John A Costello

IF ever a subject was overdue a comprehensive biography then surely it is John A Costello. Despite being just the third man to head an independent Irish government, the Taoiseach between 1948 and 1951 and 1954 to 1957 is almost the forgotten man of 20th century Irish political history.

As David McCullagh himself notes in the book, three ministers in Costello's first cabinet were the subject of full-length biographies long before him – James Dillon, Sean MacBride and Noel Browne.

Costello was nowhere near as glamorous a figure as those three (particularly lacking the mystique that surrounds MacBride and Browne) but his political achievements were surely greater. McCullagh suggests part of the reason for this lack of recognition may lie in Costello's own modesty, which he says, "appears to have been absolutely genuine".

His obvious (and extraordinary) reluctance to take on the coveted position of Taoiseach – he was not leader of Fine Gael and was effectively the "least objectionable candidate" to head the first inter-party government – may also have lessened his historical stature, McCullagh argues.

But, as this fine biography demonstrates, his importance both to Fine Gael and to Ireland cannot be underestimated and for reasons far more wide-ranging and complex than simply because he was the Taoiseach who declared Ireland a republic.

His life story demands to be told and McCullagh, a familiar face on our television screens for his calm and measured analysis of domestic politics, is the ideal person to do so. He combines the intellectual rigour of the historian (the extent of research is hugely impressive) with the readability of the journalist. The result is a biography that is not just hugely authoritative but also highly readable.

Although it seems clear that McCullagh respects, and perhaps developed an affection for, his subject, this is not an uncritical account, particularly relating to Costello's second tenure as Taoiseach. Sweeping assessments are avoided, generally letting the facts speak for themselves. This is particularly the case in the chapter dealing with the declaration of the Republic, which – contrary to popular myth, McCullagh argues – Costello did not do in a fit of pique over his treatment on a visit to Canada.

This chapter, along with the account of the Mother and Child controversy, will obviously attract most attention. But there is plenty of meat throughout. The early chapters on Costello's rapid rise (particularly rapid given his lack of active service in 1916 and the War of Independence) to become attorney general, and the role he played in Ireland's transformation of the Commonwealth, will fascinate students of Irish political history. As will the sections dealing with his government's (not particularly fruitful) attempts to deal with the recession of the 1950s.

The once glaring gap in the market for this book has been definitively filled.

The Reluctant Taoiseach; A Biography of John A. Costello
by David McCullagh
Gill & Macmillan €27.99