Cumann na nGaedhael

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Cumann na nGaedhael election poster, warning against the Red Peril.

Cumann na nGaedhael (Irish pronunciation: [ˈkʊmən nə ˈŋɰeːɫ]; "Society of the Gaels"), sometimes spelt Cumann na nGaedheal,[1] was an Irish language name given to two Irish political parties, the second of which became the modern Fine Gael party. It is abbreviated CnaG.

Original Cumann na nGaedhael

The first Cumann na nGaedhael was founded on 30 August 1900, at the suggestion of Arthur Griffith, to unite advanced nationalist/separatist groups and clubs.[2] In 1907 it merged with the Dungannon Clubs and the National Council to form the original Sinn Féin.[3]

Pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedhael

The second Cumann na nGaedhael was formed by pro-Treaty Sinn Féin TDs in Dáil Éireann in Dublin on 27 April 1923 and was largely centre right in outlook.

The leadership of the pro-treaty Sinn Féin group included Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and W. T. Cosgrave. Cosgrave and Griffith had been part of the original dual monarchist Sinn Féin while Collins rose quickly through its ranks after 1916. Griffith and Collins died in August 1922 during the early stages of the Irish Civil War, leaving Cosgrave to lead the pro-treaty faction and the Provisional Government in the run-up to the formal establishment of the Irish Free State. Cosgrave had fought in the 1916 Rising and had been prominent in the Government of the Irish Republic; the burden of responsibility for building the new state on solid foundations was now on Cosgrave and his colleagues.

Cumann na nGaedhael came into being when the pro-treaty wing of Sinn Féin decided to formally style themselves as a distinct party. The idea for the new party arose in late December 1922 but its formal launch was delayed until April 1923 as a direct consequence of the turmoil caused by the civil war. Difficult years of state building, in the face of Republican violence, would characterise the party throughout its time in Government.

The party contested its first general election in 1923 and won 63 seats (39% of the poll). Until 1932 Cumann na nGaedhael formed the Government of the Irish Free State with Cosgrave as President of the Executive Council. The fact that its leaders and members of parliament had been in Government before the party was founded would prove a major stumbling block to party unity and loyalty.

State Building and reconstruction

In Government the party established the institutions upon which the Irish state is still built. It also re-established law and order through a number of public safety acts in a country that had long been divided by war and competing ideologies. The party's Minister for Home Affairs, Kevin O'Higgins established the Garda Síochána, an unarmed police force. As Minister for External Affairs in 1927, he was successful in increasing Ireland's autonomy within the Commonwealth.

Cosgrave provided both the party and the country with steady, reliable leadership. In difficult times, his judgement was correct while he succeeded in holding a bitterly divided state intact.

In 1927 the Government, through the Shannon scheme, harnessed the massive potential for electricity generation of that river while providing jobs on a large scale. Coupled with this, repairing infrastructural damage that had been caused during the civil war proved a drain on the new State's resources. Accordingly the government was forced into many unpopular decisions, notoriously reducing the old age pension from 10 shillings a week to nine in 1924, whereas in Northern Ireland it was being increased. In general the party had to adopt a conservative fiscal policy, far removed from that promised by Sinn Féin prior to 1922.

Consolidation and Competition

In the general election in June 1927, Cumann na Gaedheal performed very poorly, winning just 47 seats with 27% of the vote, and was able to survive in office only because of Fianna Fáil's continued refusal to take up its 44 seats due to the party's rejection of the Oath of Allegiance to the Free State.

The murder of its Minister Kevin O'Higgins by red-republican terrorists shortly after the election came as a bitter blow to the party. In response to this act of violence, the state introduced a second Public Safety Act, which introduced the death penalty and was widely unpopular with the public, and an Electoral Amendment Act which forced elected TDs to take the Oath of Allegiance. Thus the murder indirectly led to Fianna Fáil's forced entry to the Dáil and in August 1927 the government narrowly survived a vote of no confidence. Following victory in two by-elections, Cosgrave called a snap election in September 1927. Cumann na nGaedheal regained most of the ground lost in June, winning 62 seats and 39% of the vote, although most of these gains were from potential allies.

For the first time the party now faced vigorous parliamentary (if not entirely constitutional) opposition in the Dáil, as Fianna Fáil also made significant gains. Since the foundation of the state Dáil business had been relatively calm as the relatively small Labour party functioned as the official opposition in the absence of die-hard Republicans. The scene was now set for a volatile atmosphere in parliament as the two sides who had fought each other in the civil war now met face to face.

Electoral Decline and Merger

The party's support base gradually slipped to Éamon de Valera's new party Fianna Fáil after its inception in 1926. Cosgrave's Cumann na nGaedheal became solely identified with protecting the treaty and defending the new State while it seemed pre-occupied with public safety. Economically the party favoured balanced budgets and free trade at a time when its opponents advocated protectionism. The weak economy of the Free State suffered during the Great Depression. Nonetheless it came as a surprise when Cumann na nGaedhael was defeated by Fianna Fáil in the general election of February 1932, winning only 57 seats to Fianna Fáil's 72.

Its support base contracted further in the general election of January 1933 (48 seats compared to Fianna Fáil's 77) as it failed to counter de Valera's populism and was increasingly labelled the party of the middle class. The party subsequently entered discussions with the National Centre Party and the National Guard (Blueshirts) on the possibility of a merger. This came about in September 1933 with the formation of Fine Gael from the three parties, though in reality Fine Gael was a larger version of Cumann na nGaedhael. It was in the lead up to this merger that the then Editor of the Irish Times, RM Smyllie, famously described Cumman na nGaedheal as a party "who one wished would be open to ideas, until one saw the kind of ideas they were open to".[4]


  1. Different sources give different spellings of the name. The Department of the Taoiseach, the Fine Gael website, History Ireland and academic studies generally use ae rather than ea as the original spelling. That format is used here on that basis. The ea spelling, however, is consistent with Irish orthography.
  2. Michael Laffan, The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party 1916-23, p. 21, ISBN 0-521-67267-8.
  3. Laffan, Resurrection, pp. 25-6.
  4. The Press In Ireland, By Stephen James Meredith Brown.
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