He has been characterised as the hard man of the new Ireland. Decisive, capable and clear-headed, Kevin O’Higgins (1892-1927), was the star Minister in the government of the Irish Free State in the fraught 1920s.
The unarmed Civic Guard, the transformation of the Army, and the rationalisation of local government, all bore the stamp of his firm leadership. But it was in the area of stabilising the security situation of the new State that O’Higgins gained admiration and notoriety in equal measure.
The new Irish State had been born with violence present in the delivery ward. The war for independence against the British in 1919-21 had been superseded by a civil war 1922-23, destructive to life, property and, most insidiously, to the trust that had prevailed among those who had been unified in the nationalist cause. The Government of the day had to make tough choices. Interment and execution were among the measures it deployed to counter what the anarchy and atrocity that erupted during the civil war and prevailed among diehards afterwards.
As Minister for Home Affairs and Justice Kevin O’Higgins had a clear view of his responsibilities when faced with such a threat to the attempt to stabilise the new Irish state.
In a speech in Naas in July 1923 reported at length in the Kildare Observer, he spelled out how the Government was attempting to “lay the foundations deep and sound on which a worthy State may be reared” but was faced with anarchy in the guise of republicanism. And he was equally clear about the response needed: “We were confronted with anarchy and had to meet it with the only means it could be met with, the strong hand.” And then some – during his period as Minister for Home Affairs – and acting within Government policy-- he had signed seventy-seven execution orders including that of Rory O’Connor who had been best man at his wedding in October 1921. O’Higgins paid a heavy price for his decisive action – in 1923 his childhood home in Stradbally, Co. Laois, was attacked by the IRA and his father, medical officer at Athy District Hospital, was murdered.
But some republican diehards were to make the backlash even more personal and waited in the long grass for O’Higgins until years after the civil war had ended. On Sunday morning 10 July 1927 O’Higgins was making his way along Booterstown Avenue from his home to a nearby church when he was ambushed by three IRA men who cut him down in a hail of fire. They escaped and were never brought to justice although at least one of them continued to boast of his involvement for many years afterwards. O’Higgins’ assassination shocked an Irish public which thought it had left the harshness of political violence behind. It registered on an international scale too with O’Higgins having made an impression in foreign capitals as he worked to carve out an identity for the new Irish state.
The circumstances of his death added to the poignancy. He survived for some hours after the shooting and was carried back to his house where although mortally wounded he remained lucid until death. His wife was naturally distraught and there was much sympathy for her loss and that of their two infant daughters.
Kevin O’Higgins was no stranger to Co. Kildare. He was well known in the Athy area where his father was medical officer in the County Health District. He had also attended both Clongoweswood College and St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth although his spell at each had been truncated, apparently because of misdemeanours.
He did form an enduring loyalty with a young clerical tutor at Knockbeg College near Carlow, Fr. P.J.Doyle who was to become a curate and later formidable parish priest of Naas.
Indeed Fr. Doyle was master of ceremonies when O’Higgins made two high-profile political visits to the Kildare county town – in April 1922 when he was accompanied by Michael Collins, and in July 1923 when he delivered a major statement spelling out his philosophy of how stern action was needed if the new Irish Free State was to survive internal threats.
His killing drew instant reaction from public bodies in Kildare.
The Kildare Observer reported that when news reached south Kildare the Chairman of Athy Urban Council despatched a telegram to President Cosgrave: “Speaking for the people of Athy, we deplore yesterday’s awful tragedy.” Later in the week Kildare County Councillors added their words of condemnation with Mr Barton of Straffan asserting that “the murder of Mr O’Higgins stood out alone in its extra-ordinary meaness and cold-blooded cowardly cruelty.”
It says much for the politics of commemoration in Ireland that others who died in the cause of Irish independence have been commemorated with their names being given to major public facilities such as bridges, streets and rail stations.
Yet it was only a fortnight ago, eighty five years later to the month, that a modest plaque was unveiled in Booterstown, Co. Dublin marking the spot where Kevin O’Higgins was gunned down in July 1927, one of the few assassinations of a democratically elected Minister in a western democracy in the twentieth century. Series no: 291.