Friends and colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. Good evening.
My thanks to Professor Kevin Whelan and the Keough Naughton Notre Dame Centre for hosting this evening’s commemoration, to everyone who helped to organise the event, and to Patrick for providing some historical context.
It is right that our party commemorates the creation of the Irish Free State one hundred years ago. Traditionally, we consider Easter Monday to be our independence day as that’s when our independence and the republic was declared. I think that’s right. Other countries do the same. But I also think it is right to mark the hundredth anniversary of the day it was achieved.
Many political parties can trace their origins to 1916 and the revolutionary struggle, or indeed before it, but our political tradition was uniquely involved in the events which led to the creation of our new State.
The negotiation and acceptance of the Treaty. Its presentation to the people and the winning of a mandate for it. The foundation of the State and the writing of its constitution, and its defence from the violent undemocratic forces which sought to destroy it, was led by the men and women who went on to found Cumann na nGaedheal and later Fine Gael. Some sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of their ideals and the dream of freedom.
As we know, our independent Irish State was recognised by the world, the first time that happened, and all this was finally achieved on this day one hundred years ago. All across Europe newspapers hailed the fact that Ireland was reborn.
The New York Times proclaimed that Ireland was now a nation. In our own country, the Irish Independent described it as ‘the resurrection of Ireland’s freedom’ and ‘probably the greatest event in Irish history since the nation lost its freedom over 700 years ago’.
‘A great measure of freedom’ was the headline in The Irish Times who called it ‘the most notable day’. For the Examiner the headline was simply ‘Freedom’, with the optimistic prediction that ‘Ireland’s future was assured’.
But as we know Ireland’s future was nowhere near assured, with an armed minority challenging the legitimacy of the new State, refusing to accept the democratic wishes of the people as expressed in the general election in June and in the Dáil.
Many new states established in the aftermath of the Great War did not survive. Ours did and did so as a continuous democracy for a century. That was far from assured in December 1922 and was a huge achievement in itself.
On this day one hundred years ago, there was a security alert in Dublin city and genuine fears that gunmen would burst into the Dáil and murder the elected representatives. The public gallery was kept empty and the whole ceremony lasted only an hour.
Only one name was put forward to become the first head of government of the new State – An Teachta Liam T. MacCosgair – and the nomination was approved without a vote being called. I don’t think I will be so lucky next week!
The President of the Executive Council is of course better known to us as W.T. Cosgrave, a founder of our political party, whose son, Liam, also served with distinction as Taoiseach during another period when the State was threatened by violent and undemocratic forces. Both father and son acted decisively to protect the State and freedoms we all enjoy today. We are honoured to be joined today by members of his family, including his daughter and party trustee, Mary Cosgrave.
His speech 100 years ago was one of W.T. Cosgrave’s finest and I would like to quote some of his words today to honour his contribution to our freedom:
‘On this notable day when our country has definitely emerged from the bondage under which she has lived through a week of centuries, I cannot deny that I feel intensely proud to be the first man called to preside over the first Government which takes over the control of the destiny of our people. To hold and administer that charge, answerable only to our own people and to none other. To conduct their affairs as they shall declare right without interference, not to say domination, by any other authority whatsoever on this earth.’
Cosgrave talked openly about the threat to the State.
He regretted that in the ‘past twelve months since the Treaty between this country and our old enemy was signed’ that there has been so much ‘unnecessary sufferings and bloodshed’.
The second part of the speech was an appeal to the politicians and the people of Northern Ireland.
The creation of Northern Ireland predated the Treaty – something those who seek to rewrite our history for their own purposes never admit. Nor do they seem to admit that there was a provision in the Treaty whereby Northern Ireland would become part of the Free State its foundation, with one month to opt out.
The parliament of Northern Ireland took the democratic decision to opt out a day later. The principle of consent did not begin with the Good Friday Agreement, it’s a principle most of this island have accepted for a hundred years.
Mr. Cosgrave’s words one hundred years ago should guide us today. He insisted that the people of Northern Ireland could not be coerced into joining the Irish State.
De Valera believed the same. Labour too. Such an approach would only create more division instead of healing old wounds.
His was a plea for ‘peace and prosperity and lasting concord’ recognising that this was the only way of achieving ‘harmony, and lasting and genuine security’ for what he called ‘our common Motherland.’
The 6th of December was the day the 1922 Constitution came into effect, giving full voting rights to women a full six years before the UK did the same. Four women were appointed to the new Seanad, including the Countess of Desart, who became the first Jewish member of the Oireachtas, and Jennie Wyse Power, whose fight for reform went all the way back to Parnell and the Ladies Land League in the 1880s. The 1916 Proclamation had been signed in her office in Henry Street. She’s someone we should talk more about.
W.B. Yeats was also appointed a senator, an early thank you for all the times his poetry would be quoted by politicians in the years ahead. Eleven months later Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Accepting the award, he called it ‘Europe’s welcome to the Free State’.
The great tragedy of 100 years ago is that new State was born in blood, in the middle of the Civil War about to become even more bitter. On the 7th of December, Seán Hales, a hero of the War of Independence, was gunned down leaving a hotel on the way to the Dáil.
Beside him, the Leas Ceann Comhairle, Padraig Ó Máille, was seriously wounded, taking a bullet in the spine. The Cabinet responded by ordering the execution of four prisoners in Mountjoy without trial, a breach of the new constitution.
On the 10th of December the home of another pro-Treaty TD, Seán McGarry – the aide de camp of Thomas Clarke in the GPO and a former President of the IRB, had his house burned to the ground in Fairview. His seven-year-old son, Emmet – an innocent child – was seriously burned and died of his injuries. The cycle of violence continued.
We have to approach the anniversary of these terrible events with honesty, authenticity and courage, and with an acknowledgement and understanding of the uncomfortable parts of our shared history. There’ll be more time to reflect on that another day.
Our new State had its flaws, and some of those flaws became obvious in the decades ahead, not least in the way we treated women, minorities and some of the most vulnerable of our own. But it was never a failed nor an illegitimate State and it is grotesque to say that it was.
Colleagues, we should be proud of the achievement of our independence one hundred years ago, and the freedom it gave us to achieve greater freedoms in the years ahead.
What is past is prologue and the events of one hundred years ago should inspire us to dream of what can be achieved in the years ahead.