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Review: ‘MacCorkscrew’

Judging W.T.Cosgrave, by Michael Laffan, Royal  Irish Academy, 2014, E39.
Reviewed by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght

1 March 2015
‘A modest little man with much to be modest about’ was Winston Churchill’s notorious description of Clement Attlee. It is arguable that a similar judgement could be made of William Thomas Cosgrave. certainly, there are resemblances. Both had considerable achievements to their credit. Attlee headed the government that perfected the British welfare state. Cosgrave presided over the establishment of constitutional government  in the twenty-six county area.

Major Attlee and Lieutenant Cosgrave both shouldered arms for their countries during the first World War. The difference lies in the fact that the one-time revolutionary Cosgrave moved from fighting against the British Empire to defending his country’s association with it while Attlee moved from fighting for that empire to advancing its territorial disintegration. Both tended to be underestimated by their contemporaries but showed themselves able in political manoeuvering, Cosgrave resembling, at times, a greater political figure, Gladstone; their famous piety justified the crack made of the latter that it was not so annoying that each had an ace up their sleeves as that they claimed God had put it there. Certainly for a person who headed his country’s government for nearly ten years to leave few papers and express reluctance about anyone publishing any record of his life story must pose the question, what had he to hide? Cosgrave’s Republican opponents termed him ‘MacCorkscrew’, a fact not recorded by Dr Laffan.

Despite that, this biography is a professional work. The doctor has amassed an immense amount of information on his subject and the reader cannot fail to learn from it. This writer was interested by the revelation as to Cosgrave’s background. He had thought that Cosgrave was originally ‘a man of no property’ (‘property’ in the republican sense, meaning real estate) raised into the propertied category via Louise Flanagan’s dowry. In fact, Laffan makes it clear that he was always propertied and that the said dowry made the Cosgarve’s merely people of greater possessions. This helps explain his continuing comfort as leader of the Treaty Party, when other Treatyites found his patronising colleagues impossible to stand. Though Laffan’s sympathies are clearly with his subject, he keeps his views distinct from his facts. He implies even that Collins’ assassination was timely for his cause and his reputation. Finally, his illustrations have been praised justly, though this reader would like to have seen fewer photocopies of texts quoted and more pictures, particularly some Dublin Opinion cartoons.

The negative side lies in the omissions. Laffan defends Cosgrave’s excuses of ill health for being away at such critical moments as the Saorstat Army‘mutiny’ of 1924. He ignores the  allegation that the Flanagan dowry that maintained the Cosgrave lifestyle after 1919 was financed in part by land speculations of the kind that would be regarded today as justifying a tribunal. Nor does he examine too closely the nature of the working relationship between Cosgrave and Kevin O’Higgins. He provides some evidence, but avoids presenting other data that would show O’Higgins attitude to his boss as essentially patronising, an attitude that may or may not have been justified by their party’s decline after O’Higgins’ murder.

Above all, Laffan buys into the Treatyite interpretation of the twenty-six county civil war as a war for democracy. The truth is rather different. Neither side in the split was prepared for it; both sides blundered into the conflict. The Treatyite dual government was not sure of itself to accept any of the proposals of their opponents for a truly democratic vote on their Articles of Agreement. A referendum on the issue, an electoral register more up-to-date than that used three years before, votes for women under thirty, all were rejected by the Treatyites as likely to delay the decision for six months. In the end, it took that time to arrange an election. Many opponents of the Treaty concluded that any vote would be stacked against them and turned towards their military wing. The Treatyites claimed a victory of nearly four to one, regardless of the fact that Labour had won 21.5% of the vote by avoiding the constitutional issue and offering instead a Workers’ Republic to be achieved peacefully if mysteriously. (Until it was clear that the Anti-Treatyites could not hold their territories, it was touch and go whether Labour would co-operate in the new, twenty-six county, Dail.) Finally, it was the Treatyites who attacked the Four Courts not vice versa. Certainly, there would have been an armed clash anyway, and, probably, with their opponents concentrating solely on the oath, the Treatyites would have won, but without their undemocratic errors it is certain that it would have been far shorter and far less destructive. 

A further weakness in the work seems to arise from the fact that Laffan is a very compartmentalised political historian. Though he deals with the economics of Cosgrave’s government, it is only superficially.  He repeats what most schoolchildren know: free trade, the Shannon scheme, and a few other mentions. There is no analysis, no reference to economic history, in particular no reference to Conor McCabe’s expose in Sins of the Fathers. Cosgrave’s acceptance of the domination of his state’s economy by the banks and the cattle barons is ignored.

This enables Laffan to avoid a further embarrassment: the question of class. In this he is accepting the current cant that the matter is irrelevant. Nonetheless it remains the elephant in his subject’s room. That Cosgrave was of the same social strata as his Home Ruler opponents enabled him to accept a Treaty that gave more than Home Rule and the opportunity to build houses, his two points of disagreement with them. The difference between him and most of his colleagues was that of the practical businessman against the intellectuals and professionals on the matter of how, but not where, to advance. Cosgrave was closer to the men of no property than his ministers, but on the central issues he was as isolated as they. In later years, he would mourn the fact that Cumann na nGael had failed to build a proper political organisation, but to staff it would have involved making too many concessions in the direction of his opponents. Similarly, the failure of the Blueshirts (whose programme Laffan misrepresents as ‘democratic’) was the result of the fact that, in a country still oppressed, their regressive national and social policies deterred possible recruits from the unpropertied that followed de Valera’s. O’Duffy tried to overcome this by extra-constitutional actions but the local election defeats had alienated most of his political associates. Fine Gael’s fortunes would revive only when it learnt to broaden its appeal by participating in the Inter-Party Governments.

This is not Laffan’s biggest suppression of class differences. It is, after all a fact that the period of national struggle that culminated in the civil war was also one of intensive class struggle. This reached new bitterness in May 1922. The Anti-Treatyites failed to take advantage and, perhaps because of this, Laffan fails to  mention it. He might argue that Cosgrave was not involved directly in facing down these agitations. Nonetheless, it seems likely that it influenced the Treatyites’ actions in the weeks leading to the war: certainly Collins was aware of what he saw as the need to combat ‘Bolshevism’. Secondly, as head of the Saorstat government from  September 1922, Cosgrave was responsible for fighting the class war on behalf of the bosses. It was his government that sent troops to break strikes, particularly the Waterford farm stoppage, and the land agitation in Co.Clare. He supported breaking the statewide Saorstat dock strike. He placed a ceiling on road workers’ pay to deter farm labourers seeking more. He was, of course, helped in this by a confused, reformist and eventually divided labour leadership. Nonetheless, he was the committed leader of the enemy of those that that leadership claimed to represent.

William Thomas Cosgrave’s nickname of ‘MacCorkscrew’ was somewhat unfair; he was not a wheeler-dealer or hair-splitter on the scale of de Valera. His effectiveness lay in the fact that he appeared far less like a reactionary than the other Treatyite leaders after Collins’ death. His humour, his resemblance to the comedian Stan Laurel (even to the bowler hat) enabled him to provide a cover for reactionary and undemocratic initiatives for which his ministers took the blame. Despite his wife’s fears, the assassins of Kevin O’Higgins might have thought twice had they had Cosgrave in their sights. Eventually, of course, personal popularity was not enough. The combination of conservatism and bad political organisation propelled Fianna Fail into power where it would remain for most of the next eighty years. The tasks of the Irish bourgeois democratic revolution would be completed in the twenty-six counties without, and, at times, despite Cosgrave. They will not be fulfilled for the whole island within any capitalist scenario such as both he and de Valera tried to follow.

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