Augustine E. Costello was born in Killimor, Co. Galway in 1846. Little is known of his early childhood years, which were lived during the Great Hunger (1845-1850). The Great Hunger took its toll on the parish of Killimor as it did elsewhere throughout Ireland. In the 1841 census, the population of Galway was 442,000. In the 1851 census, the population was 322,000, a decrease of 27% primarily due to death by starvation and associated diseases, and the exodus out of Ireland, the isle of fear and death. For the following forty years the exodus continued due to continuing sporadic food shortages, landlordism, evictions and other repressive colonial policies, which further reduced the population by an additional 22% to 215,000 according to the 1891 census.
Some time after finishing school, Augustine left Killimor and went to work on the railroad at Kells in Co. Meath. At that time the building of the railway network throughout Ireland was at its peak, and Augustine would have been one of many young men saving up to pay for passage to America.
Arrival in America
Some accounts indicate that Augustine was an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War. That is doubtful as the Civil War ended in early 1865 when Augustine was 19 years old. It’s also highly unlikely that a newly arrived immigrant with no qualifications or military experience would fill such a role in a regular army. However, it’s possible the rank alluded to was one he held in the Fenian Army.
It is not known exactly when Costello immigrated to the United States. In his speech from the dock in 1867 he was unwilling to reveal the date or circumstances surrounding his departure from Ireland.
One may speculate that Costello was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) before he left Ireland. The IRB, whose aim was to establish an independent democratic Irish Republic, was founded in 1858, along with its American counterpart, the Fenian Brotherhood.
The Voyage of Erin’s Hope
In an incredible example of “diaspora nationalism”, on April 12, 1867, about 50 Fenians, many of whom were US Civil War veterans, boarded the Jackmel, a 200-ton brigantine-type vessel docked at Sandy Hook in New Jersey. The commander of the expedition was a former U.S. Army officer who assumed the name ‘John F. Cavanagh’ to hide his identity and further allay any suspicion as to the true nature of the Jackmel‘s destination. James Kerrigan was in command of the Fenians. William J. Nagle and John Warren were his assistants. Costello was one of the eight other officers on board.
Ostensibly the Jackmel was a merchant ship destined for Cuba, but after a day sailing southwards, the Jackmel changed course for Ireland. After nine days sailing the men aboard hoisted a Fenian flag and renamed the vessel Erin’s Hope. Arms and ammunition were hidden in piano cases, sewing machine cases, and wine barrels. One cannot begin to imagine what travelling 3,000 miles at sea was like for these men in the 1860s, let alone with their intended goal of joining an uprising upon arrival.
On May 10th, Erin’s Hope arrived in Sligo Bay and for the following six days sailed from Sligo Bay to Donegal Bay sending unanswered signals to the shore. When questioned by Captain Cavanagh, local fishermen were not aware of a Fenian Rising.
While traversing the Sligo coastline a suspect crew member, Daniel Buckley, discharged a weapon injuring several men. It turned out that Buckley was a British informer who testified against his former comrades. After two weeks of sailing off the Sligo coastline, Captain Cavanagh received Richard O’Sullivan Burke on board who informed him that the insurrection was in disarray and ordered him to proceed to Skibbereen in Co. Cork where Captain Lomasney was still active. (Note: Lomasney was a Civil War veteran, born in Ohio to Irish immigrants, who later died in 1884 while attempting to blow up London Bridge.)
Erin’s Hope arrived offshore near Skibbereen on May 27th. For the following three days they attempted to contact onshore Fenians, to no avail. Captain Cavanagh decided to send John Warren ashore to ascertain the situation and to replenish provisions that were running low. Before he could act, two coastguard vessels appeared on the scene forcing him to hold off. The following day they tried again but was forced to sail eastwards due to heavy winds.
Early on Saturday, June 1st, Erin’s Hope arrived off Helvic Head at the mouth of Dungarvan Bay where they sighted a fishing boat. Captain Cavanagh asked the skipper, Paud O’Faolain, to take some men ashore. O’Faolain proceeded to bring 32 men to shore and dropped them on the beach near Ballinagoul Pier, where they were spotted by the coastguard who alerted the police stations in and around Dungarvan. All the men, except four who escaped the police dragnet, were arrested and held in Waterford Jail pending trial. After some time in Waterford Jail they were transported to Kilmainham Jail in Dublin.
The Trials and Convictions of Costello and Warren
Following their arrest, the Fenians were charged with having come into the country under suspicious circumstances. Some weeks later on June 10th Thomas Talbot, head constable of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and J. J. Corydon, the notorious Fenian informer, visited the jail where they identified 20 of the prisoners as Fenians. Shortly afterwards the prisoners were transferred to Kilmainham Jail in Dublin to await trial. Following their incarceration in Kilmainham one of the prisoners, William F. Milton, divulged incriminating information on Erin’s Hope‘s signaling system. On returning to the United States Milton was shot dead by the son of prominent Young Islander Michael Doheny. Talbot was killed in 1871 by Fenian Robert Kelly.
While awaiting trial, Costello, Warren and Nagle, the third leader to stand trial, had letters smuggled out of prison critical of the U.S. government for not adequately representing their rights as U.S. citizens. Their letters were published in newspapers in Ireland, England and the United States, causing embarrassment and strained relations between the British and U.S. governments. During their ensuing trials both Warren and Costello contended that they were U.S. citizens who, having committed no crime in Ireland, were illegally detained and put on trial by the British authorities. The British dismissed their claims, contending that they were British subjects by virtue of having been born in Ireland, and therefore were subject to the common law principle of “perpetual allegiance” to the crown.
Despite their letters and the strained relations between the U.S. and British governments, Costello was sentenced to 12 years’ penal servitude and Warren to 15 years, both found guilty of treason-felony. The third leader of the group, William Nagle, a natural-born citizen of the United States, insisted his case be heard before a jury de medietate linguae, a jury pool of half aliens and half citizens or subjects, and was released and sent home after the government failed to produce such a jury.
Expatriation and Perpetual Allegiance
While Costello and Warren were imprisoned at Chatham Prison in Kent, England, their fellow Fenian prisoner O’Donovan Rossa commented that the Yankee prisoners were “the most inclined of the Fenian prisoners to kick against rules and regulations”.
Hastened by the publicity resulting from Warren’s and Costello’s trial and the criticism of the U.S. government’s inability to affect the outcome, the U.S. government codified the rights of naturalized citizens in the Expatriation Act of 1868. After unremitting diplomatic pressure by the U.S. government, the British relented, releasing Warren and Costello in March and April of 1869 respectively, and abandoning the idea of perpetual allegiance.
Before returning to the United States in 1869, Costello returned to his hometown in Galway where he got a hero’s welcome. Like many of the other Fenians who were imprisoned and subjected to cruel and demeaning treatment, he remained defiant and determined to remain engaged in the struggle for an Irish Republic. In a demonstration of that determination he declared before a welcoming home gathering in Ballinasloe, “As long as I have breath, I will conspire and plot to overthrow the British Government.”
Both Costello and Warren left for the United States on April 30, 1869. On the eve of their departure, Daniel O’Sullivan, the Mayor of Cork, held a banquet dubbed ‘the Warren and Costello Banquet’ to acknowledge their sacrifice and courage on behalf of Irish freedom and to celebrate their release.
Back in the United States
In early May, shortly after arriving back in the United States, Costello and Warren were accorded a public reception in New York City that was presided over by the state governor, Governor Hoffman — not the type of welcome envisioned by the British imperialists to its ‘wayward’ subjects.
Costello’s writing skills led him to becoming a formidable journalist for the New York Herald, and also a well-known author, having written several books to raise money for police and firefighter’s retirement funds. His works included Our Police Protectors, Birth of the Bravest, and numerous Histories of Fire and Police Departments including Paterson NJ, New Haven CT, Jersey City NJ and Minneapolis MN.
True to his vow in Ballinasloe, Costello did continue to engage in that struggle for the remainder of his life. As one of the Fenian political prisoners who lived in New York and who had survived the brutal British prison system, Costello was a highly sought-after speaker by Irish-American organizations at commemorations, fundraising and various political and cultural events.
Augustine E. Costello passed away on November 13, 1909. He was survived by his wife and three daughters. He is buried in Old Saint Raymond’s Cemeteryin the Bronx, New York.
Contributed by Tomás Ó Coisdealbha. This article first appeared unabridged on FenianGraves.net