O'Higgins, Thomas Francis (‘T. F.’) (1890–1953), politician, was born 20 November 1890 in Stradbally, Queen's Co. (Laois), second son among eight sons and eight daughters of Dr Thomas F. Higgins, FRCSI, dispensary doctor and Queen's Co. coroner, and Anne Higgins, third daughter of T. D. Sullivan (qv), nationalist journalist, poet, and politician. His father's first cousin Timothy Healy (qv), MP, latterly first governor-general of the Irish Free State, was also his mother's brother-in-law. He was educated at Presentation Convent, Stradbally, Christian Brothers’ schools in Maryborough (Portlaoise), and Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare, before studying medicine at UCD, qualifying as a medical doctor in 1914. While dispensary doctor in Fontstown, Co. Kildare (1915–19), he became an enthusiastic local organiser for both Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers. He was imprisoned twice in 1919, in Mountjoy jail, Dublin, and the Curragh, Co. Kildare, for soliciting subscriptions to the first Dáil Éireann loan. Serving as dispensary doctor in Portlaoise (1919–22), he was elected a town commissioner, becoming the body's chairman (1920). Arrested with other leading Portlaoise citizens for a protest demonstration on the death on hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney (qv), he was among the first group of prisoners incarcerated in Ballykinlar camp, Co. Down (December 1920–December 1921), during which time Black and Tans commandeered his house as an officers’ mess after evicting his wife and family. During 1921 he changed his surname to O'Higgins. Enlisting in the Free State army in 1922, he was appointed captain in the medical corps, and served subsequently as medical corps deputy commander (1923–4), and director of medical services with the rank of colonel (1924–9). A keen horseman, he was instrumental in the formation of the army school of equitation and in the inauguration of the Nations’ cup competition at the annual Dublin horse show. The civil convulsions of the 1920s visited him with two personal tragedies: the murder of his aged father by anti-treaty insurgents during a house raid (11 February 1923), and the assassination of his brother, Kevin O'Higgins (qv), Free State vice-president and minister for justice and external affairs (10 July 1927). Resigning his army commission to stand for Cumann na nGaedheal in a Dublin North by-election (1929), he won a narrow victory over Fianna Fáil's Oscar Traynor (qv). Also entering the public health service, he became Meath county medical officer of health (1930–51). In the February 1932 general election he switched constituencies to Laois–Offaly, initiating an unbroken sixteen-year tenure (1932–48). Trenchant in speech and forthright in opinion, with his professional background O'Higgins took special interest in debates on the army, defence policy, and health, with particular attention to housing, rural sanitation, and hygiene.
A founding member of the Army Comrades Association (ACA) (February 1932), as its second president (August 1932–July 1933) he helped reshape it from a benevolent organisation of ex-Free-State-army men into a crusading, right-wing political movement. As violent clashes with Fianna Fáil supporters and the IRA became frequent occurrences both before and after the January 1933 general election, he exhorted his members to defend rights to free speech and assembly against republican thuggery, and Christian values against communist influences. In the spring of 1933 the ACA adopted the blue-shirt uniform whence derived its sobriquet. A leading member of both Cumann na nGaedheal and the Blueshirts (renamed the National Guard under a new president, Gen. Eoin O'Duffy (qv)), O'Higgins was prominent in effecting the merger (8 September 1933) of the two organisations and the Centre Party into the new United Ireland Party (Fine Gael). He became a member, as a Blueshirt nominee, of the party's first national executive and sat on its dáil front bench. In September 1933, during a bitter debate following a police raid on the National Guard's Dublin headquarters, O'Higgins and Desmond FitzGerald (qv) led other Fine Gael deputies in wearing, as an act of defiance, the blue shirt in the dáil chamber. At Fine Gael's first convention (February 1934) O'Higgins castigated Fianna Fáil as ‘the vanguard of the communist policy here’, and branded Éamon de Valera (qv) an ‘arch-communist agent’ (quoted in Regan, 349). In a dáil debate on the government bill to ban the wearing of uniforms, O'Higgins asserted that the Blueshirts existed to defend free speech, and threatened to break up Fianna Fáil meetings should Blueshirt meetings be disrupted, asserting that ‘if the other side broke gobs, [we] would also break gobs’ (quoted in Maye, 318–19). He was among the more committed of Fine Gael leaders to the corporate-state ideas propounded by the Blueshirts’ two leading ideologues, Professors James Hogan (qv) and Michael Tierney (qv), following the models of the papal encyclical Quadragesimo anno and European fascist movements.
Elected a Fine Gael vice-president (1935), O'Higgins conducted a reorganisation of the Blueshirt League of Youth, abolishing its status as a semi-independent grouping within Fine Gael and rendering its officers directly responsible to the party's standing committee (October 1936). He represented Fine Gael on the committee that selected Douglas Hyde (qv) as an agreed all-party candidate to become first president of Ireland (1938). A member of the defence council during the emergency, after the German conquest of France (1940) he expressed doubts regarding the further viability of Irish neutrality. Opposing any attempt to gag a dáil deputy, he defended the right of independent and former Fine Gael TD James Dillon (qv) to criticise the all-party consensus on wartime neutrality. He was Fine Gael parliamentary leader for several months (January–June 1944) between the resignation of William Cosgrave (qv) and the election of party president Richard Mulcahy (qv) to a dáil seat in the 1944 general election, after which he became deputy leader. Party spokesperson on health and sometime executive member of the Irish Medical Association (IMA), he led Fine Gael's opposition to aspects of the 1947 health act, charging that a free and comprehensive mother-and-child service would undermine the financial viability of private medical practice. In the 1948 general election he vacated his Laois–Offaly seat (won by his son, Tom O'Higgins) and was elected for Cork City (1948–53); another son, Michael, was returned for Dublin South-West. One of the first politicians to have mooted the idea of cooperative opposition to Fianna Fáil, he played a crucial role in persuading John A. Costello (qv) to lead the first inter-party government. Passed over for the health portfolio, as minister for defence (1948–51), he privately favoured Irish membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, but was precluded from public advocacy by the partition issue and presence of Clann na Poblachta ministers in government. During the crisis over the efforts of Minister for Health Noel Browne (qv) to implement the mother-and-child scheme, O'Higgins, exploiting his links with the IMA, played a key role in eroding support within cabinet for the proposal. He was minister for industry and commerce for three months prior to the government's defeat in the 1951 general election.
O'Higgins married (17 October 1915) Agnes McCarthy of Cork; they had four sons and one daughter. His recreations were fishing and shooting. After living at addresses in Rathgar and Ballsbridge, he last resided at ‘Grianan’, 14 Woodbine Rd, Booterstown, Dublin. Still a sitting TD, he died at his home on 1 November 1953. His son T. F. ‘Tom’ O'Higgins (1916–2003), SC, was TD for Laois–Offaly (1948–69) and Dublin South (1969–73), minister for health and social welfare (1954–7), twice Fine Gael candidate for the Irish presidency (1966, 1973), a high court judge (1973–4), chief justice of Ireland (1974–84), and judge of the European Court (1984–91). Another son, Michael J. O'Higgins, was TD for Dublin South-West (1948–51, 1954–61) and Wicklow (1961–9) and leader of Seanad Éireann (1973–77).