Suffering “burnout”, a long-term battle with “depression”, and being told by Gardaí of a credible threat to his life has convinced Sinn Féin Limerick councillor John Costelloe to step away from politics for good.
Co-opted onto the council after Maurice Quinlivan was elected to the Dáil in 2016, Cllr Costelloe retained the party’s local seat in 2019, which he will officially resign on March 28th.
The separated father of four revealed he has suffered with crippling anxiety and depression for years, leaving him on the brink of suicide last January.
It’s time to move on. I've tried my utmost to improve the lives of others. Thank you so much for all your support. I will always fight for what is right. It has been a privilege to represent the people of Limerick City North. https://t.co/Gfb0Un7PDjAdvertisement
— Cllr John Costelloe (@costelloe_john) March 3, 2022
An ongoing threat to his life from a local drug gang after he highlighted their illegal activities also played a part in his decision to resign his seat.
Cllr Costelloe, who was a member of the IRA, said: “Enough is enough, I gave it my all for the last six years, but I will not be going back into politics.
"The first week of January was the worst, it was black. I wasn’t sleeping, I was getting severe headaches, nosebleeds, anxiety - it was awful.”
Speaking about his own personal battles to highlight the mental health crisis, he said he should have sought help sooner, but made matters worse by ignoring it.
"I didn't go to see my GP because I felt embarrassed by it, my mental attitude was very poor, and it still is."
The frantic pace of local politics provided some welcome distraction, he said, however his busy workload left him “burnt out”.
“The rot was setting in about three years ago. I went to a psychological counsellor and I broke down, it was all just piling up upon me, and again I ignored it, and I know now I shouldn’t have.”
Cllr Costelloe (57) said he has “no regrets” leaving politics, adding that he is looking forward to “spending more time” with loved ones.
He plans to reopen a family business premises on Nicholas Street in Limerick city, restoring and trading in antique furniture.
However, he said more needs to be done to protect politicians' mental health.
Working closely with people who would often be at their lowest ebb often triggered his own feelings of anxiety and depression, “and left an indelible effect on me,” he said.
“There is no psychological training for local politicians, you are thrown in at the deep end. Some councillors might be used to dealing with wandering heifers, but I was dealing with missing people, housing, drugs, and I am not trained for that - we are councillors not counsellors.”
Intimidation against him by a local drug gang in St Mary’s Park in Limerick is “still going on” and is so bad he “can’t pass” a certain part of the estate “as the edginess is still down there, the threat is live”.
Local Gardaí advised him their “superiors in Dublin” had advised that he “pull back” and allow officers to tackle the ongoing drugs problem.
“I brought it thus far, I can’t bring it any further, there’s no point in being a dead politician, I want to be a live person, it’s up to the authorities to act on it. Yes, you take a live threat seriously, and when you are told to step back you have to step back.”
“I did my best; I raised the issues, I don’t regret it at all,” he added.
In 1998, Cllr Costelloe received a three-year suspended sentence after admitting before the Special Criminal Court to being a member of the IRA on July 23rd, 1996.
The court heard that during Garda interviews following his arrest, he admitted being “a foot soldier” in the republican movement.
Speaking for the first time about his conviction, he said he remains “proud” of his republican roots, adding that after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, he supported a non-violent path to peace.
This was, he said, despite his staunchly republican parents backing an “anti-ceasefire” route to a united Ireland.
“My parents were deeply republican - my mother’s family were burnt out in the 1920s during a loyalist pogrom. My father, who worked in the cement factory in 1962, sold old republican newspapers to collect money for (IRA) prisoners in Ireland, England and America.”
Gardaí started to follow, stop and search Cllr Costelloe in his mid-teens: “I remember our house being raided serval times and being stopped constantly.”
The irony of later sitting on the council’s joint policing committee - alongside a Garda who had years earlier detained him during a raid on his house years earlier - was not lost on him: “It’s funny how the wheel turns. It was a different time then, and to find myself, 30 years later, sitting alongside the same Garda, was very surreal."
“My mother was tougher than my father in terms of republicanism - women are tougher I think. She had a big portrait of Countess Markievicz on the landing at home, and it’s in Mary Lou (McDonald’s) office now.”
While Cllr Costelloe said he was not "ousted" from Sinn Féin, he admits to feeling a little out of step with the party, despite its upward trajectory in the political polls.
"The (party) is attracting a new generation, more educated, adept at social media, crossing the Rubicon from arms struggle to constitutional politics, which is a big step.
"My father and mother were anti-ceasefire, but I was pro-ceasefire, so you can see what kind of divisions happened."
Returning to current issues on the ground, Cllr Costelloe warned more needs to be done for disadvantaged communities which he believes have been “failed” by the multi-million euro regeneration programme set up over a decade ago following the burning of two children in an arson attack on a car in Moyross, Co Limerick.
“People out there are vulnerable. We’ve had the pandemic, depression is rife out there, the drugs epidemic, there is a myriad of problems and they are going to continue,” Cllr Costelloe said.
Despite it all, he said he remains hopeful of “a new beginning".
"If you feel anyway inclined to being in a dark place, stop and think of the consequences - I’m glad I did."
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can freephone the Samaritans 24 hours a day for confidential support at 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, the contact information for a range of mental health supports is available at mentalhealthireland.ie/get-support. In the case of an emergency, or if you or someone you know is at risk of suicide or self-harm, dial 999/112.