LIAM O'Flaherty's 1928 novel, 'The Assassin', is based on the assassination of the Irish government minister Kevin O'Higgins in 1927.
O'Higgins was gunned down on his way to 11 o'clock Mass. His killers were never caught.
It was a killing that gladdened the hearts of an awful lot of people in Ireland. For O'Higgins was the hated 'strong man' of the Free State government, which, with English backing, had defeated the Republicans in the bloody Civil War which came to a ragged end in 1923.
It was a most bitter civil war, that war between two factions of Sinn Fein, with former comrades pitted against former comrades, regarding each other as traitors or lunatic incendiaries.
1t was the worst of civil wars also because on the Rep side it was fought on no clear policies. It is astonishing but nonetheless true that it was not fought on Partition.
The nearest thing to a clearly defined issue was the choice between the Free State (in the Commonwealth and with the King of Eiigland as the King of Ireland), and De Valera's formula of 'external association': Ireland in the Commonwealth and recognising the King not as King of Ireland, as such, but as King of the Commonwealth of which Ireland was part.
The Republicans lined up behind De Valera's formula.
In the course of the war, 77 men, prisoners, were killed in captivity by the Free State government. Atrocious deeds were done as the Free State fought to reconquer heavily Republican areas like Kerry.
O'Higgins was the minister most associated in people's minds with the repressions of the Civil War. He was the 'strong man'. But the reputation outstripped the reality.
He was the man known to have said, 'Take them out and shoot them' when in December 1922 the Cabinet discussed the retaliatory shooting of four prisoners, including Republican leader Rory O'Connor, who had been best man at O'Higgins' wedding a year earlier. And they had taken O'Connor out and shot him together with the three others, in retaliation for the shooting of a Free State Dail Deputy, Sean Hayles, by the Republicans.
Terrible deeds, and a terrible reputation to have.
In fact O'Higgins had strongly opposed shooting the hostages, and was the last member of the Cabinet to agree – with the weary, brutal words that would haunt him to his grave. You can still feel the hatred in the words of the fierce song about the shooting of O'Connor, Mellowes, Barratt and McKelvie:
" Take it down from the mast, Irish traitors!
It's the flag we Republicans claim
It can never belong to Free Staters,
You've brought on it nothing but shame,
And you've murdered our brave Liam and Rory,
You've murdered young Richard and Joe
Your hands with their blood are still gory,
Fulfilling the work of the foe.”
The hatred finally caught up with O'Higgins that Sunday morning in 1927 on his way to Mass.
O'Flaherty's version of the O'Higgins assassination tells about the return from America to Ireland of a cynical and embittered, 'fanatical' and ultimately despairing, revolutionaty, Michael MacDara, to kill O'Higgins.
The novel follows him from his arrival in Dublin until he leaves Ireland 'forever', the deed done.
It goes with him through the terrible world of the Dublin poor, lodging houses, betting shops and so on. It is a world dominated by the ebbing back of the vast national revolutionary movement into its channels,
O'Flaherty takes MacDara through this world where leaders of the newly bureaucratised Irish unions hob-nob in hotels with hard-faced capitalists. O'Flaherty was a Communist. His brother Tom O'Flaherty was a founder of the American Trotskyist movement in the 1930s.
The terrible disillusionment and the internecine splits and squabbles of the defeated clandestine Republican underground are encountered as he seeks collaborators for his job of revenge. One of them talks about his plan of 'a year ago' to set off bombs in England during the General Strike and thus foment civil war, which would be to Ireland's advantage.
The book powerfully suggests to me the atmosphere of anti-climax and of disappointment with the long revolutionary exertions and struggles which had led to nothing better than the bourgeois Free State. It was one stage further on from the indignation with which the poet Yeats upbraided the Irish bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie for having let all the traditions of revolutionary opposition and aspirations fall back before a society dominated by miserable, greedy money-grubbers on the make. Yeats is responding to the general lockout the Dublin employers declared against members of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union in 1913.
"What need you, being come to sense
But fumble in a greasy till,
And add the halfpence to the pence,
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
Yet they were of a different kind
The names that stilled your childish play.
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman's rope was spun.
And what, God help us, couldthey save?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone
It's with O'Leary in the grave."
(O'Leary was a Fenian leader}
Somebody once described O'Flaherty as an 'inverted romantic'. In any case, he paints society with great realism.
But O'Flaherty's book seems to me overwritten in places, and the mental feverishness and even frenzy with which MacDara sets about his task, unnecessary.
He is presented as a zealot and fanatic acting alone, the classic terrorist acting apart from any mass movement and as substitute for it.
But you didn't need to be a refugee from Dostoevsky to want to kill O'Higgins, and the people who did it most probably weren't. One of them was or would become a member of the Irish Communist-Stalinist movement and remain there for the rest of his life. When he died in the mid-1960s, he was given a large public funeral, big crowds following a coffin draped in a hammer and sickle flag.
Artistically the effect is to highlight the true general picture of social defeat and prostration which is the backcloth for Michael MacDara's activities in Dublin, as small-bourgeois Ireland blinks in the light of day, having broken out of its shell. It is the picture of the revolutionary swan finding itself in reality to be only a small bourgeois duckling.
SO 170, 15-3-84