Photo Mark Condren
It's late afternoon, but the working day is not over yet. Not by a long shot. Up for a meeting at 8am, Emer Costello has already met several groups of visitors, from the 'swop your heels for hammers' women involved in a new Habitat for Humanity project, to the descendants of Daniel O'Connell, who had never before stood in Dublin's Mansion House where their ancestor became the first Catholic mayor of the city back in 1841. Our interview with the capital's 340th lord mayor is for one hour only because she has an exhibition to attend at 6pm, then, donning her Dublin city councillor hat, there's a meeting about the city's swimming pools, before heading back to the house for 7pm to welcome the lord mayor of Lisburn, and then a 'Macushla' evening – described as "a nifty fifties dance club" – for senior citizens, which will go on well into the wee small hours.
For the moment though, calm reigns as we sit in the Victorian drawing room, dominated by huge portraits by noted English painters Joshua Reynolds and George Romney. Their subjects are former 18th-century lord lieutenants of Ireland, resplendent in ceremonial brocade and ermine robes, complete with silk stockings and ribbon garters.
Underneath, the woman in the simple black Karen Millen suit, only the seventh female in the position of lord mayor since its creation in 1665, talks of her 12 months living in the Mansion House. Her BlackBerry constantly rings throughout, while Richie, one of house staff members, brings tea but also a gentle reminder that the clock is ticking towards the next appointment. I had been warned, also with a smile by another staff member, that along with her many other talents, the lord mayor "can talk for Ireland". Those descendants of 'The Liberator', to whom she has just waved goodbye, dominate the early part of our conversation – both she and husband, Labour TD Joe Costello, are passionate about history, national and local. She speaks of building bridges between north and south over the past year, welcoming people from Northern Ireland, some of whom had never visited the Republic before.
"They are so surprised that we have portraits of these guys up on the wall," says Costello, referring in particular to the huge portrait of George IV dominating the hall staircase. "Then we have the portrait of Daniel O'Connell wearing the mayoral chain with the image of William of Orange on it. Ironically, the Belfast lord mayor's chain is inscribed with 'Erin Go Brath'. But it's still a big thing for many of those on the unionist side of the political divide to come down here. We had a group last week from Portadown who would generally be staunchly unionist, real hardliners, but they were keen to engage in discussion about our shared history. We had the usual tea and coffee, but I knew some of them were dying for something stronger. So I went out the bar and they were looking at me askance, seeing this picture of the lord mayor of Dublin pulling them a pint."
Welcoming north to south is part of the job, but what was it like for her and Joe, honorary northsiders, to move from their home in the north inner city to the salubrious southside on Dawson Street?
"That was a big move in many ways. I was a bit homesick. It was daunting. But Joe is in his element here," she laughs. "He's settled in, no problem. For me, it's like living over the shop, and you don't always have a sense of the prestige because you are so busy all of the time. But the house is everyone's house really. It's always open."
The 8am meetings ensure there is always plenty of activity throughout a working day, which invariably overlaps into the next. While the rest of the city is putting out the cat, Costello's last act before bed is to lock away the mayoral chain of office in the safe. But there is a temptation too to switch on the computer and check emails, she adds.
"There is a lot of writing, and conferences to prepare for. So there's been a bit of sleep deficiency this year. You might be exhausted at the end of the evening, but still want to sort out other work. Some nights it's just three or four hours' sleep as you're late going to bed and then up really early. And I've found that I haven't slept that well here. No, it's not ghosts. It's just that your mind is racing all the time. But I'm pretty refreshed when the day actually starts, and every day is something of an adventure."
Being married to the job begs the question as to how that affects her marriage to Joe. She doesn't use the word 'workaholic' but says they've always been a couple to burn the midnight oil and they "kind of complement each other". They married in 2003, in the Aughrim Street church just across the road from their period terrace house, but have been together as a couple for 21 years.
Back in l987, Emer Malone, as she then was, was at a crossroads in her life – deciding whether to emigrate or stay in recession-struck Ireland. She had moved to live in Dublin, while back in her native Blackrock, outside Dundalk, her father "was going ballistic at the thought of me moving to live in Japan on an exchange programme". But it was a Fás placement officer's advice that brought out the contrarian in her, when he told her: "you know, Birmingham is closer to Dublin than Cork is". She was definitely staying put, but "incensed".
"I was part-time teaching at the time, on only 10 hours a week, and it was terrible. But the suggestion was that my best option was to go to England for work. I said 'is this the best you can do? Is this official Fás policy?' I had moved to live on Rathlin Road in Drumcondra at the time and was sharing with my housemate Laura, who was a Labour party member. So I said, 'get me an application form'."
And from that, love blossomed with Joe Costello – in a roundabout fashion. He wasn't, apparently, a candidate for Mr Right when they first met, as she recalls with a smile.
"The very first time we met was when he called to the house in Drumcondra. And I don't know – I probably shouldn't say – but I didn't quite like the look of him. I wouldn't let him in. I said something like, 'just hold on there for a minute', closed the door over and went back in to Laura saying, 'there's a man at the door I'm not sure about'. She started laughing and said I'd better let him in as he was our local Labour representative. I still kind of slag Joe about it – that he was slightly dodgy looking and I wouldn't let him cross the doorway," she laughs.
They knew each other for a long time before getting romantically involved, she adds. Initially, it was simply a work relationship and he asked her to organise his Senate campaign. It wasn't until they went on a holiday in l989 to the Antrim coast that she says she realised they were a 'match'.
"When he asked me to work on the campaign, I was kind of 'gosh, I don't think I can do this'. But he had faith in me, he trusted me. He doesn't get fazed by anything. He's someone you can bounce ideas off. He's someone who's there, whose constant. I can be quite excitable, whereas he's calm. I suppose I can get worked up over things, and he can be a very solid influence." The age difference between them – Emer is in her mid-40s, Joe is 64 – is not something that bothers her either, but has been commented on during campaigns.
"It doesn't make any difference but I suppose from that point of view, he's quite a steadying influence. But it's hilarious at times during elections with people coming up to me and saying, 'I know your father'. And I go (she pulls a sad face), 'He's not my father, he's my husband'. I laugh, and sometimes it kind of drives him mad, but he takes it with a grain of salt. Plus, I think I'm probably more youthful looking that I actually am."