#OTD in 1927 – Kevin O’Higgins, the Free State Minister for Justice, is assassinated while on his way to Mass at the Church of the Assumption by three anti-Treaty members.

Kevin O’Higgins the Irish Minister for Justice is gunned down by Anti-Treaty activists on his way to Sunday Mass. O’Higgin’s own father had been gunned down by the IRA in 1923.

Kevin O’Higgins had attracted the hatred of the anti-Treaty IRA for his actions in the name of the Free State, Ireland’s newly-formed nationalist government under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Though he had once taken up arms against the occupying British, he went on to the pro-Treaty side and fought against men with whom he had once served. O’Higgins was ultimately assassinated by the anti-Treaty IRA for signing the death warrants of 77 republicans and fellow Irishmen during the Civil War.

While the Civil war typically divided public opinion and political loyalty, the war created personal divisions for many Irishmen. O’Higgins, in the aftermath of the Free State’s successful battle to regain control of the Four Courts from the anti-Treaty IRA forces led by his former comrades, was involved in the decision to execute the captured IRA members. Among those executed after the Four Courts battle was Rory O’Connor. O’Connor had been best man at O’Higgins’ wedding, merely one year before he was dealt the most severe of punishments.

O’Connor and the other executed republicans, who died for their part in the Four Courts siege and the killing of Free State member of parliament, Sean Hales, were subsequently seen as martyrs by the Republican movement. The aftermath of the Four Courts battle, during which the Free State troops used British artillery for the first time, provided impetus for the divided Irish to once more take arms, marking the beginning of the Civil War.

Kevin O’Higgins’ death brought an abrupt and inevitable end to the life of a hugely successful and influential politician. O’Higgins, throughout his career, held many political offices; as well as being a minister of three separate departments throughout his life he represented Ireland at the League of Nations, proving himself to be a vaunted speaker and an unyielding politician.

O’Higgins divided Irish opinion during his lifetime and this continues after his death. He was referred to as the “Irish Mussolini” by his opponents for his assertive politics and unrelenting methods in supporting the implementation of law and order. An Phoblacht described O’Higgins as “one of the most blood-guilty Irishmen of our generation”. O’Higgins also had supporters, at home and abroad. Winston Churchill, who had experienced O’Higgins’ methods first-hand, described him as “a figure out of the antique cast in bronze”. The Irish Times also paid tribute to O’Higgins after his death, declaring: “…of no other Irishman can it be said with more truth that he dedicated splendid gifts whole-heartedly, unsparingly, religiously, to his country’s service”.

In July 2012, Taoiseach Enda Kenny unveiled a commemorative plaque to his memory at the site in Booterstown where he was shot.

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