An Irish Legend

Tom O’Higgins

When Tom O’Higgins died at the age of 86, Ireland lost a remarkable figure. But the marks this former minister for health, two-time presidential candidate, chief justice of the Supreme Court, and judge on the European Court of Justice left on the country will endure for years to come.

If family history is any predictor, Tom O’Higgins was destined to make a name for himself. His great-grandfather, a nationalist member of Parliament, wrote the ballad “God Save Ireland.” His uncle, vice president of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army. His father, a member of Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteers, founded the Army Comrades Association (better known as the Blueshirts) and held ministerial roles in the first coalition government.

So O’Higgins’ story—extraordinary in any other context—is, in many ways, simply a continuation of his family’s tradition of dedication to the Irish state.

Born in Cork and raised in Dublin, O’Higgins was pushed by his father to pursue a legal career. “It wasn’t really a choice of mine,” he reportedly said in 1973. “I’m afraid I just accepted what I had to do and did it.” And he did it well, receiving first class honors in legal and political science at University College, Dublin, and winning first place in his final examination at King’s Inns, where he attended law school.

O’Higgins was called to the bar in 1938 and, 10 years later, was elected to the Dail (his father and brother won seats in the same election). In 1954, at the age of 38, he was appointed minister for health and established Ireland’s Voluntary Health Insurance scheme.

In 1966, O’Higgins challenged Irish President Eamon de Valera in his run for re-election. As the Fine Gael candidate, O’Higgins led an energetic campaign and, to almost everyone’s surprise, came within 1 percent (10,717 votes) of winning the presidency. He ran again in 1973 and again lost.

That same year, O’Higgins was appointed to the Supreme Court. The job, with its “prospect of a calm and secure future,” was appealing, he wrote in his memoirs, after “the turbulence of previous years.” A year later, he was appointed chief justice. He made headlines and stirred controversy with some of his verdicts—chief among them his ruling to allow suspected terrorists to be extradited to Northern Ireland and his decision to outlaw sex between consenting homosexual men in deference to the Catholic church teachings.

O’Higgins ended his career by serving on the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. He then returned to Ireland, where he spent his remaining years fishing and writing his memoirs, published under the title A Double Life, in 1996. When O’Higgins died on Feb. 25, he left behind his wife, a large family, and a tremendous legacy.