Throughout history, Waterford-born politicians have rarely figured prominently in the leadership of our many political parties, both past and present.
Indeed, John Redmond, who held the Westminster seat for Waterford from 1891 until his death in 1918 while leading the Irish Parliamentary Party, was a proud adopted Waterfordian but a native of neighbouring Wexford.
Which is why, irrespective of where you stand politically, Richard Mulcahy’s 15 years as Fine Gael President (1944-59) makes him a standalone figure in our local political history.
Despite leading his party through the first era of coalition government in the State, Mulcahy (1886-1971) never served as Taoiseach, whose office holders are currently being profiled in a new, eponymous TV3 series.
The reason why, as cited by many historians, dates back to actions taken by Mulcahy during the Civil War, when serving as Minister for Defence and Army Chief.
As a prominent figure in WT Cosgrave’s Provisional Government, Mulcahy ordered the execution of 77 anti-Treaty prisoners, arguably the most ruthless, hard-line decision ever taken by a Minister of this State.
During the negotiations to form a multi-party government following 16 years of Fianna Fáil rule, Mulcahy’s past came back to deny him a shot at the biggest job in Irish politics.
The balance of power following the ’48 election was effectively held by Clann na Poblachta led by Sean MacBride, son of Maud Gonne.
It is widely believed, though not specifically stated in any text attributable to MacBride that he couldn’t accept Mulcahy as Taoiseach due to his role in the Civil War executions.
Mulcahy, while retaining the party presidency, stepped aside, which led to John A Costello’s leadership of our first coalition, in which MacBride served as Minister for External Affairs.
Nonetheless, Mulcahy did sit at the cabinet table and served as Education Minister in two inter-party governments (48-51 and 54-57).
Noel Browne, also born in Waterford, served as Clann na Poblachta’s second cabinet minister in the State’s first coalition, occupying the Health portfolio.
Of course, Browne’s ill-fated Mother and Child scheme, considered too radical by the Catholic hierarchy, led to his resignation and made Browne one of the most widely known politicians of his generation.
While Browne’s time in office was considered wholly controversial, Mulcahy’s tenure at the Department of Education was anything but.
Indeed, when reviewing ‘My Father, the General’ written by Mulcahy’s son Risteard, former Taoiseach John Bruton noted how Mulcahy steered well clear of controversy, “sticking to his own department”.
One of Mulcahy’s strongest political bedrocks was the consolidation and promotion of the Irish language.
As far back as 1925, Mulcahy had been appointed by WT Cosgrave to head up Coimisiún na Gaeltachta, which set about establishing State policy for the Gaeltachtaí.
Addressing the Dáil in 1978, former Gaeltacht Minister Tom O’Donnell stated: “I am proud of the fact that our predecessors in this party, the great men who went before us, like the late WT Cosgrave and General Richard Mulcahy, thought, as early as 1925, that it was of sufficient importance that a proper Gaeltacht policy should be formulated and implemented.
“I can go further and say that between 1926 and 1956 the only major step of any significance towards Gaeltacht development was the establishment of Roinn na Gaeltachta in 1956.
“The Minister responsible for introducing the Bill setting up Roinn na Gaeltachta was the late General Richard Mulcahy who 30 years earlier was chairman of Coimisiún na Gaeltachta.”
When asked by his son Risteard if he had confidence that the compulsory teaching of Irish would have the desired effect, Mulcahy replied: “I hadn’t, but I was caught for a way out.”
All who have followed him in Education since have largely occupied the “teach céanna”.
Mulcahy, who stepped down as Fine Gael leader in October 1959, held a Dáil seat in Tipperary South for 15 years, having previously represented Dublin North-West (1922-23), Dublin City North (23-37) and Dublin North East (1938-43).
He also sat in the Second Seanad between 1943 and 44 having been elected from its Administrative Panel.
Mulcahy, according to “epitomised the political and cultural nationalist whose vision of a free and independent Ireland was a synthesis of traditions: Gaelic and English, constitutional and revolutionary, modern and traditional. From such blendings did Ireland forge an enduring democratic nation state.”
And while this may be true, Richard Mulcahy’s actions as Defence Minister during the Civil War denied him the opportunity to lead the infant Republic of Ireland.
‘Taoiseach’, TV3, Thursdays from 9pm