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The Reluctant Taoiseach, John A. Costello by David McCullagh

Reviewer: Martin Durack*

David Mc McCullagh reveals a silent promise made to the portrait of John A Costello in Leinster House, Dublin to write this biography. McCullagh wields his pen in a confident and sweeping style, with the self-assurance of a man who is thoroughly familiar with his subject matter.

Costello, an avid golfer, attended Portmarnock golf club as religiously as he attended church. Indeed, he complains tongue in cheek that an inconvenience of the Easter Rising was an IRA road block which prevented him from getting to the golf course. Costello did not have a war record. It was this lack of political, military baggage which made him acceptable as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) in the first Coalition government in Ireland’s history: paradoxically this background made him unsuitable as the Fine Gael nominee to run against de Valera in the presidential election of 1966.

Whilst Costello was not the leader of his own Party; a position occupied by Richard Mulcahy, he was acceptable as Taoiseach to the participants in the first Inter-party Government formed in 1948, a government which comprised five separate parties, a diverse and colourful crew, the original rainbow. It included Fine Gael, Labour, National Labour, Clann na Poblachta and Clann na Talmhan, united in their common goal of keeping de Valera out of power. He had held the office of Taoiseach for the previous sixteen years.

Costello’s obedience to the Catholic Church was total and obdurate. On the death of the first President, Douglas Hyde a Protestant, in 1949, he attended the funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin but neither he nor his ministers went into the Cathedral as Church policy at the time forbade Catholics from entering a Protestant Church. It should be noted that Dr. Browne, the Minister for Health, did not obey that edict and entered the Cathedral, a fact which is not referred to by the author.

The Mother and Child Scheme which provided medical care for mothers and children up to the age of sixteen, regardless of means, was a major issue for the Inter-party Government of 1948-1951. The Scheme was strenuously opposed, first by the doctors, then by the bishops, prompting Costello to tell the Dail: “Whatever about fighting the Doctors I am not going to fight the Bishops, and whatever about fighting the Bishops I am not going to fight the Bishops and the Doctors”. The scheme was opposed by the Catholic Church under the leadership of the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr.McQuaid. It was deemed to be an interference with the moral teaching of the Church and regarded as the thin end of the wedge of the dual evils of socialism and totalitarianism, with the state unduly undermining the authority of the family. When the gloves came off, Costello made his position clear and forced the resignation of the Minister for Health, Dr Noel Browne. The latter was a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, a factor which generated Catholic Church suspicion as to his bona fides. Costello did however agree to support Browne in accompanying him to Áras an Uachtaráin in 1951 when tendering his resignation to President Sean T. O’Kelly.

On a State visit to Canada in September 1948 Costello announced the decision to declare Ireland a Republic, a response to a perceived slight by his host, who had failed as agreed to toast the President of Ireland, after Costello had toasted the King in the presence of Roaring Meg on the dining table - a model of a cannon gun which had been used at the siege of Derry. Costello’s announcement of the break with the Commonwealth illustrates the character of the man. While the decision to repeal the External Relations Act had been discussed at Cabinet it had not been formally agreed. Costello’s action was triggered by his emotional response to what could be described as an unhappy dining experience.

During Costello’s second term as Taoiseach (1954-1957) the balance of payments situation posed great problems for the Government whose response was to impose austerity measure after austerity measure. The policies of Gerald Sweetman, the Minister of Finance, were depressing the Irish economy. Another major issue which faced Costello was the renewal of IRA activities, with what became known as the border campaign when the name of Sean South gained national hero status. He was killed during a raid on the RUC barracks in Brookeborough, Co. Fermanagh in January 1957. Costello was accused of soft-pedaling to some extent against the IRA, although he did deploy the army on the border and availed of the Offences against the State Act 1939.

Costello was a flamboyant character; a dapper dresser, a highly-skilled and successful barrister with great oratory and debating skills. He was described as being a barrister who could win a poor case in front of a good judge. High praise indeed. There was even a possibility that he would represent Winston Churchill in a libel action - an interesting spectacle, denied to the court-attending public because the case was settled. The poet Patrick Kavanagh was not so lucky, being subjected to some 1200 questions by Costello in the course of his libel action taken in 1954 against an article in the Leader. At this time Costello was Leader of the Opposition. The crowds queued down the quays to observe the spectacle in Dublin’s Four Courts. Kavanagh lost his case but he is reputed to have said of Costello: If that bloody fellow had been working for me, I’d have won my bloody case” (p.273). On later occasions Costello often gave Kavanagh a lift in his state car. McCullagh relates how on one such occasion the former Taoiseach was prepared to go into a public house to buy a bottle of whiskey required by his passenger but the Gárda driver obliged. “Characteristically, Kavanagh complained about the price as the whiskey was sixpence more than in other places” (p.275).

It is true that Costello had an inherent sense of decency and kindness. When in his later life he went to Cork on a visit to see his grandchildren (ten of whom entered the legal profession either as solicitors or barristers), one of them asked what would happen if she planted the lollipop which he had given to her. Costello encouraged her in her experiment: she had the exciting experience next day of discovering what appeared to be a tree weighed down with lollipops!

Costello had been Attorney General from 1926 to 1932, Taoiseach from 1948 to 1951 and from 1954 to 1957. It was he who initiated - what is now an annual event – the visit of the Taoiseach to Washington to the White House on St. Patrick’s Day. Costello brought the first bowel of shamrock to President Eisenhower on his way to address the Yale Law School

Costello’s significance as a political leader is to be found in his perception of various issues of national importance, his skill lay in his ability to articulate the implications of various actions and, where appropriate, to see the real agenda involved. His infamous speech of 1934, when he said that the Blueshirts would be victorious, must be seen in this context. De Valera had introduced a bill on banning the wearing of uniforms, thus targeting the Blueshirts - an organisation led by sacked Gárda Commissioner Eoin O’Duffy – the Blueshirts had recently merged with the Centre Party and Cumann na nGaedheal to form Fine Gael. Costello had said in the course of the Dáil debate on the bill: “It is going to set a precedent for anybody who wishes to stifle for all time…the right of freedom of speech and the right of free association (p.102). The Bill would undoubtedly limit the effectiveness of the Opposition.

The book is an enjoyable and rewarding read with copious and elegant referencing. The author confesses in the preface that he could not make eye contact with the portrait of Costello on his way to the Press Gallery in Dáil Éireann because he had failed to deliver on his private promise to complete the work. David McCullagh may now meet that gaze without hesitation and maintain eye contact; having completed his own highly readable, authoritative and public portrayal of his subject.