COSGRAVE: THE LEGACY Lessons from our turbulent past
The former Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, who led Ireland through much of the Troubles, was a very private man, writes Liam Collins
LIAM Cosgrave, who has died in Dublin at the age of 97, was a former Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach and member of the ‘old guard’ of the party, which he led from 1965 to 1977.
His father, William Thomas (WT) Cosgrave, was an IRA volunteer, member of Dublin Corporation, TD and government minister before succeeding Arthur Griffith as president of the Executive Council (prime minister) of the newly created Irish Free State.
His mother, Louisa Flanagan, was the daughter of wealthy Dublin businessman Alderman Michael Flanagan of Portmahon House in Rialto, Dublin. She was a sister of the well-known Dublin character ‘Bird’ Flanagan, who was rarely seen other than on his horse and who imparted his passion for equine matters, from hunting to horse racing, to his young nephew.
William Michael Cosgrave (known as Liam) was born on April 13, 1920, the year after his parents were married. At the time, his father, who was the son of a publican in James’s Street, Dublin, was Minister for Local Government in the First Dail and, as a leading IRA figure, had a price on his head.
Along with his younger brother, Michael, the family lived in Beech Park, a rambling Georgian house in Templeogue, which had been given as a wedding present to Louisa by her wealthy father, who supplied much of Dublin city with vegetables from his market gardens. The original house was burnt down by Republicans in 1923 during the Civil War. While his father was not present, Liam and other members of the family witnessed the event. WT Cosgrave told the Freeman’s Journal that many valuable items, including letters from Michael Collins and most of the executed 1916 leaders, were destroyed in the attack.
A smaller house was built on the site and WT Cosgrave, and later his son Liam, lived there for the rest of their lives.
Liam Cosgrave attended the Christian Brothers school in Synge Street and afterwards went to Castleknock College as a boarder. In 1934, at the age of 14, his father and mother, both devout Catho- lics, took him to Rome where they had an audience with Pope Pius XI, which made a huge impression on the young Dubliner. In later years, his traditional Catholic beliefs would sometimes bring him into conflict with the more liberal policies of his own political party.
After completing his Leaving Certificate, he studied Law at Trinity College and enrolled in the King’s Inns before being called to the Bar. He had already joined Fine Gael at the age of 17 and in 1940, he joined the Free State army as a private during the so-called Emergency. He was promoted to lieutenant within a few months and the sojourn gave him a tremendous respect for the Army and its role in the foundation and protection of the new Irish State.
Before the 1943 general election, he surprised his father by seeking and getting a Fine Gael nomination to contest the Dublin County constituency. He polled 11,099 votes, securing a seat alongside another Fine Gael ‘blue blood’, Henry Morgan Dockrell.
The following year, when another election was called, three Fine Gael candidates were nominated for the same constituency, the two sitting TDs and Senator Desmond FitzGerald, a War of Independence veteran and father of Garret FitzGerald. In that election, Cosgrave and Dockrell were re-elected and FitzGerald humiliated, getting only 1,978 votes.
‘Bad blood’ between the two men was later blamed on this election and Garret FitzGerald even came to believe that his father had been ‘unseated’ by the young Cosgrave. Liam Cosgrave and his father WT sat in the Dail together for almost a year. When the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera called another election, WT Cosgrave, disillusioned by politics and the Fine Gael party, did not contest it, handing over the leadership of Fine Gael to his old IRA comrade, Richard Mulcahy.
According to Mulcahy’s son Risteard, in his book My Father the General, Liam Cosgrave was “one of the few members of the party to realise the importance of grass roots support” but like his father, quickly became disenchanted by the lethargy of the Fine Gael party and had to be persuaded not to resign from politics altogether.
When Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown was established as a constituency in 1948, Liam Cosgrave opted to contest it and topped the poll, an achievement he would repeat at every successive election for the next 30 years until his retirement from politics.
After 16 years in Opposition, Fine Gael regained power in a coalition with Clann na Poblachta. Mulcahy was not acceptable to Sean MacBride, leader of the smaller coalition party, because of his hard-line stance against Republicans during the Civil War and so John A Costello became Taoiseach with Mulcahy remaining as leader of Fine Gael.
Liam Cosgrave was appointed Chief Whip of Fine Gael, and Secretary to the First ‘Interparty’ government, a position usually held by a civil servant. He took part in the negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement in 1948.
“He was unusual in that he gained the admiration of his departmental servants not for any subservience to the expert view, but for his sympathetic but critical consideration of their advice,” wrote The Leader. “He was, in fact, much better than they had expected from such a fledgling.”
Sean Lemass, who would later become Taoiseach, was not so kind. “Lacks personal colour and carries little weight,” he said dismissively.
The government ended in 1951 with the withdrawal of MacBride over Fine Gael opposition to his party’s Mother and Child Scheme and Fianna Fail came back into power in 1951. Liam Cosgrave married Vera Osborne, the daughter of well-known horse trainer JW Osborne, of Craddoxtown House, Co Kildare, on April 18, 1950 and they had three children. His mother died in 1953 and his father WT, who had vacated Beech Park to allow his son and family to live there, moved back into the house and remained there until his death in November, 1965.
Fine Gael formed a Second Interparty government in 1954 under Costello, and Liam Cosgrave was appointed Minister for External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs), a post he held until 1957. When Mulcahy retired as leader of Fine Gael in 1959, the 39-yearold Cosgrave, to the surprise of many, went for the leadership, but was defeated by veteran James Dillon.
In the years that followed, a chasm developed in Fine Gael over Declan Costello’s ‘Just Society’ policy, which sought to move Fine Gael to the left in Irish politics and which Liam Cosgrave appeared to support at first, before reverting to a more conservative position adopted by the older party stalwarts. Dillon led the party until the 1965 election but resigned hours after Lemass, now leader of Fianna Fail, was re-elected Taoiseach. His sudden departure did not give Declan Costello or his supporters time to organise and, with the support of party heavyweight Gerard Sweetman, Liam Cosgrave was unanimously elected leader of Fine Gael, to the surprise of many.
In 1969, the North of Ireland ‘Troubles’ blew up with the fall-out from the civil rights marches and the hardline stance adopted against equal rights for the minority Catholic population by successive Unionist leaders. In 1970, Liam Cosgrave became aware of the plan to import arms for the IRA through Dublin Airport which appeared to have the support of Fianna Fail ministers. He put a series of questions to Taoiseach Jack Lynch in the Dail which led to the Arms Crisis and the dramatic sacking of three ministers, Micheal O Morain, Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney, and the resignation of a fourth, Kevin Boland.
In the early stages of his leadership, Cosgrave and FitzGerald appeared to have a good working relationship. However, it gradually deteriorated and by 1972 virtually the entire parliamentary party wanted to remove Cosgrave as leader. He skilfully used the party’s annual Ard Fheis in the City Hall, Cork in May of that year to throw down the gauntlet to his opponents.
“I don’t know whether some of you do any hunting or not but some of these commentators and critics are now like mongrel foxes; they are gone to ground and I’ll dig them out and the pack will chop them when they get them,” he said to great applause from the die-hard Fine Gael delegates. It was a clear challenge to FitzGerald and it caused uproar within Fine Gael with “mongrel foxes” being added to the Irish political lexicon.
Later that year, Cosgrave and Patrick Cooney opposed the liberal wing of their own party by pledging support to vote for the Fianna Fail government’s introduction of the Offences against the State Act to counter IRA terrorism. A crisis in Fine Gael was averted when, what is presumed to have been a Loyalist bomb, exploded in Dublin on the night of the vote, December 1, killing two CIE workers — and the mood of the party and the country changed.
The Dail was dissolved in February 1973 and Cosgrave hammered out a pre-election pact with Labour leader Brendan Corish that would put them in government and allow him to emulate his father by becoming Taoiseach, a long-held ambition that looked unlikely ever to be achieved.
True to form, he did not do the obvious thing when his Cabinet was announced, appointing Richie Ryan, who had no economic experience as Minister for Finance and Garret FitzGerald, who had, as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Accepting the position of Taoiseach, Cosgrave concluded: “This government has been described as one of many talents, and commentators and informed writers all agree that it is a talented team. I need hardly say that I am glad to get a place on it.”
During that first year, he led the Irish government in negotiations with British Prime Minister Edward Heath which resulted in the Sunningdale Agreement, which provided for a ‘power-sharing’ executive in the North and a Council of Ireland for politicians on both sides of the border. Ironically, Cosgrave was doubtful about the agreement, believing that the British side had conceded too much too soon to his co-negotiator Garret FitzGerald and would not be able to deliver the terms of the agreement. This turned out to be the case. In many ways, the much praised Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was really a redrafted version of this agreement and was characterised by some as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’.
Liam Cosgrave was an exceedingly private man and did not give his home telephone number to some of his ministers, including Garret FitzGerald. As Taoiseach, Cosgrave went home to have lunch with his wife Vera almost every day and did not want to be disturbed. If there was a serious crisis between 1pm and 2pm, members of the Cabinet were expected to go through his private secretary who would
contact Templeogue Garda Station who would then send a garda with a message to his house.
Another member of his government, Peter Barry, would later say he didn’t know anybody who was ever invited to Cosgrave’s Beech Park home, a relatively modest bungalow which is still surrounded by parkland, an oasis among the new housing estates of Knocklyon.
The story is also told that during one particular Cabinet disagreement, Cosgrave and the Labour leader, Brendan Corish, adjourned to the Taoiseach’s office to sort out the dispute.
As the hours passed and neither emerged from behind closed doors, rumours began to circulate that the government would fall that day. When one persistent TD burst into the office, he found the two leaders happily drinking a bottle of whiskey and watching the Cheltenham races.
Even more unorthodox, although quite typical, was Cosgrave’s stance on contraceptive legislation introduced by his own government in March 1974. At a Cabinet meeting prior to a bill, introduced by the Minister for Justice, Paddy Cooney, Cosgrave would not say which way he intended to vote, although pressed hard by Labour Minister Conor Cruise O’Brien. He did, however, insist that it must be a ‘free’ vote. The vote was taken on July 16 to allow for the sale of contraceptives through chemist shops exclusively to married couples. When the vote was called, Liam Cosgrave voted against his own government, joining with Fianna Fail to defeat the bill by 75 votes to 61.
He was joined in the No lobby by another Fine Gael Minister, Dick Burke, and five Fine Gael TDs.
Cosgrave was Taoiseach during some of the worst atrocities of the Troubles, the Dublin and Monaghan bombs which killed 34 people on May 17, 1974, and the assassination by the IRA of the British Ambassador to Ireland, Christopher Ewart-Biggs on July 21, 1976.
That same year, Cosgrave’s closest political ally, the Minister for Defence, Patrick Sarsfield ‘Paddy’ Donegan, called President Cearbhall O Dalaigh a “thundering disgrace” for referring the Offences against the State Amendment Act to the Supreme Court. Donegan tried to call to Aras an Uachtarain to personally apologise for the remarks, made at a liquid lunch in Columb Barracks, Mullingar. O Dalaigh refused to see him and Donegan then tendered his resignation. Cosgrave refused to accept it and O Dalaigh resigned as president, with Cosgrave reluctantly accepting Donegan’s resignation.
That coalition government and its austerity policies were viciously lampooned by RTE commentator Frank Hall in Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, with Cosgrave as the ‘Minister for Hardship’ and his Finance Minister Richie Ryan named ‘Richie Ruin’.
Liam Cosgrave called a general election on May 25, 1977, even though the government could have ruled for another year. With typical eccentricity, he did not consult widely and appeared to have no idea of the public mood. An opinion poll, which could have indicated the unpopularity of the administration, was only commissioned after the election was announced.
An ‘auction manifesto’ abolishing rates on domestic property and car tax gave Jack Lynch and Fianna Fail a landslide victory.
Cosgrave resigned as leader of Fine Gael on July 1, 1977, and was succeeded by Garret FitzGerald. He did not contest his seat in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown at the next election in 1981 but was succeeded by his son, Liam T Cosgrave.
Liam Cosgrave was just as uncompromising out of office as in it. He maintained a dignified silence on political issues for the remainder of his long life and gave no interviews. He did make one self-deprecating public appearance at a book launch at which he displayed a deadpan wit and impeccable delivery. If he harboured grudges, he kept them to himself and refused to write his memoirs.
During his retirement, he continued to pursue his passion for horse racing and even close to the end of his life, was to be found sitting quietly in a corner of the parade ring at the racecourse, particularly Leopardstown, studying the form and minding his own business.
He would accept greetings from well-wishers with a polite smile, a nod or a handshake, but almost immediately return to his race card and anonymity.
His wife Vera died in 2016 at the age of 90.
Liam Cosgrave, who had been ill in Tallaght Hospital for some time, is survived by his daughter Mary, who worked for Bord Failte, his son Liam T Cosgrave, who lost his Dail seat in 1987, ending the family’s long political connection with the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown constituency, and his other son, Ciaran.
THE LAW AND ORDER TAOISEACH: Liam Cosgrave. Photo: Frank McGrath