Exceptional Cambridge academic and mentor


Prof Paul O'Higgins: PROFESSOR PAUL O'Higgins who died on March 13th, 2008 at 80 years of age, was an internationally renowned academic, as well as a teacher and mentor of incomparable talent and achievements.

For much of his professionally active life, he was based in Cambridge University in England - initially as a research student at Clare College (1957-1959) and thereafter as a fellow at Christ's College and as a lecturer and then reader in the university. Many of the great and the good in English public life were inspired by him as students before going on to careers in politics and the law, as well as into academia around the world.

What perhaps for many of those who studied under him, and their friends and companions, is most memorable was the unstinting hospitality he showed. Tutorials invariably were embellished with tea and cakes. Every Sunday afternoon, during term time, he and his wife Rachel, hosted afternoon tea for what at the time could be up to 20 or 30 students and others, who had not departed for London at the weekend.

Occasionally those sessions ran into the late evening and, when a largely Celtic fringe group would stay on, the "drop" was produced and the "rare ould times" in Dublin would be poured over.

His parents were from the west of Ireland. They moved to England, where his father worked as a vet and, having fought with the British army in the first World War with distinction, winning two MCs, he served in the Irish Army during the second World War.

His mother lectured in Italian literature at Trinity College, Dublin. Having attended a boys preparatory school in Pinner in Middlesex, he went to St Ignatius in Galway and then to St Columba's in Dublin, where he had an outstanding Leaving Certificate.

He studied medicine at Trinity College, becoming heavily involved in left-wing student politics but, disapproving of his views, the medical school authorities would not permit him sit his final year examinations in 1951. He thereupon switched to law, was called to the bar by the King's Inns and graduated in 1957 with a high first class honours degree. That secured him a scholarship to Cambridge.

His PhD at Clare College is one of the most exceptional works in English legal literature, showing a deep knowledge of history and of international affairs, and was written in a most attractive no-nonsense style. The subject was political asylum, especially in the context of extradition. It was never published as a book but chapters from it and adaptations of it were published in several internationally-renowned legal journals. On the strength of this work, in 1959, he became a research fellow at Christ's and later a full fellow of the college.

As well as his teaching responsibilities at Christ's, he was director of studies at Peterhouse and also taught at Clare, at King's and at New Hall.

From the mid-1960s his principal focus was on legal aspects of employment, trade unionism and social security. Along with Bill (later Lord) Wedderburn, he established an undergraduate course in labour law.

Paul was an enthusiastic collector of old Irish legal books and documents. For his mammoth bibliographies of Irish trials and also of Irish legal periodical literature, he obtained an award from the American Association of Law Librarians.

Among his contributions to Irish legal history are his essays on Arthur Browne and on William Sampson - both TCD graduates who became eminent in US legal circles at the beginning of the 19th century. His contribution to Ireland's legal scholarship was recognised by TCD and by Cambridge, from which he received LLD degrees, and by the Royal Irish Academy, which in 1986 elected him as a fellow.He was an avid supporter of trade unionism and the labour movement, and also of adult education.

A great disappointment to him was the refusal of TCD to appoint him to the Regius Chair in 1970 when Bueno McKenna SC retired. The general consensus was that he was the most outstanding candidate for the job but was not acceptable on account of his past political views and activities - which included having campaigned for TCD to cease flying the Union Jack over its front gate.

Fifteen years later, Trinity made up for that and appointed him to the chair. But for health and personal reasons, as well as frustration with the paucity of resources for the Law School, in 1987 he returned to England, becoming a professor at King's College, London as well as Vice Master at Christ's until 1995.

In 1952 he married Rachel Bush, daughter of the composer Alan Bush. He is survived by Rachel and by their son Niall, three daughters Maeve, Siobhan and Niav, and three grandchildren, his brother Maurice and his sister Anne.

Paul O'Higgins: born October 5th 1927; died March 13th, 2008.