Modest Man Was the Glue of Irish Politics; BOOKS

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 17, 2010 | Go to article overview

Modest Man Was the Glue of Irish Politics; BOOKS


Byline: David McCullagh

Maurice Manning

The Reluctant Taoiseach: A Biography Of John A Costello By David McCullagh Gill & Macmillan [euro]27.99 ****

For many people, even those well into middle age, John A Costello is a shadowy figure, remembered vaguely as a Fine Gael taoiseach who was on the wrong side in the Mother And Child controversy and who had the bad fortune to be taoiseach during the dismal years of the 1950s, when many felt there was no future for the country.

He is seen, too, as a man who didn't really want to be Taoiseach and whose first love was always his legal practice - hence the title of David McCullagh's biography - The Reluctant Taoiseach.

Costello deserves to be remembered for very much more and this biography goes a very long way to getting the full measure of a man who was a substantial politician, who held together two disparate and difficult coalitions and who embodied the simplicity and integrity of our earlier politicians.

He was also one of the outstanding lawyers of his time, holding the office of attorney general in the 1920s.

RTE political correspondent McCullagh has written an earlier book, A Makeshift Majority, a study of the 1948-51 Inter-Party government that which established him as a serious historian.

At this point I must declare an interest - he was a student of mine at UCD, but even if I did not know him I would have no hesitation in saying that this is the best Irish political biography of recent years.

It is clear McCullagh came to his study with an open mind. What we get is a warts-and-all picture of Costello. There was no mystique about him - he was never called the 'Chief' or the 'Boss'.

As his contemporary Noel Hartnett wrote: 'He is a simple, unsubtle man who has avoided arousing enmity in any of his opponents, even the most mean-minded.' Costello was unusual in his political generation in that he did not come into politics through 1916 or the War of Independence.

At UCD he was a strong nationalist but of the Home Rule variety. As a young barrister, he fought cases for Sinn Fein prisoners but was not politically active. He supported the Treaty and came into public service rather than politics in 1922 when he was appointed assistant to attorney general Hugh Kennedy. He became attorney general in 1926 and was elected to the Dail for Cumann na nGaedheal in 1933, and remained a prominent frontbencher until 1948.

When it came to forming the Inter-Party government in 1948, Costello's main advantage was that he was not Richard Mulcahy, the Fine Gael leader whose Civil War background made him unacceptable to Sean MacBride. He also had the advantage of strong trade union ties and a good relationship with Labour. But he did not want the job and had to be persuaded that without him a deal might not be possible.

It is generally believed that Costello's reluctance to become Taoiseach of the five-party coalition in 1948 stemmed from his reluctance to leave his legal practice, but McCullagh quotes from a letter written at the time to his son Declan: 'I think I can honestly say that it was not the financial loss or even the parting from my life's work as an advocate.

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