‘Walter has been Mother, Father and ideal friend to me. I could not have lived through those days of stress without his unexampled care and princely hospitality.’
During the Treaty debates in 1922 these words were spoken by Arthur Griffith to H.E. Kenny about his dear friend, Alderman Walter Leonard Cole. Not long after, on 12 August 1922 Griffith was to pass away at the age of 51. Who was this ‘ideal friend’ who cared and supported one of Ireland’s most prominent historical figures?
Walter Leonard Cole was a businessman and politician who was born in Liverpool on 15 May 1866. He attended St Francis Xavier’s College in Liverpool and later received a diploma in Portuguese from the University of London. Cole was a member of the Irish National League and was honorary secretary of the Liverpool Irish Literary Institute in 1890. That same year he moved to Dublin and established himself as fruit wholesaler and auctioneer in Dublin’s vibrant markets. It was in Dublin that he met and became a close friend of Arthur Griffith.
Through Griffith he became a member of the Gaelic League, 1894, and helped found the Celtic Literary Society, 1899. In 1904 he was elected an alderman of Dublin Corporation in the Inns Quay Ward and was reelected in the Drumcondra Ward in 1905. The title of Alderman would stay with him for the rest of his life. The receipt above is for a room booked by Cole in the Hotel Metropole which, in his own hand, was ‘the very first meeting re the foundation “Sinn Féin“. Cole served as a member of the Sinn Féin executive from 1905 to 1912 and was honorary secretary from 1905-1908, 1910 and again in 1917.
Despite being a pacifist and being seen as particularly moderate in his political views, Cole was still arrested during the 1916 Easter Rising and later the War of Independence. He was interned in Wormwood Scrubs, Frongoch, Gloucester Prison and Reading Gaol. In Cole’s letter from Reading Gaol, 21 January 1919, he mentions that they are doing well but ‘Joe McDonagh & Séan O’Hurley are very washy & health intermittently good only‘. Despite this his spirits are high and he remembers
‘When the few of us met in the Metropole that day 14 or 15 years ago we hardly dreamed to see this one so soon, did we? Congratulations that we have lived to see it come’.
Cole’s house at 3 Mountjoy Square was used to shelter Sinn Féin leaders on the run and housed sessions of the Dáil after it was driven underground in September 1919. The strength of Griffith and Cole’s friendship is illustrated through the number of letters, notes and cards written to each other and housed in Cole’s collection in UCD Archives.
Even though Cole wasn’t as politically driven as Griffith, he still played a part in the foundation of the Irish Free State. The note below, written by Griffith to Desmond Fitzgerald and Countess Markievicz, is to allow Cole attend the Dáil meeting on 7 January 1922 and as noted in Cole’s hand at the bottom, that was ‘the day the treaty was passed‘. In 1922 Cole stood as a pro-Treaty Sinn Féin candidate in Cavan and was elected a TD in the Third Dáil. His running partner in that constituency was none other than Arthur Griffith.
After Griffith’s death in August 1922, Cole stepped back from politics. Instead he regularly contributed to Irish publications on a variety of topics and continued to collect antique furniture. During the 1930s he sheltered Jewish refugees fleeing Germany for the USA. Alderman Walter Cole died on 26 April 1943 at the age of 77.
The collection of Cole’s papers in UCD Archives may be small, but the feelings of friendship illustrated by the words, photos and sketches within are a testament to the close relationship between Cole and Griffith.
For more on those imprisoned in Irish and British jails following the 1916 Rising, see UCD Archives online exhibition ‘The Finest Men Alive‘
Text adapted from the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography