Seamus Costello



Seamus Costello (Seamus Mac Coisdealbha) was a leader of Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army, and sided with the Officials in the split of 1969, before becoming a founding member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

He argued for a combination of socialist politics on economic issues and traditional physical force Irish republicanism. He was shot dead on 5 October 1977, 41 years ago this week, the apparent victim of an internal INLA feud. A biography and a tribute by Bernadette McAliskey.


Seamus Costello was born in Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland in 1939, the eldest of nine children.

His interest in politics began in his early teens. At the age of sixteen he joined Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army. Within a year he was commanding an Active Service Unit of the IRA in South Derry, where his leadership skills earned him the nickname of “The Boy General”. His unit carried out many successful operations, including the destruction of bridges and the burning of a British courthouse.

He was arrested in Glencree, County Wicklow in 1957 and sentenced to six months in Mountjoy Prison. On his release he was immediately interned in the Curragh prison camp for two years.

He spent his time in prison studying, becoming particularly inspired by his studies of the Vietnamese struggle. He became a member of the escape committee which engineered the successful escapes of Ruairi O’Bradaigh and Daithi O’Connell among others. Costello would later refer to this time as his “university days.”

After his release from the Curragh, Costello worked to rebuild the Republican Movement, beginning by building a local base of support in County Wicklow as Sinn Fein’s local organiser. He helped form a strong

Tenants Association in Bray, and also became involved with the Credit Union movement, farmers’ organisations, and trade unions. He stood for election to the Bray Urban District Council and the Wicklow County Council in 1967 and successfully won election to both seats.

During this period, he found time to marry a Tipperary woman, Maeliosa, who also became active in the Republican Movement.

As both a trade unionist (in the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union) and an elected representative, he never wavered from advocating the necessity of a socialist revolution carried out by the working class itself - nor did he waver from his belief that the class struggle and the national liberation struggle are necessarily intertwined in colonised and/or occupied nations such as Ireland.

During the split of the Republican Movement into Official and Provisional factions in 1969, Costello remained with the Officials, serving as Official Sinn Fein’s Vice-President and the Official IRA’s Director of Operations.

As the Officials began their slide into reformist politics, Costello’s principled opposition led to his being dismissed from the OIRA and suspended from OSF. His dismissal from OSF came in 1974 after the OSF leadership undemocratically blocked his supporters from attending the party convention.

At a meeting in the Lucan Spa, a hotel near Dublin, on 8 December 1974, the Irish Republican Socialist Party was formed by republicans, socialists, and trade unionists with Costello as the Chairperson.

At a secret meeting later the same day, the Irish National Liberation Army was formed with Costello as the Chief of Staff, although its existence was to be kept hidden for a time.

Within days of its founding, the fledgling Irish Republican Socialist Movement was to begin a baptism of fire at the hands of the OIRA. Members of the IRSM would be attacked and even killed. Before a truce was reached, three members of the young movement were dead.

Despite the truce, Costello was shot and killed by a member of the OIRA in Dublin on 5 October 1977.

At the time of his death, he was a member of the following bodies: Wicklow County Council, County Wicklow Committee of Agriculture, General Council of Committees of Agriculture, Eastern Regional Development Organisation, National Museum Development Committee, Bray Urban District Council, Bray Branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, Bray and District Trade Unions Council (of which he was president 1976-77), and the Cualann Historical Society, as well as still holding the positions of Chairperson of the IRSP and Chief of Staff of the INLA.

At his funeral, Nora Connolly O’Brien (daughter of James Connolly) said Costello “was the only one who truly understood what James Connolly meant when he spoke of his vision of the freedom of the Irish people.”


First Allegiance - A Socialist Republic

By Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

My personal acquaintance and friendship with Seamus Costello began in 1973. Before then I knew him only, as most people in Ireland, by reputation.

On hearing of his death, I could find no words of my own to express the deep sense of loss I felt, both personally and as a revolutionary socialist committed to the struggle for Irish freedom. I took therefore the words of a fellow revolutionary on the death of Malcolm X, the black revolutionary champion of black liberation and socialism in the U.S.A.: “Without him, we feel suddenly vulnerable, small and weak, somewhat frightened, not by the prospect of death, but of life and struggle without his contribution, his strength and inspiration.”

There is no doubt that the struggle continues and its victory or defeat is not measured solely by the number or quality of our fallen comrades individually. Yet it is equally true that in every generation of struggle the combination of circumstances, history and the nature of the struggle itself, produces from the ranks of its rebels a few, and a very few individuals who, notwithstanding the fundamental principles of organisation, political correctness and practical ability, common to many, rise head and shoulders above the rest, with a potential for leadership, far beyond the ranks of the already committed. Such a comrade was Seamus Costello.

Brutally murdered by petty, small-minded men of no vision whose only place in history is to serve as a warning to others how revolutionaries gone wrong can degenerate into worse than nothingness, Seamus Costello, for all that he was and did in his lifetime, was only at the beginning of his potential contribution to the achievement of national liberation and socialism in this generation. That is not to say that Seamus was above making mistakes or that he was always politically correct. There were many questions on which I disagreed with him, and which I considered crucial to the development of the struggle. These remain unresolved.

Nonetheless, in leaving the Official Republican Movement and taking the initiative of forming the IRSP, Seamus Costello proved his ability in practice - once convinced that the approach of the organisation to which he belonged was wrong and could not be altered from within - to take on the daunting, but necessary task of building an organisation capable and willing to carry the struggle forward. The fact that he was capable of it underlined his key position in the struggle, and his recognition of the need to forge a revolutionary force in Ireland from the unification of the republican and labour movements.

If I did not accept his arguments on how it could be done, I remained confident that he, again, if he found himself mistaken, would move further in his political analysis to another approach. He did not live to see the test of theory in practice.

Much is said of his single mindedness, his ruthlessness and organisational ability. At his hardest, Seamus Costello was never hateful, nor was there a fibre of his being that was petty or personally malicious, and despite the slanders of his enemies, he was neither politically nor religiously sectarian.

He owed his first allegiance to an ideal - a 32 county socialist republic. His enemies he defined only as those who consciously strove to suffocate, distort or deny _expression to that goal, and prevent its achievement. As an orator, he was brilliant and inspiring. In debate, he was uncompromising, skilled and learned. As an organiser, he was efficient and did not easily tolerate idleness or half-hearted effort.

Yet in my mind’s eye, when I think of him, I see him laughing. A sense of humour, the ability to laugh at oneself, and the predicament in which we find ourselves, is sadly too rare a quality among revolutionaries. Seamus possessed it in good measure.

His single greatest attribute was, however, his ability to relate to the mass of the people. His potential as a leader of mass struggle is not easily replaced. He could inspire not only the dream but the confidence of its achievement, and the commitment to work towards that end.

From the ranks of mass struggle, others will come. From the experience of struggle, the political programme, organisation and method of struggle will come. But another Seamus Costello may never come again. When our freedom has been won, let us guard it well, remembering it was paid for in the blood and the lives of those now dead, but whose memory lives forever in the hearts of us who loved them for all that they were and all they might have been, had they been allowed to live.

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