Turtle Bunbury

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IRISH HISTORY

KEVIN O’HIGGINS & RORY O’CONNOR

 

A FATAL FRIENDSHIP

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Above: The controversial photographof Rory O’Connor standing alone before a five-strong firing squad, without a blindfold. It is
almost certainly a fake as O'Connor was executed alongside three comrades by a squad of 20 men.

As he listened to the firing squad take their positions, Rory O’Connor must have wondered once again how everything had gone so terribly wrong. Beside him, Liam Mellows was kicking away the gravel beneath his feet in order to attain a steadier foothold.
   Blindfolded, O’Connor could not see Mellowes or Dick Barrett or Joe McKelvey, the three men destined to die alongside him. He heard Fr. Piggott, the army chaplain, step forward to give the men their final absolution. And then the priest stepped aside.
   “Slan Libh lads”, said Mellows, as the order was given.
   And then came the deadly volley.
   O’Connor, Mellows and Barrett died instantly. But to the ever-lasting horror of some members of the firing party, McKelvey remained conscious. ‘Give me another’, implored the Ulsterman. A shot rang out. ‘Another’. Colonel Hugo MacNeill, nephew of Eoin MacNeill, stepped forward and delivered the coup de grace.
The execution of O’Connor and his three comrades on 8th December 1922 has long been one of the most controversial moments of the Civil War.
   The emergence of a new photograph in July 2012 purporting to depict O’Connor standing alone before a five-strong firing squad, and without a blindfold, had phones hopping on the Joe Duffy show all week. However, the rather faded photograph transpired to be a fake, created as anti-Treaty propaganda soon after the execution in order to enhance the legend of martyrdom that was swiftly growing up around the four dead men.
   The scene depicted in the new photo is nothing like that given by Fr. Piggott, the first Chaplain of the new Free State Army, who was personally chosen by O'Connor to give him and his comrades their last rites. Fr. Piggott confirmed that the four men were executed together by a firing squad of twenty men, ten standing and ten kneeling.
   Propaganda or not, the new photograph highlights the extraordinary horrors of the Irish Civil War which ripped through the heart of the fledgling Irish Free State just ninety years ago.
   It also stands as a reminder of how this bloody conflict was not drawn up on geographical lines, like the American Civil War, but was fought on the much more emotionally charged basis of personal beliefs.
   Amongst all the friendships torn asunder by the Civil War, few ended up more dramatically than that of Rory O’Connor and Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister of Justice who gave the order for his execution. Just over a year earlier, O’Connor had stood as O’Higgins best man at his wedding.
   The execution of O’Connor would haunt O’Higgins for the rest of his life. As it happened, he was not destined for a long life either and was to be killed by an assassins bullet less than five years later.
   O’Connor and O’Higgins became friends during the War of Independence. Born in 1883, O’Connor was the older man by nine years but both had been educated at the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood. They had also both studied at University College Dublin.
   O’Connor was born in Dublin in 1883, the son of John and Julia O’Connor.[i] Armed with his College of Science diploma, he emigrated to Canada in 1911 and spent four years working as a railway engineer. He became active in the Fenian Brotherhood and joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians. In 1916, he was amongst those who returned to Ireland in answer to a summons by the Irish Republican Brotherhood in advance of the Easter Rising.
   He was wounded in the Rising and subsequently interned. Upon his release, he broke with the IRB, maintaining that their policy of secrecy would preclude the movement from gaining popular support.
   In 1918 he became the IRA’s Director of Engineering and during the ensuing War of Independence, he worked closely alongside Michael Collins, overseeing the teams who blew up railway lines, bridges, barracks and such like.
   In 1919, he became Director of Operations for the IRA offensive in England, destroying numerous vital warehouses and orchestrating several jail breaks. Had he had the financial resources, O’Connor had planned a wholesale terror campaign in England, with attacks on London, Birmingham and other big cities, as well as tube stations, reservoirs, the Ministry of Pensions and the homes of the British elite.
   O’Connor’s track record and excellent network of contacts made him the ideal person for Collins to assign as secretary to the acting head of the Ministry for Local Government, Kevin O’Higgins.
   Kevin Christopher Higgins – he later adopted the O’ - was born in the dispensary house in Stradbally, Co Laois, on June 7 1892. He was the fourth of sixteen children born to Dr. Thomas Higgins, the Coroner for County Laois, and his wife Annie.[ii]
   His maternal grandfather was the poet Timothy Daniel Sullivan, author of the unofficial national anthem ‘God Save Ireland’, who served as Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1886. His uncle Timothy Healy was destined to become first governor-general of the Irish Free State.
   O’Higgins was raised at Woodlands, an 86 acre farm at Timogue just outside Stradbally, where he attended the local convent school. Subsequently educated by the Christian Brothers in Portlaoise (Maryborough) and Clongowes, he became a devout Catholic. However, his ambitions to became a priest ground to a halt when he was thrown out of St Patrick’s College, Maynooth for smoking in 1911.
   He relocated to the Carlow seminary but then turned his sights on the law. He served as an apprentice solicitor to his uncle Maurice Healy, nationalist MP for Cork City, and then went to UCD where he earned a law degree.[iii]
   While at UCD, he became a committed nationalist, joining the Irish Volunteers in 1915. Within two years, he was captain of the Stradbally Company within the Carlow brigade.
   In 1918, he was jailed for five months in Mountjoy (and later at an internment camp in Belfast) for an inflammatory article he wrote denouncing British intentions to introduce conscription in Ireland. Following his release, he stood for election as the Sinn Féin Candidate for Co. Laois, annihilating the sitting MP by a massive majority of 7,000 votes.
   When W. T. Cosgrove was appointed Minister for Local Government [by who], he recognised O’Higgins exceptional talents and took him on as his assistant. And when Cosgrave was arrested in 1920, it was no surprise to anyone when the Dáil appointed O’Higgins as his substitute, with Rory O’Connor as his secretary.
For the next year, the two men worked closely together from a boarding house on Gardiner Street where, with the British still ostensibly in charge of Dublin, O’Higgins lived under the assumed identity of law student Frank Wilson.

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Above: Kevin O'Higgins on his wedding day, flanked by Eamond de Valera and Rory O'Connor. His wife Birdie
Cole is presumably the lady seated in the middle.

   One of O’Higgins main tasks was to assist Collins in raising the National Loan. This involved extensive travel around Ireland, staying in safe-houses where the authorities would never know his whereabouts. Amongst these was Knockbeg College in Carlow where he had studied in more peaceful times. Fr Patrick J Doyle, the college Rector, was a strong sympathizer.
   While staying in the College on one of his fund-raising trips, O’Higgins was introduced to the 22-year-old English teacher, Brigid – or ‘Birdie’ - Cole.[iv] She was evidently a prized catch because O’Higgins had a rival for the young Longford woman’s affections – her fellow teacher Gearóid O’Sullivan, a 1916 veteran and close friend and cousin of Collins who happened to be in command of the 1st Battalion of the IRA’s Carlow Kildare Brigade.
   The depth of O’Higgins love for the woman became apparent when he declined an offer to serve as secretary to the team headed up by Collins and Arthur Griffith who went to London to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty. O’Higgins remained in Ireland because he wished to marry Birdie; Erskine Childers went as secretary in his place.
   Kevin O’Higgins and Birdie Cole were married on 27 October 1921 in the Carmelite Church on Dublin’s Whitefriar Street. It is said that O’Higgins, still a devout Catholic, fasted for a month before the big day.
Rory O’Connor stood as best man, with Eamon de Valera positioned closely nearby.
   Fr. Doyle, who delivered what he called ‘the last toast of this happy and memorable day’ urged everyone to raise their glasses ‘to the Men of 1916, Dead and Living … to the long life and happiness of the beloved living, and to the full culmination of their dearest wish, the liberty, the untrammelled liberty of Ireland’.[v]
Alas, the road ahead was to be very trammelled indeed.
   The Anglo-Irish Treaty destroyed the friendship of O’Higgins and O’Connor.
   Like Collins, O’Higgins saw it as a stepping stone to full, legislative independence. ‘I say it represents such a broad measure of liberty for the Irish People and it acknowledges such a large proportion of its rights, you are not entitled to reject it without being able to show that you have a reasonable prospect of achieving more’.
   O’Connor opposed the Treaty because it abolished the Irish Republic declared in 1916, which he had sworn to uphold.
   Slowly but assuredly, the opposing opinions began to harden as Ireland tumbled towards its darkest era.
In January 1922, the Dáil split, 64 in favour, 57 against.[vi] Both sides began stocking up weapons and transport.
   On 26th March 1922, O’Connor and other anti-treaty officers of the IRA held a convention in Dublin, in which they rejected the Treaty and repudiated the authority of Dáil Éireann. O’Connor became Chairman of the Military Council of the dissident IRA, which became known as the Irregulars. At a press conference some days earlier, he had hinted at the possibility of a military dictatorship.[vii]
   Less than three weeks later, O’Connor and 200 others took control of the Four Courts, the nerve centre of the Irish legal system. Their hope was that the British army, who were still based in Dublin, would attack them, thereby reigniting the war of independence and perhaps healing the split.[viii]
   Collins pleaded with them to leave the building, not least when the British began to threaten to do the very thing O’Connor was hoping and attack the Four Courts. From Collins perspective, allowing the British military to strike would have utterly undermined his own authority as commander-in-chief.
   Rumours abounded of an impending assassination attempt on Collins. On April 18th, O’Connor stated that this was just ‘mere propaganda’ and stated that ‘we do not want to kill anybody’.[ix]
   An uneasy truce collapsed when the occupants of the Four Courts kidnapped one of the Free State generals. Combined with the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson, a friend of Churchill, Collins came under so much pressure from the British that he ultimately buckled and gave the order to shell the Four Courts on 28th June 1922.
   Two days of heavy fighting ensued before a massive explosion detonated in the Public Records Office, which the Republicans were using as a munitions depot, destroying its priceless historical archive and blowing the roof off the building.
   As fire engulfed the Four Courts, Oscar Traynor, commandant of the Dublin Brigade, issued the order to surrender. O’Connor, wounded in the stomach, was amongst those who reluctantly complied. When the Free Staters conducted body searches, they missed two golden guineas O’Connor was carrying which had apparently been given to him as a souvenir by O’Higgins on his wedding day eight months earlier. He later had the coins sewn into the hem of his pants.
   O’Connor, Mellows and 140 other Four Courts occupants were rounded up and marched to Mountjoy Gaol where they were held, without trial.
   The shelling of the Four Courts ignited the Civil War. Following the deaths of Collins and Griffith in August 1922, O’Higgins and Cosgrave became the foremost figure of the Free State cabinet. After Collins assassination, a horrific era of tit-for-tat revenge killings ensued. Cosgrave and O’Higgins implemented martial law and enacted the necessary legislation to set up military courts. In November, the government began to execute Irregular prisoners, including Erskine Childers.
   In response, Liam Lynch, the Irregular’s Chief of Staff, gave an order that any member of the Dáil who had voted for the ‘murder legislation’ was to be shot on sight. Lynch’s order was taken literally and, on 7th December, Brigadier General Sean Hales, TD, was shot dead outside Leinster House.[x]
   Early the following morning, O’Higgins signed the warrants for the reprisal execution of four Irregular prisoners. There was to be one from each province so that the message of zero tolerance would reach every corner of Ireland.
   The condemned men were Liam Mellowes for Connaught, Dick Barrett for Munster, Joe McKelvey for Ulster – and Rory O’Connor for Leinster. By 9am, all four were dead.[xi] They were buried in Mountjoy; O’Connor had apparently requested that the gold coins O’Higgins gave be buried with him.
   The executions stunned Ireland but, in terms of halting the Irregulars’ assassination policy, they had the desired effect. The Free State government nonetheless continued to execute enemy prisoners and 77 official executions had taken place by the end of the war.
   O’Higgins became arguably the most influential member of the government during the first years of the Free State. In a bid to alleviate rampant unemployment, he initiated a massive road and house-building programmes, as well as drainage schemes. As Minister of Justice he took a heavy-handed approach to any form of aggression but arguably his greatest legacy was the creation of the civic guards, or Garda Siochána, which he deliberately envisioned as an un-armed peacetime police force.[xii]
   He became a regular visitor to London where he found himself embroiled in an extraordinary affair with Lady Laverty, reputed to be the former lover of Michael Collins.
   O’Higgins hard-line approach to law and order was undoubtedly the result of his personal experiences including the murder of his father, Dr. Higgins, who was gunned down in front of his wife on 11th February 1923 by unidentified assassins.
   O’Higgins was also to die by the gun, shot while walking from his home in Blackrock to midday mass in Booterstown on Sunday 10th July 1927. He did not die immediately but was taken back to his house, showing some of his self-depreciating sense of humour when he joked to those who carried him, ‘there is no hope. I should be dead by now, only I have always been a bit of a diehard.’
   Amongst his last words, he forgave his murderers, and then directed some lines to his wife Birdie.[xiii]
O’Higgins was only 35 years old when he died. Churchill described him as ‘a figure from antiquity cast in bronze’. He had certainly made a towering impact on the future direction of the Irish Free State. But the grim decision to accede to the execution of his own best man came at a huge and ultimately fatal cost.

 

FOOTNOTES

[i] John and Julia O’Connor published a letter abhorring Rory’s execution in The Weekly Irish Times of Saturday, December 16, 1922, page 2.

[ii] Born in Co. Westmeath, Dr. Higgins was a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and also served as medical officer for the Athy Union.
See http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1901/Queen_s_Co_/Stradbally/Town_of_Stradbally/1645194/ and http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/Queen_s_Co_/Timogue/Timogue/786866/

[iii] O’Higgins earned both a Bachelor of Arts Degree (1915) and an LLB (1919) from University College Dublin.

[iv] This could be the family of Bridget Mary Cole (1898-1961) - http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/pages/1911/Longford/Killow/Graigue/586583/ ??

[v] Toast given at Kevin O'Higgins' wedding by his best man, Rory O'Connor [sic]. UCD School of History and Archives. UCD Archives. Towards 2016. P197/248.

[vi] On 11 January 1922, the day Mulcahy replaced Cathal Brugha as Minister of Defence, O’Connor was amongst those who demanded the new minister summon a Volunteer Convention of the IRA. O’Connor’s men began raiding for arms and transport immediately, anticipating a civil war.

[vii] While the G.H.Q. leadership made a desperate attempt to achieve a rapprochement with the 1st Southern Division, Rory O'Connor, representing diehard republican resistance, held a press conference on 22 March. Showing “much feeling but little art”, he remarked that ‘there were times when revolution was justified and the army had overthrown the government in many countries in that way’. When asked if he supported a military dictatorship, he replied, ‘You can take it that way if you like’. [A New History of Ireland Volume VII: Ireland, 1921-84, edited by J. R. Hill]

[viii] From the Four Courts, they issued a series of intransigent press releases and organised nationwide bank raids. O’Connor and Mellows may have been the senior army executive men in the Four Courts but they yielded command to Paddy O’Brien of the Dublin Brigade, on grounds of military experience, and then to Ernie O’Malley when O’Brien was wounded. For more, see ‘Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland’ by Tim Pat Coogan, p. 321.

[ix] The Irish Times, Tuesday, April 18, 1922, p. 5.

[x] Hales was a member of the Provisional Government who’d voted for the Public Safety Bill, and a brother of anti-Treaty leader Tom Hales who commanded the ambush party that shot Collins. Sean Hales was shot by members of the 1st Dublin Brigade of the IRA while standing at the street corner alongside Padraig O Maille, Deputy Speaker of the Dáil, who was seriously wounded.

[xi] “Mass was said and litanies recited. O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey had communion; Mellowes did not. The men were blindfolded. The Governor stood to attention. Fr. Piggott persuaded the Governor to uncover Mellows' eyes and then took the man into his cell for confession. Treaties and political recantations were forgotten about. Fr. Piggott asked Fr. MacMahon to go into the chapel to obtain the Viaticum. He failed to return.” – Extracts from C. Desmond Graves.

They are the spirit of virtue now,
Prating of law and honour.
But we remember how they shot
Rory O’Connor.
Austin Clarke.

Liam Mellows last words were apparently as follows: ‘We die for Ireland, for the Republic, for the glorious cause that has been sanctified by the blood of countless martyrs throughout the ages - the cause of human liberty. The Republic stands for truth and honour, for all that is bets and noblest in our race. By truth and honour, by principle and sacrifice alone will Ireland be free. That this is immutable - Ireland must tread the path our Redeemer trod. She may shrink - but her faltering feet will find the road again. For that road is plain and broad and straight; its signposts are unmistakable’ (Liam Mellows by Eamonn O hEochaidh, Cumann of Sinn Fein (1975); Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution, C. Desmond Greaves (Lawrence and Wishart, 1971).

[xii] As Vice-President he carried the heaviest burdens alongside Cosgrave during those early years. His legal training came in useful with the drafting of the 1922 Constitution. He also had to deal with the Army Mutiny of 1924 after which he took on the additional Ministry of Justice. As such, he had the unenviable task of trying to re-establish order and peace with his former comrades who had become enemies. He took a hard-line approach to the ongoing aggression across Ireland and amongst the massive steps he took to quell it were several Public Safety acts and a deeply unpopular Intoxicating Liquor Act that reduced pub opening hours from sixteen to eleven a day. Arguably his greatest legacy was the creation of the civic guards or Garda Siochána which he deliberately envisioned as a un-armed peacetime police force. This was formed by O’Higgins while he served as Minister for Home Affairs under the Cumann Na nGaedheal administration that came to power in 1923. He showed a particular flair for overseas diplomacy, representing Ireland at the League of Nations in Geneva in [year] and again making his presence felt at the Imperial Conference of 1926, which saw the transformation of the British empire into a Commonwealth. One month before the 35-year-old’s death, his success was measured out when he was assigned the new office of External Affairs by the newly formed government. He was already held in high regard in London.

[xiii] He was shot by Bill Gannon, Tim Coughlan and Archie Doyle. The attack was witnessed by his cabinet colleague Dr. Eoin McNeill, Professor of Early Irish at University College Dublin, whose nephew had overseen the execution of Rory O’Connor. O'Higgins had a meeting with General O’Duffy, Chief Commissioner of the Civic Guards, earlier that day. When General O’Duffy heard the news, he motored to see him at his bedside, during which O’Higgins told Duffy: ‘I am dying. Goodbye. We have done good work in the past. Continue on the same lines in the future’. He then apparently added the magnanimous words, ‘I forgive my murderers’. He also directed a message to his wife.
According to a tale told to O’Higgins daughter Una O’Higgins O’Malley by Roger Gannon, son of Bill Gannon, O’Higgins told his attackers he understood why they shot him and said he forgave them but requested that this be their last killing. (p. 238, Unlikely Rebels: The Gifford Girls and the Fight for Irish Freedom, by Anne Clare).
When Shane Leslie told Lady Lavery the news the following night, she shook and sobbed in his arms for several hours and wondered, understandably, why every man who genuinely loved her ended up being killed.
He and Brigid had two daughters, Meav (b. June 1923) and Una (b. January 1927). A son, Finbarr Gerald, was also born in November 1924, but died in infancy.

FURTHER READING

'Kevin O’Higgins, The Pursuit of Sovereignty & the Impact of Partition, 1912–1949', Tomás O'Riordan (UCC Multitext Project in Irish History (http://multitext.ucc.ie/d/Kevin_OHiggins)

'Blood on the Shamrock: A Novel of Ireland's Civil War, 1916-1921', Cathal Liam.

'From pardon and protest: memoirs from the margins', Una O'Higgins O'Malley (Arlen House, 2001)

'Kevin O'Higgins: builder of the Irish state', John Patrick McCarthy (Irish Academic Press, 2006)

'Kevin O'Higgins’, Terence De Vere White (Anvil Books, 1966)


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