Monday 24 October 2016

O'Higgins the barrister is throwing the book at us

Declan Lynch meets Michael O'Higgins SC, who has just published his first thriller 'Snapshots'

Published 11/10/2015 | 02:30

Senior Council Michael O'Higgins who has just written his debut novel 'Snapshots' outside Dublin's Four Courts
Senior Council Michael O'Higgins who has just written his debut novel 'Snapshots' outside Dublin's Four Courts

Gonzaga ... Trinity ... Harvard ... Kings Inns ... when we are writing about Ireland's leading barristers we tend to start off with such illustrious landmarks, but with Michael O'Higgins it's a bit more complicated.

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Hot Press ... Harold's Cross ... The Leinster Inn ... try these instead. It was while he was writing for Hot Press magazine in the 1980s, and living in a bedsit in Harold's Cross, that O'Higgins received a visit from The General or The-Man-Who-Says-He-Is-Not-The General as he then was, who lived in the area and who agreed to be interviewed for the magazine.

Having allegedly destroyed the greens at Stackstown, the Garda golf club, the General was now trying to come to terms with the fact that his own car had been smashed up outside his house which was supposedly under 24-hour Garda surveillance.

"I can't believe it, they've come down to my level", he said, with real sadness.

I was living nearby, and would meet my then Hot Press colleague O'Higgins in The Leinster Inn for "the last pint". And given the sort of characters he was writing about at that time, it might indeed have been the last pint in every sense - having lived through that day with the General, he went to Majorca to interview Christy Dunne, and he was in ongoing talks with various paramilitaries in the North.

A very interesting article got away from both of us when you consider that by taking a certain route to The Leinster Inn we would pass the house of Father Michael Cleary, who was within, living with what can best be described as his wife and family.

Sinking our last pints and talking about our hopes and dreams, I knew that Michael had originally intended to get into the Law, but I felt that he was getting on so well at the journalism he would be a fool to give it up for the uncertainties of that abysmal trade - he was also starting to work for Magill magazine and for this paper too.

Ah but the fool, the fool ... he did not heed my advice and here he is now, back at the writing again, the author of a crime thriller called Snapshots.

Being rigorously honest I would have to note in passing that in the intervening years, he did become one of the most admired and sought-after Senior Counsel of our time. So arguably he did not completely ruin his life with that one poor decision.

He has successfully defended 'Seanie' FitzPatrick, and prosecuted Wayne Dundon for murder. But most of his work is on the defence side, and there is a question that everyone asks - how do you feel about defending people you believe to be guilty?

"That is the ONLY question anyone ever asks", he says. "Most times if it looks a particular way, it's because it is a particular way. But not every time ... the nearest it would come to, is where a client might be advised, looking at the evidence against you there's a confession and there's a basis for contesting the admissability of the confession ... and if the judge does rule it out because of some sort of procedural deficiency, a verdict of not guilty will follow.

"Anyone is entitled to put the State on proof. Of course if the client says to you, I did it, you can't advance a case that he's not guilty.

"I am loath to compare lawyers and doctors - I think doctors have a far higher social value - but a doctor performs an operation whether the person is a mass murderer or a great philanthropist. You do the operation, you don't get too involved in the person's moral make up."

During those years in which he was neglecting his journalism just for the empty thrill of being a massively successful barrister, O'Higgins also picked up a couple of Hennessy Awards for his short stories. And now his essentially romantic nature - or as he puts it, the "sad bastard" in him - has brought forth this novel.

After five years working on it, he threw away three-quarters of it. So clearly he was going about this the right way. When he submitted it to publishers, he did not receive rejection slips - from some publishers he did not receive anything at all, and longed for the rejection slip. But he carried on, aware that the Law can stifle the imagination. "Lawyers will get sued if they use too much imagination", he says.

Eventually it was accepted by New Island, this novel which is described by Dermot Bolger as "superbly crafted", which "pulsates with an exact sense of 1980s Ireland and a remarkable array of characters."

For those of us who have always tried to offer him the best advice, it is good to see that Michael has not been entirely wasting his time.

Sunday Independent

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