Urban Unrest and Decent Dwellings: The Early Radicalism of WT Cosgrave

Contributed by Frank Bouchier-Hayes

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

6 Responses to “Urban Unrest and Decent Dwellings: The Early Radicalism of WT Cosgrave”

  1. Sinead Says:

    Interesting stuff. Can I ask where the Cosgrave quote comes from re ‘provision of decent dwellings’?

  2. Frank Bouchier-Hayes Says:

    For anyone who wishes to explore these letters further, the exact references are 19 January 1912 (pg 6) and 16 March 1916 (pg 4). Sinead, the quote you seek comes from the second letter.

  3. Sinead Says:

    Thanks, Frank.

  4. John Dorney Says:

    Very interesting piece.

    By opposing the nationalist establishment, the early SF was by its nature a kind of oppositional force – at a time when the the Irish Party was a kind of dicatorship in nationalist Ireland. Because of this SF was more ambivilent about other strands of Irish radicalism, be they social or Fenian.

    Cosgrave’s radicalism obviously had it’s limits though. It’s interesting in the context of his stance in the civil war that he was against “unrealisable dreams or extreme measures”.

    But as the author points out, this makes Cosgrave’s involvement in the Easter Rising, by definition an extreme measure towards an (apparently) impossible dream, hard to explain.

    There’s a discussion on the radicalism (or otherwise) of the Easter 1916 rebels here
    in a review of Fearghal McGarry’s The Rising, Ireland: Easter 1916

    McGarry argues that the Rising must be seen as kind of desperate gamble by the seperatist movement to regain their own relevance.

  5. patrick maume Says:

    I believe Diarmuid Ferriter’s new LIMITS OF LIBERTY TV series, which I haven’t seen as I live in Northern Ireland and don’t get RTE, contrasted pictures of 1920s Dublin slums with footage of Cosgrave and his family at their mansion, and quoted a number of hostile remarks about the poor made by Cosgrave in correspondence.
    I wonder if the gap between Cosgrave’s earlier and later attitudes is quite as great as this might suggest? Griffith’s Sinn Fein saw itself as speaking for the deserving (i.e. self-reliant) poor and could be quite contemptuous about the lumpenproletariat and upper-class philanthropists.

  6. Frank Bouchier-Hayes Says:

    Patrick, thanks for the comment. Cosgrave was writing in his capacity as Minister for Local Government to Austin Stack, Minister for Home Affairs, in May 1921. The relevant extract from the letter is as follows:

    “People reared in workhouses, as you are aware, are no great acquisition to the community and they have no ideas whatsoever of civic responsibilities. As a rule their highest aim is to live at the expense of the ratepayers. Consequently, it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate. When they go abroad they are thrown on their own responsibilities and have to work whether they like it or not.”

    While we might justifiably take exception to any government minister uttering such remarks about former inhabitants of state run institutions today, such comments would probably not have caused much uproar in Ireland at that time. As you suggest, the deserving/undeserving poor distiinction was much in vogue at the time. Indeed, during a Dail debate on the report of the Department of Local Government in March 1921, Cosgrave said: “They wanted to get rid of the “Workhouse Citizen,” a class which had developed as a result of the Poor Law system. This class was uneconomic and was a burden on Society.” Thus, his letter to Stack re-echoed his earlier remarks with a wishful thinking solution to the problem. Interestingly, at the same Dail meeting, Cosgrave spoke as follows: “He did not agree with a system of doles for unemployment. He suggested that the monies could be utilised for some Economic Scheme to deal with unemployment.” One could, however, argue that almost 90 years later our generous social welfare entitlements have created a country which is populated, in far too many instances, by the “welfare citizen” who has “no ideas of civic responsibilities whatsoever”, whose chief aim is to live at the expense of the taxpayer and “it would be a decided gain if they all took it into their heads to emigrate”.

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