Eamonn Mac Thomais
IT WAS IN THE early fifties that Seamus came along to me at the Easter commemoration concert in the Gaiety Theatre and he asked to join the IRA. I asked him how old he was, he said he was fifteen. So I said, look son, you are too young. Join the Fianna. No, he says, I want to join the IRA. Well, I said, come back in a year's time and we'll see what we can do for you. So I thought that was the end of him, but lo and behold a year passed by and the next Easter commemoration concert in the Gaiety he walked up and looked at me straight in the eye and says "Do you remember me?" I said I did all right. "Well", he says "I'm sixteen now and I want to join the IRA". He was a very striking looking young fellow. Jet black hair, very good looking, inclined to be thin and lanky at that time. Unusual from the ordinary run-of-the-mill fellows that joined the IRA. Most lads who joined the IRA were 19, 20, 25 or even 30 years of age, so a sixteen-year-old was something of a seven-day wonder. However, he did his twelve weeks course on the recruit staff of the IRA and was transferred into a unit and was fairly active in it.
Several months later we organised a weekend camp on the mountains and the Special Branch looked as if they were moving in, so we decided to get all the stuff away. Someone said we had a van. Now, motor transport was very hard to come by at that time and the fact that we had a van was another seven-day wonder. I said O.K., where's the driver? Who walked up but Seamus. Seamus was not only the driver but it was his van. It was used by his family to deliver the milk in Bray and deliver guns on weekends. So from that day on, Seamus was always in on the organising of the parades and meetings, and getting the stuff to and from places.
The time Joe Doyle was in jail in England, Mrs. Doyle sent for me and told me there was a man in Bray - she didn't know who he was - who was collecting a lot of money for the Cumainn Comhaire and was spending this money in the pub. He was boasting in the pub that he was drinking IRA money. So I decided to get someone to find out all about him, and Seamus Costello was given the job. Within about a week he had a report for me - exactly who the man was. He was a bus driver in Donnybrook, he had the number of the bus he drove and the time he left Donnybrook garage every night. So we picked him up and, well, I suppose the rest of the story is history. But the Cummainn Comhaire got back their money. Mrs. Doyle was very pleased and so was everyone in Bray.
This had a great boost for the movement in Bray from the point of recruiting. A number of people came forward. It added a great prestige to the movement, and I think looking back on the issue, it was wonderful how Seamus was able to organise the whole finding out, exactly who he was, and not only that but the exact moment we could pick him upon the road.
He was a very determined person, great ability to organise, totally dedicated. That was the thing about everybody in those years. It was seven days a week, and 24 hours a day. I think someone put it in a nutshell when he said that you were an IRA man even when you were asleep in bed. And Seamus was one of those.
He moved from the Army into Sinn Féin circles and became very active in Sinn Féin in Bray. This was long before he came up to the Ard Comhairle of Sinn Féin and standing for elections. He was always in the two organisations, which again was unusual. Most people were either in Sinn Féin or in the IRA but Seamus was in both. In the 1956 campaign he was involved in the preparation. The idea was to build in a supply of arms for easy availability to the columns. In this, like in all his work, he was meticulous, every detail checked and nothing left to chance.
He was arrested and interned in the Curragh. Here as ever he was extremely active. He wasn't in jail at all - he was in a university. He organised classes and gave lectures. When he wasn't engaged politically, he was helping to dig the tunnel. I didn't take part in any of this activity. I used to lie on the bed and read. He was always 'on' to me about the Legion of Mary. He'd come and sit on my bed, begging to be told stories of the Rising and other bits of history.
For a long time I would take no notice. I would go on reading until eventually I'd get so annoyed, I'd tell him to so-and-so off with himself. Now, he'd say, do you hear the Legion swearing, and he'd fall all over the bed laughing. He never tired; he had boundless energy - always active.
In the 1967 local authority elections he stood as a Sinn Féin candidate both for Wicklow County Council and for Bray Urban District Council. One Sunday morning I spoke at seven after-Mass meetings all over the county. We came back through Bray and there was Seamus on a platform holding forth. He asked me to speak. At this stage my voice was only a whisper and I told him it just wasn't any use me speaking as no one could hear me. Ah, well, he says, I'll tell you what you'll do. Here is a page of the register, you can do a bit of canvassing. This was typical of the man. He spared no one, not least himself. The movement was what mattered, nothing nor nobody else.
In the early sixties Seamus had risen very high up through the ranks, and was in the leadership capacity. He became very popular and had a large following. He was very highly regarded. He was a very forceful speaker, very determined. He was a socialist to his fingertips, and all the work in the sixties in connection with the workers and in the Arigna mines, the ground rents, the evictions, the housing action committees, Seamus was involved in all this.
He stepped out into military circles, into leadership. At the 1966 Easter commemoration parade from St. Stephen's Green to Glasnevin he was Chief Marshall. There were thousands of police - the spectators were outnumbered by three to one and the parade was outnumbered by about ten to one. The police had told us the IRA flag must not fly. Seamus said, yes, that's O.K. We are not to fly the flag, very good, that's O.K. He got out ten or twelve of the tallest fellows to line the front and another ten or twelve to line the back, and he put the blue IRA flag in the centre, and he says: "Now here is the order - this flag is getting to Glasnevin cemetery, 1 don't care how it is getting there, but there it is getting".
It was a running battle from Suffolk Street corner to Glasnevin, but the blue flag of the IRA was carried all the way through the streets of Dublin that day. Baton charge and counter charge and counter baton charge took place. Several people were arrested, but the flag got to Glasnevin. That was the type of determination, which characterised his whole life.
Someone asked me a couple of years ago, what sort of a fellow is this Costello? The split had occurred and of course Seamus and I were in opposite camps. So I thought and I said, well I'll tell you what sort of a fellow Costello is:
'If you are living in Co. Wicklow, the finest man to represent you would be Seamus Costello, because if there was anything wrong with your tap, or your light, or the rain was coming in through the roof, Costello is the man".
He had a way of getting things done for other people. He was always in the constituency, driving around in the car. No matter how trivial it was, he was always at hand to help other people. The whole motivation of his life was doing something for the movement.
We did split. In the Intercontinental Hotel, as the split came, I got up to walk out, and as I got to the door, he caught me by the arm, and he said, "Not you Eamonn, don't go". I said, "I'm sorry Seamus, I have to go". I walked out. It was a very sad occasion, a very moving occasion - a movement split to smithereens that we had spent our whole lives trying to build - all of us thinking we were doing the right thing.
I didn't see Seamus for a long number of years after that. One day not so long ago I was going down the quays, a car shot out and nearly knocked me down. I looked and saw Seamus. He lowered the window and smiled. I said, you wouldn't knock me down. Ah no, Eamonn, he said, I wouldn't knock you down. We had a short chat. I asked him how the wife and kids were getting on, how he was doing himself. "Ah", he says "still at it, doing a bit". That was the last I saw of Seamus Costello.
(Excerpt from "Costello
A biographical and political analysis of his life and achievements:")
SEAMUS COSTELLO was born in Old Connaught Avenue, Bray, County Wicklow in 1939. He attended Ravenswell National School in Bray. In 1950, at the age of eleven, he moved with his family to Roseville on the Dublin Road in Bray. There were nine in his family, Seamus being the eldest.
His first interest in politics came when he read of the arrest of Cathal Goulding in Britain in 1953 following an arms raid on the Officers Training Corps school at Felstead in Essex. Costello subsequently "devoured" newspapers, according to his family, and at the age of 15, on one of his many visits to Croke Park, he bought a copy of the United Irishman and immediately applied to join the republican movement. However, he was told to "come back next year". Costello did and was accepted into the ranks of the IRA and Sinn Féin.
The first Sinn Féin cumann was started in Bray in the same year, comprised mostly of members of the Dun Laoghaire cumann, their activity confined to United Irishman sales. However, it wasn't long before it was being sold in every area in Co. Wicklow.
During the campaign of 1956-62 Seamus, at the age of 17, commanded an active service unit in South Derry, their most publicised actions being the destruction of bridges and the burning of Magherafelt courthouse. Those under his command described him as strict but radiating confidence. Once while resting in a safe house a grenade exploded and set off the full magazine of a Thompson machine gun. Miraculously no one was killed. Seamus took the brunt of the explosion and was knocked unconscious. He received back injuries, lost half a finger and was moved back to Dublin for treatment.
He was arrested in Glencree Co. Wicklow, in 1957 and sentenced to six months in Mountjoy. On his release he was immediately interned in the Curragh for two years. Seamus, as a prisoner was described by fellow internees as quiet, rarely joining others in playacting, preferring deep discussion and reading. He was a member of the escape committee which engineered the successful escape of Ruairi O'Bradaigh and Daithi O'Connell amongst others. He is remembered by one internee reading Vietnamese magazines and it impressed Seamus that peasants badly armed but with a deep political ideology could defeat their enemies. In later years he always referred to his days in the Curragh as "my university days." He took part in the critical analysis of the 50's campaign, agreeing that it had failed due to lack of popular involvement as distinct from popular support.
On the ending of internment in 1959 Seamus assisted in the re-organising of the Republican Movement or as he put it "the cars started flying around again."
In 1962 he took up a job as a car salesman and, indicative of his drive and strong personality had little trouble in becoming salesman of the year of his firm. He successfully fought an attempt to sack him because of his political affiliations by threatening to stay outside his firm's offices every day until he was reinstated.
Meanwhile he began to build a strong local base in Co. Wicklow. He maintained that republicans should build a strong home base and that these could then be linked up together at a future date. He also became full time political organiser for Wicklow at this period and developed a strong link with every conceivable organisation in Wicklow that dealt with the interests of the working class. He managed to involve the Bray Trades Council in the 1966 Easter commemoration and helped found a strong Tenants Association in Bray. He also became involved with the Credit Union movement and farmers' organisations. During this period (1964) he married a Tipperary woman Maoiliosa who became active in the republican movement.
In 1966 he gave the historic oration at the Wolfe Tone commemoration in Bodenstown which marked the departure to the left of the republican movement, the result of years of discussions within the movement ably assisted by Seamus.
"We believe that the large estates of absentee landlords should be acquired by compulsory acquisition and worked on a co-operative basis with the financial and technical assistance of the State. . our policy is to nationalise the key industries with the eventual aim of co-operative ownership by the workers. . . nationalisation of all banks, insurance companies, loan and investment companies..."
But Seamus always maintained not only the right to use armed force but the necessity for workers to be armed and this remained his position up to his assassination.
"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. To this end we must organise, train and maintain a disciplined armed force which will always be available to strike at the opportune moment". (Bodenstown 1966).
He pushed for Sinn Féin to contest the local election of 1967 in selected areas and he stood with Joe Doyle in Bray. Indicative of his organisational abilities is the fact that not only were Sinn Féin the only political party to canvass every house in Bray but they won two seats on Bray Urban Council, one on Wicklow Co. Council and collected more money during the election than they had actually spent during the campaign.
At council meetings Costello and Doyle always put their cumann's views in accordance with what had been decided at their meetings. A strong attempt was always made to involve the people's organisations in any controversy or local issue. Seamus headed huge deputation's of local organisations to council meetings and demanded they be heard.
He demanded the public not be barred from council meetings. So insistent was he that unsuccessful moves were made to have him removed from the council. He became involved in all local problems; housing, road repairs, water and sewerage, access to local beaches, land speculation, etc. and such national issues as ground rents, the anti-EEC campaign, anti-repression campaigns, natural resources, the national question, etc.
Meanwhile Seamus and Sinn Féin continued to build their strong links with local bodies always striving to show them their own strength while getting overall republican socialist policies across.
County Wicklow he felt was Ireland in miniature.
"It has within its borders all the problems common to a nation - small farmers trying to eke out a living on poor mountain farms; inadequate housing, and industrial workers with a depressed standard of living". (RTE election broadcast March 1968)
"........In the years since his death I have spoken to many of his former comrades who worked with him in the 50's campaign and in the subsequent reorganisation of the republican movement. Without exception, regardless of political or personal divisions, they have all said that from the beginning they felt that Seamus had leadership qualities. He had the decisiveness and clarity to understand a political situation, and, let it also be said, he had the necessary ruthlessness to carry through his ideals against all the odds. The first big decision for him came in 1959 at the age of 19 when, having spent 2 1/2 years in prison and internment camps, he declined to take the easy way out, to say that he had done his bit for Ireland and get on with living his own life. He had decided that the system was rotten and needed changing. There were no half measures. He had entered on a life-long commitment.
The state of the republican movement in 1962 with the ending of the 50's campaign was one of total disorganisation and demoralisation. Many simply drifted away to ordinary jobs or emigrated, feeling that all the years of hardship, imprisonment and slow patient work had come to nothing. The sales of the United Irishman had fallen by 80% since the high point of 1956. To people who had grown to regard the republican movement as the guardian of all that was good in the Irish political tradition, the early 60's were a disheartening time. In the South the multinationals were coming in at a big rate, attracted by tax concessions and massive grants. Fianna Fail were dropping their Republican rhetoric.
Instead of bleating about partition, Lemass began to tell the Irish people that in time the border would simply wither away. Those who talked of the republican tradition and British imperialism seemed an isolated and irrelevant fringe.
Seamus did not drift away but began to look at the problems of the republican movement in relation to the changing political situation. Their main conclusion was that the 50's campaign had failed because it had failed to gather mass support. They realised that it took political activity to get people out on to the streets, that emotional sympathy or pub republicanism are no use unless they are channeled in the right direction by political direction. Seamus and his comrades were increasingly influenced by James Connolly, because Connolly had realised that military means alone were not enough, that the armed struggle must be combined with the political and social. In 1966 he set the direction for the new left-wing turn of the republican movement at the Bodenstown commemoration:
"We believe that the large estates of absentee landlords should be acquired by compulsory acquisition and worked on a co-operative basis with the financial and technical assistance of the State... our policy is to nationalise the key industries with the eventual aim of co-operative ownership by the workers... nationalisation of all banks, insurance companies, loan and investment companies..."
The housing agitations in Dublin, Wicklow, Dun Laoghaire and Sligo, the ground rents agitations, the union struggles, all played their part in attracting new blood to the republican movement. In the years which followed, Seamus built up Wicklow Sinn Féin from scratch, starting up tenants associations in Bray, starting up agitations about land and access to beaches. But however deep his commitment to building a local organisation, however deep his commitment to fighting for the rights of the workers of Bray and Wicklow, Seamus resisted the temptation to become a parish-pump politician."....
---"Man of dedication and determination"
"In 1954, shortly before the armed campaign of the late 50's there was, as Seamus himself put it, "absolutely no republican organisation in Co. Wicklow". The first Sinn Féin cumann was started in Bray in May of 1955. It had six or seven members, most of whom had been members of the Dun Laoghaire cumann. Its only activity was the sale of the United Irishman. "Of the new members who joined at that time along with the others who came in during the 50's campaign, not one was drawn from a traditional republican background". They had no preconceived ideas about revolutionary political action.
As the northern campaign waned, the movement in Bray showed signs of disintegration. By the end of 1962 there were four or five active members, and this small group set itself the task of "putting the organisation on its feet". By the middle of 1963 "we had about a dozen very active people". (1)
Between 1963 and 1967 the republican movement underwent a radical change in outlook, policies and activities. Seamus Costello was one of those most directly responsible for that change, and Wicklow was to become a proving ground for the new radicalism.
Seamus had participated in the disastrous armed campaign of the 50's. He had joined with great enthusiasm in a military adventure, which he believed would inspire the Irish people to take up the fight once more against the British occupation of the northern six counties. But he was soon to realise that heroism and self-sacrifice were not enough. The campaign fought in the mountainous border regions did not have the desired result. People throughout Ireland were more concerned with the pressing social problems of the day, with increasing unemployment and mounting emigration.
Seamus continued to accept that the fight against the British was correct and necessary, but he now realised that it would not be won by a small though gallant band divorced from the vital social issues of the day. He now saw that there were many strands to the anti-imperialist struggle and many related links to liberation. To hold the national question as being above all other issues was to isolate oneself from the Irish people and to make defeat inevitable."
-- "Seamus - The People's Councillor"
"His ASU's most publicised actions were the destruction of bridges and the successful burning of Magherafelt Courthouse. It was during the campaign that I first met him, and although only five years older, he was already a veteran of armed struggle. Members of the ASU found him to be strict, radiating with confidence and his mild manner and sense of humour were positive aids in providing leadership. During a period of lying low in safe billets, a grenade exploded and set of the full magazine of a Thompson sub-machine gun, luckily killing no one, but knocking Seamus unconscious, and left him with back injuries. He also lost half a finger, and as a result left the action to return to a hospital in Dublin for treatment. On his release he was immediately arrested and lodged in Mountjoy as a guest of the state for six months. Once again on his release he was re-arrested and interned in the Curragh Concentration Camp where he joined the escape committee which sprang Ruairi O'Bradaigh and Daithi O'Connaill among others. In later years he was to refer to his Curragh experience as "my university days".
"At Magherafelt, County Derry, Costello's column had to settle for their secondary target, the courthouse. The caretaker and his family were moved out, the rooms saturated with a mixture of creosote, petrol, and paraffin, and the building lit. The IRA men were long gone before anyone noted the blazing courthouse."
- J Bowyer Bell, "The Secret Army," pg 289
The column had 9 men, according to John Maguire. The courthouse is now rebuilt as a tourist attraction.
(All quotes except the last from the irsp.ie website. Photos from GB)