Name: John A.Costello
Party: Fine Gael
Terms: February 1948-June 1951, June 1954-March 1957
Hands in the air. When I began researching this series, I did not have a clue that this guy even existed. That’s unbelievable. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m not an expert on Irish politics. I do not claim to be an expert on Irish politics. And if you are labouring under the delusion that I am an expert in Irish politics I am sure that there will be plenty of people in the comments willing to set you straight. But still, the fact that there was a guy running my country who I’d never even heard of was kind of eye-opening. I had this notion that the early years of the Irish state went like this: War of Independence, Civil War and then Eamon DeValera latched onto the nation like a lamprey which caused the fifties to happen (not just here, but worldwide). I’d had an idea of DeValera’s tenure as Taoiseach being monolithic and unbroken, but in fact Mr Personality up there actually managed to wrest control from him for a total of six years. It was like finding a Taoiseach where you least expect it, Costello loose change down the back of the sofa that was Eamon DeValera. So, was his tenure as Taoiseach as memorable and exciting as the man himself? Was it ever!
By 1948, Fianna Fáil under Eamon DeValera had been in government for so long that their rise to power was recorded in the fossil record. Unable to stomach the thought of another five years of Dev’s miserable horse face staring down at them like Eeyore in a man suit, Fine Gael formed a grand alliance of Labour, the National Labour Party, Clann na Poblachta, Clann Talmhan, some Independents and a couple of dogs who’d wandered in off the street and been hastily put in hats and coats. So, as you might imagine, this coalition was less a happy marriage and more a loose grab-bag of bickering parties with often intense rivalries and wildly different politics held together with spit and a shared hatred of Fianna Fáil (which actually sounds like a LOT of Irish marriages now that I think of it). In fact, the parties making up this shambling Frankenstein’s monster of a coalition couldn’t even decide who would lead it. As Fine Gael was the largest party, you’d expect FG leader Richard Mulcahy to take the top job. On paper, Mulcahy would have seemed like a natural choice. He was handsome (well, “Irish politician handsome”) and he also had serious patriotic cred, having fought in the Easter Rising and the War of Independence before leading the Free State Army during the Civil War after Michael Collins was assassinated. But one of the coalition parties, Clann na Poblachta, was full of hardcore republicans who didn’t like the idea of a government headed by a guy who’d spent most of the twenties shooting their buddies. Not unreasonably. During the Civil War if you were against the Anglo-Irish treaty and you were so much as found with a gun in your possession you could be executed without trial. So with Mulcahy a non-starter, Fine Gael said “What about John A. Costello?”
And everyone was like “Who?”
And Fine Gael were like “You know. That guy. Always wears those black shoes?”
And they were all “Oh yeah, those are some nice shoes. Sure.”
And then someone went to John Costello’s office to told him was now the most powerful man in the country and he was all “Oh ho ho ho, good one. Okay, let’s all play a prank on old Johnny…oh my God.”
Yeah, so Frank Underwood this guy wasn’t.
If it seems like I’ve spent most of this entry talking about other people who weren’t John Costello that’s kind of telling in and of itself. There’s just not really that much to say. The forties and fifties were a fairly miserable time in Ireland and while Costello’s government didn’t perform noticeably worse than the Fianna Fáil governments they occasionally interrupted they didn’t really make things noticeably better either. There are Taoisigh higher up on this list who made worst mistakes or presided over worse catastrophes, but they all had real significant achievements to counter-balance all that. Costello was a placeholder: not terrible, but largely forgettable.
- Having said that, the Republic of Ireland owes its existence to him. Costello took Ireland out of the Commonwealth of Nations and officially made Ireland a republic 32 years after the 1916 proclamation.*
- Thanks to Minsiter of Health Noel Browne, Costello’s government saw serious progress in the fight against tuberculosis, which prior to that had been so rampant that most Irish people didn’t even realise it was a disease and thought that that’s how humans were supposed to die.
- Noel Browne also tried to implement the Mother and Child Scheme, which would have provided free- state-funded healthcare to all mothers and children under 16. The Catholic Hierarchy and various right-wing elements in the government launched an all out assault on the scheme, decrying it as a socialist plot that would lead to abortion and contraception and also intimating that Browne was a Kenyan Muslim. Costello threw his minister under the bus, famously saying “I am a Catholic first, and an Irishman second”. Browne resigned, but not before releasing all his correspondence with Costello on the matter to the press so that they could see just how willing the Taoiseach was to kiss papal ring. Because you don’t fuck with Noel Browne.
- Also in the “con” column for Costello? Possibly a little bit, sorta, pro-facist. He gave a speech that’s since become notorious defending Fine Gael’s “Blueshirts”, a paramilitary group that had been formed to protect Fine Gael meetings from attacks by the IRA but had adopted many of the trappings of European fascist groups like the brownshirts and the blackshirts. Quoth Costello: “The Minister gave extracts from various laws on the Continent, but he carefully refrained from drawing attention to the fact that the Blackshirts were victorious in Italy and that the brownshirts were victorious in Germany, as, assuredly, in spite of this Bill…the Blueshirts will be victorious in the Irish Free State.” Now, honestly, the Blueshirts were always less fascist and more “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Fascist”, but Costello’s remark was exactly the kind of comment that can be taken out of context for humorous effect by some snarky wiseacre writing on a global system of inter-connected thinking machines eighty years after the fact. And Costello really should have seen that coming.
* There is a persistent political myth that Costello left the Commonwealth and declared the Republic in a fit of pique after a state function in Canada. Supposedly, Costello was seated by his hosts in front of a replica of Roaring Meg, a cannon used in the siege of Derry and a symbol of Unionism. However there is no evidence that this story is true and Costello himself refuted it. In retrospect, the entire story is ludicrous as it involves Canadians being rude.