Peadar Cowan TD, soldier, solicitor, and Irish republican
Check out the latest installment in the popular column Times Past by historian Jonathan Smyth, which looks at the career of Captain Peadar Cowan, former TD...
If you were to ask me what my favourite town in Cavan was, I would not be able to give a fair answer. However, if I was asked what my favourite things were about Cavan’s towns, then I would end up having an endless conversation on the rich history of the people and places that characterise them.
This is true of the life story of Peadar Cowan who fought against the British rule in the War of Independence. He had a career in which he was a soldier, solicitor, and a politician. As a solicitor he defended Irishmen who fought in the British army in World War Two.
In the autobiography, ‘Mrs Cowan’s Boys’, by the actor Rory Cowan (formerly of Mrs Brown’s Boys) I discovered that he was the grandson of Peadar Cowan. Rory recalls his grandfather with great pride and with a tinge of sadness at how his later years turned out.
Peadar Cowan was born on October 23, 1903, as Peter Cowan, the son of Thomas and Anne Cowan (née Rudden) in Lacken, Arva, Co Cavan. Peadar was the Cowan’s eldest son and after having attended school locally, he joined the Ballinagh Company, West Cavan Brigade of the IRA, becoming a member of the IRA in April 1921, just a couple of months before the truce on 11 July 1921.
In February 1922, Peadar signed up to the National Army and was appointed Captain. He served in Custume Barracks in Athlone. The early days of the Free State were not financially sound and cutbacks to save money meant that the army reduced Peadar in rank to second Lieutenant. When the finances picked up, Peadar was re-instated as Captain, but that was not until September 1931.
The return of his position was not enough to keep him in the army and so he resigned. He had another job in mind and after a few years training he emerged as a fully qualified solicitor. After he was called to the bar, Peadar set up shop at 67 Dame Street, Dublin.
As a proud republican, Peadar’s strong principles led him into politics. In an account of his life from the ‘Dictionary of Irish Biography’ by Pauric J. Dempsey, it is said that, ‘while studying to become a solicitor, he joined the left-wing republican group Saor Éire (1931) and was associated with the Republican Congress movement (1934).’
His political beliefs initially led to him joining the Labour party in the late 1930s. Cowan’s organisational abilities helped him advance becoming the party’s director of organisation. He stood as a candidate for the Labour party in the Meath / Westmeath constituency on four occasions between 1937 and 1944 but failed to get elected.
His political dreams almost came to an end in 1944 when Peadar helped to found a new organisation called Vanguard, which P.J. Dempsey wrote of as ‘a socialist/republican propaganda body.’ This resulted in Peadar’s expulsion from the Labour the following year.
In 1946, Peadar with Sean McBride helped to found Clann na Poblachta. Peadar Cowan with political experience and his fellow party member Noel Hartnett played an important role, finding candidates to run for election and to establish local constituency groups.
Cowan stood for election in 1948 and was elected as a TD for Clann na Poblachta in the Dublin North East constituency. Unfortunately, he was expelled from the party in the same year for opposing the government who had agreed to accept Marshall aid. In the next election he was returned as an independent TD.
Rory in his memoir reminisces: ‘I knew my grandfather was an original thinker, and that he seems to have been the kind of person who stuck to his principles no matter what.’
There were certain events, which Rory recalled, that made him particularly proud of Peadar. One concerned the 5,700 Irishmen who left the Irish army to join the British war effort in World War Two, who were termed deserters by the Irish government. When some of these men had been released from a German POW camp, they made their way back to Ireland, only to be arrested on the Dublin docks by Military Police. Two of the men, Patrick Kehoe and Patrick Shannon were to be court martialled for desertion. Even though it was a show trial, Rory tells of how Peadar, as the men’s solicitor, ‘made the case that they could not be deserters, because the definition of deserter implied that a soldier had left a place of danger to go to a place of safety’, which clearly was not correct. The soldiers did not get off lightly though, and were ‘formally dismissed, stripped of pay and pension rights’ and denied the right to claim any type of unemployment benefits.
During his years as a TD, Peadar Cowan brought an abuse case before Dáil Éireann, which was daring for its time. It arose that a mother was prevented from visiting her son at Artane Industrial School after the boy received a savage beating from ‘a young religious brother’. The education minister dismissed it as an isolated incident. Peadar’s effort to highlight the wrong-doing was ahead of its time, but the outcome was limited as Rory explained, ‘Peadar had partial success in that a rule was introduced that corporal punishment could only be doled out in industrial schools by people with experience.’
In his Dáil days, Peadar supported Dr Noel Browne who tried to introduce the Mother and Child scheme. Cowan also served for a time as an elected member with Dublin Corporation from 1950.
After his wife died in 1955, he went through a period of difficulty, as Rory noted: ‘what I find very sad is that Peadar died with just £5 to his name and having served a year in jail for embezzlement. It seems to me that after his wife died he just couldn’t cope.’ One of Peadar Cowan’s last acts before his death in 1962 was to write a booklet Dungeons Deep in which he investigated conditions in the Irish Prison system.