22 January 2006

Obituary: Una O'Higgins O'Malley

Sunday Times

January 25, 1927 - December 18, 2005

Steadfast political activist who campaigned to end violence in Ireland and founded the Centre of Reconciliation at Drumcree

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Una O’Higgins-O’Malley at home in Stillorgan, Co.Dublin (Eric Luke/Irish Times)

UNA O’HIGGINS was less than six months old on the July Sunday in 1927 when her father, Kevin O’Higgins, the strong man of the first Government of the Irish Free State, was shot dead by fringe republicans as he made his way to Mass in the Dublin suburb of Booterstown.

She did not allow the deep hurt she felt at never knowing the father whose memory she revered to deteriorate into bitterness but used it as a springboard for a commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation.

She found inspiration in her father’s journey from a republican revolutionary to espousing proposals to crown George V King of Ireland in Dublin if Northern Ireland agreed to unite with the Irish Free State.

In 1972, as a protest against IRA bombing in Belfast, she picketed the headquarters of Provisional Sinn Fein in Dublin. Her placard “Stop Bombing Families” reflected her concern as the mother of six children. In the cause of peace she then applied herself to making contacts among Northern Unionists and was a moving spirit in the foundation of the Centre for Reconciliation at Glencree near Dublin, where people of different traditions were brought together for workshops.

In one of the centre’s walks of remembrance, Sean McBride, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who had once been chief of staff of the IRA, laid a wreath in the Anglican St Patrick’s Cathedral at the memorial to the Irish who had died fighting for Britain in the two world wars. In the same spirit she persuaded the British Ambassador that his military attaché should attend the commemoration of the German war dead at their memorial, which is situated in the wild mountain terrain near the Centre of Reconciliation.

For all her detestation of the IRA Una O’Higgins O’Malley was prepared to protest in 1976 when there were credible reports of police brutality against republican suspects.

She broke ranks with her father’s old party when she stood as an independent in the constituency of the outgoing Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave. Having failed narrowly to be elected she applied to join the Labour Party. But sensing, perhaps, that she was not a person to toe a party line, they left her alone.

A few years later she shared a platform with republicans advocating concessions to the hunger strikers in the Maze prison, several of whom fasted to death. She ended up pleasing nobody when she told the meeting that she thought that the hunger strikers could drop one of their demands. But even those who judged her politically naive could not dispute her sincerity.

A committed Roman Catholic herself, she deplored the identification of Catholicism with Irishness as the root of many of the country’s problems. In 1980 she travelled to Rome with an Ulster Unionist to seek Pope John Paul II’s help in removing the Church from nationalist politics.

In her gentle way she was fiercely determined, and by the 1990s she had the satisfaction of seeing bridge-building with Ulster Unionists finding its way into the official policy of Irish governments and rejoiced in the Good Friday Agreement 1998 with its termination of the Irish claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland and its promise of peace and even reconciliation.

Meanwhile, she had had her own journey of personal reconciliation. A son of one of her father’s killers contacted her and told her the whole story of the assassination, including the gruesome detail that one of the killers had later danced on the grave. Not without effort she made herself forgive them and organised a Mass at Booterstown church to mark the 60th anniversary of his death, at which they, as well as her father, were commemorated.

The tranquillity of her later years was disturbed when letters emerged written to Hazel Lavery, the London society hostess, by Kevin O’Higgins, that tended to confirm Lady Lavery’s long-disbelieved story that they had had an affair. It shattered the idealised picture Una O’Higgins O’Malley had of her parents’ short-lived marriage. It was characteristic that her first reaction was to apologise for the hurt that her family’s denial of Lady Lavery’s story had caused to her family.

Una O’Higgins was educated by the Sacred Heart nuns in Dublin. Some years after her father’s death, her mother married the mildly eccentric Arthur Cox, Dublin’s leading solicitor.

The young Una spent the later part of her rather privileged childhood living on the Hill of Howth among the Anglo-Irish merchant princes of the city. After school she was apprenticed in her stepfather’s office and qualified as a solicitor.

She helped to organise the election campaign of her late father’s party in 1948 but was disillusioned when, in office, they broke their election promise to remain in the Commonwealth.

One of her admirers in her student days was the son of the president of an Oxford college. In her memoirs entitled From Pardon and Protest: Memoirs from the Margins, published in 2001, she recalls attending a commemoration ball at the college where “her delicious Irish brogue” was much admired.

Those memoirs also reproduce some moving poetry containing her reflections on the events of her lifetime. One poem, written on the eve of the millennium, concluded:

Maybe this blood-stained century
Now should be granted leave of absence
Or amnestied in mothballs,
And the indomitable Irishry of North and South
Should gaze into the faces of their children
And not their ancestors
While planning for the future


She married in 1952 Eoin O’Malley, a surgeon at Mater Hospital, Dublin, and also a member of one of the families of the Irish revolutionary elite. She is survived by him, her five sons and one daughter.

Una O’Higgins O’Malley, was born in Dublin on January 25, 1927. She died on December 18, 2005, aged 78.

January 18, 2006

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