Kevin O’Higgins

 

Kevin Christopher O’Higgins, (1892-1927) politician and social reformer; was born in the dispensary house in Stradbally, Co Laois, on June 7 1892. The fourth of sixteen children of Dr. Thomas F. Higgins, medical officer for the Athy Union and Coroner for County Laois, and his wife Annie. Kevin would be the first to add the O prefix to the family name. He attended the local convent school, then the Christian Brothers’ school, Maryborough, Clongowes Wood College (from where he was expelled), and St Mary’s College, Knockbeg, Carlow. He considered entering the priesthood and then attended St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, but was moved to Carlow seminary, in 1911, for breaking the non-smoking rules. The restrictive lifestyle led to O’Higgins abandoning any notions of a becoming a priest. Intending to become a solicitor, O’Higgins began an apprenticeship with his Uncle, Maurice Healy’s solicitor’s firm in Cork. He was awarded a Bachelor of Arts Degree (1915) and an LLB (1919) from University College Dublin.

As a young law student, O’Higgins had committed himself to the cause of nationalist separatism by joining the Irish Volunteers in 1915. He became captain of the Stradbally Company, Carlow brigade, in 1917. He immersed himself in the political events of the day, wrote several articles and made speeches. He was arrested and spent five months in Mountjoy jail and Belfast internment camp in 1918 for an anti-conscription speech. On release, O’Higgins stood for election as a Sinn Féin Candidate in his native Laois, defeating the incumbent by an overwhelming majority of 7,000 votes.

O’Higgins held several positions throughout his career in politics. Between 1919 and 1922, he acted as assistant to the Minister for Local Government, W. T. Cosgrave and raised the republican loan in his constituency (nearly £10,000). When Cosgrave was arrested in 1920, he became substitute minister, as confirmed by the Dáil that June. Elected for the Laois-Offaly constituency in 1921, O’Higgins forcefully defended the merits of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the Dáil. He had declined the position of secretary to the Irish delegation in order to marry Bridget Mary (1898-1961), a schoolteacher from Co. Longford. For O’Higgins, the Treaty represented the first step on the road to full legislative Independence. In this way, his views mirrored that of Michael Collins in that the Treaty offered the ‘freedom to achieve freedom’. He reflected this belief when he said

‘…I say it represents such a broad measure of liberty for the Irish People and it acknowledges such a large proportion of its rights, you are not entitled to reject it without being able to show that you have a reasonable prospect of achieving more’.

Working closely alongside Michael Collins as his assistant in the ministry of Finance, O’Higgins first Ministerial reward arrived in January 1922, when he was appointed Minister for Economic Affairs in the Cabinet formed by Arthur Griffith. O’Higgins quickly acquired a reputation as an excellent parliamentarian as well as the ability to act decisively. In efforts to alleviate the mass unemployment that plagued civil war torn Ireland in 1922, O’Higgins advocated numerous capital projects, including road and house-building programmes as well as drainage schemes.

Utilising his legal background, O’Higgins played a prominent role in drafting the 1922 Constitution. He also made frequent trips to London as supervisor of the British military withdrawal from Ireland. He gained even more prominence under the Cumann Na nGaedheal administration that came to power in 1923. Given the demanding role of Minister for Home Affairs, O’Higgins acquired responsibility for re-instituting law and order as well economic recovery in the new Free-State. Indeed, his role in creating the civic guards or Garda Siochána as a un-armed peacetime police force is arguably his greatest legacy. After successfully dealing with the Army Mutiny, O’Higgins’ Ministerial Portfolio enlarged to include Justice after 1924. With Civil war memories still alive, this proved to be a difficult challenge. It was during this period that he began to acquire a hard-line reputation. In attempting to suppress continuing civilian disorder, he introduced several Public Safety acts. These measures, along with an intoxicating Liquor Act that reduced pub opening hours from sixteen to eleven a day proved unpopular. Notoriously, O’Higgins was also party to the decision to execute members of the IRA responsible for the murder of Sean Hales (TD) in 1924. One of those sentenced to death was Rory O Connor, O’Higgins former friend and best-man at his wedding. The murder of his father by an IRA unit at his home in Laois on 11 February 1923 probably influenced his decision to clamp down lard on the general lawlessness that pervaded the county. Meanwhile, O’Higgins continued to excel in his government duties, representing Ireland at the League of Nations in Geneva. At the Imperial Conference of 1926, he made significant contributions to the debates which were to complete the transformation of the British empire into a Commonwealth of partners.

Kevin O’Higgins was assassinated on 10 July 1927 by the IRA (unsanctioned) while walking to Sunday mass in Booterstown, Co. Dublin. Lying on the roadside and bleeding profusely, he should have died instantly. He nevertheless lived for several hours and summoned the strength to dictate his will. Shy but with a self-deprecating sense of humour, he whispered while dying:

‘there is no hope. I should be dead by now, only I have always been a bit of a diehard.’

Witnesses included his cabinet colleague Dr. Eoin McNeill, Professor of Early Irish at University College Dublin. His assassination having just returned from putting forward his state’s interests at the League of Nations naval conference in Geneva, and having dismissed his escort for the short walk, lead to widespread condemnation, both at home and abroad.

Cosgrave, shocked at the cold-blooded nature of the killing of one of Ireland’s most eminent statesmen and vice-president of the Executive Council of the Free State, immediately introduced a coercive Public Safety Act as well as an Electoral Ammendment Act. This eventually led to the inclusion of Fianna Fáil in mainstream politics, securing the democratic political institutions that were the object of O’Higgin’s political life, and ultimately leading to the stability of the fledgling state. Admirers from abroad included Winston Churchill who described O’Higgins as “a figure from antiquity cast in bronze”. In its editorial on the day after the slaying on July 11, 1927, the Irish Times paid tribute to the fallen statesman declaring:

‘of no other Irishman can it be said with more truth that he dedicated splendid gifts whole-heartedly, unsparingly, religiously, to his country’s service’.

His remains were removed from his residence, Dunamase House, Booterstown, to the Mansion House, Dublin, where thousands filed past the coffin. His funeral mass was held at St Andrew’s Church, Westland row. The funeral cortège stretched for over 3 miles. O’Higgins was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, the same grave as his infant son.


Biography & Studies. Obituary in Irish Times, 11 July 1927. Dáil Éireann, Official Reports, 1922-1927. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis vol. v (London 1929). P. S. O’Hegarty, A bibliography of the books of Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins (Dublin 1937). Michael Fogarty, Memorial to the founders of the Irish State: President Arthur Griffith, General Michael Collins, Vice-President Kevin O’Higgins (Dublin 1944). Terence De Vere White, Kevin O’Higgins (London 1948). ‘Assassins in the Free State’ in Unsolved Magazine no. 37 (1984). John P. McCarthy, Kevin O’Higgins: Builder of the Irish Free State (Dublin 2006).

Tomás O'Riordan