The Reluctant Taoiseach: A biography of John A. Costello
Gill & Macmillan; €27.99
AT LEINSTER House a striking portrait of John A Costello hangs on the so-called ‘Taoiseach Landing’ along with images of other former taoisigh.
David McCullagh, in the preface to this delightful new biography, tells us how, often on his ramblings about the national parliament doing his day-job of RTÉ political correspondent, he promised that Costello portrait that he would finally get a shift on and finish this book.
Much later in this handsome tome, McCullagh tells us of the arrangements to have that same portrait, which adorns the cover of this book, painted.
There was no doubting the talent of the chosen artist, Seán O’Sullivan. But there were doubts given the painter’s reputed fondness for drink. So Costello took the precaution of visiting O’Sullivan in his studio and found him “in good shape with all the appearance of work and attention”.
Costello himself drank only sparingly and frequently opposed efforts to extend Ireland’s illogical licensing laws. Yet he always rejected suggestions that he was a killjoy, or as he memorably put it, “a pussyfoot” on the real national issue.
This book shows that Jack Costello was certainly no “pussyfoot” in his work and his life generally. It leaves the reader with the intriguing question of why his memory has so faded from view when compared with his contemporaries. Costello was twice taoiseach (1948-1951 and 1954-1957) and remains Fine Gael’s longest holder of that office. He led rocky multi-party governments made up of disparate parties. Both of his rainbow coalitions defied the odds and each lasted an average of three years. Alongside his political career, he was a hugely successful lawyer with a very lucrative practice as a barrister. This fact gives us the title for this biography. Received wisdom has it that Costello was reluctant to take Ireland’s biggest political job because he would lose his law income. McCullagh shows that Costello was a reluctant taoiseach – but not primarily due to money. In a letter to his son, Declan, we learn that Costello was quite simply terrified that he would not be up to the demands of the job.
Detractors billed him as a lowest common denominator taoiseach. The then leader of Fine Gael, Richard Mulcahy, was seen as too divisive a figure with a serious negative legacy dating from the Civil War. The simple fact was that Costello was very well liked by all sides, deeply pragmatic, extremely able and a very hard worker.
McCullagh eloquently shows that Costello suffered a deal from negative stereotyping through much of his career and perhaps this might, in part at least, explain why he has been too long overlooked.
Costello lived the bulk of his life at leafy Herbert Park near Ballsbridge in Dublin. But he was a Christian Brothers’ boy from less salubrious Phibsborough and the son of a middle-ranking civil servant father originally from Barefield, Co Clare, and a mother from Co Westmeath. He won scholarships to UCD and later struggled to successfully establish himself in the Law Library with few if any connections.
The young Jack Costello was a convinced Home Ruler who liked to joke that he was “out in 1916 alright – out on a golf course”. McCullagh endearingly tells us how he long afterwards remained affronted by being blocked on his way back from his golf game by a rebels’ barrier.
Though he eschewed the Irish Volunteers, he was an Irish language student who later in government set up the Department of the Gaeltacht in October 1956.
The lack of a so-called ‘national record’ contrasted with some of his contemporaries from all sides of the political spectrum. In 1965 he was rejected as a potential FG presidential election rival to Éamon de Valera. As preparations heated up to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the 1916 Rising, having been out on a golf course was just not enough.
This book is heavily driven by the political events which filled Jack Costello’s hectic life. He got into politics through first being a government legal adviser and became Attorney General in 1926 at the relatively young age of 35. He was first elected to Dáil Éireann in 1933 and served until his retirement in 1969.
We learn far more about the other controversial events in Costello’s career: his early work on Ireland’s status within the British Commonwealth; the infamous Mother and Child Scheme, the Blueshirts, and his move in 1949 to declare Ireland a Republic. These accounts, and the book generally, are clearly set out and meticulously footnoted – the product of extensive reading and research which make it a joy to read.
Costello was a fiercely competitive rival in the law courts and at the political hustings. But he was also a most humble and decent man personally as well as being an affectionate father and doting grandfather.
A life-long smoker of Churchman’s cigarettes – themselves no pussyfoot smoke – his only concession to repeated doctors’ warnings was to belatedly switch to evil-smelling cheroots. The smokes may have got him in the end as he died of cancer in January 1976 at the ripe old age of 84 years.
John Downing is deputy government press secretary working with the Green Party in government. He was a political journalist for over 20 years and is a former political editor of the Irish Examiner.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved