Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

W.T. Cosgrave

William Thomas Cosgrave, (1880-1965) served as the first President of the Executive Council (prime minister) of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1932.

William T. Cosgrave
President of the Executive Council
Term of Office:December 6 1922 - March 9 1932
Predecessor:new office
Successor:Eamon de Valera
Date of Birth:June 6 1880
Date of Death:November 16 1965
Place of Birth:Dublin, Ireland
Political Party:Cumann na nGaedhael

W.T. Cosgrave, as he was generally known, was born in Dublin in 1880. He was elected as a member of Dublin Corporation. Having joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913, he fought during the 1916 Easter Rising, was captured and sentenced to death. This sentence was commuted to imprisonment. Whilst in gaol he won a seat for Sinn Féin in a 1917 by-election. He again won an Irish seat in the British 1918 general election. Sinn Féin proved to be the big winner of the election in Ireland, capturing most Irish seats (the majority uncontested). On 21 January 1919 Sinn Féin's MPs assembled in the Round Room of the Mansion House and formed themselves into an Assembly of Ireland, in the Irish language Dáil Éireann. Cathal Brugha became Príomh Áire (First or Prime Minister), also called President of Dáil Éireann. In April 1919 Brugha resigned and Eamon de Valera, the Sinn Féin leader, who had just escaped from gaol, assumed the premiership instead. The new government and state, known as the Irish Republic, claimed a right to govern the island of Ireland. It also declared UDI, that is, an illegal declaration of independence which remained until the end of the 'Republic' unrecognised by any other world state except the Russian Republic under Lenin.

Though one of the most politically experienced of Sinn Féin's MPs (by now called TDss), Cosgrave was not among the major leadership of the party. Nevertheless he was appointed to Eamon de Valera's cabinet as Minister for Local Government, his close friend with de Valera (nicknamed deV) being one of the reasons why de Valera selected him.

Cosgrave broke with deV on the issue of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. To de Valera and a minority of Sinn Féin TDs, the treaty betrayed "the republic" by proposing to replace the republic by a new dominion status akin to the position of Canada or Australia within the British Empire. To a majority however, republican status remained for the moment an unattainable goal, with the republic unrecognised internationally. Dominion status offered, in the words of Michael Collins, "the freedom to achieve freedom." Cosgrave agreed with Collins and with Arthur Griffith, deV's predecessor as leader of Sinn Féin and the chairman of the delegation which included Collins that had negotiated the Treaty. De Valera resigned the presidency (which in August 1922 had been upgraded from a prime ministerial President of Dáil Éireann to a full head of state, called President of the Republic. De Valera was replaced as president by Griffith. Collins in accordance with the Treaty formed a Provisional Government.

In August 1922, both Griffith and Collins died in quick succession; the former died of natural causes, the latter a few days later through an assassin's bullet. With de Valera now on the fringes as the leader of the Anti-Treaty forces in the Irish Civil War, the new dominion (which was in the process of being created but which would not legally come into being until December 1922) has lost all its most senior figures. Though it had the option for going for General Richard Mulcahy, Collins' successor as Commander-in-Chief of the National Army, the pro-Treaty leadership opted for Cosgrave, in part due to his democratic credentials as a longtime politician. He became simultaneously President of Dáil Éireann (Griffith had returned his office to its pre-August 1922 name) and Chairman of the Provisional Government. When in December 1922 the Irish Free State came into being, Cosgrave became its first prime minister, called President of the Executive Council.

An effective and good chairman than a colourful or charismatic leader, he led the new state during the more turbulent period of its history, when the legislation necessary for the foundation of a stable independent Irish polity needed to be pushed through. Cosgrave's governments in particular played a crucial role in the evolution of the British Empire into the British Commonwealth, with fundamental changes to the concept of the role of the Crown, the governor-generalship and the British Government within the Commonwealth.

In overseeing the establishment of the formal institutions of the state his performance as its first political leader may have been undervalued. In an era when democratic governments formed in the aftermath of the First World War were moving away from democracy and towards dictatorships, the Free State under Cosgrave remained unambiguously democratic, a fact shown by his handing over of power to his one-time friend then rival Eamon de Valera, when deV's Fianna Fáil won the 1932 general election, in the process killing off talk within the Irish Army of staging a coup to keep Cosgrave in power and de Valera out of it. Perhaps the best endorsement made of Cosgrave came from his old rival, with whom he was reconciled before his death, Eamon de Valera. De Valera once in 1932 and later close to his own death, made two major comments. To an interviewer, when asked what was his biggest mistake, he said without a pause, "not accepting the Treaty". To his own son, Vivion, weeks after taking power in 1932 and reading the files on the actions of Cosgrave's governments in relation to its work in the Commonwealth, he said of Cosgrave and Cosgrave's ministers "they were magnificent, Viv."

Cosgave founded the pro-treaty political party, Cumann na nGaedheal in 1923. In 1935 he became leader of the Fine Gael party, which was formed through a merger of Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Centre Party and the National Guard (Blueshirts) in 1933 and served in that role until 1944 when he retired from politics.

W.T. Cosgrave died in 1965. The Fianna Fáil government under Jack Lynch awarded him the honour of a state funeral, which was attended by the cabinet, the leaders of all the main Irish political parties, and Eamon de Valera, then President of Ireland

Cosgrave's son, Liam, was leader of Fine Gael 1965-77 and Taoiseach 1973-77.

Preceded by:
Office newly created
in December 1922
President of the Executive Council Succeeded by:
Eamon de Valera