During the first lockdown this year I was doing some tidying when I came across the 1991 Knockbeg Annual. I had boarded in Knockbeg College (in County Laois, 2 miles outside Carlow town) for 5 years, 1988-1993, and memories flooded back. They were mostly good, numerous funny events and incidents resulting from the camaraderie that develops among classmates you spend so much time with. Some bad ones too, mostly relating to the homesickness of first year, when you feel you don’t really belong in your new environs, and don’t think you ever will.
I was part of the last group of students, nationally, to do the Inter Cert in 1991. They were vibrant times. Mary Robinson had just become our first female President, Charlie Haughey was Taoiseach, perhaps not so vibrant, and Ireland was still caught up in post 1990 World Cup football fever. As I started my exams in June 1991 Meath and Dublin had just played the second of their famous four game Gaelic football saga.
I enjoyed my summer holidays post exams, and as they always do in your youth, they seemed to stretch on forever. I returned to Knockbeg as a fifth year, up another rung on the academic ladder, and maybe a sign of things to come, put in charge of our small school library. Our History and English teacher, Mr. John Curtis (now Principal in St. Kieran’s Kilkenny), asked me would I like to write an article on Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Justice, and a past pupil of the college. I’ll never forget his last words of cajolement ‘I know you’re no fan of the Blueshirts Walter, but shur will you give it a go?!’ When it’s put to you like that, what can you do!
At any rate I’ve typed out the musings of a 15 year old from October 1991 below.
Kevin O’Higgins and the Knockbeg connection
Walter Lawler October: 1991
In Knockbeg we are blessed in that we have a rich tradition of producing achievers in many fields. On the political scene in the 1920s few achieved more than Kevin O’Higgins. The energy and enthusiasm which he showed in his work inspired many contemporary Irish Politicians. He was a powerful and authoritative figure in the first government of the Irish Free State- a man who shaped his era.
O’Higgins was born in Stradbally Co. Laois in 1892. He was the fourth son in a family of sixteen, his father being a doctor. He received his primary education in a local convent school and later in Maryborough (Portlaoise) C.B.S. He was further educated at Clongowes Wood Jesuit College in County Kildare. He made no particular impression there. Kevin was then sent to Knockbeg and was in attendance there from September 1908 to June 1910. His name appears in school records as does that of his brother, Niall, who attended the College during The War of Independence (1919-21). O’Higgins was lucky in that his father could afford to educate him thus. The yearly pension in Knockbeg was twenty eight pounds, which was quite a considerable sum of money at the time.
On the academic front Kevin was by no means exceptional in Knockbeg. He was very poor at Maths, failing Geometry at the Senior Grade Intermediate examinations, and was, it seems, a reluctant worker. He had, however, a flair for English and excelled at the subject in the College. Some evidence to suggest this excellence at English was his winning was his winning of a £4 essay prize in Knockbeg. Vigorous and strong, Kevin managed to get a place on all the school teams. He seemed to be quite an ordinary fellow during his brief stay. There was nothing there to suggest an illustrious, if short lived, political career.
War of Independence
During the War of Independence when O’Higgins was on the run he was always able to count on shelter at Knockbeg. The Rector at the time took great risks in helping him and others involved in the struggle. O’Higgins later said that he could ‘run for years’ on the energy saved in Knockbeg. Indeed, many political visitors who came from Dublin to Maganey railway station were transported by boat across the Barrow to safe havens in Knockbeg. One of the teachers, Gearoid O’Sullivan, was a right hand man of Michael Collins. When the later planned the escape of a volunteer called Fleming from Mountjoy Prison, it was to Knockbeg that he was brought for shelter. College records show that Frank Fahy, a future Dáil Ceann Comhairle, received a salary as a member of staff in 1920. Beside his name in the ledger is, in brackets, the name ‘Murphy’. On the run at the time, this was Fahy’s pseudonym. Apart from O’Higgins, Collins and other Sinn Fein leaders such as Rory O’Connor visited the College occasionally. It was very much a republican institution during those fateful years.
Kevin O’Higgins met his future wife, Bridie Cole, in Knockbeg in December 1918 while on a visit there during an election campaign. She was then professor of English at the college and one of the first lady teachers on the staff. The college account books show that in the year 1918-19 she earned £140; the following year this rose to the princely sum of £200. The two had many more meetings during the early stages of the War of Independence and their relationship blossomed. During this time O’Higgins was based in Dublin. As the war grew more intense he found it more difficult to travel safely between Carlow and Dublin. As a result, his meetings with his fiancée became few and precious. Nevertheless, he remained in constant contact with her, writing to her frequently under the pseudonym Mr. Wilson. O’Higgins married Bridie Cole in October 1921, during the truce which followed the War of Independence. His best man was Rory O’Connor. During the Civil War he took a pro Treaty stand and, as Minister for Home Affairs in the Free State Government, had the unpleasant task of ordering the execution of O’Connor. Eamonn de Valera, another guest at the wedding, likewise became an adversary. O’Higgins remained deeply devoted to his wife for the rest of his life, his dying wish to Eoin MacNeill being to tell his wife he loved her eternally.
Writing for the Annual
Though she stayed teaching when she got married and went to live in Dublin, Bridie Cole maintained contact with Knockbeg, on occasion attending Reunion Day. In an article she wrote for the Knockbeg Annual in the 1930s, she described some of her experiences in the College. The spirit of the school greatly impressed her as she thanked teaching staff and pupils alike for the hospitality afforded to her. She recalls how Geraoid O’Sullivan had brought the inspiration of the 1916 Rising to the college and comments on the loyalty of the school to the cause of national freedom. Some of her most vivid Knockbeg memories ar, understandably, of Kevin O’Higgins.
After their first meeting he struck her as a quiet, dignified man who mingled strength and gentleness. Apparently, he seldom lost his temper and lived a very ordered life which, despite his busy schedule, never left him pressed for time. Evidently Bridie Cole had as much respect for and love for her husband as he had for her.
An abrupt end
In the 1920s O’Higgins won political fame throughout the length and breadth of Ireland. He was hated by some, idolised by other but admired by all. He was a very able politician. Perhaps the best example of this ability was his decisive action in diffusing the so-called Curragh Mutiny of 1924. In doing so he safeguarded democracy in the infancy of the Irish State. Unfortunately O’Higgins political career came to an abrupt end. At the age of 35 he was shot by three IRA men while going to Mass in Booterstown, Co. Dublin. Had he lived it is probable that he would have greatly influenced the shaping of modern Ireland. His and his wife’s connections with Knockbeg are, at a time when the college is about to celebrate its past, an apt reminder that our own particular history is part of the greater fabric or our country’s history.