Condolences from British PM feature in Kevin O’Higgins exhibition
Assassination of minister for justice in July 1927 changed course of Irish politics
Kevin O’Higgins, who was deputy premier as well as minister for justice, was murdered on his way to Mass in Dublin in July 1927.
Telegrams of condolences from British prime minister Stanley Baldwin and prime minister of Northern Ireland Viscount Craigavon (James Craig) following the murder of minister for justice Kevin O’Higgins 90 years ago this year feature in an exhibition at the Department of Justice which opens today.
The exhibition formally marks the death of Kevin O’Higgins, one of the department’s most dynamic ministers, who was assassinated on a quiet suburban road in south county Dublin 90 years ago.
As part of archives week, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan is opening the exhibition, which includes a variety of documents and photographs which form part of a large file on the O’Higgins murder held by the department.The event will be attended by leading political figures and members of the extended O’Higgins family.
Kevin O’Higgins, who was deputy premier as well as minister for justice, was murdered on his way to Mass in July 1927 and the shocking nature of the event changed the course of Irish politics.
The government led by WT Cosgrave immediately enacted legislation to force Fianna Fáil to either take its seats in the Dáil or be excluded from the electoral process. The move forced Fianna Fáil to end its policy of abstention from the Dáil.
Despite the brutal murder of such a prominent political figure, the Irish State drew an official veil over the incident, with nothing formal in the way of commemoration over the 90 years that followed.
The telegram from Baldwin to Cosgrave on the day of the assassination, July 10th, 1927, read: “Loss will be felt. Please accept on behalf of myself and my colleagues our deepest sympathy. We should be grateful if you would convey to Mrs O’Higgins our very sincere condolences.”
The telegram from Craigavon at Stormont Castle to Cosgrave on the same day expressed similar sentiments: “I am horrified to learn of brutal assassination of Mr Kevin O’Higgins and tender deepest sympathy on behalf of the government of Northern Ireland and myself.”
There was also a telegram from John and Hazel Lavery to Cosgrave the day after the murder: “Absolutely heartbroken for Kevin. His noble work will never die he lives forever for Ireland and in our hearts.”
A letter from artist Sarah Purser to O’Higgins’s widow, Brigid, struck a more personal note: “My Dear. You must be weary of letters and sympathy which can go so little way to fill the void but still I must send you one more to say you are always in my thoughts and that we must always be good friends. The loss to the unfortunate country seems every day worse and worse. I hope you and the dear little daughters keep well. When you are home again you will let me come see you.”
Another exhibit is a telegram from the then world famous tenor John McCormack to Cosgrave.“May I express to you and your colleagues my most profound sympathy on the dreadful tragedy that has only overtaken you words futile things at such a time. Poor Kevin.”
There was also a heartfelt letter from Tom Casement, whose brother Roger had been executed by the British in 1916. “Dear Mr Cosgrave, I am just shocked at the sinister news. Poor dear Kevin O’Higgins. I feel from my heart that you will feel this very deeply and I feel that all men who stand for the causes of Ireland are just helpless to do anything. Where men can do what they did yesterday there appears to be no hope for our country. What can we do. I would shoot de Valera & his gang with great pleasure if I could put the crime on their shoulders, but it is hard to place it. You have all our deep sympathy & I wish I could do more than just write. No answer is needed. I just wanted to tell you how I feel on this matter & how much I would like to help you. Your friend, Tom Casement.”
There are more than 1,000 documents in the O’Higgins file including witnesses statements to gardaí. It was sent to the National Archives some time ago but was not available for public consultation as it had not been catalogued. The full file will be returned to the National Archives where it will be made available to researchers.
O’Higgins was killed on July 10th, 1927 and his funeral took place three days later after a requiem Mass at St Andrew’s Church, Westland Row. The funeral cortège stretched for over three miles along thronged and silent Dublin streets, with 10 lorryloads of flowers behind the family wreaths.
He was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, in the same grave as his infant son, Finbarr Gerald. He was survived by Brigid and two daughters, Maev, born in 1923, who became a Carmelite nun and is still alive, and Una, born in 1927, who died in 2005.
The exhibition is not open to the public, but the entire file on Kevin O'Higgins will shortly be sent to the national archives where it can be accessed.