Cathal Brugha, Irish revolutionary and politician, is born in Dublin on July 18, 1874. He is active in the Easter Rising, the Irish War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War and is the first Ceann Comhairle (chairman) of Dáil Éireann as well as the first President of Dáil Éireann, then the title of the chief of government.
Born Charles William St. John Burgess, Brugha is the tenth of fourteen children and is educated at the Jesuit Belvedere College but is forced to leave at the age of sixteen because of the failure of his father’s business.
In 1899 Brugha join the Gaelic League, and he subsequently changes his name from Charles Burgess to Cathal Brugha. He meets his future wife, Kathleen Kingston, at an Irish class in Birr, County Offaly and they marry in 1912. They have six children, five girls and one boy. Brugha becomes actively involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and in 1913 he becomes a lieutenant in the Irish Volunteers. He leads a group of twenty Volunteers to receive the arms smuggled into Ireland in the Howth gun-running of 1914.
He is second-in-command at the South Dublin Union under Commandant Éamonn Ceannt in the Easter Rising of 1916. On the Thursday of Easter Week, being badly wounded, he is unable to leave when the retreat is ordered. Brugha, weak from loss of blood, continues to fire upon the enemy and is found by Eamonn Ceannt singing “God Save Ireland” with his pistol still in his hands. He is initially not considered likely to survive. He recovers over the next year, but is left with a permanent limp.
Brugha is elected speaker of Dáil Éireann at its first meeting on January 21, 1919, and he reads out the Declaration of Independence in Irish, which ratifies “the establishment of the Irish Republic.” On the following day, he is appointed president of the ministry pro tempore. He retains this position until April 1, 1919, when Éamon de Valera takes his place.
In October 1917 Brugha becomes Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army and holds that post until March 1919. He is elected as a Sinn Féin MP for the County Waterford constituency at the 1918 general election. In January 1919, Sinn Féin MPs refuse to recognise the Parliament of the United Kingdom and instead assemble at the Mansion House in Dublin as a revolutionary parliament called Dáil Éireann. Due to the absence of Éamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith, Brugha presides over the first meeting of Dáil Éireann on January 21, 1919.
Brugha has differences with Michael Collins, who, although nominally only the IRA’s Director of Intelligence, has far more influence in the organisation as a result of his position as a high-ranking member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an organisation that Brugha sees as undermining the power of the Dáil and especially the Ministry for Defence. Brugha opposes the oath of allegiance required for membership of the IRB and, in 1919, his proposition that all Volunteers should swear allegiance to the Irish Republic and the Dáil is adopted.
At a top-level IRA meeting in August 1920, Brugha argues against ambushes of Crown forces unless there is first a call to surrender, but it is dismissed as unrealistic by the brigade commanders present. Brugha also has the idea of moving the front line of the war to England but is opposed by Collins.
On January 7, 1922, Brugha votes against the Anglo-Irish Treaty. During the Treaty Debates, he points out that Collins has only a middling rank in the Department for Defence, which supervises the IRA even though Arthur Griffith hails him as “the man who had won the war.” He leaves the Dáil and is replaced as Minister for Defence by Richard Mulcahy.
In the months between the Treaty debates and the outbreak of Civil War, Brugha attempts to dissuade his fellow anti-treaty army leaders including Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows and Joe McKelvey from taking up arms against the Free State. When the IRA occupies the Four Courts, he and Oscar Traynor call on them to abandon their position. When they refuse, Traynor orders the occupation of the area around O’Connell Street in the hope of easing the pressure on the Four Courts and of forcing the Free State to negotiate.
On June 28, 1922, Brugha is appointed commandant of the forces in O’Connell Street. The outbreak of the Irish Civil War ensues in the first week of July when Free State forces commence shelling of the anti-treaty positions.
Most of the anti-Treaty fighters under Oscar Traynor escape from O’Connell Street when the buildings they are holding catch fire, leaving Brugha in command of a small rearguard. On July 5, he orders his men to surrender, but refuses to do so himself. He then approaches the Free State troops, brandishing a revolver. He sustains a bullet wound to the leg which severs a major artery.
Cathal Brugha dies on July 7, 1922, eleven days before his 48th birthday. He has been re-elected as an anti-Treaty TD at the 1922 general election but dies before the Dáil assembles. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.