Something very related to this infrequent series of mine came up in the last week, as the Taoiseach unveiled a small plaque dedicated to Kevin O’Higgins near the site where he was assassinated in 1927. The unveiling caused some discussion, some bitter commentary on Liveline, and a lot of bile all over the place.
Kevin O’Higgins, a lot more than anybody else, has become the poster-boy for Free State/pro-Treaty hatred from the Republican side. This is almost entirely to do with his part in the execution policy of the Civil War, with O’Higgins involved with the death warrants and firing squads of 77 people, most of them without anything resembling due process. Most infamous of all of them is probably Rory O’Connor, who was O’Higgins’ best man a while previous to the Treaty split. A good summation of the entire affair, for the uninitiated, is here.
So, in terms of the centenary decade and the remembrance of our past, the question is simply this: Should we be commemorating Kevin O’Higgins in this manner?
That question is built on shoddy foundations from the off though, because it makes the plaque sound like a veneration. It isn’t. It’s a very bare bones, matter of fact thing, that simply notes O’Higgins’ age, government position and that he was shot near the spot. That’s all. No praise, no positivity, no judgement on his killers. It’s an historical footnote on a wall.
If you check out many of the forum threads on Kevin O’Higgins, that I read up for this post, you’ll find a lot of hate for the man from various republicans. Check out this rather biased piece from An Phoblacht as well. I find the focus on O’Higgins kind of odd given the historical realities. He wasn’t the only person involved in the reprisal/execution policy, and there is evidence to suggest he resisted it for a time. Richard Mulcahy was just as pivotal in the decisions to undertake that policy. The standard Civil War hypocrisy comes into play in these discussions, as accusations of treason flung at O’Higgins can just as easily be flung back at the men who were executed.
In the end, I suspect the hatred that O’Higgins receives is a retroactive thing, applied as a means of excusing the cold brutality of his death. Mulcahy went on to have a successful political career and died of natural causes in 1971. O’Higgins was the man that the IRA actually got, so maybe the resentment still sent his way today comes from the need to justify that event, to give the IRA a “victory” and revenge against a target who arguably only deserves a fraction of the viciousness sent his way.
Perhaps I’m reaching a little. The historical myths of the modern republican movement are things that I try and ignore whenever possible. The discussion over O’Higgins, especially on the insipid conflict provoking hellhole that is Liveline, characterises some of the worst aspects of historical commentary, which you find everywhere, but seems to enter a new level of unreality when it’s Ireland under discussion.
There is no gray or middle ground to be found frequently. Kevin O’Higgins was a martyr, a competent and reliable Minister for Justice who made the hard decisions that helped bring an end to the unjustified anarchy of civil war, a war caused by the undemocratic actions of treasonous people like Rory O’Connor who dragged the country into an internecine conflict due to their own political blindness.
No wait, I’m wrong. O’Higgins was a war criminal, who approved and allowed the cold blooded murder of over 70 Irish patriots like the principled and heroic Rory O’Connor, whose only crime was a desire to continue the struggle to achieve complete freedom for the Irish nation and its people.
When it comes to historical debate, especially on such an unsuitable platform as anything chaired by a misery merchant like Joe Duffy, both stances are right and held as gospel to different people. It’s black and it’s white, there are heroes and villains.
It’s all nonsense and awful prejudiced history. O’Higgins was a crucial figure during the early development of the modern Irish state, a decent Minister who helped enormously with the set up of the Garda Siochana. I don’t doubt that the execution policy galled him and that he hoped it would be something that could lead to a cessation of hostilities. But it was still an abhorrent thing to do in the middle of a truly vicious conflict, and an ill-suited way for a western democracy to act in its infancy.
And Rory O’Connor was a patriot who probably did think that opposing the Treaty, for all the future difficulties that the victory of that side might entail, was the right thing for Ireland. That does not excuse the wilful ignorance of the peoples views on the subject, or the brutal actions of his own side during the Civil War (his own execution was a reprisal for a wilful anti-Treaty policy of shooting pro-Treaty TD’s, regardless of military affiliation) or the later murder of O’Higgins, shot down on the street as he was walking to Mass.
No one is a complete hero in history, just as no one is a complete villain. If you think that, truly think that, then you’re doing it wrong.
Remembrance doesn’t have to be veneration. It has to be educational first and foremost. Such a course is badly wanted in my opinion, after subjecting myself to the many inaccurate and infuriating viewpoints on this matter in the last few days.
Yes, Kevin O’Higgins deserves his plaque, just as Rory O’Connor deserves his street names. It really commemorates an event, not the man. In being put up, it is a small step to the further enlightening of people in regard their past. A plaque isn’t enough of course, it has to come with a committed educational policy in schools, publicity, documentaries (RTE, where are you?), and historical commentary based upon facts, logical interpretation of the sources, free from the bias and prejudice that has so tarnished Irish history over the last 80 years.
By educating ourselves on the reality of Kevin O’Higgins, Rory O’Connor and the events that linked the two men we will gain a greater appreciation for the rule of law, for peace and for the fact that we will hopefully never have to face the same decisions that the two men faced.
On a related note, I actually used something very similar to this in the Political discussion game that I came up with a while ago. During one of the sessions, my fictional Irish cabinet was presented with the issue of Monaghan county council raising a memorial to Eoin O’Duffy, IRA member, pro-Treaty general, but later fascist. The point was for the question of historical remembrance when a person’s record contains both negative and positive aspects to be addressed. Did O’Duffy’s ignominy in later life completely blot out his revolutionary record? As memory serves, the decision was to allow the unveiling of a small plaque in O’Duffy’s honour, with the issue largely ignored in political terms.
That’s rather how O’Higgins’ plaque is being treated, so I can pat myself on the back for getting that right, in a realistic sense.