Memorial to Dr Thomas Higgins and sons Kevin O'Higgins & Thomas F. O'Higgins, Stradbally
by Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence
There is a somewhat curious monument in the court square in Stradbally. Erected ‘In memory of a brave father and two worthy sons’ its curiosity lies in the fact that it commemorates two pro-Treaty victims of the political violence of the 1920s, something which is comparatively rare, and in that it does not mention the circumstances of their deaths. It carries no equivalent to the ‘Died in Defence of the Republic’ that adorns the monuments of their anti-Treaty opponents. The obelisk is in memory of two sons of Stradbally and their father, the sons are Kevin O’Higgins, T.D., minister in both the revolutionary underground government and in the first cabinets of the Irish Free State, and victim of an I.R.A. assassination in July 1927, and his brother Thomas, a T.D. as well, and an Army officer and a prominent participant in the political polarisation of the early 1930s, before ministerial position in the first inter-party government of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Their father, also a Thomas, is also memorialised here and comes into the drama and tragedy more by virtue of being their father than by himself being a protagonist in the fratricidal conflict. On the 11th of February 1923 Dr. Thomas Higgins was slain in an Irish Republican Army raid on his home — part of the ugly bloody trail of reprisal and counter-reprisal that marked that dark interminable winter.
Dr. Thomas Higgins was coroner for the Queen’s County from 1882 until 1923, working as a doctor sometime in Clonaslee and after that Maryborough but for most of that time he resided in Stradbally. There he had a private medical practise as well as being the dispensary doctor. Living first in the town he later moved his growing family to a 100-acre farm in Woodlands to Stradbally’s south. ‘Growing’ is perhaps an understatement — there were sixteen children in all.
Unlike some of his sons this Higgins was a strong supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party — his wife Annie was from a family extremely prominent in that party. Her father Timothy Daniel Sullivan was variously a prominent leader of the ‘Bantry band’ faction in the party’s leadership, Lord Mayor of Dublin, proprietor and editor of the Nation newspaper and composer of God Save Ireland which was essentially the country’s national anthem before its supplanting by Amhrán na bhFiann. Her mother, Catherine, was the aunt of Tim Healy, similarly a long standing Member of Parliament and Irish Parliamentary Party leader, who eventually transitioned to a role in the new order as the first governor general of the Irish Free State.
That said he had little political overt involvements himself, perhaps due to his extensive professional commitments, though he did chair the first meeting of Portlaoise G.A.A.. This was to change somewhat in 1920 as the conflict escalated and country at wide radicalised. In July of 1920 he resigned, in protest, his position as Justice of the Peace or magistrate and more and more came to the attention of the authorities – unsurprisingly so as his sons Kevin, Brian and Tom were all playing roles in republican rebellion. Tom, also a doctor, was a Maryborough Town Commissioner and by this stage a political prisoner in Ballykinlar internment camp. Brian was a wanted man. After an altercation with a crown forces officer in one of the eleven raids on the family home Thomas senior was also imprisoned – shortly afterward Brian was captured too, so both father and son ended up in the Curragh internment camp. Two other sons had served in British uniform in the First World War, with one of them, Michael, losing his life. Kevin O’Higgins was already nationally prominent, a member of the first Dáil and acting Minister for Local Government. Kevin and the younger Thomas quasi-Gaelicised their surname to O’Higgins.
What happened on Sunday the 11th of February 1923 seems a darker reflection of what happened in the summer of 1920. While the house was being raided by republican guerrillas Thomas Higgins remonstrated with them just as he had with the crown forces. This time it was to cost him more than a spell in prison. Higgins was killed in the presence of his wife and his seventeen-year-old daughter Patricia. The newspaper reports of Patricia’s statement to the inquest tells us what happened – first Thomas tried to refuse the I.R.A. men entry, then he claimed to have a document from their own organisation prohibiting action against the families of Free State politicians – he brought one of the party into the dining room to see the document and then went for the I.R.A. man’s revolver, the order rang out – ‘fire!’ — and from the hallway two rifles answered. He died instantly. The raiders left a hayrick burning as they retreated into the night, its flickering flames lighting up a macabre and tragic scene.
The context of the Woodlands raid was the anti-Treatyite campaign against the houses of prominent supporters of the Free State. Now best remembered as the burning of the big houses — like the arson of the palatial mansions of Free State senators — in fact more ordinary residences such as that of Dr. Thomas Higgins did not escape destruction. As incommensurate as it might seem this was ordered by anti-Treaty commander Liam Lynch on December 9th 1922 in retaliation for the government’s policy of executing prisoners. As well as the so-called ‘Imperialists and Freemasons’ in the big houses republican guerrillas targeted the homes and businesses of their former comrades, for instance bombing the Camden street, Dublin, premises of Jennie Wyse Power a founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann, Cumann na mBan and Cumann na Saoirse.
Freeman’s Journal, 13 February 1923.
Terence de Vere White, Kevin O’Higgins (Tralee, Anvil, 1966).
Leinster Express, 25 January 1997.
John Dorney, The Burning of the Big Houses Revisited 1920-23, The Irish Story https://www.theirishstory.com/2015/11/06/the-burning-of-the-big-houses-revisited-1920-23/#.Y-QadvjP1y0
Dictionary of Irish Biography entries on Kevin Christopher O’Higgins, Thomas Francis (‘T. F.’) O’Higgins, Timothy Daniel Sullivan, and Timothy Michael Healy.