Cooper, Bryan Ricco (1884–1930), soldier and politician, was born in Jotogh, Simla, India, on 17 June 1884, the eldest son of Major F. E. Cooper (Royal Field Artillery), of Markree Castle, Collooney, Co. Sligo, and his wife, Ella, the half-Swiss eldest daughter of Major-General Maunsel Mark Prendergast. His father's regiment was transferred to England when Bryan was less than a year old, and the family lived in various garrison towns until Major Cooper was posted to South Africa on the outbreak of the Boer War. Major Cooper died of enteric fever in South Africa in May 1900, leaving Bryan to succeed to the family estate on the death of his grandfather in 1902. The Cooper family, who had settled in Sligo in the sixteenth century, owned 34,120 acres in 1878, but the bulk of this had been sold by the trustees of the estate under the Wyndham Land Act (1903) before Cooper came of age. ‘Bryan Cooper's inheritance was a vast house too big for his needs, a demesne, some excellent salmon fishing and cock-covers, and a number of dividends [from] English stocks’ (Robinson, 43).
Cooper was educated at various preparatory schools (notably Moorland House, Heswall, Cheshire), at Eton, and at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich (1902–3). He distinguished himself by his knowledge of Shakespeare (winning the Shakespeare medal at Eton), read Irish Revival literature (being particularly fond of the work of his fellow Sligoman W. B. Yeats (qv)), and privately wrote poetry, but he was not athletic (as the result of a childhood accident his right arm was shorter than his left and he could not throw with it) and was generally unpopular with his schoolmates. He reached the rank of second lieutenant with the Royal Field Artillery. Temperamentally and constitutionally unsuited to soldiering, he resigned in 1905 and was gazetted as a captain in the Duke of Connaught's Own Sligo Royal Garrison Artillery (militia). Later he became DL, JP, and high sheriff (1908) of Sligo.
Lacking interest in agriculture and feeling isolated and at a loose end in Sligo, Cooper flung himself into unionist politics (encouraged by Richard Carden, secretary of the Irish Unionist Alliance, who saw him as a potential future leader and spokesman for the Irish landlords). In the January 1910 election he became unionist MP for Dublin County South, but in the December 1910 election he was defeated by the nationalist W. F. Cotton (qv). On 19 March 1910 he married Marion Dorothy Hancock; they had three sons and one daughter.
Cooper continued to address unionist meetings in Britain and Ireland in support of the unionist cause, denouncing ‘Robespierre Redmond, Danton Dillon, Marat Devlin’ (Robinson, 72). Honorary secretary of the Irish Unionist Alliance and president of the IUA's junior branch (1912–14), he resigned his commission in May 1914 in support of the Curragh mutineers. This also reflected longer-term discontent; he had come to see his militia training as pointless playing at soldiers.
Impressed by the support of John Redmond (qv) for the British war effort in 1914, Cooper became an inspecting officer of the National Volunteers and urged all unionists to enlist. Many unionists who initially supported the National Volunteers on the outbreak of war withdrew when it became clear that the Redmondite Volunteers remained a specifically nationalist body whose leaders refused to place them under the control of the War Office; for Cooper, however, this involvement began a long-term political realignment. Gazetted to the 5th (service) Battalion of the Connacht Rangers in September 1914, he served with the 10th (Irish) Division in Gallipoli, where he was slightly wounded by a shell splinter and had to be evacuated after contracting dysentery. He returned to the peninsula shortly before its final evacuation, and later went with the division to Salonika. Here he contracted fever and was evacuated to Alexandria.
From late 1915 Cooper was unfit for frontline duty. Promoted to the temporary rank of major in September 1915, he was transferred to the general list in 1916. He was twice mentioned in dispatches, and published The Tenth (Irish) Division in Gallipoli, an account of his wartime experiences, in 1917. This book, which came with recommendations by Redmond, Carson (qv), Balfour (qv), H. H. Asquith, and General Bryan Mahon (qv), is a general account rather than a personal memoir and describes itself as not so much history as an attempt to describe the fortunes of the rank and file; despite omissions on account of shortcomings in Cooper's knowledge and its hasty composition, it contains some vivid descriptions of the textures of combat experience. Cooper's wartime experiences left him with a strong concern for the plight of the ex-serviceman, health problems (a doctor told him he had the arteries of a sixty-year-old; this was exacerbated by his chronic weight problem), a sense that his body had failed him in a crucial test, an increasing intake of alcohol, and a broken marriage. His wife left him for another man, and despite Cooper's religious scruples they were divorced in 1920, leaving him with a sense that this had opened another division between him and his countrymen.
Having served as assistant press censor under Lord Granard in Salonika and in the censor's office in London, in 1919 Cooper succeeded Lord Decies (1866–1944) as unpaid press censor in Ireland, a post he held for five months until its abolition. Early that same year he wrote ‘Ireland under Sinn Féin’, an unpublished treatise on the contemporary Irish political situation. His sense of detachment and indecisiveness is shown in The collar of gold, a collection of short plays which he published in 1920; these treat various historical incidents in the humorous style associated with the British writer Maurice Baring, and particularly emphasise the validity and incommensurability of rival ideals (for example, an imaginary conversation in 1808 between Arthur Wellesley (qv) and an aristocratic revolutionary resembling Lord Edward FitzGerald (qv)). His wartime experiences severely weakened his unionism, and as political unrest intensified he publicly advocated a settlement with Sinn Féin. To that end, Cooper served as honorary secretary of the Irish businessmen's conciliation committee (inspired by the Unionist Anti-Partition League of Lord Midleton (qv)), which unsuccessfully negotiated with both sides in 1921.
In December 1922, after the Irish Farmers’ Union unsuccessfully recommended him for a nomination to the Senate, he stood unsuccessfully in the first election to the Irish Free State Senate. During the civil war Markree Castle (which Cooper abandoned for a suburban residence in Dalkey in 1921) was occupied by Free State troops to prevent its being seized by republican forces; £10,000 worth of damage was inflicted during the occupation. (Cooper partly reopened it as a summer residence in 1926.)
Although Cooper might have considered making a career in Britain, he retained a sense of attachment to Ireland. In August 1923 he was elected independent TD for Co. Dublin; Andrew Jameson (qv), Yeats, and Stephen Gwynn (qv) spoke on his election platform. Eloquent, kindly, and widely popular, he served in the dáil until 1930, unofficially leading a grouping of independent pro-business and ex-unionist TDs until 1927. He was an outspoken advocate of law and order, laissez-faire economics, and the maintenance of the status quo (making a point of voting for the reduction in old-age pensions proposed by Ernest Blythe (qv), although it would have passed without his support). Cooper opposed the institution of an Irish coinage and certain aspects of the Shannon electricity scheme. He was also a libertarian critic of the licensing legislation of Kevin O'Higgins (qv); his suggestion that drinks served with a meal might be exempted from its rigours led O'Higgins to prophesy that, if this were accepted, certain public houses might offer a single mouldy sandwich for many years as ‘Cooper's meal’, perennially served but never actually consumed. A very active parliamentarian who had acquired considerable procedural experience during his brief time at Westminster, Cooper served on the public accounts committee, the committee of procedures and privileges, the committee on private bill standing orders, the 1926 tribunal on prices, and the committee of inquiry into the 1924 army crisis. He visited Canada, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Ceylon as chairman of the Irish Free State delegation to the Empire Parliamentary Association conference in Australia in 1926.
In August 1927, after Fianna Fáil entered the dáil, the Labour Party intended to offer Cooper the post of minister for fisheries in a Labour–National League cabinet supported by Fianna Fáil. Cooper, however, believed that such a coalition would undermine public confidence in security and the state's creditworthiness; he also felt that Labour's support for government expenditure through increased taxation would damage the economy. He therefore declared his support for the Cumann na nGaedheal government and helped it to survive a vote of no confidence by dissuading the National League TD John Jinks (qv) (also from Sligo) from casting his vote. According to one account, Cooper and R. M. Smyllie (qv) – another Sligonian – did this by matching drink for drink until Jinks collapsed in hopeless inebriation, then putting him on the Sligo train.
In the September 1927 general election Cooper stood successfully as a Cumann na nGaedheal candidate; his subsequent relegation from active independent to relatively silent backbencher proved frustrating, but he hoped that after a period of loyal service his abilities would be recognised and he would receive ministerial office. Fianna Fáil regularly cited him as exemplifying Cumann na nGaedheal's alleged subservience to West British vested interests. The slogan ‘Cooper's dip for Free State sheep’ was widely used; one Fianna Fáil cartoon (reproduced in O'Carroll and Murphy) depicted the political contest as a horse race, with Denis Gorey and W. A. Redmond (qv) pushing Cosgrave's decrepit nag while Cooper tried to feed it ‘Masonic oats’ from his top hat. According to his biographer, Cooper was sometimes described as the best-dressed man in Dublin.
This hostile portrayal of Cooper as embodiment of West British self-indulgence was made plausible by his divorce (and remarriage on 23 February 1925 to Lillian Stella Hewson, a childhood friend who was herself divorced from her first husband, Frederick Fitzpatrick); by his prominent membership of Rotary (denounced by some catholic commentators as quasi-Masonic); by his rotund appearance and heavy alcohol consumption; and by his association with the artistic and intellectual circles around the Irish Statesman magazine and the Abbey Theatre. For admirers such as Yeats, on the other hand, Cooper was a figure of national reconciliation inspired by an aristocratic sense of the duties of public service.
In his September 1927 election address Cooper declared himself opposed in principle to the censorship of books. He loved theatre – acting in and translating several plays. In 1913 he contributed a series of articles on drama to the Irish Review; at the outbreak of war in 1914 he was engaged on a semi-autobiographical big house novel, which he abandoned and never subsequently completed. The Abbey playwright Lennox Robinson (qv) became his official biographer.
Early in 1930 Cooper developed a serious illness, quickly recognised as fatal, after a trip to the West Indies. During his last days he amused himself by writing a four-act play, ‘Let the credit go’ – a detective story about a bank robbery, produced by the Abbey Theatre after his death. (It was never published, but a typescript survives in the NLI.) He died in his sleep on 5 July 1930 at his Dublin home, Khyber Pass, Dalkey.