Ryle Dwyer recalls the assassination of Kevin O’Higgins and how, many years later, his family decided to have Mass said for his three killers
NINETY years ago, today , then minister for justice Kevin O’Higgins was murdered on his way to Sunday Mass at Church of the Assumption in Booterstown, Co Dublin.
His killing was primarily in revenge for the execution of four Republicans leaders on December 8, 1922, after the IRA had shot two deputies heading for the Dáil the previous day.
Ironically, O’Higgins was one of the last members of the cabinet to agree to the execution. The then government was essentially warning the Republicans that it would execute twice as many Republican prisoners in retaliation for the death of any Dáil deputy.
O’Higgins became a particular hate figure, because Rory O’Connor, one of those executed, had been best man at O’Higgins’s wedding the previous year. On the day of the executions, he defended them as a deterrent.
“It was done coldly,” O’Higgins told the Dáil that afternoon. “It was done deliberately.”
He added that it was done without personal spite, or vindictiveness, as it was the only way that “representative government or democratic institutions” could be maintained.
“One of these men was a friend of mine,” he added.
At that point, he burst into tears, and collapsed sobbing into his seat, unable to continue.
In view of the four executions following the shooting of the two deputies on December 1922, there must have been apprehension about the likely reaction to the assassination of a senior cabinet member in July 1927. That there was no violent reaction on this occasion was possibly attributable to O’Higgins.
Garda Sergeant Sweeney of Blackrock went to aid of O’Higgins after the shooting. “I knelt beside Mr O’Higgins and asked if he could make a statement,” Sweeney recalled.
O’Higgins replied: “I was walking along Cross Avenue. Three men were waiting for me at the corner. They fired at me. One of them followed me and shot me. They were young men about 20 or 25 years; dark complexion, medium build.”
Sweeney then said: “I asked him if he would know them again, or did he know them, and he replied not. He then told me he was dying.”
Thus, there would be no possibility of identifying them later.
“I forgive my murderers,” O’Higgins stressed. He was brought back to his home, where he remained conscious for some before time he expired, almost five hours later.
He told his wife that he forgave his assailants.
“You must have no bitterness in your heart for them,” he emphasised.
Nobody was ever convicted in connection with the assassination. The security files covering the murder, which were released in 1997, showed that Charles Haughey took a particular interest in the case as minister for justice in 1963.
Peter Berry, the then secretary of the department of justice, told Haughey that “the police were pretty well satisfied that one of the murderers was Mick Price,” the IRA’s director of intelligence. The names of other suspects read like a who’s who of Irish Republicans, according to Berry.
Seán Russell, Ernie O’Malley, and Seán MacBride were the chief suspects.
“MacBride was arrested and charged with conspiracy to murder,” Berry noted. “He was able to prove an alibi.”
He had gone to England on the Friday beforehand, moved on to Belgium next day, and was in Brussels on the Sunday morning of the killing. Even Éamon de Valera and Frank Aiken were under suspicion. As O’Higgins lay dying, he referred to de Valera.
“Tell my colleagues, they must beware of him in public life he will play down to the weakness of the people.”
Next morning, the Garda Chief Superintendent Jas Brennan in Cork wrote to David Neligan, head of the Special Branch, that senator James Dowdall had warned O’Higgins “to be careful as he believed an attack would be made on his life by Fianna Fáil people.” He placed “direct responsibility on Dev.”
“It would be most dangerous,” Berry warned Haughey, “to allow the official records as to the murder to be ever published. They are full of innuendo, conjecture, conclusions based on hearsay, etc, etc.”
If any of those people had been involved in the shooting, O’Higgins would undoubtedly have recognised them. He did not know his killers, and they were not named among the suspects in the files. It was almost 60 years later before they were named publicly. By then of course, all were dead.
Brian Looney, a future editor of the Irish Examiner, named them in the Irish Press on October 8, 1985, following an interview with Harry White, a former IRA chief of staff.
The three assailants were Bill Gannon, Archie Doyle and Tim Coughlan. They were reportedly on their way to a football game when they seized the chance to shoot O’Higgins, walking alone, without a body guard.
“Bill Gannon told me that he and Archie Doyle were two of the assassins, and he asked that I set the historical record straight after his death,” White said. “By naming them at this stage,” White added, “I’m finishing a chapter of Irish history.”
He had no qualms about the assassination of O’Higgins.
“As minister for justice, he ordered the murder of his former friends, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Dick Barrett and Joe McKelvey in Mountjoy Jail,” White said. “That’s why he was killed.”
Nine months later, on the 60th anniversary of her father’s assassination, Una O’Higgins-O’Malley, the youngest daughter of Kevin O’Higgins, made a magnificent request that the anniversary Mass at the Church of the Assumption in Booterstown be celebrated for her father and his three killers.
“It would have been his wish that their names should be included in the Mass,” she declared.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved