Updated date:

The Life and Beliefs of an Irish Working Class Patriot: Seamus Costello, 1939 – 1977

The author is a QUB Pol Sci Honours graduate and has written extensively on imperialism, national liberation struggles and class issues.

Seamus Costello

the-life-and-beliefs-of-an-irish-working-class-patriot-seamus-costello-1939-1977

Introduction

The concept for this article was sent to me by an 18-year-old student which is very impressive for a student of that age. It was sent to me for my consideration to publish it as an article which I accepted. All the sources, etc are solely the work of the student with all edits and additions by myself.

An exposition of the life and beliefs of Seamus Costello form the central component of this project. Costello had a profound impact on the political environment of Ireland, and the reverberations of his actions have left a continuing mark. Costello was a socialist republican political figure, and a militant republican in the tradition of Tone, Pearse and Connolly.

To provide a fresh and encapsulating exposition of Costello’s life, and importantly, the beliefs he lived that life for. There has been no book published yet today that focuses primarily on Costello’s life, which tackles both the personal achievements and failings of the man, as well as his crucial ideals.

Few modern accounts of the Irish conflict provide detailed or thorough information about a man who, taken in context, essentially embodied the intricacies of Republicanism in Ireland. One of the reasons I chose Seamus Costello was to make good this absence in Irish Historical-Political literature. I think that a man who cared so sincerely, who organized so tirelessly and gave so much of himself for something greater than himself, deserves more than anything else, to have his story told.

I intend to approach the story of Seamus Costello through sources that are primary, or at the very least, close to primary sources. I plan on using different sources for different spheres of information. For the practical activities carried out by Costello, and the terrible events leading to his death, as well as information on his early life, I seek to use ‘INLA – Deadly Divisions’ by Jack Holland and Henry McDonald. (A very dubious source) I planned to highlight aspects of his personality and intrinsic beliefs using information from interviews, and more detailed descriptions of his political impact using the Irish Republican Socialist Party Website.

Seamus Costello - The Boy General

There are few stories in politics like that of Seamus Costello. Born into an Ireland bitterly divided by civil strife, both class-based and national, Costello would forge a political movement by sheer willpower and tireless dedication – a movement that would leave a legacy reaching far beyond his own life. The astounding impact of the Republican Socialist movement – formed in the Spa Hotel in Lucan by a small group of activists one fateful day, December 1974 – still reverberates throughout the current political climate of Ireland. While others succumbed to sectarianism, Costello pushed earnestly forward. Inspired by the writings of Connolly and Marx, driven by the sacrifice of Tone, he would link socialism and physical force republicanism in a combination never before witnessed.
Where does the story of this man’s extraordinary life begin? Costello was born into an affluent family in Old Connaught Avenue, Bray in 1939. Mary McClure describes his family life as different to that of Connolly,

"Seamus was a socialist because he saw the wrongs that really created the divisions in society. He saw the poverty of Ireland firstly when he was at National School. He did not grow up in that poverty. The Costello's were what could be loosely termed, middle class.”
His environment was a politically charged one and INLA: Deadly Divisions describes his introduction to Republicanism coming about as a result of him reading an account of the arrest of Cathal Goulding in an arms raid prior to the Border Campaign. At the age of fourteen, Costello was already a staunch devotee to the tenets of militant republicanism. The IRSP website biography of Costello references his official introduction coming at the age of 15, when he applied to join Sinn Fein after acquiring a copy of the organisation’s newspaper, ‘The United Irishman’. Costello was told to ‘come back next year’, and upon doing so, entered the ranks of the IRA. Costello was catapulted into action in the Border Campaign of 1956 – 1962. The Border Campaign was an ill-fated endeavour to break the British occupation in the North through attacks on RUC barracks and other British institutions. While the campaign failed in achieving its goals and resulted in the imprisonment and deaths of many republicans, most famously Sean South and Fergal O’Hanlon, it served the vital purpose of keeping Republicanism alive and in the minds of a new generation.

Costello became known as ‘The Boy General’, when at the young age of 17, he led the attack to burn down the Court House in Magherafelt while commanding an active service unit. Costello was injured in an accident at a safe house and was shortly after arrested upon his return to Wicklow. While interned at the Curragh, he became even more politically involved and spent much of his time in reading and contemplation. Upon his release, he took up a job as a car salesman.
Costello had an infectious charisma that left a mark on all who knew him. It first began to manifest in his early days in the Border Campaign, with those he commanded describing him as ‘strict but radiating confidence’. INLA: Deadly Divisions describes his ‘Italianate good looks and charm’ standing to him well as a car salesman – he even became a salesman of the year. Mary McClure when describing his magnetism said,

“His dreams became my dreams. His visions became mine. He was my inspiration.”

the-life-and-beliefs-of-an-irish-working-class-patriot-seamus-costello-1939-1977

Seamus Costello's Charismatic Characteristics

Costello had a profound effect on everyone he met, bringing people to action and inspiring them to strive for the future. These characteristics would serve him well in building a political movement in his home town of Bray, where he was a local councillor for many years and where he gathered a strong republican presence around him.
In Costello’s personality, there was also a strict, authoritative strain. In the words of Mary McClure,

“He expected the highest standards from his comrades and his friends and if any of us deviated from those then it was a lambasting from the man himself.”

Costello was not willing to tolerate a fool and looked for total dedication from his friends and comrades.
Throughout the ’60s, as well as giving the speech at Bodenstown in 1966, Costello consolidated his political position in Bray and his political ideas came to full fruition. He once rounded up all the homeless in Bray and took them to the Bray council like a flying column and demanded their rights. It was these kinds of grassroots guerrilla actions that endeared him to the people of his home town. The core kernel of Costello’s ideology can be found in his speech at Bodenstown:

“The lesson of history shows that in the final analysis, the robber baron must be disestablished by the same methods that he used to enrich himself and retain his ill-gotten gains, namely force of arms.”

This principle would be challenged in the times to come.
In 1969, the Troubles exploded into the international consciousness. With Sinn Fein becoming more left-wing and electoral, the more traditional right-wing Catholic elements within began to chaff. The new ideology posited by the Goulding-Garland leadership advocated the liberation of the north of Ireland from British occupation through the unity of working-class Protestants and Catholics against the British bourgeoisie, who sought to conquer by dividing.

The final straw came when Sinn Fein voted in an overwhelming majority to end abstention – the process by which Republicans refused to take electoral seats or recognise the southern government. A contingency of members, derided as ‘The rosary bead brigade’, walked out and would form the provisional IRA. Costello as a committed Marxist and non-sectarian remained in the fold of the Official IRA. However, fault lines would soon appear. The Battle of the Bogside raged and the boots of British soldiers hit the streets of Ulster’s cities.
Costello had a good rapport with the Northern elements, and the struggle was carried on by community heroes like Joe McCann. However, following McCann’s death in 1972 and a series of incidents resulting in bad publicity for the Official IRA, the Cathal-Goulding leadership saw an opportunity to enact their plan of a transformation to solely political struggle and put forward a temporary ceasefire which would prove permanent. A feud raged between the Provisionals and the Officials, now colloquially referred to as ‘The Stickies’. The Official IRA was now finding it was only receiving weapons and ammunitions for inter-Republican strife, and the more militant Northerners felt abandoned by the Goulding leadership and Dublin and became increasingly disillusioned.

Many Official IRA members felt that they were in effect leaving the armed struggle to the Provisionals, who didn’t have the responsibility or democratic working-class political ideology to carry out the war effectively. Meanwhile, in the South, Costello was attempting to win over the Army Council but was becoming increasingly marginalized. Goulding sought to oust Costello. A document was drawn up and Costello was accused of various indiscretions, and wasn’t given the opportunity to defend himself,

“For the first time, many of the rank and file members began to question the direction in which the movement was being led.”

In 1974, the Ard Comhairle suspended Costello as a member for 6 months and refused to allow him to stand for election in Bray. Despite this, Costello proceeded in standing after a swell of support from across the country emerged. An extraordinary Ard Fheis was called for, to allow Costello to make his case and contest the accusations of factionalism against him. Costello went on to top the poll in Wicklow as a local election candidate. Around this time, Costello was also court-martialled by the Official IRA and was refused the opportunity to provide evidence in his defence. He was dismissed ‘in ignominy’. During this dark period of internal struggle, Costello began to consider the dreaded option of a split and a new organisation. He began to perform raids in the collection of guns and to organize meetings of like-minded militants. Eventually, the Ard Fheis came, and Costello was expelled from the organization – many of his supporters are denied entry to the meeting and were not allowed to vote.

As a result, the Irish Republican Socialist Party was founded by Costello, who wished to intertwine the national question and the class struggle. Mass defection from Official Sinn Fein followed. The party was also joined by the now-famous Bernadette McAliskey, who further cemented the political reputation of the group. The new party was immediately attacked by the Official IRA, resulting in the deaths of three IRSP members. Sean Garland, an Official Sinn Fein leader, was badly wounded in retaliation. The Irish National Liberation Army, still in its infancy, could do little to defend itself. Bernadette McAliskey would later resign and leave the party, talking half the Ard Chomhairle with her over the refusal to subordinate the INLA to the IRSP’s political directives.

Co-Founder of the Irish Republican Socialist Movement

the-life-and-beliefs-of-an-irish-working-class-patriot-seamus-costello-1939-1977

Seamus Costello Viewed The National and Class Struggle as Inseparable

Seamus Costello was a devoted Marxist. He fought tirelessly for Dublin’s poor, for Bray’s poor, for the masses of people all over Ireland who were reduced to poverty by a state which should have provided for them and who had no voice to stand up for them. It was thus the loss of Ireland’s working people when on a sad day in October 1977, Costello was shot dead by a bandit in his car in the North Strand Road, Dublin. His murderer, Official IRA member Jim Flynn, was said to have acted on his own, having seen Costello many times parked in the street, reading a newspaper. Jim Flynn would later fatally meet justice only a few metres from where Costello had died, in 1982.

At the time of his death, Costello had been trying to negotiate a broad front between Provisional Sinn Fein, the Communist Party of Ireland and the Irish Republican Socialist Party. His funeral was attended by Ruadhri O’Bradaigh, Michael O’Riordan and many other giants of Irish politics. His oration was given by Nora Connolly O’Brien, daughter of James Connolly, who stated,

“Of all the politicians and political people with whom I have had conversations, and whom I have had conversations, and who called themselves followers of Connolly, he was the only one who truly understood what James Connolly meant when he spoke of his vision of the freedom of the Irish people."


The Irish Republican Socialist Party

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Liam A Ryan

Related Articles