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Liam O’Flaherty: The Assassin

On 10 July 1927 Kevin O’Higgins was assassinated in the streets of Dublin. He had fought for Irish independence but had become more conservative and, as Minister of Justice of the Irish Free State, had signed the execution orders of seventy-seven political prisoners. His assassination was the IRA’s revenge for that action. This book appeared a year later. Nowhere does it mention O’Higgins, Minister of Justice or execution orders but it seems fairly certain that it was based, at least in part, on O’Higgins’ assassination. Indeed, the assassination target in this book is entirely anonymous. We know little about him, except that he was an Irish politician who was deemed to have betrayed the republican cause (though no details are known of the nature of his betrayal) and that he dressed smartly.

The story follows the four main conspirators, not the victim, whom we see only very briefly. All have been active in the republican movement but now, post-independence, the movement is fading away but they all seem unable to let go. O’Flaherty paints them almost entirely in a negative light. The first we meet is McDare (known only by his surname), though he is now masquerading under the name of John Henry Carter, not least because he is a wanted man in Ireland for some previous republican activity (again, details are unknown). He has been out of Ireland for the past three years, mainly in the USA though probably elsewhere as well. While away, he has been planning the assassination. He meets three of his co-conspirators, all of whom are willing to join in. The first is McFetterich, known as Fetch and also as Gutty. He is something of a hothead, eager to rush in and eager to take the lead in the plot. He is also an alcoholic but McDare wants to include him as he is very courageous. McDare has his hands full keeping him under control. The second is Kitty Mellett. She comes from a bourgeois family, the rest of whom were very anti-republican. They are devastated when she joins the republicans and, on his deathbed, her father says that it is her actions that have driven him to an early grave. In his will, he leaves his wife a certain sum of money in he hope that she can change Kitty’s mind. Despite virtually starving Kitty and denying her everything, her mother does not succeed in changing her daughter’s mind. McDare had been in love with Kitty when he had previously lived in Ireland and still seems to have an affection for her. It is she that has the contacts and is able to find out about the movements of the politician and it is she who tracks down the fourth conspirator, Tumulty. Tumulty had been thrown out of the republican movement for being too unreliable (though the glimpse we get of the remaining members is not impressive). He is not very reliable but is able to get a lot of men together to assist as well as to steal the necessary getaway car.

The book follows the story of the preparation for the assassination, from McDare’s return to Ireland. All of them seem very ill-suited to the task at hand. McDare is troubled with guilt, mainly about his mother. He drinks and shows sexual interest in both Kitty and his temporary (and older) landlady. He seems unsure of what exactly he wants to do and vacillates more than once. Fetch, as said, is an alcoholic and inclined to go his own way. Kitty, too, wants to take the lead, as much to win back McDare and relieve her own boredom as anything else, though she is the most reliable of the four. Tumulty is something of a coward and dilettante, eager for glory, less so for hard work and action. The conspiracy is not helped by disagreement among the conspirators. O’Flaherty spends much of the book showing their weaknesses and clearly is very much opposed to their actions. Indeed, it is surprising that these four can organise an assassination. But he also paints a story of underworld and underground Dublin and of a republican movement that seems to have lost any sense of purpose and of four seriously flawed people whose motives seem anything but noble and gives us a fine story of a Dublin that is dark and dingy with characters to match the atmosphere.

Publishing history

First published 1928 by Jonathan Cape