The Birth of the Irish Free State, 1921-1923

By Joseph M. Curran | Go to book overview

Chapter 17

The Ordeal of Birth:
September-December 1922

Upon the deaths of Griffith and Collins, William T. Cosgrave became head of the government. He had become acting chairman of the Provisional Government when Collins was appointed commander in chief, and acting president of the Dail when Griffith died. There was no formal opposition to his succession within the Cabinet, and he was undoubtedly the best man for the job. At forty-two, Cosgrave's long career in local government had given him a fund of administrative experience none of his colleagues could match, and his participation in the Easter Rising provided him with unimpeachable nationalist credentials. Finally, the fact that he had no connection with the army showed the government's eagerness to avoid any appearance of military dictatorship.

But although Cosgrave's elevation was a logical move, he accepted the leadership reluctantly, as a duty he could not avoid. At his first meeting with Craig he protested: "You know, I've been pushed into this. I'm not a leader of men!" 1 And he was not, of course—in the sense that de Valera or Collins was—because he lacked their personal magnetism and drive for power. Yet Cosgrave's self-assessment was too modest, for in his quiet, commonsensical way he made an effective leader. He delegated authority wisely, handled ministerial disputes even-handedly, and was, on the whole, an ideal chairman. His colleagues valued his advice and steadiness, and long before he left office his competence and wit had made him personally very popular with voters. 2

Although Cosgrave and his colleagues remained firmly committed to the Treaty, the deaths of Griffith and Collins seem to have momentarily weakened their resolution to crush armed opposition. On September 2 Cosgrave and Mulcahy assured Tom Johnson and William O'Brien, the Labor Party's parliamentary leaders, that if the Irregulars disbanded, they could keep their arms and the government would not molest them. O'Brien conveyed this offer to the Irregulars but it was rejected. Although the government subsequently denied making such a proposal, O'Brien could hardly have misunderstood so important a concession. The IRA's refusal of the offer and the government's renewed determination to achieve a clear-cut victory probably explain the denial that it had been made. 3

Shortly after this incident, at the request of a clerical intermediary,

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