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The Reluctant Taoiseach by David McCullagh
David McCullagh is a journalist and author. A graduate of University College Dublin where he studied history and politics – McCullagh has a PhD in politics – he was RTÉ News Political Correspondent for 12 years before being appointed presenter of Prime Time in 2013. McCullagh has written two books – The Reluctant Taoiseach, a biography of John A. Costello (Gill and MacMillan, 2010) and A Makeshift Majority, a history of the first Inter-Party Government (IPA, 1998) and he recently returned to UCD to record a 6-part podcast series on the life and career of John A. Costello specially for History Hub.

The series will be released episodically over the coming months. Subscribe to our podcast series on iTunes or become a follower of our Soundcloud page to receive new episodes as they are made available.

Episode 1 – Costello and the Law (Ep 1/6)

Transcript: Costello and the Law (Ep 1/6)

Over the years, our political leaders have come from a range of backgrounds – the current Taoiseach was a teacher, his two predecessors worked as a solicitor and an accountant respectively. But most of our Taoisigh, whatever their original career, were full time politicians at the time they won power.

Jack Costello was a bit different – he was very much a part-time politician, and you can certainly argue that his real love was not politics, but the law, at which he was extremely good and extremely successful.

He was very highly regarded by his fellow barristers, and was famous for his courtroom style, which saw him appeal to juries as an equal, as well as his knowledge of the law – one of his colleagues once said of him that he passed the supreme test of a good advocate – he could win a poor case before a good judge.

He succeeded in the law – as he had in his student days – through diligence and hard work.

Because John A. Costello ended up as a wealthy and successful barrister, with a big house in Herbert Park, most people assume he was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.

But in fact, unlike many of the leaders of the pro-Treaty party – like Kevin O’Higgins, Patrick Hogan and Patrick McGilligan – Costello was not a product of Clongowes or any of the other elite private schools.

He came from a relatively modest background – his father was a mid-ranking civil servant, he was born and brought up in Phibsborough, and he was a Christian Brothers boy, first at St Joseph’s in Marino and then at the O’Connell School in North Richmond Street.

Costello was a good student – good enough to win a scholarship which paid his fees at UCD, where he graduated with a First in Irish and French in 1911.

UCD at the time had just become part of the new National University, and it was here that many of the members of the future governing classes first met – among Costello’s contemporaries were O’Higgins, McGilligan and Hogan; his successor as Attorney General, Conor Maguire; and the leading solicitor Arthur Cox, a rival both in exams and in the college’s debating society, the L and H.

Another contemporary, the future economist George O’Brien, wrote later that the students took it for granted that if Home Rule was achieved, they would be among the politicians of the new Ireland. Costello seems to have shared that assumption – like most Irish people, he was a Home Ruler rather than a republican.

And though he wasn’t active in national politics, he was very active in the student variety, running twice for the position of auditor of the L&H – and being beaten both times. While he could share this disappointment with others – James Joyce, for instance – the defeats rankled. 40 years later, while speaking to the L&H as Taoiseach, Costello turned to one of the other guests, Sean Lemass, and told him the tactics used in the L&H election were worse than anything used by the Opposition – a backhanded compliment to Fianna Fáil’s electoral strategy!

But despite this disappointment, the L&H, and UCD generally, was very important for Jack Costello, because it was there he learned the art of public speaking – an art that would be crucial in his twin careers of politics and the law.

After UCD, he continued his education at the King’s Inns, qualifying as a barrister in November 1914. His timing was good – out of a bar of about 300, around 130 joined the British forces, so newly qualified barristers found it easier to get a start than would otherwise have been the case.

Not that things were too easy – Costello had no connections in the legal profession, and was warned he was mad to try to make a living in the law. That warning was borne out – in his first year at the bar, he earned the grand total of 5 guineas!

This fee was for a case involving the grazing of horses, in which he was instructed by solicitor John Burke. Burke later claimed that one reason for Costello making a name for himself was that they couldn’t afford to employ a senior counsel, leaving Costello to do all the work in court. His debating skills, honed in the L&H, helped him to shine in the court room, and after a slow start he began to build up a decent practice.

Part of his work was in Clare, where he learned much about the law, and about the ways of the world. He later recalled asking a man he was defending in a slander case if he had used the words the plaintiff complained of. His client replied that he had – but he had two witnesses in court to swear that he hadn’t!

He was working hard – so hard that he had no time for politics. This was the reason he gave in later life for not being involved in the Irish Volunteers, the Easter Rising, or the War of Independence.

On the day the Rising broke out, Costello was – characteristically – playing golf, and had a difficult time getting home through barricades erected by the Volunteers. In Independent Ireland, this lack of what was called a ‘national record’ was something of a political handicap, though Costello didn’t seem too bothered – as he said on more than one occasion, he hadn’t died for Ireland yet, and he had no intention of doing so in the future!

He did play a role in a number of legal cases relating to the War of Independence – a role that was later played up for all it was worth, and probably more than it was worth, by his political supporters.

Of particular importance were the cases of John Egan and Patrick Higgins, two IRA members who had been sentenced to death in separate incidents. Costello was part of the legal team which successfully applied for a writ of Habeas Corpus for both men, which delayed their execution. This successful legal action was followed by the Truce, and the two men were later released.

After the war of independence, Costello continued his work in the courts, most famously in the Croker Will case. Boss Croker, former leader of New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall political machine, had moved to Ireland after being ousted by his rivals, settling in Glencairn in Sandyford and breeding horses, including Orby, which won the Epsom Derby in 1907.

After Croker died, his children challenged his will, which left a large part of his fortune to his second wife, Bula. Mrs Croker won her case – and was so grateful she invited her legal team, including Costello, to dinner in Glencairn. When the waiters removed the silver covers from the dinner plates, they revealed a bonus for each of the lawyers of 1,000 guineas. With this, Jack Costello was able to put down a deposit on his house in Herbert Park.

At this time he was also working part time as a legal assistant in the Attorney General’s office, and was appointed AG himself in 1926, which took him away from the courts for six years.

But when Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932 he returned to his practice with only two interruptions – for his two terms as Taoiseach. For the rest of the time, he served on the Opposition front bench, but continued his legal work. He made a virtue out of it, claiming he wouldn’t like to be a full-time politician, and saying one job helped the other – politics helped to broaden attitudes, he claimed, saying that if you spent all your days at the law, you tended not to be able to talk about anything else. He also later blamed full time politicians for keeping the Fianna Fáil government in power after the Arms Crisis – most of the party’s TDs were full time, he said, and so couldn’t afford to provoke an election.

Probably the most famous case of his later career was the Patrick Kavanagh libel trial in 1952. Kavanagh sued The Leader magazine over a slightly unflattering profile it had published. Costello defended the magazine, comparing its profile of Kavanagh with the far worse criticism the poet had published of other people’s work.

One of the points at issue in the trial was Kavanagh’s denial of being a friend of Brendan Behan – Costello completely undermined his case by producing a copy of Kavanagh’s novel Tarry Flynn, signed by the author “For Brendan, poet and painter, on the day he decorated my flat”. After Kavanagh lost his libel action, he was reported to have said of Costello: “If that bloody fellow had been working for me, I’d have won me bloody case!”

Compliments don’t come much better than that.

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