Hands that shaped Irish history

Artefacts from the State’s original senate offer a glimpse at a turbulent era in our history, explains former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave writes Elaine Byrne in the Irish Times 29 July 2008

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”

SO WROTE WB YEATS in 1920, when the War of Independence raged and the year Liam Cosgrave was born. Arthur Griffith, leader of the Irish delegation at the Treaty negotiations, sought to ensure the status of the unionist and Protestant minority in a new Irish Free State. The day the Treaty was signed, December 6th 1921, Griffith met with southern unionist representatives and assured them of due representation in the Senate. Griffith did not live to realise his promise and WT Cosgrave, president of the Executive Council, fulfilled Griffith’s legacy.

Thirty senators were appointed to the Senate by WT Cosgrave, Liam’s father, in December 1922 and a further 30 were elected by the Dáil. The recreations listed by senators were as intriguing as the senators themselves and ranged from pig-sticking to collecting English china. The New York Times remarked that the first Senate was “representative of all classes”.

Senate casket. Credit Bryan O’Brien Irish Times

In all, seven peers, a dowager countess, five baronets and several knights were represented. The Senate consisted of 36 Catholics, 20 Protestants, three Quakers and one Jew. Cosgrave’s nominees numbered 16 southern unionists. The first Senate was the most curious political grouping in the history of the Irish state.

Anti-Treaty forces believed, however, that the Senate was “designed primarily for the purpose of upholding the interests of the pro British element in the Irish Free State”. The execution of Erskine Childers in November 1922 introduced a new dimension to the ongoing Civil War. Anti-Treaty forces gave notice that senators were a legitimate target unless they resigned their office. This request was rejected by the new senators.

By the end of March 1923, 37 senators’ homes were burnt to the ground. When asked if he would move to England following the destruction of his home at Palmerstown, senator Lord Mayo replied, “No! I will not be driven from my own country”. Cosgrave’s own home was scorched in early January. Others were intimidated, kidnapped and attempts made on their lives.

These were remarkable times made extraordinary by senators who steadfastly observed the principle of sacrifice of private gain for public office. WT Cosgrave commended their “fine exhibition of citizenship”.

IN RESPONSE TO this period of coercion against the Senate, senator Alice Stopford Green commissioned the creation of a casket with a message placed inside: “Whether we are of an ancient Irish descent, or of later Irish birth, we are united in one people, and we are bound by one lofty obligation to complete the building of our common nation.” This casket was placed on the cathaoirleach’s desk in the senate chamber from 1924-1936.

Liam Cosgrave went to see the beautifully ornate casket, made from Norwegian copper and enamel with filgree silver and gold, at the Royal Irish Academy last week. Cosgrave was chief whip and parliamentary secretary in the 1948-1951 inter-party government, minister for external affairs 1954-1957 and taoiseach from 1973-1977.

The casket is accompanied by a vellum manuscript entitled The First Irish Senate in elaborate Celtic script. The distinctive fountain pen signatures of the 60 senators are neatly listed underneath, half of whom were appointed by WT Cosgrave.

WT and Liam were the only taoisigh father and son. For this writer, it was humbling and very special to bear witness to Liam Cosgrave’s immense pride in his father as he went through the signatures one by one.

“John Counihan, I knew him. I knew [James] Douglas, John Keane, let me see . . . Mrs Costello, she was from Tuam. Oliver St John Gogarty, he suggested Yeats. Knew him well, oh very well. [He removed Cosgrave’s tonsils.] I knew [The Earl of] Wicklow’s son. Bryan Mahon . . . Peter De Loughry, he was Kilkenny. [WT] Westropp Bennett, I knew him. [Lord Baron] Glenavy. Andrew Jameson.

“I want to see who else I can find out now.Countess of Desart, she was Kilkenny as well, she was married there. [William] Hutcheson Póe. HS Guinness. That’s [The Earl of] Garnard, see that one, I knew him, and his two sons, one was in the army with me. Where’s [Edmund W] Eyre’s name? Henry Barniville, he was a surgeon. James Moran, he was Moran’s Hotel . . . [Joseph] Clayton Love. [Captain J] Henry Greer, he was head of the national stud.

“Martin Fitzgerald, he was the independent, his family had a wine business in D’Olier Street, the name is still over the shop, used to be anyway. Horace Plunkett, his place was burned. George Sigerson. Tom Foran . . . John T O’Farrell, he was Labour. George Nesbitt. James Joe Parkinson, biggest racehorse trainer of his time, I knew him because he was in the Curragh. [The Marquess of] Headfort . . . Some characters.”

And each has their own extraordinary story. Sir Thomas Henry Grattan Esmonde, the great grandson of Henry Grattan MP. Mrs Wyse Power, first president of Cumann na nBan. Colonel Maurice Moore, whose grandfather marched to join General Humbert after the French landing at Killala in September 1798.

Cosgrave explains his father’s motivation for appointing a number of senators, such as Senator General Sir Bryan Mahon, from Ahascragh in Co Galway, and buried in Mullaboden, Ballymore Eustace. His military adventures with the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars brought him to India, Egypt, Dongola, Khartoum, Kordofan, South Africa, Serbia, Salonika and Sudan. Mahon was commander-in-chief of the British Forces in Ireland from 1917-1919.

After Thomas Ashe, a leading member of the Irish Volunteers and prominent figure in the Easter Rising, died on hunger strike in 1917, WT Cosgrave and Michael Collins travelled by tram to the house of Tim Healy MP at Chapelizod and asked him to represent Ashe’s family at the inquest. Healy successfully secured a verdict of negligence against the British government.

Ashe lay in state at Dublin City Hall. Collins, then just 27 years of age, gave the graveside oration flanked by Irish Volunteers. Mahon was given direct orders to prevent this from happening.

WT Cosgrave, chair of the finance committee of Dublin Corporation, recognised the riotous potential of public opinion and feared significant bloodshed so soon after the Rising. Cosgrave directed Edmund W Eyre (also appointed to the Senate), Dublin city treasurer, to persuade Mahon to keep the troops in barracks. Mahon took Cosgrave’s advice, disobeyed orders and Ashe’s funeral passed off without incident.

At 42, WT Cosgrave was one the oldest members in the Cabinet. The 1922 Government had no practical experience of parliamentary life and were thrust immediately into the responsibilities of office. The young ministers relied enormously on the Senate, the civil service, the Army and the Civic Guard. The Senate enormously influenced the guiding principles and legislative foundations of the State. This was despite great personal risk and at a time when the country seemed on the brink of anarchy.

THE WEIGHT OF the Senate’s authority is evident from its legislative record. Of the 1,831 amendments made to primary legislation, the Dáil out-rightly rejected only 86 of these. In all, the Dáil accepted 95 per cent of all amendments from the Senate from 1922-1936.

Theses amendments were influential in establishing the Civil Service Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Gárda Síochána, the judicial system and the organisation and administration of central and local government.

Liam Cosgrave acknowledges that he “wouldn’t be an impartial observer” in any personal assessment of his father. Cosgrave simply believes his father “did his duty” and that one of his major achievements was “bringing in the unionists. He wanted to collaborate with the North and, of course, time has proved that policy was the right one. We are still at it”.

The Senate was abolished in 1936 and re-constituted as the Seanad in 1938. Any celebration of the Seanad’s 60th birthday this year must confer due recognition to the sacrifice and contribution of Ireland’s first senators. One way of doing this is to put the Senate Casket and signatures on permanent public display.

Senator WB Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in December 1923, the first Irish person to receive this honour. Only three years earlier, Yeats had written of anarchy.

For Liam Cosgrave, it is straightforward. “At times, you have to take the national line as distinct from a party line. I always thought that you must put the state first or the country first, even if it’s not sometimes the political thing to do”.

The centre did hold. There was conviction.

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