Identity Statement for W.T. Cosgrave

  • Reference code: IE UCDA P285
  • Title: Papers of W.T. Cosgrave (1880-1965)
  • Dates: 1917–93
  • Level of description: Fonds
  • Extent: 11 boxes
  • Context
  • Content and Structure
  • Conditions of Access and Use

Biographical history

William Thomas Cosgrave was born on 6 June 1880 at 174 James’ Street, Dublin. He attended the Christian Brothers School in Marino, and later worked in the family business, a grocers and licensed premises. His first brush with politics came in 1905 when, with his brother Phil and uncle P.J., he attended the first Sinn Féin convention in 1905.

Serving as a Sinn Féin councillor on Dublin Corporation from 1909 until 1922, he joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913, although he never joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. During the Easter 1916 Rising, Cosgrave served under Eamonn Ceannt at the South Dublin Union. His was not a minor role, and after the Rising he was sentenced to death. This was later commuted to penal servitude for life, and he was transported to Frongoch in Wales along with many other rebels.

As public opinion began to favour the rebels, Cosgrave stood for election in the 1917 Kilkenny city by-election, and won despite being imprisoned. This was followed by another win the following year in Kilkenny North. Cosgrave took his seat in the First Dáil on his release from prison in 1919. He was appointed as Minister for Local Government, his long friendship with Eamon de Valera being key to the appointment, as well as his political experience from his years on Dublin Corporation.

The issue of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 divided Cosgrave and de Valera. Cosgrave surprised de Valera by siding with Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, and favouring the Treaty. After the Treaty was approved by the Dáil and de Valera resigned as President of the Irish Republic, a new Provisional Government was formed, headed by Griffith and including Cosgrave.

The country moved towards outright conflict in the wake of the acceptance of the Treaty, and the Civil War began in June 1922. The anti-Treaty IRA forces were defeated by the newly formed National Army over the course of the next few months. In August, both Collins and Griffith died within ten days of each other. With de Valera maintaining his anti-Treaty stance, the new dominion had lost all of its most senior figures.

Cosgrave was chosen by the pro-Treaty leadership over General Richard Mulcahy to lead the Government, in part because of his long experience as a politician. Cosgrave took the roles of President of Dáil Éireann and Chairman of the Provisional Government. On 6 December 1922, the Irish Free State was officially established and Cosgrave became the President of the Executive Council, the first prime minister.

One of Cosgrave’s first decisions was to enact the Public Safety Bill, which allowed for the execution of anyone bearing arms against the state. Although he personally objected to the death penalty, he saw the elimination of guerrilla warfare as essential to establishing the Irish Free State and maintaining law and order. Ultimately, seventy seven republicans were executed in this period, with Cosgrave’s reputation suffering as a consequence. Retaliation from the anti-Treaty side took the form of attacking pro-Treaty politicians’ homes. Cosgrave’s own family home was burned down, and his uncle was shot and killed. In April 1923 Cosgrave’s group of pro-Treaty politicians formed a new political party called Cumann na nGaedheal, with Cosgrave as leader, and in May 1923 the Civil War ended when the anti-Treaty IRA leaders announced a ceasefire and dumped their arms.

The new party faced several serious problems in their first years in power. Minister for Justice, Kevin O’Higgins, reduced the size of the army despite fierce opposition. In 1924 the Boundary Commission was established to look at redrawing the border between the Free State and Northern Ireland. Minister for Education Eoin MacNeill was the Free State’s representative on the Commission. After the Commission’s proposals were leaked to the press and consisted of only small transfers in both directions, the report was suppressed by all three governments in order to avoid further disputes. In return for this, the Free State was relieved of its obligation to pay a pro-rata share of the Imperial debt.

The June 1927 general election saw de Valera’s new party, Fianna Fáil, win seats on an abstentionist platform. The following month Kevin O’Higgins was assassinated. Cosgrave enacted legislation to force Fianna Fáil to take its seats in the Dáil which, while successful, meant that Cosgrave did not have the freedom of action he had had previously.

The general election of 1932 led to Fianna Fáil forming a minority government, their election results buoyed by their offering the electorate a manifesto based on social reform. Cosgrave led Cumann na nGaedheal in opposition, becoming the first leader of the new Fine Gael party when his party combined with the National Centre Party and the National Guard in 1933. He served as leader until 1944, when he retired.

Cosgrave led the Irish Free State through its turbulent inception and through its earliest years. Widely regarded as a solid and effective politician rather than a charismatic leader, his role in the formation of the modern Irish state has perhaps been overshadowed by other figures. The work done under his leadership though stands testament to achievements. He oversaw the establishment of the formal institutions of the state, as well as the establishment of the Electricity Supply Board, the Irish Sugar Company, and the Agricultural Credit Corporation. Cosgrave maintained democracy in Ireland at a time when other European governments were moving towards dictatorship, handing power to de Valera after the 1932 general election, despite talk within the Irish Army of staging a coup to keep him in power.

W.T. Cosgrave died on 16 November 1965. He was awarded the honour of a state funeral, which was attended by the President, Eamon de Valera. On 24 June 1919 Cosgrave had married Louisa Flanagan , and they had two sons, Liam and Michéal. Liam Cosgrave succeeded his father as a TD in 1944 and went on to lead Fine Gael. He served as Taoiseach from 1973 to 1977. W.T. Cosgrave’s grandson Liam also served as a TD, and his granddaughter Louise served as a councillor for Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown from 1999 to 2009.

Archival history

This collection was deposited in the Royal Irish Academy by Liam Cosgrave. The cataloguing of the papers took place in UCD Archives, with digitised images being created on completion of the descriptive catalogue and shared by both institutions.

Scope and Content

Correspondence: general; sent on Cosgrave’s retirement from politics; with Dr Michael Fogarty, Bishop of Killaloe; and with Bernard Forbes, Lord Granard. Letters are original, signed, and addressed to Cosgrave, unless otherwise noted.

Small amounts of political and personal material.

Some photographs and drawings.

Conservation note: P285/344 was originally an album, which has been disassembled for preservation reasons. The individual pages feature pasted-on postcards and other items. Loose items have been secured with document repair tape purely as an interim measure.

  • Access: Available by appointment to holders of a UCD Archives reader's ticket. Produced for consultation in digital format.
  • Language: English and Irish.
  • Finding aid: Descriptive catalogue
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