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O’Higgins - moral architect of the new Irish state

Second Reading
O’Higgins - moral architect of the new Irish state

Fr Kevin Hegarty

It was July 9, 1927 and Kevin O’Higgins was looking forward to a weekend with his family. As Minister for Justice and External affairs in the Irish Cabinet he had returned that morning from a conference in Geneva on naval armaments.
He had gifts for his children, his little daughter Maeve and Una who was just 6 months old. He feared that Maeve would be ‘strange’ with him as he had been away for some time. That evening he and his wife Brigid entertained guests to dinner at their home in Booterstown. It had been a gruelling political year. There had been a general election in June. O’Higgins had topped the poll in Dublin South County. He was used to political turmoil. He had been a government minister since 1922. Though second in command he was regarded as the driving force in the cabinet. Calm under pressure, courageous in conflict, he was relentless in pursuit of his political objectives. In a colourless cabinet he had a charismatic aura. He was a brilliant  speaker. His political opponents feared his wit. He likened de Valera’s wintry smile to “moonlight on the face of a tombstone”.
He and his colleagues had the task of building the new Irish state in the most unfavourable of circumstances, under the dark cloud of the civil war. “we are standing”,  he once said, “amidst the ruins of one administration with the foundatins of the other scarcely set”. In the year of the Civil War, 1922 - 3, the light of humanity dimmed and darkened and was finally extinguished. Men who had together valiantly opposed British rule now inflicted terrible atrocities on each other. When the bloodletting ended, the pyschological wounds continued to fester for generations, and arguably hindered our social and economic progress.
Born into the purple of Irish nationalism, his grandfather was T.D. Sullivan, editor of ‘The Nation’. O’Higgins was ruthless in his defence of the new Irish state. His name became a byword for hatred amongst republicans who rejected the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, which gave Ireland a significant measure of freedom, though not the republic they had fought for. They were unconvinced by Michael Collins’ pithy, and ultimately accurate summation that the treaty gave not total freedom but the freedom to achieve it.
O’Higgins held that the people accepted the treaty in the general election of 1922 which returned a majority of pro-treaty supporters to the Dáil. He was determined that the rule of democratic law should prevail against Republicans who sought to resist it by taking up arms in the civil war.
So he prompted the passage of emergency legislation that authorised internment military courts and executions as legal instruments.
He reluctantly acquiesced in the retaliatory executions of four republicans in response to the assasination of a Dáil deputy in late 1922. For him this decision had a terrible pathos. Among those executed was Rory O’Connor. Rory had been his best friend and was best man at his wedding. Some weeks later I.R.A. activists shot his father dead in his County Laois home.
On the evening of July 9, O’Higgins was in reflective mood with his guests. He was positive about Ireland’s future.
Much had been achieved. He had been instrumental in the setting up of An Garda Siochána, an unarmed police force which was rapidly gaining respect. He had helped quell an army mutiny in 1924. He had established a courts system. The poet A.E. Russell, called him the ‘moral architect’ of the new state. He had been an impressive performer at imperial conferences where he had helped achieve advances on the freedom allocated to Ireland under the 1921 treaty. There had been some social and economic improvements. Also there was the prospect of normal democratic politics in the Dáil in the offing. Eamon deValera had founded Fianna Faíl to escape the straitjacket of Sinn Feín abstentionism from parliament was only a matter of time before he would discover in the tortuous recesses of his mind a casuistic excuse to allow him and his colleagues take the oath of allegiance and so enter the Daíl. Though implacably opposed to deValera, O’Higgins recognised that he was the leader of Republican sentiment in the country and that he should be presenting his case on the floor of the Dáil.
He rose early the following morning and went for a swim at Blackrock while the rest of his  household were at Mass. On his return he played with Maeve before setting out for the noon Mass at Booterstown Church. He didn’t trouble his bodyguard to accompany him.
As he approached the corner where Booterstown and Cross avenues meet, a boy on a bicycle signal to a motor car parked on the side of the road. Three men emerged and one of them shot him at point blank range. The other two fired at him when he was on the ground. Though no one was charged with the shooting, it emerged much later that they were IRA activists.
O’Higgins was mortally wounded. Brought by ambulance to his home he lingered for a few hours. He murmured regularly, ‘Tell my wife I love her eternally’ and ‘I forgive my murderers’. At 5pm he died. He was 35 years of age. Last Tuesday, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny unveiled a plaque where he was shot.