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Speech of the Taoiseach and Fine Gael President Leo Varadkar TD, Cumann na nGaedheal Centenary Event

Cumann na nGaedheal Centenary Event

27th May 2023 - Leo Varadkar, TD

Speech of the Taoiseach and Fine Gael President Leo Varadkar TD,

Cumann na nGaedheal Centenary Event, St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra 

Thank you Dáire for welcoming us to a beautiful part of your campus and for your kind words. Under your leadership, DCU is helping to transform lives and society. We are delighted you are able to join us.

Dia daoibh, fáilte go Choláiste Phádraig, Droim Conrach. Go raibh maith agaibh as a bheith linn chun an ócáid speisialta seo a cheiliúradh.

Good afternoon, thank you for joining us to mark the centenary of the birth of Cumann na nGaedheal, a party which did the State great service in the most difficult of times.

I am grateful to Helen Connolly and the team in HQ for organising today’s event to commemorate this moment, and to Dr. Maurice Manning for writing a new introduction to his history of the early years of our party.

To mark the centenary we’ve produced a special, limited-edition reprint for today’s event, and I am delighted to see that there is one for everyone in the audience!

Thanks also to our speakers, Dr. Mel Farrell and Beibhinn Byrne of YFG, and our chairperson, Maria Walsh, I look forward to hearing your contributions and discussion.

One hundred years ago, when a group of men and women met in the Mansion House to give life to a new political party, they knew it was being born in a country short on optimism and hope.

The idealism of the revolutionary years had been soured by the bitterness of the Civil War, the destructive cycle of violence and retaliation, and the premature loss of leaders such as Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins.

Now, with the new State established and up and running, and the Civil War coming to an end, it was time to restore some of that lost idealism and provide new optimism and hope.

The choice of name – Cumann na nGaedheal – meaning ‘Society of the Gaels’ was a deliberate part of that vision.   It provided a link to the very start of the revolutionary struggle when Arthur Griffith founded a party of the same name in 1900, one which evolved into the original Sinn Féin in 1907.  This was a return to the roots of the political movement, to provide a new direction for a new generation in the service of the country.

As W.T. Cosgrave announced at the launch, the objective was to create ‘a sound national organisation which knew neither creed nor class but worked for the best interests of the people and the nation’.

The objectives of the party were set out at the very first meeting.  It was to ensure that the Government worked for all the people and to help the country achieve its potential politically, culturally, and economically.

The Irish Independent covered the launch of what it called a new ‘constitutional way’, but it is a reminder of the darkness of the time that most of its attention was on the various explosions and attacks which took place that weekend.

On the day of the launch, there were reports of two army officers having been shot dead in Co. Kerry, as well as a fatal ambush in Co. Mayo.

The next day a bomb exploded at Amiens Street station, what is now Connolly Station, timed to coincide with the Dublin to Drogheda train, injuring young and old traveling home.

Gunmen then opened fire on the carriages, and by some miracle no one was killed.  Another bomb blew up a drapery store in Rathmines.

The Civil War was only weeks away from ending, but it wasn’t over yet.  It was in this context that the words of the Minister for Justice, Kevin O’Higgins, at the launch of Cumann na nGaedheal are worth recalling.  He spoke of how the country needed to focus on solving existing and future problems because they were ‘numerous enough and big enough to absorb’ all our energies, and ‘abandon the profitless custom of harping on the past’.

Given his own tragic death four years later, it is poignant to hear him speaking about an end to division so the country could ‘go forward in decency and self-respect’, as he called for a political amnesty and a ‘broad, generous oblivion of the past’.

As we know, many failed States – and States that went on to fail – came into existence at this time.  Ireland was not one of them and has never been one of them.  When scholars look at European democracies after the first world war, they draw attention to four things that went badly wrong in almost every single one.

First, they were unable to provide stability either in the short or the long-term; second, they were unwilling to show ambition in the development of a domestic agenda; third, they lacked confidence in their engagement with the rest of the world; and fourth, they failed to demonstrate a firm commitment to democracy, above all else and no matter what.

The greatness of Cumann na nGaedheal – and the remarkable legacy it passed on to its successor – our party, Fine Gael – was the way it succeeded in dealing with all four of these challenges.  In government, it stabilised our country in the darkest of times, creating the foundations of our State today.

The Civic Guard became An Garda Síochána in August 1923.  Óglaigh na hÉireann – our Defence Forces – was established in 1924.  A new Courts system came into being.  The safety, welfare and security of our citizens was protected and enshrined in law.

We also see ambition in the development of a domestic agenda.   The most famous example is, of course, Ardnacrusha, something that took up 20% of our entire government budget, but which brought electricity and a new way of life to homes across the country.

We went from being the least electrified country in Europe to being the first with a National Grid.  A project which seemed like an impossible dream became a reality thanks to the leadership and ambition of Cumann na nGaedheal.

The third challenge which proved too great for other emerging countries was engaging with the rest of the world with confidence.  Cumann na nGaedheal knew that Ireland alone would never succeed.  This September marks the centenary of when a high-powered delegation went to Geneva to take our place in the League of Nations.

It was led by Desmond FitzGerald, the Minister for External Affairs, and the President of the Executive Council, W.T. Cosgrave, the fathers of future Taoisigh Garret FitzGerald and Liam Cosgrave.

Through our membership of the League of Nations, we demonstrated our belief in the equality of all states, in multilateralism, and in the rule of law.  By taking her place among the nations of the world, Ireland was fulfilling a promise made by previous generations of dreamers and idealists.  We used our membership to promote human rights, collective security, and the peaceful settlement of international disputes.

The fourth and final challenge marked the death of many other new democracies during these turbulent years.  Few were able to demonstrate an unshakeable commitment to the principle of democracy, whatever the cost, no matter what.

I believe that Cumann na nGaedheal’s last achievement was in proving to itself and to the world that Ireland was a real democracy, committed to democratic ideals at home and abroad, and prepared to give up power when that was the expressed democratic wish of the people.

Cumann na nGaedheal was defeated in the 1932 general election and had to hand over power to many of the people it held responsible for the Civil War and the violence and bitterness that had scarred the new State.  In other parts of the world in the 1930s, such a scenario was often an excuse to ignore the Constitution and find reasons to put political self-interest ahead of democratic principles. Not Cumann na nGaedheal. Not for a second.  This would have violated everything our political movement stood for.

A year later, in 1933, another meeting in the Mansion House saw the birth of the next evolution of our political movement with the creation of Fine Gael.


Over the past ninety years, we have faced great challenges as a country, with some today as great as any in the past.  But we approach them with the same philosophy as the men and women of Cumann na nGaedheal.

Providing stability, developing ambitious policies for the good of the country, engaging with the rest of the world with confidence, and protecting and promoting the democratic ideal.

Even in the darkest times, we can find reasons for hope and optimism.  One hundred years ago, Cumann na nGaedheal’s party programme pledged to ‘combine the diverse elements of the nation’ for the greater good, so that we could come together in peace and harmony.

Our history inspires us to try to be better and to do better.  We will find that, as one hundred years ago, our greatest strengths are from working together.

Thank you.


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