- A Cult of No Personality: W. T. Cosgrave and the Election of 1933
The funeral of W. T. Cosgrave, the first president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, took place in November 1965, thirty-three years after he had last held power in Ireland and twenty-one years after he had retired from politics altogether. The funeral cortege stopped briefly for a moment of silence as it passed the former buildings of the South Dublin Union, where Cosgrave had fought during the 1916 Easter Rising.1 Despite this tribute to Cosgrave’s military service, there was little else ostentatious about his state funeral. The Irish Times, in an editorial headed “Example,” noted that “when Mr. Cosgrave was laid to rest, he had no Tricolour . . . [though he] had fought in arms and had been sentenced to death for doing so. We are not without virtues in our public life today, but the cult of personality, even the cult of vulgarity, stands rebuked, and effectively rebuked.”2 Instead of a vulgar personality cult, a trait that the writer associated with the revolutionary generation, the funeral invoked “the example of the old virtues—wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance.”3
The correspondent’s assessment of the funeral as an admonition against Irish revolutionary personality cults meshes with the most common evaluations of Cosgrave. Unlike Collins and de Valera, each of whom gained adherents in part through force of personality, Cosgrave was a more unassuming figure, seen as competent but not charismatic by colleagues and subsequent historians alike. Despite this modest persona and a relatively low profile for a head of [End Page 64] government, Cumann na nGaedheal, the party headed by Cosgrave, placed Cosgrave himself at the center of its election propaganda in 1933 when Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil party called a sudden election after only ten months in power. This was the most concentration on a single personality in Cumann na nGaedheal’s electoral history and marked a significant departure for the party in what turned out to be its last election before the merger that created Fine Gael. In highlighting the generally uncharismatic Cosgrave in its 1933 campaign, Cumann na nGaedheal plotted a return to power based on the same strategy that had propelled Fianna Fáil to office in the previous year: a charismatic leader, a foregrounding of economic issues, and a greater focus on the country’s future than on its recent Civil War. While Cosgrave may not have been as magnetic or popular as de Valera, Cumann na nGaedheal strategists apparently felt that his professed virtues of honesty, straightforwardness, and candor underscored de Valera’s perceived duplicity, vanity, and arrogance.4 In addition, by making the election a national contest, akin to a presidential election, Cumann na nGaedheal could mask some of its deficiencies at the grassroots level, where a perception often existed that the party was distant from local issues. Cosgrave’s positive qualities could also compensate for the unpopularity of policies pursued by such other Cumann na nGaedheal leaders as Ernest Blythe, Patrick McGilligan, and Patrick Hogan. This new strategy attempted to emulate Fianna Fáil’s broad electoral appeal. While this approach ultimately did not bear fruit for Cumann na nGaedheal, its deployment reveals much about a right-leaning party seeking to find its footing amid the growing authoritarian movements on the continent and the populist Fianna Fáil juggernaut in Ireland. The centrality of Cosgrave in 1933 is crucial to understanding the election, the declining fortunes of the Cumann na nGaedheal party in general, and the transformation of Cumann na nGaedheal into Fine Gael.
The election of 1933 has been passed over by most historians, falling as it did between the transfer of power to Fianna Fáil in March 1932 and Cumann na nGaedheal’s merger with the semifascist Blueshirts in September 1933. John Regan’s nearly four-hundred-page book on [End Page 65] Cumann na nGaedheal devotes barely a page to the election.5 Major scholarly work on the Blueshirts generally ignores 1933 electoral propaganda, focusing instead on the internal transformation of the Army Comrades’ Association (ACA) into the Blueshirts as well...