Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book review - "The Reluctant Taoiseach" by David McCullagh

I have to confess I knew very little about former Taoiseach John A. Costello before I read this new biography by David McCullagh (he of RTÉ fame). The book was a birthday present last October and it has taken me several months to read. Since starting it I interrupted it by reading three other books (including biographies of Steve Jobs and Galileo) - this will tell you a little bit about this book.

Image link to Gill & Macmillan.
"The Reluctant Taoiseach" is well written, but heavy going in places - it is a book that you can put down. It is perhaps aimed at more serious scholars of Irish history than me? It is meticulously researched - 84 pages of references, plus a detailed index (31 pages). However, it does give a detailed account of Costello's life - particularly his time as Taoiseach in two governments, 1948-1951 and 1954-1957. Costello appears to have been an honest man who was not only a "reluctant" Taoiseach, but an accidental one too. 

What strikes me most about the book is it also describes a time in Ireland in the 40s and 50s where real economic hardship dominated Irish life and politics. The country was being bled dry by emigration - indeed my own maternal grandparents and most of their family left Ireland for Canada while Costello served his second term as Taoiseach. The book also assumes that the reader already knows a lot about two of the central events during Costello's term in office - the Declaration of the Republic, and the Mother and Child scheme. Neither is described in detail and I had to look up these events on Wikipedia to understand what was going on. 

Costello was an unapologetic daily mass-going Catholic who bowed to the Church and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. It's hard to imagine now a Taoiseach opposing a moderate social scheme like the Mother and Child one, that led to his own health Minister (Noël Browne) resigning. He also lived and worked in the shadow of Éamon de Valera - the dominant force in Irish politics during the 20th century, but not much is made of this in the book.

I'd recommend this book as a fair account of John A. Costello. Be prepared for a long read, but it is worth it in the end to find out more about an almost forgotten leader of Ireland.

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