There is a letter in the military pensions archive which for President Michael D Higgins brings back painful memories of his father's struggles. The youngest of 10 children, John Higgins was active in the War of Independence and afterwards in the Civil War on the anti-Treaty side.
The cliché that the Civil War set brother against brother is all too true in the case of the Higgins family, who were originally from Ballycar near Newmarket-on-Fergus in Co Clare. His father and Aunt Kitty were anti-Treaty, his uncles Peter, who joined the National Army, and Michael were pro-Treaty.
Those who were anti-Treaty were caught on the wrong side of history. They were blamed for starting the Civil War, a conflict which arguably surpassed both the Easter Rising and War of Independence in viciousness and destruction and left an enduring bitterness.
Before the Civil War, John Higgins had a decent job in the employment of grocers Owen Binchy and Sons in Charleville, Co Cork, on a salary of £130 a year and £50 travelling expenses.
He was arrested in January 1923 during the Civil War and interned in the Curragh in a vast camp known as Tintown. He was eventually released in December 1923.
In January 1924, John Higgins’s widowed mother died. His old employer refused to take him back, even after a deputation of his old IRA comrades pleaded on his behalf.
John Higgins writes in his submission for a pension to the military services pensions board in 1935: “He [Owen Binchy] refused to do so. With the result that I was idle until the 1st Aug 1924 when I got a position as a junior grocer’s assistant from Michael Nolan, Eyre Street, Newbridge, Co Kildare, at a salary of £50 per year indoor. At the time very few people would employ an ex-internee.”
Known republican family
At the age of 30, his father had to start again on a salary which was less than a third of what he was earning before the Civil War. The Nolans were a known republican family and may have employed Michael D Higgins’s father on that basis when other employers were turning their back on those who had been anti-Treaty. In recent years, a member of the Nolan family sent the President a photograph with the window of the room he stayed in marked with an X.
Michael D Higgins recalls: “My father did say one thing that affected me very much. When he came out, the names of the ex-internees were given in [to the authorities] for any trouble that was going on. That affected him.” John Higgins was interned in the Curragh during a period when prisoners on both sides were being taken out and randomly shot. He feared a similar fate.
Michael D Higgins was born in 1941. In 1946, he and his brother, also called John, were sent to live with his Uncle Peter on the family farm in Ballycar. Peter Higgins was also a War of Independence veteran and ex-National Army. He was awarded a pension without demur after he was discharged from the Army in 1924. He died in 1957.
At the time when Michael D Higgins and his brother were moved, his father had been in ill health, suffering from bronchitis and chest pains exacerbated by years on the run, and his mother was struggling with four young children. As is also evident from the files, John Higgins was struggling financially.
He realised early that if he was to make a living after the Civil War, he would have to go it alone, so he opened a pub. “The only way you could get going was to rent a premises and he rented No 1 Catherine Street in Limerick,” the President says.
“He got out of the pub thing and he opened a shop during the war and everybody had ration books. Times were very tough. He was very unfortunate by economic circumstances. I loved my father and of course my uncle [Peter] and aunt [Kitty]. My uncle and aunt were extraordinarily kind. My Aunt Kitty in particular was terribly dedicated to my brother and myself and to our education.”
Kitty Higgins, who died suddenly in the 1950s, was the subject of Michael D Higgins’s poem
. The President remembers Peter Higgins as a “very fine person. He was very committed to the Free State way of thinking.” During the 1950s a stream of his old comrades would come to the farmhouse looking for Peter Higgins to sign forms so they could claim for a military pension.
Michael Higgins, the President’s other uncle, died in 1941. There was no conflict between Peter and Kitty Higgins but his father and Peter were not as close as they should have been as a result of the Civil War. “My father and my uncle were not antagonistic to each other but I just felt that a bond had been broken and I don’t think my father was ever able to fully recover it,” Michael D Higgins says. “It makes me sad to think of the division. My uncle and my father never discussed it very much with us as children.”
The President is convinced his father’s long struggle to get a military pension was due to his anti-Treaty activities. “No hesitation at all in that. People who went to on to have property and defined addresses were able to assemble all their evidence easier. I think you will see, my father sends all the stuff (application forms) and it gets lost. It was of the nature of the side they were on, they were more scattered. Isn’t it extraordinary the difference there was about what side you were on? If you were dealt with on the Free State side, you were dealt with quite early,” he says.
In one of his early poems, The Betrayal, Michael D Higgins made his feelings known about how his father was treated in the State he had fought to create. His father had to pay for glasses in contrast to Éamon de Valera who travelled to Zurich for regular tests. He recalled in the poem how his father "had slept in ditches and dug-outs, prayed in terror at ambushes".
The President believes his father’s activities during the War of Independence were legitimised by the 1918 British general election result in which the British government rejected a resounding electoral mandate from nationalist Ireland seeking complete independence.
His father had been part of a “highly disciplined force” – his company in Charleville had 87 men in it. They were fighting a “defined enemy”, the President points out. “When people are making great statements about all of these things, you have to try and be fair in relation to the circumstances of the time.”
Price of a life
Four years after finally receiving his pension at the age of 66, John Higgins suffered a major stroke. He died on December 14th, 1963, aged 69.
The President vividly recalls the price of a life given for Irish freedom after his father died. “I remember the calculation about the amount of pension he was entitled to. It comes out at £9.4s.3d. You got a form and you were asked if you had any outstanding income tax or probate. My father had no property because the farm he was living on was owned by his brother. There was a huge bureaucracy attached to the process.”