One of the men buried at Aix-Noulette Communal Cemetery Extension is Lieutenant Michael Aloysius HIGGINS, 2nd Leinster Regiment, who was killed in action near Vimy Ridge on the 31st March 1917. He was one of sixteen children born to Dr. Thomas Higgins and Ann Sullivan. His brother, Kevin Christopher O’Higgins, is referred to in the text of ‘Arras North’, mainly in connection with his position as Minister for Justice and External Affairs in Ireland in the 1920’s. He was assassinated on the 10th July 1927 by three IRA gunmen whilst on his way to Mass near to where he lived in a Dublin suburb in the south of the city. His death was carried out in revenge for his part in the execution of 77 Republicans between 1922 and 1923.
Kevin is an interesting character. He was strong-minded, though very conservative, and had once urged the people of Ireland to trust in evolution rather than revolution. His views, particularly during his time as Justice Minister, made him a hated figure among hard line Republicans. He regarded many of those whose execution he had overseen, not as freedom fighters or political prisoners, but as mere criminals. He was never forgiven for his stand on the matter.
His school days had also been rather chequered and he had been expelled or forced to leave two of the establishments he had attended. In 1915 he joined the Irish Volunteers and became captain in its Stradbally Company. In 1918 he was imprisoned, though the following year he was released, after which he began his political career as Assistant Minister for Local Government. In 1922 he fell out with many Republicans over the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. As a realist, he believed that Ireland could expect no further concessions from the Crown and it was his view the country should accept the terms of the treaty, though others saw this as capitulation.
As Justice Minister he was responsible for setting up the Garda Siochana and maintaining law and order during the civil war that broke out in 1922. One of the men whose execution he oversaw was Rory O’Connor, who had been the best man at his wedding. Kevin’s father was assassinated by way of reprisal for the executions and the family home at Stradbally was also burned down.
The three men who gunned him down in the summer of 1927 were interesting characters in their own right. They were: Timothy Coughlin, Bill Gannon and Archie Doyle. None of the men were ever charged with Kevin’s murder, but Coughlin was killed in controversial circumstances in January 1928 outside the home of a former IRA man, turned informer, Sean Harling. The official version of events states that two men, believed to have been Coughlin and Doyle, had been waiting for Harling outside his house and had fired shots at him. Harling had returned fire, fatally wounding Coughlin. Harling subsequently left Ireland to live in the United States, but returned home some years later. However, the IRA rejected this version of events, insisting that Coughlin and Doyle had merely been carrying out surveillance on Harling with a view to his assassination at some later date. It was believed that Harling had given the security forces the whereabouts of several arms dumps, hence the reason why he had been declared a legitimate target. According to the IRA, both men had been set up and then executed without trial by the state.
Bill Gannon and Archie Doyle were granted amnesty in connection with Kevin’s murder in 1932 and both went on to die from natural causes. Gannon gave up the armed struggle at home and joined the Communist Party. He was, however, instrumental in organizing Irish volunteers for the Spanish Civil War and became a life-long communist. Doyle was an altogether different individual. After his amnesty, he remained committed to the Republican cause and during the 1940’s he carried on the armed struggle against British targets in Northern Ireland. He was responsible for a failed attack on the British barracks at Crossmaglen in County Antrim on 2nd September 1942, and a week later he was believed to have been responsible for the murder of Detective Sargeant Dennis O’Brien, a former IRA man who had gone on to join the Irish Special Branch. The hit was unpopular within the IRA command, but only because it sparked fierce retaliation by the security forces. Doyle was never charged with O’Brien’s death, but another man, Charlie Kerins, was arrested, tried, convicted, and subsequently hanged at Mountjoy prison by Albert Pierrepoint. Doyle was also involved in armed robberies to fund IRA activities and died in hospital in 1980 as a committed Republican.
Kevin Christopher O’Higgins had always known that he was a likely target for assassination, and as such, he had been assigned a detective as his armed protection officer. Whilst on way to Mass at the Church of the Assumption, it is believed that he had asked his protection officer to return to the house in order to pick up something, which left Coughlin, Gannon and Doyle free to step out of a car and carry out his killing unopposed. Kevin died from his wounds that day, aged 35, and was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery following a state funeral. In 2012 a memorial plaque was erected close to where he was assassinated.
Ireland and the Great War, and the period that immediately followed, make for fascinating reading, and this family story serves to highlight the wide spectrum of allegiances that existed, as well as the dilemmas and consequences that arose from matters of loyalty and conscience among families and individuals in Ireland during those troubled times.