Army man, prolific chronicler

Lieut Col Con Costello: Lieut Col Con Costello, who has died after a short illness aged 77 years, was a retired Army officer…

Lieut Col Con Costello: Lieut Col Con Costello, who has died after a short illness aged 77 years, was a retired Army officer, a celebrated author and historian, a recent member of the Heritage Council, a past president and editor of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, and chairman of Kildare County Council's historic monuments committee.

He researched and wrote more than 1,000 newspaper articles on Kildare history for the Leinster Leader, while his 12 books included volumes on early Irish connections in the Middle East and Australia.

The son of William Costello, a publican and shopkeeper on Main Street, Castleisland, Co Kerry, and Maryanne Brosnan, Con Costello was born on September 6th, 1929. His mother died when when he was just 11, so he, his brothers, Denis and John, and sister Mary were brought up by his father.

Following his education at Castleisland, and later Good Counsel at New Ross, Con enlisted in the Army cadets in May 1949. In that year, a second class of cadets was called following a change in government, and great strength of character was required to survive the uniquely arduous regime that ensued in the cadet school.


He was commissioned in May 1951 and posted to the Curragh camp where he served in the general training depot and Third Infantry Battalion.

In September 1956, he was transferred to the newly established Army Apprentice School in Naas, where he was the first officer to command the first class of apprentices. One of his duties there was to commission a Christmas card, through which he met Maeve Fitzsimons, an artist. They married in June 1959. They built their home, Tullig (named after his mother's house and townland in Kerry), on the Dublin Road in Naas, and had four children.

His first overseas posting was in May 1963, for two years in the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organisation, where he served in Syria and Israel as a military observer, and later as operations office at the organisation's headquarters in Government House in Jerusalem.

His interest in early Irish connections in the Middle East led to further short visits and his first book, Ireland and the Holy Land: Irish Links with the Levant from the Earliest Times (1974). In 1976, Con was honoured by being invested as a Knight of Malta, and in 1978 published his second book, In Quest of an Heir about a Cork bishop who led a remarkable life.

A promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1981 preceded a second period in the Middle East, this time as camp commandant with Unifil headquarters at Naquora, Lebanon, until May 1982. On returning to Ireland, Con rejoined the staff at Army HQ in the quartermaster general's branch, and later, moved to military intelligence.

Con became editor of the army journal An Cosantóir when it was at a low ebb and rejuvenated it. Any spare time was spent on research and writing. His next publication was The O'Connell Memorial Church, Caherciveen (1984), about a church that had been built by his grand-uncle, Canon Brosnan. This was followed by Botany Bay: the story of convicts transported from Ireland to Australia (1987), and led to a lecture tour in Australia on the subject.

After he retired from the Army in June 1988, he concentrated on his pursuit of history through several channels, producing works of distinction which gained him an esteemed reputation.

Through Looking Back, his weekly feature on Kildare history which was first published in the Leinster Leader in 1982, Con became a household name, in turn inspiring others to develop an interest in the past. The series, a valued source for local historians, has comprised more than 1,250 articles. His interest in family history, talking to people wherever he went and establishing all sorts of connections was evident in the wide variety of subject matter covered.

Having joined the Co Kildare Archaeological Society in 1960, Con became editor of its journal almost immediately and remained in that role until 1985. He was elected president of the society in 1994, serving his five years with enthusiasm and distinction, while being a source of encouragement to the younger generation of local historians and archaeologists. In 2002, the society awarded him its Lord Walter FitzGerald Prize for Research.

Con was passionate about the Curragh and appreciated it for its natural interest and conservation value as well as its unique cultural and socio-economic history. After his retirement, it became the subject of his Ph.D.

The resulting book, A Most Delightful Station: the British army in the Curragh of Kildare (1996), is regarded as one of the few significant publications on the history of soldiering in Ireland.

His many other publications include Looking Back: Aspects of History, County Kildare (1988); Guide to County Kildare and West Wicklow (1991); Kildare - Saints, Soldiers and Horses (1991); Peerless Punchestown: 150 years of glorious tradition (2000) written in co-operation with racing writer the late Raymond Smith; Faith of Fatherhood: Bishop Dunboyne's Dilemma (2000); Kildare: Visions of Cill Dara (2005), for which Con wrote the text and Rosemary Burns produced the painting, and A Class Apart: The Gentry Families of County Kildare (2005).

Con's knowledge and expertise led, over the years, to the protection and preservation of many important features of the county's heritage. He was also a long-time member of the Castletown Foundation and the Kildare cathedral restoration committee.

In 2000, he he was appointed to the Heritage Council. He found this very interesting, and served with great energy and enthusiasm until his term was completed in 2005.

Con loved to visit places of historic and cultural interest around the world.

In his youth he travelled extensively across Europe. In 1965 at the end of his tour of duty, he sent the two children back to Ireland by plane and he and Maeve drove home from Damascus via Turkey and the Balkans.

In 1994, he travelled overland through a disintegrating Soviet Union, taking the train from London to Moscow and on through Central Asia, China and along the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan and India. He visited his daughter when she was in Zimbabwe, and recently visited China and his son's family in New Zealand.

Always remembering friends, postcards would eventually find their way home from the most unexpected and remotest of places.

He had a great love for his family, his cottage in west Wicklow, his dogs and walking. His love of nature's landscapes, wildflowers, birds and other wildlife led to many long walks, especially around Wicklow and Kildare.

Visitors to Con's study at home in Naas grew accustomed to talking with him, coffee in hand, accompanied by and in competition with Mahler or Puccini, or an evening concert on Lyric FM, ever-present in the background.

Con spent his life studying and documenting family histories, from his own family tree to the people of Kildare and Wicklow, and early Irish connections in the Middle East and Australia.

He helped conserve Ireland's history by bringing it to public attention through his publications and committee work. This remarkable legacy also endures through his own family.

He is survived by his wife Maeve, sons Mark, Denis and Con, daughter Sheila, brother Denis, and grandchildren Áine, Joshua, Ossian and Liam, many nephews, nieces, cousins and friends, as well as those from the wider world who had the great privilege to know and be associated with this exceptional man.

Lt Col Con Costello: born September 6th, 1929; died October 6th, 2006