W.T. Cosgrave

From Academic Kids

William Thomas Cosgrave, (June 6, 1880November 16, 1965), known generally as W.T. Cosgrave, was an Irish politician who succeeded Michael Collins as Chairman of the Irish Provisional Government from August to December 1922. He served as the first President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1932.

William T. Cosgrave
President of the Executive Council
Missing image

Term of Office:December 6 1922 - March 9 1932
Predecessor:new office
Successor:Eamon de Valera
Date of Birth:June 6 1880
Place of Birth:Dublin, Ireland
Date of Death:Tuesday, November 16 1965
Place of Death:Dublin, Ireland
Political Party:Cumann na nGaedheal and Fine Gael

Early and Private Life

William Thomas Cosgrave, or W.T. as he was generally known, was born at 174 James's St, Dublin in 1880. He was educated at the Christian Brothers School at Malahide Road, Marino, before entering his father's publican's business. Cosgrave first became politically active when he attended the first Sinn Féin convention in 1905. He was a Sinn Féin councillor on Dublin Corporation from 1909 until 1922 and joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913. Cosgrave played an active role in the Easter Rising of 1916 serving under Eamonn Ceannt at the South Dublin Union. Following the rebellion Cosgrave was sentenced to death, however this was later commuted to penal servitude for life and he was interned in Frongoch, Wales. While in prison Cosgrave won a seat for Sinn Féin in a 1917 by-election. He again won an Irish seat in the 1918 General Election, serving as MP for Carlow-Kilkenny. He was released from prison in 1918 under a general amnesty and took part in the soon to be established Dáil Éireann. On June 24, 1919 Cosgrave married Louisa Flanagan in Dublin.

Political Career

Sinn Féin proved to be the big winner of the election in Ireland, capturing most Irish seats, the majority uncontested, with a manifesto of abstaining from the House of Commons in Westminster. On January 21, 1919 Sinn Féin's MPs assembled in the Round Room of the Mansion House in Dublin and formed themselves into an Assembly of Ireland, known in the Irish language as Dáil Éireann. Cathal Brugha became Príomh Aire (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 prison, 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.

Minister for Local Government

Though one of the most politically experienced of Sinn Féin's MPs (by now called Teachtaí Dála), 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 friendship with de Valera (nicknamed deV) being one of the reasons he was chosen. His chief task as Minister was the job of organising non-cooperation with the British authorities and establishing an alternative system of government. Cosgrave was very successful in his role at the Department of Local Government. In 1920 he oversaw elections to local councils in which the new system of proportional representation was used. In spite of this Sinn Féin still gained 28 of the 33 local councils. These councils then cut their links to the British and pledged loyalty to the Sinn Féin Department of Local Government, under Cosgrave.

Anglo-Irish Treaty

Cosgrave broke with de Valera 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, de Valera'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 Irish Republic). De Valera was replaced as president by Griffith. Collins in accordance with the Treaty formed a Provisional Government which included Cosgrave.

Chairman of the 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 Civil War, the new dominion (which was in the process of being created but which would not legally come into being until December 1922) had lost all its most senior figures. Though it had the option of 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. Having previously held the Local Government and Finance portfolios 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 on December 6, 1922 the Irish Free State came into being, Cosgrave became its first prime minister, called President of the Executive Council.

President Cosgrave 1922-1932

W.T. Cosgrave was a small, quiet man, and at forty-two was the oldest member of the Cabinet. He had not sought the leadership of the new country but once it was his he made good use of it. One of his chief priorities was to hold the new country together and to prove that the Irish could govern themselves. Some historians have noted that he lacked vision as a leader and was surrounded by men who were more cabable than himself. However, over his ten years as President he provided the emerging Irish state with an able leader who had a sound judgement on the matters of state that the new country was facing.

Domestic Policy

As head of the Free State government during the end of the Civil War, he was ruthless in what he saw as defence of the state against his former republican comrades. Law and order was the new government's chief prority. By many he was never forgiven for the execution without trial of republican prisoners. In all 77 republicans were executed by the Free State between November 1922 and the end of the war in May 1923, far more than the British executed in the War of Independence, including Robert Erskine Childers, Liam Mellowes and Rory O'Connor.

In April of 1923 the Pro-Treaty Sinn Féin members organised a new political party called Cumann na nGaedhael with Cosgrave as leader. In the first few years in power the new government faced a number of problems. Firstly, the government attempted to reduce the size of the army. During the civil war it had grown to over 50,000 men, howver, now that the civil war was over it was far too costly to maintain. However, some army officers challenged the authority of the government to intervene. They were angry that the government was not doing enough to help to create a republic and also there would be massive unemployment. In March 1924 more lay offs were expected and the army officers involved sent an ultimatum to the government demanding an end to the mobilisation. Kevin O'Higgins, the Minister for Justice, who was also acting-President for Cosgrave while he was in hospital, moved to resolve the so-called "Army Mutiny". Richard Mulcahy, the Minister for Defence, resigned and O'Higgins was victorious in a very public power struggle withinn Cumann na nGaedhael. The crisis within the army was solved but the government was divided.

In 1924 the British and Irish governments agreed to set up a "Boundary Commission" to redraw the border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. The Free State's representative was Eoin MacNeill, a repected scholar and Minister for Education. The Free State expected to gain much territory in Derry, Tyrone and [{Armagh]], however, after months of secret negotiations a newspaper reported that there would be little change to the border and the Free Satte would actually lose territory in Donegal. MacNeill resigned from the commission and the government for not reporting to Cosgrave on the details of the commission. Cosgrave immediately went to London for a meeting with the British Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, where they agreed to let the border remain as it was.

Foreign Policy

Although Cograve and his government accepted dominion status for the Irish Free State, they did not trust the British to respect this new independence. These suspicions would later prove unjustified, however, for the time being the government embarked on fairly radical foreign initiatives. In 1923 the Irish Free State became a member of the League of Nations, in spite of British protests. The Free State became the first British Commonwealth country to have a seperate or non-British representative in Washington. The new state also exchanged diplomats with many other European nations.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty itself also gave the Irish much more freedom than many other dominions. The Oath of Allegiance in Ireland was much less royalist than in Canada or Australia, the king's representative in Ireland was an Irish native, unlike the other dominions, and although the head of state was the king, power was derived from the Irish people and not him. There was also questions raised about the word "treaty". The British claimed it was an internal affair while the Irish claimed it was an international agreement between two independent states, a point which was accepted by the League of Nations.

Economic Policy

During the ten years that Cosgrave and Cumann na nGaedhael were in power they adopted a conservative economic policy. Taxation was kept as low as possible in order to balance the budget and to avoid borrowing. The Irish currency remained linked to the British currency, resulting in the overvaluation of the Irish pound. Free trade was advocated as apposed to protection, however, moderate tariffs were introduced on some items.

The new government decided to concentrate on developing agriculture, while doing little to help the industrial sector. Agriculture responded well with stricter quality control being introduced and the passing of a Land Act to hepl farmers buy their farms. Also, the Irish Sugar Company and the Agricultural Credit Corporation were established to encourage growth. However, the economic depression that hit in the 1930s soon undid the good work of Cosgrave and his ministers. Industry was seen as secondary to agriculture and little was done to improve it. The loss of the north-east of Ireland had a bad effect on the country as a whole. However, the Electricity Supply Board, with the first national grid in Europe, was established to provide employment and electricity to the new state.

General Election 1932

A general election was not necesary until the end of 1932, however, Cosgrave called one for February of that year. There was growing unrest in the country and a fresh mandate was needed for an important Commonwealth meeting in the summer. Cumann na nGaedhael fought the election on its record of providing ten years of honest governmant and politicial and economic stability. Instead of developing new policies the party played the "red card" by portraying the new party, Fianna Fáil, as communists. Fianna Fáil offered the electorate a fresh and popular manifesto of social reform. Unable to compete with this Cosgrave and his party lost the election, and a minority Fianna Fáil government came to power.

Cosgrave in Opposition

Following the general election Cosgrave assumed the nominal role of Leader of the Opposition. Fianna Fáil were expected to have a short tenure in government, however, this turned out to be a sixteen year period of rule by the new party. In 1933 three groups, Cumann na nGaedhael, the national Centre Party and the National Guard came together to form a new political force, Fine Gael - the United Ireland Party. Cosgrave became the first parliamentary leader of the new party, serving until his retirement in 1944. During that period the new party failed to win a general election. Cosgrave retired as leader of the party and from politics in 1944.


An effective and good chairman rather 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."


William T. Cosgrave died on Tuesday, November 16, 1965. The Fianna Fáil government under Seán F. Lemass 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, succeeded his father as a TD in 1944 and went on to become leader of Fine Gael from 1965 to 1977 and Taoiseach from 1973 to 1977. W.T.'s grandson, also called Liam also served as a TD and as Senator.

First Government, December 1922-September 1923

Second Government, September 1923-June 1927


  • March 7, 1924: Joseph McGrath resigns from the government as Minister for Industry & Commerce.
  • March 19, 1924: Richard Mulcahy resigns as Minister for Defence.
  • March 20, 1924: W.T. Cosgrave takes over as Minister for Defence on a temporary basis.
  • April 4, 1924: Patrick McGilligan joins the government as Minister for Industry & Commerce.
  • June 6, 1924: The Ministers & Secretaries Act, 1924 comes into effect. The title, Minister for Home Affairs, is replaced by the title Minister for Justice. The title of Minister for Agriculture now changes to the Minister for Lands & Agriculture. The title Minister for Local Government changes to the Minister for Local Government & Public Health. The title Post-Master General changes to the Minister for Posts & Telegraphs.
  • November 21, 1924: Peter Hughes joins the government as the new Minister for Defence.
  • November 24, 1925: Eoin MacNeill resigns as Minister for Education.
  • January 28, 1926: John M. O'Sullivan joins the government as Minister for Education.

Third Government, June 1927-October 1927


  • June 24, 1927: William T. Cosgrave takes over as Minister for Defence on a temporary basis.
  • July 14, 1927: William T. Cograve takes over as Minister for Justice and Minister for External Affairs. Ernest Blythe becomes the new Vice-President.

Fourth Government, October 1927-April 1930

Fifth Government, April 1930-March 1932

Political Career

Template:Succession box two to oneTemplate:Succession box two to one
Preceded by:
Office of Chairman of the Provisional Government
President of the Executice Council
Succeeded by:
Eamon de Valera
Preceded by:
Leader of Pro-Treaty Sinn Féin
Leader of Cumann na nGaedhael
Succeeded by:
Leader of Fine Gael
Preceded by:
Leader of Cumann na nGaedhael
Leader of Fine Gael
Succeeded by:
Richard Mulcahy

Template:End box

Taoisigh na hÉireann Government of Ireland

Eamon de Valera | John A. Costello | Seán F. Lemass | Jack M. Lynch | Liam T. Cosgrave | Charles J. Haughey | Garret FitzGerald | Albert Reynolds | John Bruton | Bertie Ahern |

Presidents of the Executive Council
Eamon de Valera | William T. Cosgrave

de:William Thomas Cosgrave

he:ויליאם תומס קוסגרייב


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