Kevin O’Higgins: builder of the Irish state

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

Kevin O’Higgins builder of the Irish state 1Kevin O’Higgins: builder of the Irish state
John McCarthy
(Irish Academic Press, E27.50)
ISBN 0716534142

It is a sad fact that the spot where Ireland’s first minister for justice lay after he was fatally wounded by three IRA men in 1927 is marked by a ridiculously small cross made by a spade in setting concrete. Contrast this with the impressive monument in Béal na mBláth where Michael Collins was tragically killed in 1922, or observe the even more spectacular round tower erected in the Knockmealdown Mountains where Liam Lynch was shot in 1923, and one begins to appreciate the complex nature of how we choose to commemorate our patriot dead.
The subtitle of this new biography of Kevin O’Higgins, the only other one having appeared back in 1948, echoes William Butler Yeats’s statement to O’Higgins’s widow in the immediate aftermath of the assassination that ‘the country has lost the man it needed, its great builder of a nation’. John McCarthy has set himself the difficult task of fully and fairly recounting the life and times of this remarkable Irishman. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that Eamon de Valera recognised his abilities during the War of Independence when he requested that he attend cabinet meetings. O’Higgins was at this time working as William T. Cosgrave’s assistant in the Department of Local Government, a role that gave him a good grounding for his later administrative work when he became minister for economic affairs in the provisional government initially chaired by Michael Collins. It was, however, for his role as minister for home affairs (renamed justice in 1924) during the Civil War, when he officially sanctioned many state executions, including that of his best man, that he suffered such a terrible fate at the hands of aggrieved republicans. The author capably charts his subject’s gradual political evolution from an ardent republican separatist to a more reflective thinker who sought to create an agreeable formula for peacefully achieving Irish unity.
The book is neatly arranged in well-crafted chapters that divide into sections so that in working one’s way through the text one gains a good insight into the mind of O’Higgins as he confronts various political crises, such as the ‘army mutiny’ of 1924 and the Boundary Commission, or defends various complex pieces of legislation in parliament. Although de Valera was to be O’Higgins’s main political protagonist outside Dáil Éireann, Thomas Johnson’s robust political exchanges with the minister for justice clearly mark the leader of the Labour Party out as one of O’Higgins’s key opponents within the Dáil chamber. For example, during the course of a debate on the Treasonable and Seditious Offences Bill in March 1925, Johnson accused the minister of being ‘a budding Bismarck, with his views as to the relations of the state and the individual—that loyalty to the state and good citizenship are going to be induced by repressive legislation’. O’Higgins dryly responded by depicting Johnson’s protest as having been rendered ‘in a formal mechanical way like a man talking in his sleep or a gramophone record turned on—“Let me see the Treason Bill; what should I say in connection with this? Well, I should denounce the minister. It is always a good principle and a safe thing to denounce the Minister”.’
A year earlier, deputy Bryan Cooper regarded the uniform rigidity of the Intoxicating Liquor Bill as having been ‘due to the minister’s Napoleonic cast of mind’, and he believed that O’Higgins ‘would derive great pleasure from feeling that on every Saturday night at twenty-five minutes past 9 o’clock the last tumbler is being emptied in every public house in Ireland; at twenty-eight minutes past 9, all over Ireland, that thousands of mouths are being wiped after the last drink, and that at thirty minutes past 9 the keys in the locks of thousands of public houses are grating’.
In 1927 the Intoxicating Liquor Act was passed, obliging public houses to close for one hour during each weekday and also on Saturday. According to a wall-mounted display in the Dropping Well pub in Milltown, the inspiration for this aspect of the act derived from the ‘teetotal’ minister’s visit to this popular drinking establishment in 1926, where he observed ordinary working men spending far too much money on drink and thereby depriving their families of much-needed income for the household. O’Higgins determined that to close the bar even for an hour would encourage the ‘long sitters’ to return home to their families, and the regulation was popularly known as ‘Kevin’s Hour’.
The phrase ‘O’Higgins’s comma’ refers to his successful championing during the imperial conference in 1926 of the strategic insertion of a comma after Great Britain in the king’s title, which now became ‘George V, by Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British dominions beyond the seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India’. Peadar O’Donnell later told O’Higgins’s daughter Una that the IRA paid for transcripts of this conference, ‘and we could not fault him nor the rest of the delegation on what they did then for Ireland’. Indeed, his success as a diplomat led to his being appointed minister for external affairs in June 1927, a few short weeks before his untimely death at the age of 35.
The book is slightly marred by a small number of typographical errors and incorrect statements. For instance, John Redmond is described as having died in April 1918, whereas he had passed away a month earlier. Also, the author gets slightly confused when discussing the personnel of the Dáil cabinet and provisional government of 1922. Although Richard Mulcahy was appointed Dáil minister for defence in January 1922, he did not become a member of the provisional government until the cabinet reshuffle in late August that followed Collins’s death. That said, Collins had successfully suggested as early as February 1922 that the minister for defence should be invited to attend provisional government meetings. McCarthy also refers to Cosgrave and O’Higgins as having been approved as president and vice-president of the Executive Council when the Dáil finally met on 9 September 1922. Strictly speaking, these offices and that cabinet structure did not exist until the Irish Free State formally came into being on 6 December 1922.
Notwithstanding these minor deficiencies, John McCarthy has written a fine political biography of a much-neglected historical figure, and those who take the trouble to read it will understand why the title ‘builder of the Irish state’ belongs most appropriately to Kevin O’Higgins.

Frank Bouchier-Hayes is a local historian and freelance writer/researcher.

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