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  • Apostates or Imperialists?W. T. Cosgrave, Kevin O'Higgins, and Republicanism
  • Jason Knirck

The acceptance of the Anglo-Irish Treaty stands as one of the most momentous events in modern Irish history. W. T. Cosgrave and Kevin O'Higgins, two titans of the early Free State, each played critical roles in passing the Treaty through the cabinet and allowing the full Dáil to vote on the document. While the post-revolutionary careers of each man are receiving increasing scrutiny, their specific contributions to the passage of the Treaty have been underplayed by historians focusing, understandably, on Collins, de Valéra, Childers, or Griffith. Republican critics in the 1920s, as well as many historians since, have often painted O'Higgins and Cosgrave as men who were never especially connected to the revolution in the first place, or as moderates who used the revolutionary movement for the advantages it could bring and then abandoned it once it had placed them in power. But a more careful scrutiny of Cosgrave's and O'Higgins' revolutionary records—including some newly released private letters from O'Higgins—reveals men who had more of an affinity to the revolution than previously thought. Their decisions to accept the Treaty were more rooted in pragmatism, and a desire to move toward revolutionary goals, than in opportunism.

In fact, reactions to the Treaty among the Irish elite were often based on pragmatic answers to a number of fundamental questions. These included the ability of Ireland to continue military and political resistance if the Treaty were to be rejected; the extent of reduction in British influence the Treaty could actually deliver; the intent of the British government to honor the agreement; and the longterm ability of Ireland to evolve or develop beyond the powers granted in the Treaty. Cosgrave and O'Higgins each came to believe, on balance, that the Treaty deserved support, based on an evaluation of the circumstances of its signing and its potential for delivering Irish freedom. Cosgrave's initial espousal was more emphatic than O'Higgins's, although he, too, had expressed [End Page 51] sufficient reservations about the required oath and other aspects of the ongoing negotiations for de Valéra to believe him to be a supporter of external association. O'Higgins's support for the Treaty, at the outset, was almost solely conditional on the fact that it had been signed. Initially, he saw the Treaty as a barely acceptable way out of a worsening situation.

The support of Cosgrave in particular was crucial in getting the Treaty through the cabinet and to the Dáil by a 4-3 vote. Cosgrave's vote stunned de Valéra, who had based his whole negotiating strategy on his ability to preserve a cabinet majority behind his policies. The surprise defection forced de Valéra into a situation he had never contemplated, and led to his defensiveness, hesitancy, and generally poor reading of the political situation throughout 1922.

Cosgrave and O'Higgins were two pillars of the Treatyite regime. Their views obviously played a large role in shaping the development of pro-Treaty political culture, and they are often invoked as representative of Cumann na nGaedheal's perceived abandonment of the revolution. O'Higgins was frequently accused of being a closet imperialist, unconnected to and out of sympathy with revolutionary goals and aspirations, while Cosgrave symbolized the stodgy conservative-banker type who frolicked with Unionists and attended high-society functions. Further, the transformations of O'Higgins and Cosgrave illustrate the difficulties involved in tracing post-Treaty positions to pre-Treaty history. O'Higgins was, on the surface, a dedicated Sinn Féiner before 1922, giving few indications of any alleged imperial tendencies. Cosgrave, for his part, was a 1916 veteran with a long history of membership in advanced nationalist organizations.

An Irish Times editorial described Cosgrave in decidedly non-revolutionary terms:

It would be hard to imagine anybody who is less true to what we used to consider the Sinn Féin type than Mr. Cosgrave. It is not only that he does not dress in the regulation way—trench coat, leggins and slouch hat and the rest of it; but he has a...


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