THE JURIST and politician Tom O'Higgins was born shortly after the Easter Rising which led to the foundation of the Irish Free State. His political career was sustained in Fine Gael, which claimed descent from the cabinet of 1921. During his last months, the party he served has reached its lowest ebb. His long life in public service can be read as an index of personal integrity and political disappointment.
Thomas Francis O'Higgins was born in Cork, the hometown of his mother, Agnes (nee McCarthy). His father was a doctor attached to the barracks at Portobello in Dublin. The family was conventionally Catholic, and its army affiliation was not exceptional in professional, middle-class circles. Beside the barracks stood St Mary's College, run by the Holy Ghost fathers. By the time Tom entered its gates, the barracks had changed hands and an Irish tricolour flew from the mast. He completed his secondary education at Clongowes Wood, the Jesuit Alma Mater of James Joyce.
From boarding school in Kildare, O'Higgins returned home to enrol as a student at University College, Dublin, where he took a first class degree in legal and political science. In his professional examinations at the King's Inns he took first place, and was called to the bar in 1938.
The O'Higgins family had sacrificed much for Irish independence. A grandfather had been killed during the Civil War, and his uncle, Kevin O'Higgins (a "strong-man" minister) was murdered in 1927. Behind the turbulence of the 1920s lay a tradition of middle-class constitutionalism reasserted in Tom O'Higgins's career as politician and lawyer. The elections of 1948 swept three members of the family into Dail Eireann, and returned Fine Gael to power after 16 years: Tom O'Higgins took a seat in Laois-Offaly.
In the 1950s, the pace of Irish political life allowed even diligent deputies to pursue their non- political careers: Fine Gael was distinguished by the number of practising barristers on its benches. In 1954, O'Higgins was promoted Senior Counsel and appointed Minister for Health in a second coalition government. …