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Republic to Republic DIB entry: John A. Costello

12 March 2019

To mark the seventieth anniversary of the declaration of the republic and Ireland’s departure from the Commonwealth on 18 April 1949, we are publishing a number of our entries of figures involved in Irish foreign policy in the decades leading up to it, all of whom feature in the forthcoming online exhibition Republic to Republic: Ireland’s international sovereignty, 191949, curated by our colleagues in DIFP and UCD Archives. The RIA is hosting a panel discussion to mark the occasion on Thursday 18 April.

Read the DIB entry for John A. Costello, by Charles Lysaght, below.

Presented below are excerpts from Charles Lysaght’s DIB entry on John A. Costello pertaining to aspects of his time as taoiseach from 1948–51.

John Aloysius Costello (1891–1976), barrister, attorney general, dáil deputy, and twice taoiseach, was born 20 June 1891 at 13 Charleville Road, Cabra, Dublin, younger son and second among three children of John Costello, a Clareman who was a staff officer in the registry of deeds, and Rose Costello (née Callaghan), who came from Westmeath. At the time the elder John Costello was reputed to be a Parnellite. He was throughout his life active in charitable work and in the activities of the Father Mathew Hall in Church St. In retirement he was elected to the Dublin city council, where he served for six years until his death in 1936.

Taoiseach, 1948–51 At the general election called by de Valera in January 1948, his Fianna Fáil party lost seats to the newly formed radical republican Clann na Poblachta party led by Seán MacBride and so failed to secure an overall majority in the incoming dáil. Although the Fine Gael share of the vote fell to an all-time low (below 20 per cent) and it had less than half the number of seats required to form a government on its own, it remained the second largest party. Its leader, Gen. Richard Mulcahy, initiated discussions with the smaller parties and some independents with a view to forming a government. Costello, who had topped the poll in his constituency, had told party colleagues that he had no intention of giving up his practice to be a minister or become attorney general again. But the Labour party leader William Norton, who had admired Costello's work as counsel for injured workmen and for trade unions, was insistent that Costello should be taoiseach in the proposed inter-party government. MacBride, who had been apprehensive about the readiness of republicans to serve under the civil-war army chief Mulcahy, then agreed to Costello, his fellow SC (although his preference was for Sir John Esmonde, SC, who had defended republican prisoners), so helping to create a myth that the whole thing was a Law Library conspiracy. Mulcahy agreed readily, and a reluctant Costello was persuaded by close friends such as Arthur Cox that he had no alternative but to accept the office, to which he was appointed on 18 February 1948.

Costello's government began well, with the negotiation in June 1948 of a trade agreement with the British government, improving access for Irish agricultural exports. The warm relations then established were consolidated when prime minister Clement Attlee took his summer break in the west of Ireland. However, they did not outlast the declaration by Costello, while on a visit to Canada in September, that it was intended to repeal the External Relations Act, 1936, under which the king signed the credentials of Irish ambassadors, and which was the last remaining formal link with the commonwealth. Costello's statement was made in response to a press leak in the Sunday Independent and without prior consultation with the British government. There seems to have been no formal government decision authorising the action, although most ministers favoured it and ratified it readily on Costello's return. Costello himself had criticised the ambiguity created by the external relations act when it was enacted, and took the view that membership of the commonwealth had effectively ceased already. This may be the reason why he did not explore the feasibility of retaining commonwealth membership as a republic, an arrangement adopted about this time for India.

The legislation repealing the external relations act stated that the description of the state was the Republic of Ireland, and the government celebrated its coming into force on Easter Monday 1949 as an acknowledgement that the state established under the 1937 constitution was a republic – the word ‘republic’ had been studiously omitted from the constitution itself. To emphasise that it was done with the full support of Fine Gael and not just to satisfy Seán MacBride's Clann na Poblachta party, Costello piloted the Republic of Ireland bill through the oireachtas. He told the dáil that the removal of the last formal link with the British crown would end a provocation to republicans and so take the gun out of Irish politics. Privately, he hoped that it would ensure that Fine Gael was no longer branded as the pro-British party, and would fare better in a context where politics focused mainly on bread-and-butter issues.

The declaration of the republic alienated those who had taken at face value the commitment of the Fine Gael party leader, Mulcahy, to remain in the commonwealth. This alienation was most marked among the former unionist, largely protestant, community, and was compounded when Costello referred to the ‘so-called reformation’ at a meeting in TCD and apologised to the Irish people in the dáil for describing the Irish Times as an Irish newspaper. What happened also alienated the British government, largely because it was done without prior consultation with them. Although they were eventually persuaded to continue existing trade, nationality, and immigration arrangements and not treat the Republic as a foreign country, they responded by enacting, without prior consultation with the Irish government, the Ireland Act, 1949, under which it was declared that Northern Ireland would not cease to be part of the UK without the approval of its parliament. That, in turn, sparked off an all-party anti-partition campaign. On 10 May, moving a motion in the dáil condemning the proposed Ireland Act, Costello remarked with the kind of rhetorical flourish in which he rejoiced: ‘we can hit the British government in their prestige and in their pride and in their pocket’ (Dáil Éireann deb., cxv, col. 807).

Thereafter, responding to advice from his son-in-law Alexis FitzGerald that he should not upset the traditional constituency of the Fine Gael party and should speak only from a prepared script, he toned down his own utterances on partition and allowed Seán MacBride to make the running on the issue. Agreements were reached with the government of Northern Ireland for joint action in relation to Lough Foyle, the Erne fisheries, and the Dublin–Belfast railway. Commenting on these at a Fine Gael ard-fheis in February 1951, Costello said that they had ‘given some grounds for the belief that friendly relations can do much to achieve eventual unity more certainly than threats of bloody warfare’ (Ir. Times, 7 Feb. 1951).

Image: UCD Archive

John A. Costello papers, Hugh Kennedy papers, Patrick McGilligan papers, and James Meenan papers, UCD archives; Thomas Bodkin papers, TCD archives; Churchill papers, Churchill College, Cambridge; Incorporated Society of Law Reporting, Irish Reports; Irish Law Times and Solicitors Journal; Michael McInerney, ‘Interviews with John Costello’, Ir. Times, 4–7 Sept. 1967; David Harkness, The restless dominion (1970); J. H. Whyte, Church and state in modern Ireland 1923–1970 (1971); Brian Farrell, Chairman or chief: the role of taoiseach in Irish government (1971); Times obit., 7 Jan. 1976; Patrick Lynch, ‘Pages from a memoir’, Patrick Lynch and James Meenan (ed.), Essays in memory of Alexis FitzGerald (1986); Ruth Barrington, Health, medicine & politics in Ireland 1900–1970 (1987); Ian McCabe, A diplomatic history of Ireland 1948–49 (1991); Garret FitzGerald, All in a life (1991); Brian Kennedy, Dreams and responsibilities: the state and the arts in independent Ireland ([1991]); Walker; Brian Maye, Fine Gael 1923–1987 (1993); Eugene McCague, Arthur Cox (1994); Michael Kennedy, Ireland and the League of Nations (1994); Thomas F. O'Higgins, A double life (1996); David McCullagh, A makeshift majority (1998); John Cooney, John Charles McQuaid (1999); Maurice Manning, James Dillon (1999); John Horgan, Noel Browne (2000); Antoinette Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh (2001); Dermot Keogh, Twentieth-century Ireland (2nd ed., 2005); Caitriona Lawlor (ed.), Sean MacBride remembers (2006); Anthony J. Jordan, John A. Costello 1891–1976: compromise taoiseach (2007); personal knowledge 

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