Ranking the Taoisigh

What if there was an election and nobody won?

Guys, if I can briefly distract your attention from the ongoing flaming six-train pileup that is the US elections I need you to take a look at what’s happening in Ireland right now.

What’s happening in Ireland?

We had an election, and nobody won.

What? How is that even possible? Did nobody vote?

On the contrary, turnout this election was a very healthy 60%, down from 2011 but still high for a country where voting isn’t mandatory.

So what’s the problem?

Okay, a little background. Ireland elects the Dáil (our parliament) with the Proportional Representation: Single Transferable Vote. It’s the system that most accurately reflects the views of voters and using it makes the Dáil one of the most democratic legislatures in the world. Compare that to our upper house, the Seanad, which isn’t even fully elected and is probably the least democratic legislature in the developed world. Ireland: A land of contrasts. Basically in PR:STV you are allowed to not simply vote for your favourite candidate but to rank all the candidates in order of preference. This allows people to vote for smaller parties that better align with their politics without worrying that their vote will help parties they disagree with (think, being able to vote for Nader without worrying that you’re helping Bush to win).

That sounds super complicated.

It’s really not. You put a 1 by your favourite candidate, a 2 by your second and so on. Easy peasy.

No, I didn’t mean the voting, I meant the counting the vote.

That is SUPER complicated, yes. It’s a Lovecraftian, nightmare inducing madness but hey, I just vote so it’s not my problem. Although if you’re interested, this video explains the whole process better than I ever could.

So what happened?

The people cast their ballot and at the end the vote looked like this:


Holy shit that’s a lot of parties. What am I even looking at?

Okay, so the blue bar at the top is Fine Gael, currently in government in coalition with the Labour party (the lighter red bar). Second down is Fianna Fáil who’ve been the party of government for most of Ireland’s history but were banished to the land of ghosts and shadows in the 2011 election because the 2008 crash happened on their watch. They’ve bounced back in a huge way this election because apparently a quarter of the country suffered some kind of head trauma that effects medium term memory. The bright patriotic green guys three rows down are Sinn Féin who are ABSOLUTELY NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE I.R.A. IN ANY WAY AND NEVER HAVE BEEN.


And below them? That big long black 13%? The independents, just ordinary men and women without even a party who managed to collectively come in fourth over all.



Hi guys. So this is going to be one of those big weird posts where I update you on various unrelated pieces of news relating to the blog that I didn’t want to split up into individual posts. We all love those, right? Course we do. The news is, thankfully, pretty darn good, and I’ll be starting with the small beer before hitting you with the big exciting stuff. Let’s get started.
The Blog Awards Ireland
Huge thanks to everyone who voted. Won’t know for a while if I made the shortlist but we’ll see.
Ranking the Taoisigh
So the blog’s weird little detour into Irish political history has now wrapped up. Thanks to everyone who read, commented, and took the time to inform me that Seán Lemass was robbed. If you missed it, it was my attempt to review every Irish head of state in my usual “charming” style and you can get started here. Additionally, some have mentioned that they’d like to read through the entries chronologically to get a better sense of the historical narrative so I’m happy to oblige:
I’ve decided that I’ll be doing the “posting every two days for a month” thing next year, but on a topic a little closer to this blog’s heart. Ain’t sayin’ nothin’.
The Devil’s Heir
The sequel to the Hangman’s Daughter will start going up this Saturday with a new chapter every second Saturday afterwards. Huge thanks to my brother Eamonn for helping me with proof-reading and editing. If you want to get caught up on the first book before diving into the second so you know what the heck is going on and why all these Vikings and Cowboys are fighting demons and who the old lady kicking all the ass is, you can get started here.
What the blog is going to look like in the future
It feels like almost a year ago that I announced that I was going to start reviewing Marvel movies on this blog (what’s that? It was almost a year ago? I see). Back then I said I’d be starting in July 2015 but clearly that didn’t happen. Gallstones, crossovers, the whole BluCatt thing…mouse plans, God laughs, right? Anyway, I am now down to the last three reader requested reviews which will go up on the 15th and 29th of October and the 19th November. Then, Iron Man on the 3rd of December and we’re on our way, alternating with the winners from the first Move Deathmatch.
Wait a minute, “first”?
Yup. Okay, so there’s this new project I’m involved in that I can’t tell you about. Yet. I will be making an announcement soon. But it’s big. Potentially huge. Here’s what you need to know: We’ll be fundraising on Kickstarter and my contribution will be to run a second Movie Deathmatch here. This one is going to be a little different (for instance, for a larger donation you’ll be able to bypass the voting process and just buy a review) but for now I just need you to shout our your choices in the comments. Which movies do you want me to review? As many as you want. And as before, the twelve movies that seem to have the most support will be selected for the Deathmatch. Oh, and as well as animated features and comic book movies, this time I’m also accepting requests for animated series. Just name the series for now, we’ll figure out which episodes will actually get reviewed later.
That about does her, thanks guys!

#1 W.T. Cosgrave

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!"

“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.

Founding fathers

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.
"Aw Crap."

“Aw Crap.”

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.
"...help me.."

“…help me..”

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.

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.”
"Ya eejit."

“Ya eejit.”

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.


#2 Jack Lynch

Name: Jack Lynch
Party: Fianna Fáil
Terms: November ’66-March ’73, July ’77-May ’79
So remember when Michael Jordan quit basketball and became a baseball player as depicted in the documentary Space Jam? Imagine if, instead of being awful, he had gone on to become one of the best players in that sport too. Then imagine he ran for election and became one of the most popular presidents in US history. That’s pretty much Jack Lynch.
He was terrib;e

Also, instead of Bugs Bunny, Jack Lynch was aided by Daithí Lacha, Ireland’s first cartoon character. He was terrible.


#3: Seán Lemass

Name: Seán Lemass
Party: Fianna Fáil
Terms in office: June ’59-November ‘66
Some professions just lend themselves to producing politicians. Liam Cosgrave, Charles Haughey, Jack Lynch and John A. Costello practiced law. Enda Kenny and DeValera were teachers.  Brian Cowen and W.T. Cosgrave were barmen.
Long before he was Taoiseach, Seán Lemass was an assassin.
How did he go from professional homicide specialist to leader of an entire nation? And why do I consider him such a great Taoiseach? Well, that last one should be obvious.
Because I’m afraid of him.



#05 John Bruton

Name: John Bruton
Party: Fine Gael
Terms of Office: December ’94-June’97
John Bruton first entered politics when he was elected to the Dáil in 1969, only 22 and barely out of nappies. He later served as Minister for Education under Liam Cosgrave but we won’t hold that against him. To understand how he became Taoiseach we have to re-join the story where we left off, with Labour’s Dick Spring walking out of Albert Reynolds’ government over the Harry Whelahan/Brendan Smyth clusterbollocks. Bruton convinced Spring to return to the batcave and enter a coalition with Fine Gael and the Democratic Left. This gave Bruton a majority in the Dáil and he became Taoiseach without even needing to be elected.
"Just like Gerald Ford."

“Just like Gerald Ford.”

Despite some tensions with Spring, Fine Gael and Labour nonetheless managed to work together to form a government that was, in hindsight, pretty not bad at all. Despite being seen as part of Fine Gael’s more conservative wing, one of Bruton’s first initiatives was the legalisation of divorce. In 1995. Which makes us possibly the only country in the world to have internet before we had divorce.


#06 Garret Fitzgerald

Name: Garret Fitzgerald
Party: Fine Gael
Terms served: June ’81-March’82, December ’82-March ’87, 
We Irish tend to view our politicians with the mixture of pity, loathing and disgust normally reserved for the kind of people who have to go door to door whenever they move to a new neighbourhood. A big exception to that rule is Garret Fitzgerald. We Irish love us some Garret Fitzgerald. To this day he’s remembered fondly as a man of principle, integrity and humanity and also because in his later years he bore a passing resemblance to Tom Baker.
"Care for a jelly baby?"

“Care for a jelly baby?”

Not just a politician, Fitzgerald was also one of our foremost men of letters, writing for The Economist and the Irish Times where he was a contributor for almost sixty years. And a great Taoiseach right? Riiiiiiight?


# 07: Eamon de Valera

Name: Eamon de Valera
Party: Fianna Fáil
Terms of Office: December ‘37-February ‘48, May ’51-May ’54, March ’57-June ‘59
Ah. The big one. Right so.
Great Man History, or the historical method of viewing past events as some great epic story whose course is controlled by a handful of heroes and villains, is largely bunk. World War 2 was not a personal duel between Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Tojo and Stalin but the result of a billion different political, military and economic factors all crashing into each other. Real history is incredibly complicated, massively messy and almost entirely too big for any human being to comfortably conceive. And yet, the thirties, forties and fifties of Irish history really feel as if they belonged solely to one man: Eamon de Valera. In Ireland Dev personifies that whole era of our history in the same way that Andrew Jackson did his in the States, and like Jackson the appraisal of his legacy is incredibly controversial and getting more negative with every passing year. I quite purposefully put de Valera right smack dab in the middle of the rankings. For me, Dev is like a ninja assassin. I disagree morally with what he did, but I have to admit he was, very, very good at it.
Ironically, despite being the towering figure of Irish history for much of the twentieth century, Dev wasn’t born here. He was born in New York in the 1880s to an Irish émigré named Catherine Coll and her husband, the Spaniard Juan DeValara. Maybe. The historical record on this is actually super sketchy and no marriage certificate for Dev’s parents has ever come to light. In fact, no evidence has ever come to light that Juan de Valera even existed, leaving questions of his parentage and legitimacy that would dog de Valera all his life.
Lost Targaryen Prince. Calling it now.

Lost Targaryen Prince. Calling it now.

Anyway, after Juan’s death (uh-huh), the now widowed (riiiiiiiight) Catherine sent the infant Eamon to Ireland to be raised by his grandparents. He grew up an excellent student and devout Catholic, even considering joining the priesthood before deciding against it because of the issue of his possible bastardy. He became active in the Irish independence movement and joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society that had controlled or influenced virtually every Irish freedom organisation both political and military since the 1850’s. He was a commander during the Easter Rising of 1916 and just barely escaped being executed by the British because of American diplomatic pressure. As quite literally the last man standing of the rising’s leaders, de Valera was elected president of Sinn Féin, a political party formed to win total independence from Great Britain (as opposed to the wishy-washy “Home Rule” that the Irish Parliamentary Party had been trying and failing to get for decades). Sinn Féin had been founded by a man named Arthur Griffith who was an absolutely brilliant thinker (also a bit of an anti-Semite, but you can’t have everything). Griffith’s ground-breaking notion was this: instead of trying to win Irish independence within the British power structure, simply set up an Irish government with its own departments, police force, postal service, bureaucracy and ignore the British government until it goes away. Absolutely revolutionary. Might even have worked. As it turned out, Sinn Féin under de Valera did succeed in creating an entire alternate government capable of providing services that equalled (and in some cases even proved superior to) the British institutions they were competing against. This is especially incredibly when you consider that we’re talking about an illegal organisation running a government while being on the run from the government. But Griffith’s vision was for non-violent resistance to British rule and that did not happen. Because while Sinn Féin under de Valera was wresting political control from the British, the Irish Republican Army under Michael Collins was showing them this new thing he’d invented called “modern urban guerrilla combat” and why that was going to be something of a game changer for the rest of the twentieth century.
During this time de Valera toured America to raise publicity for the Irish cause and to try and get Woodrow Wilson to acknowledge the Irish Republic. He didn’t get recognition, but he did win significant support and donations for the Irish cause. He also visited the Chippewa reservation and spoke of the shared history of oppression and colonialism of Native Americans and the Irish people. He was then made an honorary chief of the tribe, and I get to use this picture.
This is a good day.

This is a good day.

Back home, the war raged on until finally the British sued for peace. de Valera then made one of the most controversial and debated decisions of his entire career (which is saying a whole heap). With peace negotiations scheduled in London, the expectation was that Dev would lead the Irish delegation himself. Instead, he decided to sit this one out and sent Michael Collins in his place. Now, the deal that the Irish delegation ended up getting was, in retrospect, pretty darn good. Ireland would get dominion status, essentially the same relationship to Britain as Canada and Australia. Ireland would have its own flag, and its own freely elected government.


#08: Albert Reynolds

Name: Albert Reynolds
Party: Fianna Fáil
Terms: February ’92-December ‘94
“Interesting” would be the word to describe Albert Reynolds’ life even before he became the most powerful man in the country. He grew up in rural Sligo, the son of a coach maker, and left a secure civil service job to pursue a wide range of business activities like selling fish, running dancehalls and cinemas and owning what Wikipedia calls  a “bacon factory” but I’m going to out on a limb and assume was either a pig farm or a slaughterhouse.
"But…then where did they build the pigs?"

“But…then where did they build the pigs?”

He got into politics in his mid-forties and helped Charles Haughey get the support he needed for his successful leadership challenge and as a reward was given the position of Minister for Transport. This put Reynolds in the middle of one of the downright  weirdest incidents in recent Irish history where a deranged Australian ex-Trappist monk named Laurence Downey hijacked an Irish plane to France (Iran was his first choice but he was told there wasn’t enough gas in the tank).  Downey claimed that he had read the Third Secret of Fatima (a religious prophecy that supposedly revealed the End of Days) and wanted to force the Pope to reveal it to the world. Reynolds was in Paris as the Irish government’s man on the ground during the crisis.
He then spent the rest of his time in France with a sexy linguist fleeing an albino monk.

He then spent the rest of his time in France with a sexy linguist fleeing an albino monk.


#10: John A. Costello

Name: John A.Costello
Party: Fine Gael
Terms: February 1948-June 1951, June 1954-March 1957
Hands in the air. When I began researching this series, I did not have a clue that this guy even existed. That’s unbelievable. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m not an expert on Irish politics. I do not claim to be an expert on Irish politics. And if you are labouring under the delusion that I am an expert in Irish politics I am sure that there will be plenty of people in the comments willing to set you straight. But still, the fact that there was a guy running my country who I’d never even heard of was kind of eye-opening. I had this notion that the early years of the Irish state went like this: War of Independence, Civil War and then Eamon DeValera latched onto the nation like a lamprey which caused the fifties to happen (not just here, but worldwide). I’d had an idea of DeValera’s tenure as Taoiseach being monolithic and unbroken, but in fact Mr Personality up there actually managed to wrest control from him for a total of six years. It was like finding a Taoiseach where you least expect it, Costello loose change down the back of the sofa that was Eamon DeValera. So, was his tenure as Taoiseach as memorable and exciting as the man himself? Was it ever!