I was recently in Kilkenny to give the keynote at a day-long event to mark the centenary of WT Cosgrave’s by-election victory in 1917. As part of the decade of commemorations, there have been a number of events around the country reflecting on the series of by-elections that occurred in 1917. These were important moments in the political system — they marked the beginning of Sinn Féin’s move towards the habit of practical politics. The event was organised by Cllr David Fitzgerald, Cathaoirleach of Kilkenny County Council, and his committee. The day started off with the opening of a polling station in the forecourt of City Hall, followed by a series of re-enactments and the unveiling of a commemorative plaque.
The evening events were held in the recently-opened Medieval Mile Museum, a beautiful space for public events. In addition to my key-note, we also heard from the candidates and had a re-enactment of the count and declaration of WT Cosgrave’s victory.
Below is an extract from my talk:
By the late 1920s Cumann na nGaedheal was generally known as the ‘Cosgrave party’. This label, used by both the national and provincial press, reflected the attitude of ministers towards their leader. This may simply have been due to the fact that a more attractive alternative was not available. O’Higgins was not a popular figure publicly and the same held true of his relationship with many of his colleagues. But for many, Cosgrave was ‘the boss’. For some, like Desmond FitzGerald, their support was particularly strong; although overall there was at least a general loose loyalty.
Among the British there was a certain degree of respect for the president; he was certainly more favourable than the gun-wielding Collins or the extremist de Valera. Samuel Hoare, the British Conservative, reporting on the position of the provisional government, felt that Cosgrave, because of his practical experience, would be more likely to overcome the difficulties of getting an administrative structure to operate ‘than Collins with his cinema and star turning attitudinizing’. Criticism of Collins was shared by Major Whittaker, who believed that ‘he [Collins] had not sufficient statesmanship to survive even in Ireland’. He was more flattering of Cosgrave, to whose ‘desire to avoid rhetoric and be a real minister’ during his time in local government, he made specific reference.
Cosgrave was a man of government, interested in exercising power rather than concerned with its trappings. His commitment to the stability of the state and the issue of law and order is beyond question. Although these matters predominantly influenced his policy-making, his religion—he was a devout Catholic—at times guided his decisions. He was disinclined to make lengthy speeches, and he regularly delivered succinct, pointed contributions to the Dáil. His quiet sense of humour often revealed itself in the chamber. Michael Hayes, who served as Ceann Comhairle for almost a decade, became so familiar with those deputies who regularly participated in proceedings that he could predict the manner in which they would respond on most subjects. He was never able to do so with Cosgrave, whose contributions varied from the quiet to the passionate. He was a well-liked and well- respected member of Leinster House, and it was often said that his absence from a funeral was like dying without the rites of the church. He was an unassuming leader and, on his death, his modesty was one of his praised characteristics. Speaking in the Seanad, William Stanford recalled him to be a ‘great man—all the greater for being a quiet, unpretentious man’.