Pride in fa­ther’s ser­vice to the nation in­spired a gen­tle­man of Ir­ish pol­i­tics

A skilled states­man in of­ten dif­fi­cult times, Liam Cos­grave’s ca­reer was in­formed by her­itage writes An­thony Jor­dan

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Liam Cosgrave -

‘The ex­e­cu­tions short­ened the Civil War and saved more in­no­cent per­sons be­ing killed by the Ir­reg­u­lars. My fa­ther ac­cepted re­spon­si­bil­ity for the ac­tion of the Gov­ern­ment...’

IGOT to know Liam Cos­grave well through my bi­o­graph­i­cal writ­ings. He came across as a thor­ough gen­tle­man, though well able to mix it po­lit­i­cally and with a highly de­vel­oped sense of gal­lows hu­mour. He was at all times proud of the some­times un­ac­knowl­edged record of his fa­ther, WT Cos­grave, and the role he played in es­tab­lish­ing a demo­cratic state in Ire­land.

WT Cos­grave was in the South Dublin Union in 1916 where his step-brother was shot dead. He won one of the fa­mous bye-elec­tions for Sinn Fein in Kilkenny in 1917. When Arthur Grif­fith and Michael Collins died in 1922, WT Cos­grave suc­ceeded to lead­er­ship. He steered the new state through a vi­cious civil war and estab­lished its cre­den­tials in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Af­ter elec­tion de­feat in 1932, he handed over power peace­fully to Ea­mon de Valera, de­spite ru­mours of an im­pend­ing coup d’etat. He lost out on lead­ing the coun­try through the Eucharis­tic Congress that sum­mer, for which he had done much prepa­ra­tion. WT died in 1965 before the 50th an­niver­sary of the Ris­ing.

WB Yeats, whom WT had ap­pointed to the first Se­nate, has writ­ten in a poem ti­tled Par­nell’s Fu­neral of the con­flicts: Had de Valera eaten Par­nell’s heart No loose-lipped dem­a­gogue had won the day, No civil ran­cour torn the land apart. Had Cos­grave eaten Par­nell’s heart, the land’s Imag­i­na­tion had been sat­is­fied…”

Liam was very con­scious that this was his legacy from his fa­ther and keen it be recog­nised. De­spite such a pow­er­ful legacy, there was also neg­a­tiv­ity to­wards WT Cos­grave that Liam was con­scious of.

I first got to know him af­ter I sent him a copy of a let­ter fea­tur­ing ref­er­ences to his fa­ther in the 1992 Gonne Yeats Let­ters.

WB Yeats wrote to Maud Gonne about her hus­band Ma­jor John MacBride on Septem­ber 29, 1929:

“Your hus­band was never one of my he­roes — his brave death did not abol­ish his treat­ment of you — but he is a hero to these men. Cos­grave was in the next cell to him in 1916 & was to have been the next ex­e­cuted”.

Liam sub­se­quently at­tended a lec­ture I gave on that book at the Military His­tory So­ci­ety. I was in awe when I dis­cov­ered that the Vote of Thanks was to be made by Ris­teard Mulc­ahy and sec­onded by Liam Cos­grave.

I out­lined how when MacBride was seek­ing a post with Dublin Cor­po­ra­tion in 1910, his main sup­porter was WT Cos­grave. Again, they were both in Rich­mond Bar­racks to­gether and were no­tably close to each other, as ex­e­cu­tions loomed. They were in ad­join­ing cells in Kil­main­ham and WT heard the shots that ex­e­cuted MacBride, later say­ing: “I thought my turn would come next and waited for the tap on the door.”

It was at a con­fer­ence on Ea­mon de Valera in UCD in 2000 that I dis­cov­ered that no bi­og­ra­phy had been writ­ten about WT Cos­grave or John A Costello.

I soon set about this task and Liam was most sup­port­ive. I pub­lished a bi­og­ra­phy of his fa­ther in 2006, ti­tled WT Cos­grave 1880-1965 Founder of Mod­ern Ire­land.

Pat Wal­lace, direc­tor of the Na­tional Mu­seum, in­vited me to give a se­ries of lec­tures on my book at Collins Bar­racks in April 2007.

On the fi­nal night, Liam took to the podium and en­ter­tained the au­di­ence with a hard-hit­ting but witty

sum­mary of what his fa­ther had been up against. He ended by thank­ing me and ex­press­ing the wish that the lec­ture se­ries could go on and on.

I im­me­di­ately set out to com­plete a bi­og­ra­phy on John A Costello. Again Liam was most help­ful, iden­ti­fy­ing some peo­ple in pho­to­graphs of the two In­ter-Party Gov­ern­ments of 1948 and 1954. His let­ter il­lus­trates his wry hu­mour.

He wrote:

“Thank you for your let­ter en­clos­ing pho­to­graphs of the Min­is­ters in the two In­ter-Party Gov­ern­ments. All of these are now dead. I was Chief Whip (Parl. Sec­re­tary) now Min­is­ter of State to Taoiseach and to the Min­is­ter for In­dus­try and Com­merce 1948. Dan Mor­ris­sey was Min­is­ter but was se­ri­ously ill for long pe­ri­ods, when I acted for him. I have named the Min­sters and their de­part­ments in each case.

I hope you are keep­ing well.

Yours sin­cerely Liam Cos­grave Small point there is no T in my name.

Ex­cuse typ­ing old man and small type­writer.

The next day he wrote again to cor­rect one item, adding: “No need to re­ply.”

In 2013, when I in­vited him to the launch of my bi­og­ra­phy of Arthur Grif­fith, he replied:

“I re­gret I can­not do what you ask as my wife is not well & I have to do less work.”

Liam him­self faced many crises while in gov­ern­ment as Taoiseach and, like his fa­ther, did not flinch from de­ci­sive ac­tion. In 1974, leg­is­la­tion was be­ing in­tro­duced in the Dail to reg­u­late and al­low for mar­ried cou­ples to ob­tain con­tra­cep­tives. A free vote was be­ing taken which led to con­ster­na­tion when Cos­grave, with­out any warn­ing to col­leagues, voted against the mea­sure be­ing pro­posed by his own gov­ern­ment.

Else­where, Liam un­der­stood the need to counter ex­treme re­pub­li­can­ism. In 1983, he de­fended his fa­ther’s hand in the ex­e­cu­tions dur­ing the Civil War, writ­ing:

“No civilised Gov­ern­ment likes to have to do these things, but a Gov­ern­ment’s first duty is to gov­ern by vin­di­cat­ing and as­sert­ing the will of the peo­ple…the Gov­ern­ment con­sid­ered the Ex­e­cu­tions short­ened the Civil War and saved more in­no­cent per­sons be­ing killed by the Ir­reg­u­lars. My fa­ther ac­cepted re­spon­si­bil­ity for the ac­tion of the Gov­ern­ment”.

Like his fa­ther, Liam had to face down ex­treme re­pub­li­can­ism in his day. Dur­ing the Trou­bles, he sought the pas­sage of the Emer­gency Pow­ers Bill in 1976. This led to one of the most con­tro­ver­sial and con­fus­ing episodes that oc­curred dur­ing Liam’s ten­ure as Taoiseach.

Min­is­ter for De­fence Paddy Done­gan crit­i­cised President Cearb­hall O Dalaigh as a “thun­der­ing dis­grace” af­ter he re­ferred

an Emer­gency Pow­ers Bill passed in the Dail to the Coun­cil of State for con­sid­er­a­tion. He sub­se­quently sub­mit­ted the Bill to the Supreme Court. This en­tailed some un­wel­come de­lay.

The Bill was found to be con­sti­tu­tional and was signed by the President. It read ‘An Act for the pur­pose of se­cur­ing public safety and the preser­va­tion of the State in time of an armed con­flict’. Two days later, Paddy Done­gan made his of­fen­sive re­marks. O Dalaigh sent a let­ter of protest to the Taoiseach, threat­en­ing res­ig­na­tion.

Done­gan had al­ready of­fered to re­sign, but Cos­grave re­fused to ac­cept it, say­ing that a let­ter of apol­ogy would suf­fice. O Dalaigh re­fused to see Done­gan. Cos­grave spoke by phone to O Dalaigh twice but did not make any apol­ogy or in­di­cate that he wished to see the President.

O Dalaigh re­fused to have any sub­stan­tial dis­cus­sion by phone, though he in­di­cated that “he had al­ready taken pre­lim­i­nary de­ci­sions”. Fianna Fail raised the mat­ter in the Dail.

A mo­tion read­ing ‘That Dail Eire­ann af­firms its con­fi­dence in An Taoiseach and his Gov­ern­ment’ was passed as the coali­tion gov­ern­ment re­mained united on the is­sue.

Word ar­rived that a mes­sage from the President was on its way to the Gov­ern­ment. Cos­grave then ac­cepted Done­gan’s prof­fered res­ig­na­tion and tried to con­tact the President, who was un­avail­able. O Dalaigh’s let­ter of res­ig­na­tion duly ar­rived, say­ing it was “the only way open to as­sert pub­licly my per­sonal in­tegrity and in­de­pen­dence as President of Ire­land and to pro­tect the dig­nity and in­de­pen­dence of the Pres­i­dency as an in­sti­tu­tion”.

Speak­ing af­ter the event, Conor Cruise O’Brien told me: “I felt at no time any urge to join in the public pound­ing of a col­league who had erred and apol­o­gised.”

SOLEMN: Mourn­ers at the fu­neral in­cluded, l-r, for­mer min­is­ter Dessie O’Mal­ley, Min­is­ter Mary Mitchell O’Con­nor, for­mer Taoiseach Ber­tie Ah­ern, for­mer TD Olivia Mitchell, for­mer Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Liam Cos­grave’s daugh­ter Mary, for­mer FG leader Alan Dukes, TD Kate O’Con­nell, for­mer Tanaiste Mary Har­ney and Min­is­ter Si­mon Coveney

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