Saturday 24 August 2019

Whilst the future is brighter, shadow of the gunman still haunts our psyche

Michael Collins and Kevin O'Higgins at Arthur Griffith's
Michael Collins and Kevin O'Higgins at Arthur Griffith's

Gerard O’Regan

The trees along Mount Merrion Avenue - one of the more salubrious streets in the Dublin suburb of Blackrock - stood stark and gaunt in a mid-winter mix of sunshine and rain this week.

The soft rustle among the branches seemed to speak of dark and terrible deeds which still lurk in our national psyche. These were especially brought to mind in recent days, by the current chasm between official Sinn Féin ideology, and the reality of the murder of prison officer Brian Stack.

On this thoroughfare the blood lust which underpinned so much of a new Ireland, stumbling towards nationhood, would be played out with grievous intent.

It all started a few weeks before Christmas back in 1922 when Cork TD, Sean Hales, a member of the newly created Irish Dáil, was shot dead near Dublin's city centre.

Some reports said he had earlier been having lunch in a hotel in Ormond Quay with a fellow TD. They were less than a 10-minute walk away from the ruins of the Four Courts destroyed in a battle at the outbreak of civil war in July. These were turbulent times. But on their way to Leinster House two gunmen opened fire. Hales died and his companion was seriously wounded. Both had been active in the drive towards independence, but had come out in favour of the Treaty which gave independence to 26 of the 32 counties.

Following the assault, ministers in the new Irish government met in emergency session. They concluded this attack could not go unpunished if the new state was to survive.

After an all-night debate, it was decided retaliatory executions would be carried out, and a number of anti-treaty prisoners would be shot by firing squad.

The man who ultimately gave the go-ahead for the executions was Justice Minister Kevin O'Higgins. It meant he was signing the death warrant of his friend, Rory O'Connor, who had been best man at his wedding a few months before.

It remains one of the most recounted stories of the period, highlighting some of the visceral divisions during the civil war era - and more importantly the gap between those who would pursue their politics by peaceful means and those who would resort to the gun.

O'Higgins, born in Stradbally, Co Laois, where his father was a local doctor, had emerged as the most forceful personality among a group of politicians who saw themselves as charged with establishing and consolidating a new and independent state in Ireland.

One of his primary achievements was the creation of a national police force, An Garda Síochána, which in sharp contrast to the policies pursued north of the Border, and in Britain, would remain unarmed. A social conservative reflective of the times, he won admiration for trying to revise the licensing laws, and reduce the level of alcohol abuse and drunkenness blighting the lives of countless families.

However, there has been speculation that despite his strong views on private morality, he may have been 'close' to the aristocratic Lady Lavery. Her other claim to fame is that she was rumoured to have been romantically linked to Michael Collins, who would also suffer a violent death. However, the degree of intimacy she allegedly shared with both men has never been substantiated.

But all such considerations are minor, compared to what would happen five years later in July 1927 on Mount Merrion Avenue, when Kevin O'Higgins was walking to Sunday Mass. He did not have a member of the newly created Garda Síochána as his usual protection escort; it is understood the officer had been dispatched to nearby Blackrock village to buy cigarettes.

Three man were waiting in a car - one stepped out and shot O'Higgins in the head. He was brought to his home nearby, where he succumbed a few hours later.

Nobody was ever charged with the murder, although the identity of his killers would subsequently be known. "On seeing him … we were just taken over and incensed with hatred," one of them said later.

The daughter of Kevin O Higgins, Una, was just five months old when her father was murdered, and yet she would spend her life relentlessly campaigning for reconciliation in Ireland north and south.

But the legacy of violence has still snared its way through the decades. However, there are grounds for some serious hope that the island of Ireland has crossed something akin to a great divide with the past, thanks to 'the peace process'. With each passing day it grows stronger.

But Mount Merrion Avenue will still hold its memories. And all too recent events remind us - the shadow of the gunman still haunts the Irish psyche.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss