Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

Afterimage of the Revolution: Kevin O'Higgins and the Irish Revolution (1)

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

Afterimage of the Revolution: Kevin O'Higgins and the Irish Revolution (1)

Article excerpt

KEVIN O'Higgins once famously referred to himself as one of "the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution." (2) This comment, however revealing, seems to have obscured later historical views of O'Higgins, which have largely focused on the conservative and ignored the revolutionary side of his legacy. Recent works, in fact, have depicted him as the arch counter-revolutionary, helping to snuff out any promise of radical change inherent in the Irish revolution. His own boast notwithstanding, the term counter-revolutionary is misleading when applied to O'Higgins. As used in the literature on the Irish revolution, the term is often conceptually vague and assumes that there was in fact one monolithic Irish revolution that Kevin O'Higgins and his cronies struggled to overturn. There were, instead, multiple ideas and ideals contained within the Irish revolution, and O'Higgins--like de Valera, Collins, or any other Irish revolutionary--drew on a number of these in constructing his vision of post-independence Irish society. Certainly, O'Higgins's focus on self-determination and self-government was part of the Sinn Fein tradition, and to describe him as a counter-revolutionary masks the deep changes that he sought to make in Irish political culture, falsely disconnect him from the Irish revolution that brought him to power. O'Higgins's own vision of the revolution centered on self-determination, which he saw as its greatest fruit. For O'Higgins Irish self-government would have to be accompanied by a change in the Irish political mentality whereby the Irish people would assume responsibility for their own affairs and accept that the Dail was the proper place to settle those affairs. Britain could no longer be blamed for all of Ireland's problems, nor could every violation of law be seen as heroic and politicized. Ireland, according to O'Higgins, needed to develop a sense of civic virtue, understanding the fact that rights and responsibilities flowed both ways between state and people. This was the heart of Kevin O'Higgins's revolution. This relationship between Kevin O'Higgins and the Irish revolution needs to be reexamined and recovered, and he needs once again to be placed in his revolutionary context.

Arguably, O'Higgins was much more important in the development of modern Ireland than Michael Collins, whose early death robbed him of a chance to make much more than an indirect mark on the new Irish state. Despite this, the larger-than-life Collins has received considerably more attention from historians than the less dashing O'Higgins. There has still been only one full-length biography of O'Higgins: Terence de Vere White's Kevin O'Higgins, first published in 1948. (3) After over fifty years this biography remains the most favorable treatment of O'Higgins, depicting him as a committed democrat who was tragically misunderstood by colleagues, enemies, and the Irish public alike. De Vere White also characterized O'Higgins as the strongman of the Cumann na nGaedheal government, the person who unwaveringly and almost singlehandedly crushed the anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War. F.S.L. Lyons's textbook, Ireland since the Famine, is also fairly complimentary to O'Higgins, recognizing his ability and vision as well as the tremendous void left by his premature death. (4) A recent work by Tom Garvin--much of whose analysis of Civil War republicanism could have been written by O'Higgins himself--also gives credit to "the technical virtuosity displayed by the pro-Treaty leaders in putting together a new, democratic, and generally law-bound state." (5)

However, this has not been the usual view of O'Higgins, whose reputation has suffered generally at the hands of historians. Overall assessments have ranged from outright condemnation to benign neglect, but generally when O'Higgins is discussed his conservative, reactionary, or counter-revolutionary credentials have been placed at the forefront. …

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