Cos­grave was of an era when politi­cians were in his­tory books, and not gos­sip col­umns


SOME months ago, chat­ting in a Dublin restau­rant to a cou­ple of col­leagues, both se­nior po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dents, an el­derly man passed our ta­ble. He ac­knowl­edged me, and I him; I turned to my com­pan­ions to say Martin O’Donoghue had just left, only to be met with blank stares.

The first min­is­ter for Eco­nomic Plan­ning, a hugely con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure in his time, dumped by Char­lie Haughey at the cen­tre of a scan­dal that brought down a Garda chief – all, it seemed, for­got­ten. I re­count this not to fault my younger col­leagues, but it brought home to me force­fully that we live in an age that is largely ahis­toric, with a fo­cus on the here and now and the ephemeral in pol­i­tics. Liam Cos­grave, how­ever, was a re­minder of that ear­lier time, when politi­cians were more likely to end up in the his­tory books than the gos­sip col­umns.

His death is a re­minder of the painful birth pangs of this State, and the more re­cent threats that his gov­ern­ment had to con­tend with. I was at col­lege in the 1970s and I vividly re­mem­ber how ac­tive sup­port­ers of the Pro­vi­sional IRA were in UCD. I re­call Mr Cos­grave vis­it­ing Belfield, and the riot when north­ern stu­dents over­turned his po­lice car. Given all that was go­ing on at the time, it vir­tu­ally passed un­no­ticed. Those were times when ev­ery min­is­ter had an armed es­cort, when the Army pro­tected pub­lic build­ings, and even the stu­dios at RTÉ had a res­i­dent Spe­cial Branch de­tec­tive. That dis­tant thun­der north of the Bor­der seemed very close then.

It’s hard to com­pre­hend now but, in the years of the Cos­grave gov­ern­ment, 1,213 men, women and chil­dren lost their lives in a con­flict that, to many at this re­move, seems al­most point­less.

Liam Cos­grave knew all this and had, as we all know, strong views on what should have been done at the time. As he told me pri­vately more than once, he had urged the Bri­tish to in­tern Pais­ley, whom he re­garded un­der­stand­ably as a to­tally ma­lign in­flu­ence. In ret­ro­spect, per­haps it is as well that his ad­vice wasn’t heeded.

He can be for­given too for al­low­ing his fierce loy­alty to the in­sti­tu­tions that pro­tected the State lead him into er­rors of judg­ment – not sack­ing Paddy Done­gan for in­stance, and dis­miss­ing talk of Garda mis­be­haviour, be­cause he re­mem­bered: he re­mem­bered the death of Kevin O’Hig­gins; he re­mem­bered the acrid smell of de­struc­tion af­ter his fam­ily home was torched; he re­mem­bered a time when the State it­self had been in jeop­ardy.

He re­mem­bered too, with pin­point re­call, episodes through­out his long life. When he launched my then col­league David McCul­lagh’s bi­og­ra­phy of Jack Costello, he mes­merised his au­di­ence with a 45-minute tour de force of rec­ol­lec­tion. It’s a shame he will not be around to give his ver­dict on David’s mag­is­te­rial bi­og­ra­phy of his great ad­ver­sary when the first vol­ume of his life of

De Valera is pub­lished this month.

Mr Cos­grave took a keen in­ter­est in pub­lic life to the very end. A cou­ple of years ago, he at­tended the launch of a sem­i­nar on the War of In­de­pen­dence in the Mid­lands, or­gan­ised by the Old Athlone So­ci­ety. It was to be held in Cus­tume Bar­racks and had the en­thu­si­as­tic sup­port of the Army, hence his pres­ence (along with for­mer taoiseach Ber­tie Ah­ern).

There to launch the event was the late, and greatly lamented, Judge Adrian Hardi­man. Af­ter­wards Mr Cos­grave took the judge aside for a word and an as­ton­ished Mr Hardi­man told me Mr Cos­grave had wanted to thank him for his part in a judg­ment which Mr Hardi­man him­self re­garded as ob­scure, but which nonethe­less had been of as­sis­tance to his son Liam who was then in­volved in Tri­bunal­re­lated lit­i­ga­tion. He missed very lit­tle right up to the end.

When a 97-year-old pub­lic fig­ure dies, the trib­utes can un­der­stand­ably be trite and for­mu­laic, but this week they have rung true. One of the most im­pres­sive came from Micheál Martin. The Fianna Fáil leader praised his ‘re­silience, his in­tegrity and his strength of char­ac­ter’. He had been ‘a link to the foun­da­tion events of the State and to one of its found­ing fa­thers WT Cos­grave’. It was a gen­er­ous ac­knowl­edg­ment that more, much more, than oth­ers who made the claim – Mr Cos­grave did the State some ser­vice.

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