John A. Costello

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John A. Costello
US visit of Taoiseach Costello in 1956 (cropped).jpg
3rd Taoiseach
In office
2 June 1954 20 March 1957
President Seán T. O'Kelly
Tánaiste William Norton
Preceded by Éamon de Valera
Succeeded byÉamon de Valera
In office
18 February 1948 13 June 1951
PresidentSeán T. O'Kelly
TánaisteWilliam Norton
Preceded byÉamon de Valera
Succeeded byÉamon de Valera
Leader of the Opposition
In office
13 June 1951 2 June 1954
PresidentSeán T. O'Kelly
TaoiseachÉamon de Valera
Preceded byÉamon de Valera
Succeeded byÉamon de Valera
In office
20 March 1957 21 October 1959
PresidentSeán T. O'Kelly
TaoiseachÉamon de Valera
Preceded byÉamon de Valera
Succeeded by James Dillon
3rd Attorney General of Ireland
In office
9 January 1926 9 March 1932
President W. T. Cosgrave
Preceded by John O'Byrne
Succeeded by Conor Maguire
Teachta Dála
In office
February 1948   June 1969
Constituency Dublin South-East
In office
May 1944   February 1948
In office
July 1937   June 1943
Constituency Dublin Townships
In office
January 1933   July 1937
Constituency Dublin County
Personal details
John Aloysius Costello

(1891-06-20)20 June 1891
Fairview, Dublin, Ireland
Died5 January 1976(1976-01-05) (aged 84)
Ranelagh, Dublin, Ireland
Resting place Deans Grange Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland
Nationality Irish
Political party Fine Gael
Spouse(s) Ida Mary O'Malley
(m. 1919; d. 1956)
Children4, including Declan
  • John Costello
  • Rose Callaghan
Alma mater

John Aloysius Costello (20 June 1891 – 5 January 1976) was an Irish Fine Gael politician who served as Taoiseach from 1948 to 1951 and from 1954 to 1957, Leader of the Opposition from 1951 to 1954 and from 1957 to 1959, and Attorney General of Ireland from 1926 to 1932. He served as a Teachta Dála (TD) from 1933 to 1943 and from 1944 to 1969. [1]

Fine Gael Centre-right liberal-conservative political party in the Republic of Ireland, one of two leading parties since 1933

Fine Gael is a liberal-conservative and pro-European political party in Ireland. Fine Gael is currently the governing and largest party in Ireland in terms of members of the Oireachtas and Irish members of European Parliament. The party has a membership of 21,000 and is the senior partner governing in a minority coalition with several independent politicians, with party leader Leo Varadkar serving as Taoiseach. Varadkar succeeded Enda Kenny as party leader on 2 June 2017 and as Taoiseach on 14 June; Kenny had been leader since 2002, and Taoiseach since 2011.

Taoiseach Head of government (Prime Minister) of Ireland

The Taoiseach is the prime minister and head of government of Ireland. The Taoiseach is appointed by the President upon the nomination of Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Oireachtas (parliament), and must, in order to remain in office, retain the support of a majority in the Dáil.

The Attorney General of Ireland is a constitutional officer who is the legal adviser to the Government and is therefore the chief law officer of the State. The Attorney General is not a member of the Government but does participate in cabinet meetings when invited and attends government meetings. The current Attorney General is Séamus Woulfe, SC.


Early life

Costello was born on 20 June 1891, in Fairview, Dublin. He was a younger son of John Costello senior, a civil servant, and Rose Callaghan.

Fairview, Dublin Suburb in Leinster, Ireland

Fairview is a coastal suburb of Dublin in Ireland, in the jurisdiction of Dublin City Council. Part of the area forms Fairview Park on land reclaimed from the sea.

He was educated at St. Joseph's Secondary C.B.S., Fairview, and then moved to O'Connell School, for senior classes, and then attended University College Dublin and graduated with a degree in modern languages and law. He studied at King's Inns to become a barrister, winning the Victoria Prize there in 1913 and 1914.

St. Josephs Secondary C.B.S., Fairview Boys secondary school in Fairview, Dublin, Ireland

Saint Joseph's Secondary Christian Brothers' School, Fairview is a boys' secondary school in Fairview, Dublin, Ireland. The school is in the trusteeship of the Edmund Rice Schools Trust.

The O’Connell School is a secondary and a primary school for boys located on North Richmond Street in Dublin, Ireland. The school, named in honour of the leader of Catholic Emancipation, Daniel O’Connell, has the distinction of being the oldest surviving Christian Brothers school in Dublin, having been first established in 1829. It is now under the trusteeship of the Edmund Rice Schools Trust.

University College Dublin University in Dublin, Ireland, part of the National University of Ireland

University College Dublin is a research university in Dublin, Ireland. It has over 1,482 faculty and 32,000 students, and it is Ireland's largest university. Rooted in Roman Catholicism, UCD originates in a body founded in 1854, which opened as the Catholic University of Ireland on the Feast of Saint Malachy and with John Henry Newman as its first rector; it re-formed in 1880 and chartered in its own right in 1908. The Universities Act, 1997 renamed the constituent university as the "National University of Ireland, Dublin", and a ministerial order of 1998 renamed the institution as "University College Dublin - National University of Ireland, Dublin".

Costello was called to the bar in 1914, and practised as a barrister until 1922.

Irish Free State

In 1922, Costello joined the staff of the Attorney General in the newly established Irish Free State. Three years later he was called to the inner bar, and the following year, 1926, he became Attorney General of Ireland, upon the formation of the Cumann na nGaedheal government, led by W. T. Cosgrave. While serving in this position he represented the Free State at Imperial Conferences and League of Nations meetings. [2]

Irish Free State Sovereign state in northwest Europe (1922–1937), Dominion status to 1922, succeeded by Ireland

The Irish Free State was a state established in 1922 under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921. That treaty ended the three-year Irish War of Independence between the forces of the self-proclaimed Irish Republic, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and British Crown forces.

Cumann na nGaedheal, sometimes spelt Cumann na nGaedhael, was a political party in the Irish Free State, which formed the government from 1923 to 1932. In 1933 it merged with smaller groups to form the Fine Gael party.

W. T. Cosgrave Irish politician

William Thomas Cosgrave was an Irish Fine Gael politician who served as President of the Executive Council from 1922 to 1932, Leader of the Opposition from 1932 to 1944, Leader of Fine Gael from 1934 to 1944, Leader of Cumann na nGaedheal from 1923 to 1933, Chairman of the Provisional Government from August 1922 to December 1922, President of Dáil Éireann from September 1922 to December 1922, Minister for Finance from 1922 to 1923 and Minister for Local Government from 1919 to 1922. He served as a Teachta Dála (TD) from 1921 to 1944. He was a Member of Parliament (MP) for the North Kilkenny constituency from 1918 to 1922.

He was also elected a Bencher of the Honourable Society of King's Inns. Costello lost his position as Attorney General of Ireland, when Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932. The following year, however, he was elected to Dáil Éireann as a Cumann na nGaedheal Teachta Dála (TD). Cumann na nGaedheal soon merged with other parties to form Fine Gael). [3]

Fianna Fáil, officially Fianna Fáil – The Republican Party, is a conservative political party in Ireland.

Dáil Éireann Lower house of the Oireachtas (Irish parliament)

Dáil Éireann is the lower house, and principal chamber, of the Oireachtas, which also includes the President of Ireland and Seanad Éireann. It currently consists of 158 members, known as Teachta Dála. TDs represent 40 constituencies, and are directly elected at least once every five years under the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote (STV). Its powers are similar to those of lower houses under many other bicameral parliamentary systems and it is by far the dominant branch of the Oireachtas. Subject to the limits imposed by the Constitution of Ireland, it has power to pass any law it wishes, and to nominate and remove the Taoiseach. Since 1922, it has met in Leinster House in Dublin.

A TD is a member of Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Oireachtas. It is the equivalent of terms such as 'Member of Parliament' (MP) or 'Member of Congress' used in other countries. The official translation of the term is 'Deputy to the Dáil', although a more literal translation is "Assembly Delegate".

Blueshirts speech

On 28 February 1934, during a Dáil debate on a bill to outlaw the wearing of uniforms (a bill specifically designed to curtail the Blueshirts, a uniformed movement then associated with Fine Gael and formed to defend their candidates, meeting and rallies from IRA attack), Costello made a speech opposing the bill that has generated controversy ever since. In response to an assertion by Minister for Justice P. J. Ruttledge, that the Blueshirts had fascist leanings like the Italian Blackshirts and German Brownshirts, and that other European nations had taken similar actions against similar organisations, Costello stated:

Blueshirts political party

The Army Comrades Association (ACA), later the National Guard, then Young Ireland and finally League of Youth, but better known by the nickname The Blueshirts, was a paramilitary movement in the Irish Free State in the early 1930s. The organisation provided physical protection for political groups such as Cumann na nGaedheal from intimidation and attack by the anti-Treaty IRA. Some former members went on to fight for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War.

Minister for Justice and Equality Irish cabinet position

The Minister for Justice and Equality is the senior minister at the Department of Justice and Equality in the Government of Ireland. The Minister has overall responsibility for law and order in Ireland.

P. J. Ruttledge Irish politician

Patrick Joseph Ruttledge was an Irish politician.

The remark was a small part of a much longer speech whose main point was that the bill was an unconstitutional over-reaction by the Fianna Fáil government and an unfair scapegoating of the Blueshirts movement. [4] However, the quote has since been the subject of much historical debate regarding the extent to which the Blueshirts, and by extension Fine Gael – and Costello himself – had ties to European fascist movements. [5] [6] [7]

Other Dáil activity

During the Dáil debate on the Emergency Powers Act 1939, Costello was highly critical of the Act's arrogation of powers, stating that

He lost his seat at the general election of 1943, but regained it when de Valera called a snap election in 1944. From 1944 to 1948, he was the Fine Gael front-bench Spokesman on External Affairs.

1948 general election

In 1948, Fianna Fáil had been in power for sixteen consecutive years and had been blamed for a downturn in the economy following World War II. The general election results showed Fianna Fáil short of a majority, but still by far the largest party, with twice as many seats as the nearest rival, Fine Gael. It appeared that Fianna Fáil was headed for a seventh term in government.

However, the other parties in the Dáil realised that between them, they had only one seat fewer than Fianna Fáil, and if they banded together, they would be able to form a government with the support of seven Independent deputies. Fine Gael, the Labour Party, the National Labour Party, Clann na Poblachta and Clann na Talmhan joined to form the first inter-party government in the history of the Irish state.

While it looked as if co-operation between these parties would not be feasible a shared opposition to Fianna Fáil and Éamon de Valera overcame all other difficulties and the coalition government was formed. [9]

Taoiseach (1948–51)

Since Fine Gael was the largest party in the government, it had the task of providing a suitable candidate for Taoiseach. Naturally it was assumed that its leader, Richard Mulcahy, would be offered the post. However, he was an unacceptable choice to Clann na Poblachta and its deeply republican leader, Seán MacBride. This was due to Mulcahy's record during the Irish Civil War. [10] Instead, Fine Gael and Clann na Poblachta agreed on Costello as a compromise candidate. Costello had never held a ministerial position nor was he involved in the Civil War. When told by Mulcahy of his nomination Costello was appalled, content with his life as a barrister and as a part-time politician. He was persuaded to accept the nomination as Taoiseach by close non-political friends. [11]

Declaration of the republic

During the campaign Clann na Poblachta had promised to repeal the External Relations Act of 1936, but did not make an issue of this when the government was being formed. However, Costello and his Tánaiste, William Norton of the Labour Party, also disliked the act. During the summer of 1948, the cabinet discussed repealing the act; however, no firm decision was made.

In September 1948, Costello was on an official visit to Canada when a reporter asked him about the possibility of Ireland leaving the British Commonwealth. Costello, for the first time, declared publicly that the Irish government was indeed going to repeal the External Relations Act and declare Ireland a republic. [12] It has been suggested that this was a reaction to offence caused by the Governor General of Canada at the time, the Earl Alexander of Tunis, who was of Northern Irish descent and who allegedly arranged to have placed symbols of Northern Ireland—notably a replica of the famous Roaring Meg cannon used in the Siege of Derry—in front of Costello at an official dinner. [13] Costello made no mention of these aspects on the second reading of the Republic of Ireland Bill on 24 November and, [14] in his memoirs, claimed that Alexander's behaviour had in fact been perfectly civil and could have had no bearing on a decision which had already been made. [15]

The news took the Government of the United Kingdom and even some of Costello's ministers by surprise. The former had not been consulted and, following the declaration of the Republic in 1949, the UK passed the Ireland Act that year. This recognised the Republic of Ireland and guaranteed the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom for so long as a majority there wanted to remain in the United Kingdom. It also granted full rights to any citizens of the republic living in the United Kingdom. Ireland left the Commonwealth on 18 April 1949, when the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 came into force. Frederick Henry Boland, Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, said caustically that the affair demonstrated that "the Taoiseach has as much notion of diplomacy as I have of astrology." [16] The British envoy Lord Rugby was equally critical of what he called a "slipshod and amateur" move.

Many nationalists now saw partition as the last obstacle on the road to total national independence. Costello tabled a motion of protest against partition on 10 May 1949, without result. [17]

Mother and Child Scheme

In 1950, the independent-minded Minister for Health, Noel Browne, introduced the Mother and Child Scheme. The scheme would provide mothers with free maternity treatment and their children with free medical care up to the age of sixteen, which was normal provision in other parts of Europe at that time. The bill was opposed by doctors, who feared a loss of income, and Roman Catholic bishops, who opposed the lack of means testing envisaged and feared the scheme could lead to birth control and abortion. The cabinet was divided over the issue, many feeling that the state could not afford such a scheme priced at IR£2,000,000 annually. Costello and others in the cabinet made it clear that in the face of such opposition they would not support the Minister. Browne resigned from the government on 11 April 1951, and the scheme was dropped. He immediately published his correspondence with Costello and the bishops, something which had hitherto not been done. Derivatives of the Mother and Child Scheme would be introduced in Public Health Acts of 1954, 1957 and 1970.

Costello took the opportunity to reconfirm his beliefs in Catholicism on 12 April 1951, in his speech on Dr. Browne's resignation:

Coalition achievements

The Costello government had a number of noteworthy achievements. A new record was set in housebuilding, the Industrial Development Authority and Córas Tráchtála were established, and the Minister for Health, Noel Browne, with the then new Streptomycin, brought about an advance in the treatment of tuberculosis. [20] Ireland also joined a number of organisations such as the Organization for European Economic Co-operation and the Council of Europe. However, the government refused to join NATO, allegedly because the British remained in Northern Ireland. The scheme to supply electricity to even the remotest parts of Ireland was also accelerated.

Election defeat

While the "Mother and Child" incident did destabilise the government to some extent, it did not lead to its collapse as is generally thought. The government continued; however, prices were rising, a balance of payments crisis was looming, and two TDs withdrew their support for the government. These incidents added to the pressure on Costello and so he decided to call a general election for June 1951. The result was inconclusive but Fianna Fáil returned to power. Costello resigned as Taoiseach. It was at this election that Costello's son Declan was elected to the Dáil. [21]

Over the next three years while Fianna Fáil was in power a dual-leadership role of Fine Gael was taking place. While Richard Mulcahy was the leader of the party, Costello, who had proved his skill as Taoiseach, remained as parliamentary leader of the party. He resumed his practice at the Bar; what is arguably his most celebrated case, the successful defence of The Leader against a libel action brought by the poet Patrick Kavanagh, dates from this period. [22] Kavanagh generously praised Costello's forensic skill, and the two men became friends. [23]

Taoiseach (1954–57)

At the 1954 general election Fianna Fáil lost power. A campaign dominated by economic issues resulted in a Fine Gael-Labour Party-Clann na Talmhan government coming to power. Costello was once again elected Taoiseach for the second time. [24]

The government could do little to change the ailing nature of Ireland's economy, with emigration and unemployment remaining high, and external problems such as the Suez Crisis compounding the difficulty. Costello's government did have some success with Ireland becoming a member of the United Nations in 1955, and a highly successful visit to the United States in 1956, which began the custom by which the Taoiseach visits the White House each St. Patrick's Day to present the US President with a bowl of shamrock. [25] Although the government had a comfortable majority and seemed set for a full term in office, a resumption of IRA activity in Northern Ireland and Great Britain caused internal strains (see Border Campaign). The government took strong action against the republicans.

In spite of supporting the government from the backbenches, Seán MacBride, the leader of Clann na Poblachta, tabled a motion of no confidence, based on the weakening state of the economy and in opposition to the government's stance on the IRA. Fianna Fáil also tabled its own motion of no confidence, and, rather than face almost certain defeat, Costello again asked President Seán T. O'Kelly to dissolve the Oireachtas. The general election which followed in 1957 gave Fianna Fáil an overall majority and started another sixteen years of unbroken rule for the party. Some of his colleagues questioned the wisdom of Costello's decision to call an election; the view was expressed that he was tired of politics, and depressed by his wife's sudden death the previous year. [26]


Following the defeat of his government, Costello returned to the bar. In 1959, when Richard Mulcahy resigned the leadership of Fine Gael to James Dillon, Costello retired to the backbenches. Costello could have become party leader had he been willing to act in a full-time capacity. [27] He remained as a TD until 1969, when he retired from politics, being succeeded as Fine Gael TD for Dublin South-East by Garret FitzGerald, who himself went onto to become Taoiseach in a Fine Gael-led government.

During his career he was presented with a number of awards from many universities in the United States. He was also a member of the Royal Irish Academy from 1948. In March 1975, he was made a freeman of the city of Dublin, along with his old political opponent Éamon de Valera. He practised at the bar until a short time before his death, in Dublin, on 5 January 1976, at the age of 84.


The following governments were led by Costello:

See also

Further reading

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  1. "John Aloysius Costello". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  2. JordanAnthony J. John A. Costello 1891-1976 Compromise Taoiseach Westport Books 2007 p, 22.
  3. "John A. Costello". Retrieved 1 June 2009.
  4. 1 2 Dáil Éireann – Volume 50 – 28 February 1934. Dublin: Oireachtas. p. 15. Archived from the original on 25 September 2012. Retrieved 17 June 2011.
  5. Kirk, Tim; Anthony McElligott (1999). Opposing fascism: community, authority and resistance in Europe. Cambridge University Press. p. 91.
  6. Anonymous (1974). International solidarity with the Spanish Republic, 1936–1939. Moscow: Progress Publishers. p. 191.
  7. McCullagh, David (2010). The Reluctant Taoiseach: A Biography of John A. Costello. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan. p. 536. ISBN   978-0-7171-4646-8.
  8. Ó Longaigh, Seosamh (2004). Keogh, Dermot; O'Driscoll, Mervyn (eds.). Emergency Law in Action, 1939–1945 (Ireland in World War II: Diplomacy and Survival). Cork: Mercier Press. p. 64. ISBN   1-85635-445-8.
  9. McCullagh pp.157–165
  10. McCullagh p.159
  11. John A. Costello, Compromise Taoiseach, Anthony J. Jordan, Westport Books, 2007, pp. 9–13. ISBN   978-0-9524447-8-7.
  12. McCullagh p.209
  13. McCullagh p.210
  14. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 12 September 2012. Retrieved 14 August 2012.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link) Dáil Éireann – Volume 113 – 24 November 1948 The Republic of Ireland Bill, 1948—Second Stage
  15. McCullagh pp.207–212
  16. McCullagh p.197
  17. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 6 June 2011. Retrieved 20 February 2010.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link) Dáil Éireann – Volume 115 – 10 May 1949 Protest Against Partition—Motion.
  18. "Irish Times" timeline, 22 July 2011
  19. Dáil Éireann – Volume 125 – 12 April 1951 Adjournment Debate—Resignation of Minister; seen on 11 December 2011 Archived 16 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  20. McCullagh p.236
  21. McCullagh p.256
  22. McCullagh pp.272–274
  23. McCullagh p.274
  24. McCullagh p.285
  25. McCullagh p.331
  26. McCullagh p.366
  27. John A. Costello, Compromise Taoiseach, Anthony J. Jordan, Westport Books, 2007, pp. 163–64, ISBN   978-0-9524447-8-7.
  28. "The Reluctant Taoiseach". RTÉ News and Current Affairs. 15 October 2010.
Preceded by
Thomas Finlay
(Cumann na nGaedheal)
Cumann na nGaedheal Teachta Dála for Dublin County
Succeeded by
Moved to new constituency
New constituency Fine Gael Teachta Dála for Dublin Townships
Succeeded by
Bernard Butler
(Fianna Fáil)
Preceded by
Ernest Benson
(Fine Gael)
Fine Gael Teachta Dála for Dublin Townships
Constituency abolished
New constituency Fine Gael Teachta Dála for Dublin South-East
Succeeded by
Garret FitzGerald
(Fine Gael)
Legal offices
Preceded by
John O'Byrne
Attorney General of Ireland
Succeeded by
Conor Maguire
Political offices
Preceded by
Richard Mulcahy
Parliamentary Leader of Fine Gael
Succeeded by
James Dillon
Preceded by
Éamon de Valera
Succeeded by
Éamon de Valera
Preceded by
Noel Browne
Minister for Health
Apr–Jun 1951
Succeeded by
James Ryan
Preceded by
Éamon de Valera
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Éamon de Valera
Preceded by
Éamon de Valera
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
James Dillon