Old newspapers provide the historian with often overlooked pieces of information which add important details to the historical record of a person or event. I recently came across two long forgotten letters by WT Cosgrave in the Irish Independent which were written when he was a member of Dublin Corporation. The earlier letter published in January 1912 addressed the perennial task of preventing strikes by suggesting that “a Committee of Inquiry be formed for the purposes of investigating grievances of employees whether in public or private service”. Cosgrave attributed the growing unrest among the urban working population at the time both to an awareness of the enhanced working conditions for rural workers and to the higher demands which a greatly improved educational system had evoked in the public at large. Interestingly, he also believed that dissatisfaction among the working population as a whole was actuated by “the enormous success that has followed in the wake of democracy of late years in many parts of the world”. Moreover, he went on to offer a definition of democracy which makes for interesting reading in light of his later involvement in the Easter Rising: “When I say democracy, I mean the power of the people – that is of the masses, legitimately and lawfully used for the attainment of their reasonable rights and the improvement of their condition – and as such, democracy has no time for unrealisable dreams or extreme measures”. Cosgrave also laid out the problems which he saw facing workers in his day that sadly still have some contemporary echoes: “There are long hours and scanty remuneration in many large concerns; there are under-paid girls in large catering establishments, and abuses to be remedied in the treatment of nurses in some of our large hospitals, not to speak of the most urgent need for better housing for the poor”. Such perceptive analysis is rendered all the more fascinating by the following remark which our various union leaders might do well to consider: “As it is hard to forsake wedded predilections, the inclusion on the suggested board of some Irish persons who have lived abroad in democratic communities for some years would be essential for success, as they are more likely to form a fairer conception of the just status of the wage-earner than those who view such matters from a merely traditional standpoint”. Four years later, Cosgrave declared that he owed it “to the people to see that every effort shall be made, and at once, to secure the provision of decent dwellings”. Writing a month before the Easter Rising, Cosgrave demonstrated how far he was prepared to go to ensure that the housing needs of ordinary Dubliners would be met: “If Mr W.M. Murphy undertakes to do all in his power to secure adequate housing for this [Cosgrave’s] ward and for the city I am prepared to resign my seat in the Corporation in his favour and to request the Council to co-opt him in my place. There is no doubt whatever but that the Council would do so, and that the Finance Committee would also elect him chairman. An opportunity is thus afforded a very successful business man of showing some interest in the administration of the city. Whatever time Mr Murphy wishes he can have to consider this proposal.” The businessman referred to in this letter is William Martin Murphy who owned the newspaper in which Cosgrave had aired his views. What makes this proposal even more surprising is the fact that as a Sinn Féin councillor, he was also addressing a former Nationalist Party MP and founder of the Dublin Employers Federation (1912) which had successfully fought against the unions during the infamous Dublin Lockout. No response was forthcoming from Murphy who died in 1919 but Cosgrave went on to become Minister for Local Government during the War of Independence and replaced Michael Collins as head of government during the Civil War in 1922, a position he retained until 1932.
Frank Bouchier-Hayes is a freelance writer who also works in UCD as a librarian