have its own representation in Washington DC. Economics was more of a mixed bag, Ireland at the time was an overwhelmingly agricultural nation so Cosgrave and his government focused most of their energies on that sector while neglecting industry. They did, however, set up the Electricity Supply Board, the first national electricity grid in Europe.
In the end though, nothing became WT Cosgrave’s time in power like the leaving of it. By 1932, a general election had been called and Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGaedheal party was facing Eamon De Valera’s new and energised Fianna Fáil.
Cumann na nGaedhael sensibly ran on the platform of “Hey, ten years ago no one thought this country would even still be here!” and on their record of honest and effective government. However, they made the mistake of trying to paint DeValera and Fianna Fáil as a crowd of rabid lefty communists. It was a mistake because, to this day, if you say the word “conservatism” three times in front of a mirror, the ghost of DeValera appears and slashes your welfare benefits. Fianna Fáil won the election, and Cosgrave now faced a very difficult question. Was he really going to hand over control of the nation to the man who had thrust it into a bloody Civil War? Was he going to let all his hard work, every painful sacrifice, every monumental achievement be put in jeopardy? Was he truly going to hand stewardship of the Irish Free State over to the man who had actively worked for its destruction?
And Cosgrave said: “Yes. Because that’s how democracy works.”
Despite fears of violence (some Fianna Fáil TDs went into their first day of work armed in case shit went down) Cosgrave stepped aside and DeValera assumed the position of President of the Executive Council, which he would later rename “Taoiseach.”
With this one action, WT Cosgrave set the nation’s future in stone. Whatever Ireland’s problems, whatever her failings, whatever disagreements arose between her children they would be dealt with in accordance with the rule of law and the will of the people. Ireland would no longer be a nation governed by the threat of violence but by the ballot box.
Ireland was now a democracy.
That is William Cosgrave’s legacy. There can scarcely be one finer.
- You want more? Okay, well, it bears remembering that WT Cosgrave was a democrat in a time when democracy in Europe was widely seen as being on its way out. He scrupulously defended the nation’s democratic institutions in a time when fascism and authoritarianism were far more intellectually respectable than they are now.
- The Irish Free State also had full women’s suffrage six years before Britain, a fact that we are constitutionally required to remind them at every possible opportunity.
- Nobody comes through a Civil War with their hands clean, and Cosgrave was no exception. Despite being personally opposed to the death penalty (being on death row will do that to you), during the height of the conflict he ordered many executions, some almost certainly illegal as they were without trial. All in all, almost eighty republicans were executed before the war ended, far more than even the British had executed during the War of Independence.
- Fathered Liam Cosgrave.