Cowan, Peadar (1903–62), soldier, solicitor, and politician, was born Peter Cowan on 23 October 1903 in Lacken, Arva, Co. Cavan, eldest son of Thomas Cowan, labourer, and Anne Cowan (née Rudden). Educated locally, he served with the Ballinagh Company, West Cavan Brigade, IRA, prior to the truce; his membership is certified from 1 April 1921. He joined the new national army on 10 February 1922 with the rank of captain, but was reduced to second lieutenant (1 October 1924) when the army was cut back after the civil war. Stationed at Custume barracks, Athlone, he regained the rank of captain in September 1931 and shortly afterwards resigned from the army.
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). Admitted as a solicitor in 1936, he practised at 67 Dame St., Dublin. He joined the Labour party in the late 1930s; his energy and organising ability saw him appointed director of organisation, and he stood unsuccessfully for the dáil in the Meath–Westmeath constituency in 1937, 1938, 1943, and 1944. In August 1944 he formed Vanguard, a socialist / republican propagandist body, and as a consequence was expelled from the Labour party in 1945.
Cowan was a founding member of Clann na Poblachta (July 1946) and a popular member of its national executive; the party depended heavily on him in its early days because he was one of the few members of the executive who had any real political experience. Together with Noel Hartnett (qv) (1909–60), Cowan was fundamental in finding candidates and establishing constituency organisations. He was elected TD for Dublin North East in February 1948 but considered that Clann na Poblachta TDs should not take posts in the coalition government as this would inhibit criticism of the government. On 2 July 1948 he was expelled from the party for his opposition to the government's acceptance of Marshall aid; to Cowan, the aid programme, negotiated by Seán MacBride (qv), involved a surrender of national rights.
Thereafter he sat as an independent until his defeat in 1954, and proved to be an able and courageous parliamentarian. Between February 1948 and April 1954 his contributions in the dáil filled twenty-nine columns in the Dáil Debates index, compared to twenty columns for those of John A. Costello (qv). As well as making considerable contributions to the committee stage of the Irish news agency bill (1949), criminal justice bill (1949), transport bill (1949), and defence bill (1951), he is said to have precipitated Costello's sudden announcement that Ireland would become a republic. As he had won from MacBride the declaration that Ireland was ‘certainly not a member of the British commonwealth of nations’ (Dáil Debates, 21 July 1948), it was feared that Cowan might split the government by introducing a private member's bill.
Reasserting his militant republicanism, he attempted to establish a quasi-military organisation in 1950 to take Northern Ireland by force, but he failed to win popular support and the plan came to nothing. A member of the Irish delegation to the council of Europe in 1953, he spoke of the need to remember Germany's past: Germany, he declared, had to be taught that she had lost the war. A sharp exchange ensued between Cowan and a German Christian Democrat before the Irish delegation disassociated itself from Cowan's remarks.
Having been elected to Dublin corporation in 1950, he resigned in 1955 before being declared a bankrupt in 1956. After he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on 1 November 1957 for the fraudulent conversion of £3,705 received by him on behalf of James O'Reilly, bricklayer, his appeal was dismissed by the supreme court (4 February 1958) and he was committed to prison. Struck off the roll of solicitors by the chief justice (31 October 1958), he was released by order of the minister for justice on 16 January 1959. In 1960 his booklet, Dungeons deep was published, outlining the conditions in Irish prisons, borstals, reformatories, and industrial schools. Returning to politics, he became a member of Dublin corporation in 1960 and unsuccessfully contested the Dublin North East constituency as an independent candidate in October 1961. He died 7 May 1962 in Dublin, leaving estate valued at £5.
He married (10 February 1923) Rosemary (d. 1955), daughter of Brian Collumb of Granard, Co. Longford; they had seven sons and four daughters. One of his sons, Rory, unsuccessfully contested the Dublin North East constituency for the Labour party in 1965. The family lived at 86 Malahide Road, Clontarf, Dublin, and later at 182 Killester Avenue, Donnycarney, Dublin.