Kevin O'Higgins

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Kevin O'Higgins
Kevin O'Higgins.jpg
Vice-President of the Executive Council
In office
6 December 1922 – 10 July 1927
Preceded by Newly created office
Succeeded by Ernest Blythe
Minister for Justice
In office
30 August 1922 – 10 July 1927
Preceded by Eamonn Duggan
Succeeded by W. T. Cosgrave
Personal details
Born (1892-06-07)7 June 1892
County Laois, Ireland
Died 10 July 1927(1927-07-10) (aged 35)
Dublin, Ireland
Nationality Irish
Political party Cumann na nGaedheal (1923–27)
Other political
affiliations
Sinn Féin (1918–23)

Kevin Christopher O'Higgins (Irish: Caoimhghín Críostóir Ó hUigín; 7 June 1892 – 10 July 1927) was an Irish politician who served as Vice-President of the Executive Council and Minister for Justice.[1] He was part of early nationalist Sinn Féin, before going on to become a prominent member of Cumann na nGaedheal. O'Higgins established the Garda Síochána police force. His brother Thomas and nephews Tom and Michael were also elected TDs.

Along with Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and Eoin O'Duffy, O'Higgins is an important figure in Irish nationalist historiography, representing a more "conservative revolutionary" position when contrasted with republicanism. After having a role in the Irish War of Independence, he went on to defend the nascent Irish Free State, as part of the pro-Treaty side in the Irish Civil War. During this time he signed the execution orders of seventy-seven political prisoners. He was later assassinated in retaliation by an IRA unit in Booterstown, County Dublin.

Background[edit]

Kevin O'Higgins was born in Stradbally, County Laois, one of sixteen children of Dr. Thomas Higgins and Anne Sullivan, daughter of the Nationalist politician Timothy Daniel Sullivan.[2] His aunt was married to the Nationalist MP Tim Healy. He was educated at the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood College,where he was expelled. O'Higgins was then moved to Knockbeg College, St. Marys Christian Brother School, Portlaoise. With a view to becoming a priest he went to St Patrick's College, Maynooth. Here he broke the non-smoking rules and was removed to Carlow Seminary.[3] He attended University College Dublin.

O'Higgins joined the Irish Volunteers in 1915. He was efficient and had a forceful personality and was soon appointed captain of Stradbally company, Carlow brigade.[3] He joined Sinn Féin and was imprisoned in 1918. While he was imprisoned he became MP for Queen's County (Laois).[4]

1919–1923[edit]

In 1919 the First Dáil elected its "Aireacht" (Ministry) under the shadow of the Irish War of Independence. O'Higgins was appointed as the Assistant Minister for Local Government under W. T. Cosgrave. When Cosgrave was arrested in 1920, O'Higgins who took the lead as head of the Ministry.[3]

Sinn Féin then split in 1922 over the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In the debate that took place in the Dáil on the Treaty, O'Higgins outlined the reasons for his support thus:

Last October the Minister of Local Government W. T. Cosgrave and myself came deliberately to the decision that we would not recommend any settlement involving allegiance to the king of England. That is true, but I am not ashamed to plead guilty to the fact that I consider political realities and the consequence of my vote... I would have gone back to war rather than recommend a settlement involving allegiance if the Treaty had not been signed. But I face the political situation and realise that some of the biggest personalities in our movement ... have considered this is the last ounce [that] could be got from England, and who, knowing the situation better than I do, attached their names to that document.

When running for election in 1922, he told a crowd: I have not abandoned any political aspirations to which I have given expression in the past, but in the existing circumstances I advise the people to trust to evolution rather than revolution for their attainment. and was elected Teachta Dála (TD) for Leix–Offaly becoming Minister for Justice and External Affairs in the Provisional Government.

When the Irish Civil War broke out in June 1922 he tried to restore law and order by introducing tough measures. He feared, as did many of his colleagues, that a prolonged civil conflict would give the British an excuse, in the eyes of the world, to reassert their control in the Free State. He was given a nominal posting to the Irish Army during the early stages of the war, which he described as "very short, though very brilliant". General Richard Mulcahy was less impressed, recalling that "O'Higgins' personal presence in the Adjutant-General's office at that time (July–August 1922) was the personal presence of a person who didn't understand what was going on".

In August 1922, following the death of Collins, he was moved from the Army to Home Affairs. O'Higgins had formed a negative view of Cosgrave having worked under him at Local Government and was not happy when the latter was appointed President of the Executive Council. Of the alternatives Mulcahy had been seen as indecisive, pedantic and too close to the Army whereas O'Higgins himself had been viewed as not republican enough. In the Government of the 3rd Dáil, he would be classed, along with Desmond FitzGerald, as one of the “Donnybrook set" – more civilian-oriented and out of step with the rest on issues such as Irish language, autarky and militarism.[5]

O'Higgins had set up the Garda Síochána but by September 1922 was experiencing indiscipline. He apponted Eoin O'Duffy commissioner. At the time O'Duffy was a fine organiser and worked for the emergence of a respected and unarmed police force. O'Duffy insisted on a Catholic nationalist ethos to distinguish the gardaí from their RIC predecessors.[6] Cosgrave appointed O'Higgins as Vice-President in December that year.[5]

Between 1922 and 1923 Kevin O'Higgins confirmed the sentences of execution of seventy-seven republican prisoners of war, including Rory O'Connor who had been best man at his wedding. O'Higgins and his colleagues did not view them as prisoners of war, but as criminals. In reprisal for O'Higgins' role in the executions of captured republicans, the Anti-Treaty IRA murdered his father and burned his family home in Stradbally, County Laois.

Politics and later career[edit]

In March 1924, midway through the Army Mutiny, Minister Joseph McGrath resigned and President Cosgrave took sick leave. O'Higgins, de facto head of government, reversed Cosgrave's appeasement and confronted the IRAO mutineers and confounded their objectives.[3]

In June the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924 changed his title from Minister for Home Affairs to Minister for Justice.

As Minister for External Affairs he successfully increased Ireland's autonomy within the Commonwealth of Nations. O'Higgins was seen very much as the "strong man" of the Cabinet. He once described himself as one of "the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution". Though far-left political enemies characterised him as having supposed "fascist" tendencies, O'Higgins was to the fore in resisting the small wing of Cumann na nGaedheal who looked to Italy for inspiration. He did not approve of left-wing feminism, for instance when asked by Labour Party leader Thomas Johnson in the Dáil whether he believed giving women the vote had been a success, O'Higgins replied, "I would not like to pronounce an opinion on it in public." He famously derided the socialist influenced Democratic Programme of the First Dáil as "mostly poetry". Before his death, he toyed with Arthur Griffith's idea of a dual monarchy to end the Partition of Ireland.

Assassination[edit]

On Sunday, 10 July 1927, O'Higgins was assassinated at the age of 35 on the Booterstown Avenue side of Cross Avenue while on his way to Mass at the Church of the Assumption by three anti-Treaty members of the IRA, Timothy Coughlin, Bill Gannon and Archie Doyle, in revenge for his part in the executions of IRA men during the civil war. None of the three assassins was ever apprehended or charged, but Coughlin was killed in 1928 by a police informer in Dublin. The other two benefited from the amnesty to IRA members issued by Éamon de Valera upon his assumption of power in 1932. Doyle remained a prominent IRA militant and took part in various acts in the early 1940s. He lived to an old age (d.1980) and continued to take pride in having killed O'Higgins. Gannon (d.1965) joined the Communist Party of Ireland and had a central role in organising Irish volunteers for the Spanish Civil War, and in party publications his part in assassinating O'Higgins is downplayed.[citation needed]

Legacy[edit]

2012 memorial plaque to O'Higgins, located near the site where he was shot

O'Higgins body lay in state in the Mansion House before a state funeral held at St Andrew's Church, Westland Row. He was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery.[7][8]

In 1927, a relief of O'Higgins was posthumously added to a controversial 1923 cenotaph in the grounds of Leinster House dedicated to Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. This was replaced in 1950 by a simpler granite obelisk commemorating Griffith, Collins and O'Higgins.[9][10]

In July 2012, Taoiseach Enda Kenny unveiled a commemorative plaque to his memory at the site in Booterstown where he was shot.[11]

His brother Thomas F. O'Higgins and nephews Tom O'Higgins and Michael O'Higgins were later elected TDs.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Mr. Kevin O'Higgins". Oireachtas Members Database. Retrieved 12 February 2012. 
  2. ^ De Vere White, Terence Kevin O'Higgins Methuen and Co. London, 1948.
  3. ^ a b c d David Harkness, 'O'Higgins, Kevin Christopher (1892–1927)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, January 2011.
  4. ^ "Kevin O'Higgins". ElectionsIreland.org. Retrieved 12 February 2012. 
  5. ^ a b Garret FitzGerald (April 2003). "Reflections on the Foundation of the Irish State". University College Cork. 
  6. ^ Fearghal McGarry, 'O'Duffy, Eoin (1890–1944)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, January 2011.
  7. ^ Lyng, Paul (2000). "Booterstown, A pastoral journey through four centuries 1616–2000", Future Print.
  8. ^ O'Riordan, Tomás. "Kevin O'Higgins". Multitext Project in Irish History – UCC. Retrieved 31 July 2012. 
  9. ^ Turpin, John. "Monumental Commemoration of the Fallen in Ireland, North and South, 1920–60 – Excerpt". Project MUSE. Retrieved 31 July 2012. 
  10. ^ The OPW – a history of service. The Office of Public Works. 2006. p. 5. 
  11. ^ Hegarty, Kevin (31 July 2012). "O'Higgins – moral architect of the new Irish state". The Mayo News. Retrieved 31 July 2012. 

External links[edit]

Political offices
New office Assistant Minister for Local Government
1919–1922
Succeeded by
Lorcan Robbins
Preceded by
Robert Barton
Minister for Economic Affairs
Jan–Sep 1922
Succeeded by
Ernest Blythe
New office Vice-President of the Executive Council
1922–1927
Preceded by
Eamonn Duggan
Minister for Justice
1922–1927
Succeeded by
W. T. Cosgrave
(acting)
Preceded by
Desmond FitzGerald
Minister for External Affairs
Jun–Jul 1927