Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2023), Letters, Volume 31

Above: Brian O’Higgins, writer and publisher of the Wolfe Tone Annual. His actor son, Brian, played the role of Daniel O’Connell in Sigerson Clifford’s 1947 production of The Great Pacificator.

Sir,—Fiona Brennan’s very interesting article on Sigerson Clifford’s play about Daniel O’Connell, The Great Pacificator (HI 31.1, Jan./Feb. 20023, What’s On Stage), notes that in the first Dublin production (1947) the character of O’Connell’s maidservant, caught between loyalty to her employer and to her Young Ireland lover, was played by the distinguished actress and Cahirciveen native Bríd Ní Loingsigh, whose father, Fionán Lynch, had been prominent in the War of Independence.

The cast list for the production, reproduced as an illustration, reveals an even more piquant detail of the casting. Daniel O’Connell was played by the well-known Abbey actor Brian O’Higgins, whose father and namesake was in the GPO in Easter 1916, represented Clare in the first four Dáils, and between 1932 and 1962 publicised his purist republican interpretation of Irish history by writing and publishing the Wolfe Tone Annual. The irony of this casting is that O’Higgins Senior regarded Daniel O’Connell as one of the great villains of Irish history, and shortly before the opening of the production had written to the Dublin newspapers denouncing the ‘Save Derrynane’ project, which raised funds to preserve O’Connell’s house as a national monument. (This led to a public controversy with ‘Sceilg’—J.J. O’Kelly—who shared O’Higgins Senior’s brand of republicanism but as a native of Valentia Island regarded O’Connell as a local hero.)

Although O’Higgins is often described as ‘right-wing’ because of his hostility to socialism, hostility to Britain in the Second World War and fervent Catholicism, he believed that republicanism implied a degree of egalitarianism and that the Irish Catholic professional classes post-1829 had by and large sold out their country for personal gain whenever they got the chance while invoking religion to disguise their corruption. The following extracts from the 1938 Wolfe Tone Annual, ‘The story of Young Ireland and the years before 1848’, pp 11–13, are representative of the elder O’Higgins’s view of O’Connell. I insert a few clarifications in italics:

‘[O’Higgins denounces O’Connell’s claim that he took a people of spiritless slaves and made them a nation.] It was O’Connell himself and the West Britons he had “emancipated” just enough to allow them to get Dublin Castle jobs who were the spiritless slaves as far as Irish nationality was concerned, and not the people … “Emancipation” was a British move in the well thought out and long desired game of clearing the Irish out of Ireland, of breaking their spirit, of shattering their bodily and mental stamina, of killing their language and of making one section of them—the “respectable Cawtholic” section—the oppressors and enslavers and persecutors of all the others who would not renounce Irish nationhood and become loyal slaves of the British Empire. Catholic Emancipation, as it was called, was the beginning of the Great Massacre of 1847 and 1848, which on blasphemous tongues is to this day called the Great Famine … [Because the 1829 legislation disenfranchised the poorer voters, the ‘forty-shilling freeholders’.]

There were celebrations of Catholic Emancipation in 1929, and the name of Daniel O’Connell was shouted in loud tones everywhere, but there was not even a whisper—except the usual venomous one—about Theobald Wolfe Tone or John Keogh or Richard MacCormick or the Society of United Irishmen, or even the Catholic Committee of the 1790s. [O’Higgins argues that the Catholic relief legislation of the early 1790s, conceded by the British government to defuse potential Catholic support for the revolutionaries, was more significant than the removal of professional and parliamentary restrictions in 1829.] … Tone and the United Irishmen won Catholic Emancipation for the people of Ireland; Daniel O’Connell won Catholic Emancipation for the place-hunters of Ireland; and in 1929 the descendants and followers and supporters in every generation of the Catholic place-hunters lauded Daniel O’Connell to the skies and ignored Wolfe Tone and the men of 1798 …

Daniel O’Connell, who is erroneously called the Liberator, won for his people Anglicisation or slavery of the mind; because on the heels of that precious Catholic Emancipation planned by Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington and made law in 1829, came the greatest curse that English ingenuity had ever before conceived for the subjugation of the Irish people—the so-called National Schools … to benumb the intellect of Ireland’s children, to kill the vehicle of thought given to them as God’s gift, and to place in its stead a mongrel thing of foreign origin … [O’Higgins subscribed to Fr Timothy Corcoran’s belief that the hedge schools were a native system of education superior to their replacements.] Willingly and gladly and with no pang of remorse did Daniel O’Connell, himself an Irish speaker, help the English to kill the Irish language and the mind of the Irish people at the same time; and for that crime of crimes he must never be forgiven. He was a great lawyer, a great parliamentarian, a great orator, a great Catholic, a great man if you like, but he was one of the worst, most disloyal, most contemptible of renegade Irishmen …’

Brian O’Higgins Junior subscribed to revolutionary politics of a slightly different stamp from those of his father. In the 1940s he was a member of the left-wing tendency within the Dublin Labour Party associated with the journal, The Torch. He was mainly a stage actor, but viewers of David Lean’s 1970 film Ryan’s Daughter will see him in the minor role of an elderly RIC sergeant.—Yours etc.,

Dictionary of Irish Biography


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