I USED to think that the best way to defend our first justice minister Kevin O'Higgins was simply to recite the Fine Gael version of his career, just as the Taoiseach did last week when unveiling a plaque in his honour.
And for all its limitations, this version can still make the pulse quicken.
Where outside the annals of Republican Rome would you find a figure like him?
He was the war minister who gave the last full measure of devotion to the infant Free State; Ireland's version of America's Edwin Stanton even, the wheezing Methodist who put iron into Lincoln's prosecution of the Confederate rebellion.
Garret FitzGerald said he thought about O'Higgins all the time as Taoiseach, and about how much he must have suffered when battling against the inevitable conclusion that nothing short of a firing squad would take his best man Rory O'Connor off the field.
Garret adored his father Desmond, of course, the foreign minister who flanked O'Higgins at the cabinet table where O'Connor's doom was ratified -- and to that extent, his emphasis on selfless nobility is understandable.
I loved that version when I was younger, seeing in the foundation of the Free State a dash of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the immortal speech that spoke of national life after individual death.
But as I got older, I saw that this version of O'Higgins' career actually diminishes him.
O'Higgins would probably have been baffled if someone told him that his insistence on breaking the anti-Treaty IRA through executions was "noble".
For all the mental stress occasioned by the cabinet's use of Bolshevik tactics against their former comrades, neither Cosgrave, O'Higgins, Blythe or FitzGerald ever regretted their decision.
For me, it's that very coldness in wielding the knife that makes them worth thinking about today. O'Higgins was a Victorian figure in his attitude towards violence.
Faced with an enemy like O'Connor, someone who regarded TDs, judges and even journalists as legitimate targets, the Victorian instincts of the Free State cabinet clicked into gear.
This instinct was given immortal form by James Anthony Froude in his study of 18th-Century Ireland, when he insisted briskly that "no government deserves to exist which permits those who have defied its authority to suffer no worse consequence than disappointment, and to remain with unimpaired means to renew the struggle at another opportunity".
That's as good a summary as we have of why the Free State cabinet sent 77 young men to their immortal reward rather than surrender to the anti-Treaty IRA.
Some scholars today think that O'Higgins over-reacted in 1922 and that the execution policy voided an embryonic compromise that was looming into view.
It's true that Liam Lynch hinted at one point that he would accept the Treaty provided Cosgrave and O'Higgins submitted it to a constituent assembly.
O'Higgins declined this invitation to parlay on the perfectly sensible ground that he was already a member of a constituent assembly; it was called Dail Eireann and it had already accepted the Treaty.
Now, this kind of abrasiveness isn't really "noble" in the way Fine Gael people talk about it.
O'Higgins haunts us today because he is nothing less than the patron saint of political realists.
He hovers over the debate about Section 31 orders that banned Provisional IRA spokespersons from the RTE airwaves because these orders rested on an insight that O'Higgins himself pioneered -- namely, the recognition that even the most accomplished revolutionary vanguard has vulnerabilities that must be exploited.
I doubt the American diplomat George Kennan ever heard of O'Higgins, but his famous telegram to President Kennedy about Khrushchev's tantrums opened with a line straight from the Free State handbook.
"Don't act chummy with them," Kennan scolded. "Don't assume a community of aims with them which does not really exist; don't make fatuous gestures of good will."
This may sound mean to those weaned on the rhetoric of the peace process, but in warning us that people sometimes get hurt in politics has, at the very least, the advantage of treating us like adults. This is probably the biggest debt we owe O'Higgins.
In his insistence that violence is sometimes our only true protection against fanaticism, he is our greatest critic of the liberal dream of rational politics.
O'Higgins offers a melancholy reminder that our democracy had to be protected in its mother's womb by bayonets.
And once you grasp that, appeals to the better angels of our nature lose all their ancient lustre.