Cosgrave, W. T

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Cosgrave, W. T.

W. T. [William Thomas] Cosgrave (1880–1965), Irish nationalist and head of government, was born in Dublin on 5 June. After education by the Christian Brothers he became a publican. He was active in Arthur Griffith's Sinn Féin and was a member of Dublin Corporation from 1909. Cosgrave served as second in command of the rebel garrison at the South Dublin Union during the 1916 Easter Rising and was sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was released a year later. In August 1917, Cosgrave was the successful Sinn Féin candidate in a parliamentary byelection for Kilkenny city; he represented North Kilkenny in the first Dáil (1918–1920), then Carlow-Kilkenny from 1920 to 1927 and Cork city from 1927 to 1944. In 1919, Cosgrave became minister for local government in the underground Dáil administration, with Kevin O'Higgins as junior minister. In 1922, Cosgrave was a pivotal supporter of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and emerged as leader of the pro-Treatyites (later Cumann na nGaedheal) after the deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. The harsh measures taken by the Cosgrave government during the Civil War (including reprisal executions, death sentences imposed after summary trials by military courts and semiofficial death squads) were widely criticized; Cosgrave always defended them as upholding the will of the people. As president of the executive council of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1932 Cosgrave operated as "chairman," balancing competing cabinet factions, but was increasingly dominated by conservative technocrats associated with O'Higgins. Cosgrave himself was an effective campaigner, cultivating a "man in the street" image and emphasizing his Dublin accent. His government secured civilian control over the armed forces, restored the public finances, asserted Irish independence within the Commonwealth, and undertook prestigious projects such as the Shannon hydroelectric scheme. However, its harsh fiscal and security policies and disdain for populism led many former protreaty supporters to support Fianna Fáil after that party entered the Dáil in 1927. Cosgrave's acceptance of electoral defeat in 1932 rather than retaining power by force was perhaps his finest hour. After a second defeat in 1933, Cosgrave gave way to Eoin O'Duffy as leader of the new Fine Gael Party. Cosgrave became Fine Gael leader in 1934 after O'Duffy's resignation, holding the post until 1943 as his party declined. Cosgrave died in Dublin on 16 November 1965. His son Liam was taoiseach from 1973 to 1977. The elder Cosgrave is generally seen as a competent leader who played a significant role in consolidating the new state.

SEE ALSO Civil War; Political Parties in Independent Ireland; Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922; Primary Documents: Speech at the Opening of the Free State Parliament (11 September 1922); Speech on Ireland's Admission to the League of Nations (10 September 1923)


Collins, Stephen. The Cosgrave Legacy. 1996.

Regan, John M. The Irish Counter-Revolution, 1921–36. 1999.

Patrick Maume