It is likely that if given a set of photographs of prominent Irish politicians of the last century, most Irish people would not be able to pick Jack Costello.
He was a naturally retiring man who never attracted the mystique that characterised his contemporaries like Dev, Lemass, McQuaid or Noel Browne, and neither did he have the international recognition of someone like Sean MacBride.
I include MacQuaid among the examples because he was as much a political as a religious figure.
Although he was in his mid-20s in 1916, Costello took no part in the Rising or the subsequent War of Independence.
When asked, he would say that he was “out” in 1916 – “out” on the golf course; mind you, he was careful not to make such a flippant comment during his political career.
His first love was the law, and he practised at the Bar even when he was an elected parliamentarian, though not while he was Taoiseach.
He was, by all accounts, an excellent advocate and unlike some of his modern political equivalents, made a sufficiently good living out of the law not to have to depend on dig-outs from friends.
Possibly his most famous case was as defence counsel when Paddy Kavanagh brought an unwise libel case against The Leader magazine. In the witness box for 13 hours, the Monaghan man did his best but was no match for the wily Costello.
The two became uneasy friends later, to the poet’s advantage.
There are two events that dominate any discussion of Costello’s political legacy. The first is the 1948 repeal of the External Relations Act, which resulted in Ireland leaving the Commonwealth.
This book deals fully with the events leading up to the announcement by Costello during a visit to Canada. It makes the point that the cabinet had effectively decided to go down this road and that the haste with which the statement was made had much to do with pre-empting a private member’s bill in the Dáil which would have allowed Fianna Fáil to take some credit.
Surprisingly, the book does not refer to the part played by the Australian Foreign Minister H V Evatt in preventing the vindictiveness against Ireland that was being demanded in some quarters.
The other event for which Costello is remembered is his acquiescence to the Irish hierarchy and especially to Archbishop MacQuaid on the Mother and Child Scheme proposed by Noel Browne.
It is easy now to see how supine Irish political leaders were in that controversy, though the author points out that the Irish Medical Association was an even more powerful opponent of the scheme and was delighted to hide behind the soutanes of the bishops.
When a few years later, the National University of Ireland tried to do a similar peek-a-boo on the question of setting up an agricultural institute which they felt would advantage Trinity College, Costello showed himself to be capable of dealing firmly with episcopal interference.
The book assumes that its readers will have some knowledge of Irish affairs. It does not tell us for example that Liam Cosgrave is the son of W T Cosgrave, the first President of the Executive Council or that Garret FitzGerald was son of Desmond FitzGerald, the first Minister for External Affairs.
It skips over the war years and particularly the difficulty that Dev had with the British and the Americans; one would like to have had some idea of Costello’s role at that time.
The book reveals that although he was elected as a Fine Gael TD, Costello was never actually a member of that political party! Moreover in his two periods as Taoiseach (1948–51 and 1954–57), he was not the leader, a position filled by Richard Mulcahy.
Despite some moments of lightness, the book is heavy going. I liked the different takes on the 1948 election by the two main newspapers.
The Irish Independent led with “Mr Costello is Taoiseach” but the Irish Press preferred “Mr de Valera is no longer Taoiseach”. One of the few light moments is an observation by the above-mentioned Desmond FitzGerald that “shyness is not a feature of diplomatic women – on the first meeting one may easily learn how often their husbands perform with them or how they like it done.” Since it is found in a letter to his wife, we presume that he did not take the hint.
This is a long overdue book, all the more welcome at a time when the political fortunes of Fine Gael are the highest they have ever been.