- 19 Nov 15
One of the country’s most renowned barristers, ex-Hot Press contributor Michael O’Higgins also enjoys a parallel career as an award-winning crime author.
Sitting over an afternoon tea and Danish in the Library Bar of Dublin’s Central Hotel, Michael O’Higgins is recalling his brief but eventful career as a Hot Press staff writer in the mid-‘80s.
“I was only there two years, but in terms of the effect it had on me and my development, they can’t be underestimated,” the softly spoken, white-haired 54-year-old observes. “It was a tremendous time to have been there. I mean, it was a music magazine, but it was beefing up the current affairs. They started this Frontlines thing while I was there, and there was just an incredible array of people. You had Bill Graham, Declan Lynch, John Waters, Liam Mackey, Niall [Stokes] himself, Fiona Looney. And they were all there at that particular time.
“I hesitate to say I was there with them, because I wasn’t. They were just oozing with talent and sort of a wonderful street cred, that cockiness. It was there and I think it was a golden era for the magazine. I don't consider myself as being a part of that group. I just think of myself as lucky to have worked around them."
During his time at Hot Press, and later Magill, O’Higgins mainly specialised in crime stories, interviewing politicians, policemen and notorious criminals, including the likes of Martin Cahill (better known as The General). “I did a mixture. I did the Hot Press Interview for a couple of years and I did a lot of crime stories.”
Journalism’s loss became the legal system’s gain when O’Higgins eventually left the magazine world to study law. Called to the bar in 1987, and made a senior counsel in 2000, he continues to work as a successful criminal lawyer, mainly on the defence side. However, although he prospered in law, he still always harboured ambitions to become a novelist.
“When I went to the bar I was 28 and I had this firm idea I would like to write fiction. When I turned 44 – that was ten years ago – and it wasn’t happening, I realised I had to go for it.So I started when I was 44 and I did a sort of a TV thing. I sent that script off to a few people. One came back and said, ‘We don’t want it.’ Another one said, ‘We’re not interested.’ Then I started doing the short stories and then I started on the book, in spring ’07.”
He twice won the Hennessy XO Literary Award (in 2008 and 2010) for his short stories, but we’re meeting today to discuss his just-published debut novel. Gritty and authentic, Snapshots is set in inner-city Dublin in 1981 against the backdrop of the IRA hunger strikes and the abortion referendum. The main strands of this skilfully-written thriller focus on musically talented schoolboy Wayne Clarke, his dangerously violent criminal father Christy, the detective whose mission it is to put Christy behind bars, and the local curate who is sexually abusing Wayne when he’s not publicly campaigning against abortion.
Devilish in its details about criminals, cops and the Irish courts, O’Higgins is obviously very much writing about what he knows. While he insists it’s a work of fiction, the Christy Clarke character certainly has shades of The General.
“With Christy, the violence and all that is entirely The General, but his personality is completely different,” he says. “I hesitate to call Martin Cahill a good family man, but he enjoyed his kids. And all the kids, none of them ever get into trouble, which is statistically unusual.
And they’re all very balanced and [his daughter] Frances was a very sane, stable person. That part is not right, but the sheer zeal of what he does, the obsession of what he does, and the violence and the planning, that’s him alright. But the priest is based on nobody. The boy was kind of hardest in a way, because it’s been so long since I was an 11-year-old kid to get into that mind.”
The fascinating middle section of Snapshots details the criminal trial of Christy Clarke. In real life, O’Higgins has famously defended the likes of notorious IRA man Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, Real IRA chief Michael McKevitt, former Anglo chairman Sean Fitzpatrick and, most notoriously, John Gilligan, who was acquitted of the murder of Veronica Guerin. Which begs the question: when he’s defending somebody, do his clients ever confidentially admit their guilt?
“I’m glad you asked me that,” he smiles. “Because, first of all, it’s the only question which I ever get asked: ‘How do you defend guilty people?’ One of the things that isn’t really appreciated is that if a client says ‘I did it’, you will be disbarred for defending. Once a person says, ‘I did it’, you can’t make a case. But what happens is, there may be a very strong case and the client says, ‘Well, I’m not guilty.’ And you would have to say, ‘Look, I hear what you’re saying; here are the points and here’s the way it will likely go, and if it goes that way you’ll pay the price, you’ll do an extra sentence.’
“Having explained all that, if the client says, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not guilty’, you are obliged to defend that person.”
Given that, how believable is a character such as Breaking Bad’s odious Saul Goodman?
“Well, he wouldn’t flourish in our system,” he laughs. “Because, as I say, once a client has told you, ‘I’ve done it’, you wouldn’t represent him. You wouldn’t make a case. Some people might say that’s a fine distinction, because someone says, ‘I didn’t do it’, but objectively, all roads point to Rome. But how do you rationalise that? Well, you do it on the following basis. Normally if it looks and walks and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. But not every time.
“Quite a few cases go to trial and when they actually run, a completely different complexion comes up. Not very often, but enough times to say, ‘I will not be the judge here’.
So, Saul would not prosper as a barrister, because if word got out that you were not to be trusted, you just wouldn’t be. There is a level of integrity and, if you don’t have that level of integrity, you’re not going to prosper.”
He’s already started work on a follow-up (“It’s a story about an assassin, who’s in financial difficulty, who comes out of retirement”).
If sales of Snapshots took off and O’Higgins suddenly found himself being touted as the next John Grisham, would he consider hanging up his silks and writing fiction fulltime?
“Initially, I thought not,” he admits. “I suppose one of the reasons I thought it wouldn’t be very appealing, is there are probably writers with an awful lot to say and could fill a day saying it. I don’t think I’m that sort of person, to be honest. But having thought about it more now, there would be an attraction to it. It would be different.
“Even since the book came out, I’ve done a few interviews. Initially it was a kind of nervous thing, now it’s something different at the end of the day. When your day becomes very predictable, it’s nice to do other things, you get stimulated by that. So yeah, I would like the idea of taking a year off and doing something else.”
Snapshots is published by New Island