THE RELUCTANT TAOISEACH
“I agree that I was a reluctant Taoiseach, but I was never a reluctant politician.”1
JOHN A. COSTELLO, 1969
“It was because John A. Costello happened to be available at that time, in those circumstances, that … the First Inter-party Government was born.”2
TOM O’HIGGINS, 1969
John A. Costello was unique among Irish heads of government for two reasons. Firstly, he wasn’t the leader of his party—he was chosen as Taoiseach in 1948 as a compromise among the five parties who wished to form a government. The second difference between him and other holders of the office was even more fundamental: his genuine reluctance to take the job. Not only did he not seek the top job in Irish politics, he actively fought against taking it.
Other holders of the office have struggled to attain it; Jack Costello had it thrust upon him. The only other politician to hesitate before accepting a chance to take the job was Jack Lynch of Fianna Fáil in 1966. Lynch has sometimes been described as a reluctant Taoiseach. But his reluctance was entirely due to consideration for his wife3—there was no doubt that he, unlike Costello, actually wanted the job.
Apart from being essentially a part-time politician, other factors seemed to militate against Costello. For the first 44 years of the State’s existence, the other three men who headed Irish governments had played prominent parts in the 1916 Rising. Costello, by contrast, had been playing golf when the Rising broke out, and many years later still seemed aggrieved at having had his journey home interrupted by a roadblock.4 He played no role either in the War of Independence, apart from representing prisoners in a couple of court cases.
In fact, like the vast majority of his contemporaries, he had been a Home Ruler rather than a Republican during most of this period, one of the rising Catholic middle class who saw the introduction of Home Rule as their ticket to greater political, economic and social status. One of the ironies of Irish history is the ultimate triumph of such people, who seemed to have been cast to the margins by the War of Independence.
In office, Costello was to provide surprises, too, not least his success in holding together two disparate coalition governments for considerable lengths of time—comparable, indeed, to the tenure of the single-party government which came between them. Despite his earlier key role in the development of the Commonwealth, he declared the Republic, a development not without its controversies, but nonetheless significant. And while he was seen as a temporary or stop-gap Taoiseach, he served longer in the office than any of his Fine Gael successors to date.
It has been widely known that his reluctance to take the job was, at least in part, due to his desire not to leave the law—for both professional and financial reasons. His love of the practice of law was obvious to all who knew him, and he could even say in an interview while Taoiseach that “his biggest moment was not when he became Prime Minister, but when ‘winning a big case’”.5
But there was another reason, as he revealed in an extraordinary letter to his son Declan, then in Switzerland, written just days after he became Taoiseach: “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 … that made me fight so hard against acceptance, but a fear amounting almost to terror that I would be a flop as Taoiseach and bring discredit on the new administration if it was formed. I felt that such a new departure would be looked upon with distrust and be subjected to severe criticism. If I proved unfit it would be disastrous for them all.”6
This engaging self-doubt was also, to say the least, untypical in holders of the office of Taoiseach. However, Costello’s reluctance, while real enough, should not be exaggerated. Once he agreed to take on the job, he did so with his characteristic determination, energy and application. Indeed, in the same letter to his son, he concluded by saying that despite his initial doubts, “I can now assure you that I am perfectly and supremely happy and contented, and face the future and what it holds with resignation, and with confidence and hope.”7
Anyone watching, or listening to, John A. Costello would have been surprised at his admission of a lack of confidence. As an Irish Times editorial at the time of his death noted, he was a man who “breathed belligerence”.8 This public image was reinforced by his tendency to scowl in photographs—apparently he didn’t smile for the camera because he didn’t like having his photograph taken.9 In later life, with his hat, his cigar and his scowl, he reminded one of his granddaughters of “a Mafioso boss, particularly as he dived into his big black State car at the end of a working day”.10
His belligerence was evident on the political platform, in interviews, and most particularly in the courts. One of those on the receiving end of his forensic brilliance was Dr Harry Parker, an acquaintance who was appearing as an opposing witness. “I remember one occasion when you attacked me most savagely in the witness box and for, as far as I could see, no good reason. Feeling hurt, I asked Cecil Lavery what was the reason. This most gifted counsel, like little Audrey, laughed, and laughed, and laughed. He intimated that you simply wanted to win your case …”11
But this belligerence was only part of the story. As the same Irish Times editorial observed, his manner was misleading, his belligerence “the armour he put on against his sensitive and compassionate disposition”.12 Those who worked with and for him praised his kindness—even Noël Browne, the Minister for Health who never forgave Costello for his handling of the Mother and Child crisis. There are many examples in his personal papers of his charitable instincts,13 and he maintained his interest in the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul throughout his life.
The law was, arguably, his first love. Political opponents like Seán Lemass accused him of being prepared to argue any brief, in politics as in the law. “He was still at the Bar as it were: he was not really concerned about the soundness of the brief. He argued to the brief given to him by his Party or his officials.”14 This was unfair, but then Lemass had a famous aversion to lawyers in general, and Fine Gael lawyers in particular. Interestingly, Ronan Keane, a future Chief Justice who saw both Lemass and Costello speak at a debate at UCD’s Literary and Historical Society in 1951, felt that Costello was by far the more effective speaker, because of his ability to appeal to ordinary people. It was this which made him such a “great jury operator”—he knew how to come across as one of them.15
His secretary, Patrick Lynch, who knew him well, said his background in the law was not always an advantage. “Acceptance of the law’s delays did not foster an overnight conversion to consistent punctuality. The vehement rhetoric of the courts did not necessarily match the changing moods of the Dáil, and he sometimes found it hard to avoid flowery diction and the purple patch.”16 His forceful speaking style could be both a blessing and a curse in political terms—his speeches were generally quite entertaining, and his aide-de-camp and political assistant Mick Byrne always urged him to throw away his script and speak off the cuff during election meetings in the constituency.17 But what pleased a crowd could also cause trouble.
As his son-in-law Alexis FitzGerald tactfully pointed out to him, “it is impossible to speak frequently ex tempore without the eloquence of some moment reaching further than the facts warrant … whenever Mick Byrne tells you to do without a script, please remember that if I were present I would howl for one. As many of the words that you have as Taoiseach to utter should be thought out carefully before they are uttered, I am certain that you should suffer the glory of the moment to pass by. The cheers cease butlitera scripta manet [the written word remains]. The local enthusiasm will be less, the national greater.”18 FitzGerald also warned his father-in-law that Fianna Fáil planned to play on another characteristic—his notoriously short fuse—by provoking him into a rage. “As I believe they think this the chink in your armour, you should watch always for this line of attack.”19
Though he was not a particularly intellectual Catholic, his deep religious commitment cannot be doubted—as was made more than clear during the Mother and Child controversy. For much of his life he went to Mass every day, either at his local church in Donnybrook in south Dublin or in the Church of Adam and Eve on the quays on his way to the Four Courts.20 He was, according to a former parish priest, “an example in every way”, both as a parishioner and a sodality member.21 His son Declan recalled that while he would say the Rosary every night, he never suggested the entire family should join in, as would have been reasonably common at the time. Instead, once the children had gone to bed, he would kneel down beside the fire in his study to perform his devotions alone, rather than insisting on conformity.22
His pugnacity could frequently extend to religious matters—famously in an address to the Trinity College Philosophical Society in October 1948, when he referred several times to the “so-called Reformation”23—a reference which caused considerable offence to Protestants. It was also, according to Patrick Lynch, quite deliberate. Lynch had drafted a speech for him, but the Taoiseach had rewritten parts of it, adding in the “so-called Reformation” reference as an expression of his dislike and suspicion of Trinity.24
Apart from religion, John A. Costello’s other great comfort in life was his family. Evenings were spent in the study, the children listening to the radio while their father read briefs by the fire—he claimed to have learned to ignore noise and concentrate on his work in the Law Library, where he worked with conversations going on around him.25 A profile in the (British) News Review in 1949 noted that “most of the family fun is found at home”, referring to the then Taoiseach’s liking for listening to music, playing bridge, taking his dachshund Slem for a morning walk, and reading thrillers.26 What he referred to as his “pernicious habit” of reading detective stories did prove politically useful on one occasion, giving him the background knowledge to make an informed Dáil contribution about the training of police in detection techniques.27
He had a ritual of going every spring to the Dublin Mountains to pick primroses with the family. The journey, given his famously fast driving, must have been a bit rough—his daughter Eavan later said looking at a painting of primroses which had belonged to her father made her feel carsick because it reminded her of those trips.28
And then there was golf, to which he cheerfully admitted he was “addicted”, even in old age.29 At the time of his election as Taoiseach, he was Captain of Portmarnock Golf Club, and an editorial in Irish Golf magazine remarked that his choice for both posts was wise, as “John Costello despite his very retiring manner makes one respect him and feel confidence in him.”30
However, it would appear that despite his “addiction”, he wasn’t a particularly strong golfer—his son recalled that, even being generous, he was no more than “average”.31 The Irish Golf editorial noted that “he never played golf except for the fun and exercise of it”, and went on to pay a rather backhanded compliment: “When one has seen a golfer take the rough with the smooth in the most equable of manners, when he could miss a shortish putt without thinking the world was collapsing, then one can have confidence in the new Taoiseach. A broad fairway to him, though if he does find the rough he will get out of it calmly and well.”32 Every Sunday for years, Costello played in the same four-ball in Portmarnock, with Dick Browne of the ESB, an old school friend; Dick Rice, chairman of the Revenue Commissioners; and Seamus O’Connor, the Dublin City Sheriff.33 It was on one such occasion in 1948 that he wrestled with the dilemma of whether he should accept the position of Taoiseach.
A less benign addiction was to smoking—he was an inveterate smoker of Churchman cigarettes, although according to his son he didn’t actually inhale.34 In conversation, an observer noted, he had two habits—“twiddling a pencil, and keeping his cigarette tucked in the corner of his mouth while talking”.35 One of his more impassioned contributions to the Dáil was on the question of tobacco, which he argued was a necessity rather than a luxury, and should be taxed accordingly. “It enables everyone, whether rich or poor, to carry on his work … In addition to giving a certain amount of comfort, and soothing the nerves … it gives him a certain amount of relaxation, and enables him to do his work better.”36
He was a famously dapper dresser.37 In 1948, the British Lord Chancellor, William Jowitt, paid him a compliment by suggesting he might visit a tailor in Dublin while on holidays in Ireland “to see if I can approach nearer your standard” of sartorial elegance.38
Another factor much remarked upon was Jack Costello’s modesty. Tom Finlay, later to be Chief Justice, recalled his “absolute humility” as one of the most remarkable things about him. He would have been taken aback if Finlay, as a young barrister appearing in court with him, let him through a door first.39 Again, the News Review noted in 1949 that as Taoiseach, “the idea of anyone wanting to write an article about him still amuses him”.40 The young Fine Gael activist Richie Ryan had the job of announcing Costello’s arrival into the Drawing Room of the Mansion House during the 1949 Fine Gael Ard Fheis. As he called out, “Ladies and Gentlemen—the Taoiseach!” he got an “almighty thump” in the back and heard Costello growl, “Cut that out, Richie, I don’t want any of that nonsense.”41
This modesty, as well as his personal kindness, had major political implications, as it played a role in his selection as the inter-party group’s candidate for Taoiseach. Noel Hartnett was a leading figure in Clann na Poblachta who fell out with Seán MacBride—and, by extension, with Costello—over the Mother and Child Scheme and the Battle of Baltinglass (a controversy over political influence in the filling of a post office appointment). In 1959 he wrote that Costello’s faults as a politician sprang “almost exclusively from excessive loyalty to his colleagues”. This loyalty, Hartnett said, “led him occasionally to defend actions and policies which would better have been condemned”. Hartnett pointed to another of Costello’s characteristics—his avoidance of bitterness—as the reason for his choice as Taoiseach, and pointed out that the members of all the parties in the Inter-party Governments “trusted and respected him”.42
This judgment had been borne out at the time of his election by others, including High Court judge T.C. Kingsmill Moore, a former Independent senator who told Costello, “you were almost unique in the Dáil in that all parties liked and trusted you, no matter how bitterly opposed to you”.43 Similarly, The O’Mahony, a former Fine Gael TD (who was also to fall out with Costello over the Baltinglass issue), wrote to him in 1948, “If you are able to keep that varied coalition of parties together I think you will have brought about a miracle, but from what I saw of you during the eleven years I was in the Dáil I don’t believe anyone else would ever have a chance.”44
Reluctant he may have been. But John A. Costello, thanks to his background, his career, and most importantly his personality, was in 1948 in a pivotal position to make history.