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Response to a Review

To the editors of Dublin Review of Books

I read Breandán Mac Suibhne’s essay on Augustine Costello (issue 110, April 2019), which incorporated a review of my book, Under the Starry Flag, with great interest. Costello, as Mac Suibhne conveys so well, was a fascinating historical figure, his participation in the Fenian Erin’s Hope expedition in 1867 one of his many exploits. Along with John Warren, one of the commanders of the expedition, Costello stood trial for treason felony at Green Street Courthouse – not once, but twice, as his first trial ended in a hung jury. The guilty verdict in the second trial did not come easily, the juror John Walker saying “I believe I can say with perfect confidence that the jury never joined in recording a verdict with more sincere sorrow.” Costello was a captivating man, as I learned in doing copious research on his life and trial. Why, then, Mac Suibhne asks, did I leave Costello’s story largely out of my book?

It’s a fair question. Historians always have to make choices, about which characters and details to emphasize, in crafting their narratives. In the first draft of the book – which ran twice as long as the final product – Mac Suibhne would have found much more about Costello, including a lengthy discussion of his trial. Yet much (not all!) of that was cut to bring the manuscript to a reasonable length. Like the juror in Costello’s trial, I made the editing decisions with “sincere sorrow,” and it may be that some injustice was done to Costello and his role in Erin’s Hope.

Still, I do not believe I committed a “sin” of omission, for I thought long and hard about whether abridging Costello’s story affected the ultimate goal of the book – analyzing the history of expatriation and the international politics of citizenship. I concluded that Costello added to the story but did not alter it. John Warren, also convicted of treason, remained the main historical actor, along with William Nagle, for good reason. Warren held higher office on Erin’s Hope, and in the Fenian Brotherhood; his trial most directly challenged the British doctrine of “once a subject, always a subject”; and Warren’s speeches and letters, reprinted in newspapers and the Congressional Record, helped spark a political rebellion among the foreign-born in the United States.

There’s always more to tell in a story. I’m currently creating a website as a companion to the book, providing access to material and stories I was unable to include in the book – including information about Augustine Costello and the transcripts from his trial. There is undoubtedly a fascinating history of Costello waiting to be written, perhaps by Professor Mac Suibhne, who has already made such a good start with his essay.

Lucy E Salyer
University of New Hampshire
April 24th, 2019