O'Malley, Una O'Higgins (1927–2005), peace and reconciliation activist, was born in a Dublin nursing home on 25 January 1927, younger daughter of Kevin O'Higgins (qv), politician, and his wife Brigid (née Cole). Her brother died in infancy. She was five months old when her father was assassinated; her grandfather had been murdered in February 1923. In old age Una recalled that her father's absence had always been 'this great hole, a vacuum filled with pain like the hollow that is left when a large tooth has been removed' (From pardon and protest, 9) and that this enabled her to empathise with others suffering bereavement through Irish conflict. Her mother and grandmother emphasised the horror of civil war violence and the need for forgiveness; she was also sustained by the extended Healy–Sullivan–O'Higgins clan, which gave her a strong sense of the importance of family. (She clung to childhood memories of T. M. Healy (qv) as a Santa Claus figure, and preferred not to enquire too deeply into his darker side.) By the age of five 'I had got the thing about forgiveness firmly in my mind; you couldn't receive Jesus and tell Him you loved Him unless you forgave everybody, even those who had murdered your Daddy Someone put into me that conviction about the necessity of forgiveness, Someone gave it to me as a gift and, as far as I am concerned, that Someone is God' (From pardon and protest, 53).
She grew up with an idealised vision of Kevin O'Higgins based on such factors as his statesmanship in moving from republicanism to advocacy of the British commonwealth as a possible means of Irish reunification and reconciliation, and his deathbed forgiveness of his killers. This view was reinforced by reading her father's letters after her mother's death, though it was qualified by awareness that her father's actions caused others to 'be fathered only by photographs' (she reprinted the last letter written by Rory O'Connor (qv) at the end of her memoir). Towards the end of her life Una expressed the view that her father's generation might have been mistaken in resorting to physical force. In a foreword to her memoir, From pardon and protest, Tim Pat Coogan commented that she came 'from a family closely associated with the triumphs and tragedies of the Irish physical force tradition. Her work in attempting to eradicate this tradition from Irish life is well known.'
Una was educated in Dublin at St Anthony's preparatory school, Hatch Street, the Sacred Heart girls' school on Leeson Street (1935–43), and at Mount Anville, where she was head girl for a year – an experience which gave her confidence. As a child she attended Muriel Catt's dancing classes, and after school she spent a year at the Gaiety School of Acting under its director Ria Mooney (qv), seeing this as part of a quest for 'beauty and truth' (she was initially offered the role in the film Hungry Hill later taken by Kathleen Ryan). She then served her apprenticeship as a solicitor with her stepfather Arthur Cox (qv), but a few months after its completion married on 4 October 1952 Eoin O'Malley (1919–2007), a surgeon in the Mater Hospital, Dublin, and later professor of surgery at UCD. They had five sons and one daughter; she called him her 'young Lochinvar out of the West'. He was related to the Ryan family of Co. Wexford, most of whom had been prominent anti-Treaty activists; she supported his work as he would later support hers.
She was an occasional contributor to the Fine Gael party magazine Forum in the 1940s (as 'Anne O'Neill') and organized the supply of speakers for the party in the 1948 general election but was disappointed at its subsequent abrupt abandonment of its commitment to Irish membership of the British commonwealth with the passing of the Republic of Ireland act; she saw this as opportunistic and unprincipled, and abandoned party activism.
As a young woman she intended to take part in social work in inner-city Dublin, but was prevented by a mild case of tuberculosis. In the late 1960s, as her children grew older, she became active in Meals on Wheels in north inner-city Dublin and was distressed by the living conditions she encountered. She maintained this interest in the midst of her many later activities, commenting that those who complained of no-go areas in Northern Ireland should also pay attention to the no-go areas in Dublin. She was also involved in work for the welfare of Travellers. In the 1960s she fostered a teenage orphan from Biafra.
O'Higgins O'Malley was distressed by the outbreak of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Feeling she could not remain uninvolved, she joined a picket on the Dublin headquarters of provisional Sinn Féin after the 'Bloody Friday' Belfast IRA bombings of July 1972 (with a sign saying 'Don't do this in my name') and became involved in the Working for Peace Group formed by the picketers. The group's activities included an interdenominational service of reparation for the civil war, peace walks, and an interdenominational peace service at Christmas 1974, held in Merrion Square and attended by 20,000 people.
In March 1974 the group founded a centre for reconciliation at Glencree, Co. Wicklow, on the site of an old barracks and reformatory; here representatives of the different Irish traditions joined in workshop discussions. The first annual Glencree Peace Week in 1974 had as its theme 'respect', and at O'Higgins O'Malley's instigation participants attended different denominations' Sunday services in rotation. Glencree, like its northern counterpart Corrymeela, proved a valuable resource for reconciliation, but its history was punctuated by controversies involving both personalities and issues (such as whether it should be secular or interdenominational) and by what she saw as an absence of 'due process' in resolving internal disputes. O'Higgins O'Malley withdrew from the Glencree centre on two occasions and its activities were suspended for a time in 1989; when they resumed in the 1990s she became its president (stepping down in 1997).
O'Higgins O'Malley always opposed the widespread sense in the Republic that the violence in Northern Ireland was a local problem unconnected with the southern state, and insisted (against those who complained that her activities constituted betrayal of Irishness or catholicism) that to secure peace everyone would have to change and make sacrifices. She served on the committee of the Irish Association from the early 1970s and as its president (1986–8) involved it to a much greater extent in controversial North–South political dialogue. She was also active in Co-operation North. From 1978, through the Peace People movement, she established lasting links with loyalist women in east Belfast; she later suggested the Peace People's long-term failure was partly attributable to its catholic founders' neglect of the need to maintain high-profile protestant involvement.
In 1976 O'Higgins O'Malley protested against alleged systematic ill-treatment of republican suspects in Garda custody, declaring that peace required human rights and accountability in the administration of justice; she saw this as continuing her father's pride in the establishment of An Garda Siochána. She unsuccessfully contested the 1977 general election in Dún Laoghaire (constituency of the outgoing taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave) as an independent on this issue, backed by the nascent Women's Political Association. She won 3,305 first preferences (8.68 per cent) and was eliminated on the sixth count.) She then applied to join the Labour party but was turned down after discussions with Frank Cluskey (qv).
O'Higgins O'Malley was subsequently active in the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and joined the non-governmental Committee of Enquiry into the Penal System founded by Seán MacBride (qv). She subsequently joined protests against the construction of juvenile prisons and the destruction of the Viking archaeological site on Wood Quay to build civic offices for Dublin Corporation. In 1980, to the dismay of some friends, she shared a platform at a republican meeting in the Mansion House, Dublin, advocating concessions to the Maze hunger-strikers, but was badly received when she called for the prisoners to compromise on their demands. In general she acknowledged, and tried to compensate for, a certain bias against the IRA because they claimed to act in her name, whereas loyalists did not.
Despite her firm commitment to catholicism she saw the identification of Irishness with catholicism as the source of many problems. In late September 1979, during the visit to Ireland of Pope John Paul II, she organised an interdenominational peace vigil at St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, on the grounds that an interdenominational event should be included in the programme. In 1980 she visited the Vatican with an east Belfast protestant friend to exhort the pope to endorse her view that Irishness and catholicism should be separately identified and honoured. She advocated separation of civil from religious marriage. O'Higgins O'Malley participated in the inter-church faith and politics group, attended theology courses run by the Furrow magazine (she wrote articles on reconciliation for both the Furrow and Doctrine and Life), and was a committee member of the Glenstal Ecumenical Conference: 'when other aspects of my faith seem at times to fall down around me I cling to this tremendous grab-hold; hold on to truth and you are holding onto God and before long the truth will set you free' (From pardon and protest, 5).
In 1987, after the names of the IRA men who killed her father were made public, Roger Gannon, son of one of the killers, contacted her and they became friends. She experienced a tremendous religious crisis of rage and trauma on learning that another of the murderers, Archie Doyle, had danced on her father's grave; she resolved this by having mass said jointly for the killers and their victim on 11 July 1987, sharing the eucharist with Gannon. Another late trauma was the discovery by researchers that the father she idealised exchanged intimate emotional correspondence with Hazel Lavery (qv); this caused her to apologise for her family's earlier publicly professed belief that Lavery's claim to have had an affair with him was a fantasy.
Towards the end of her life O'Higgins O'Malley's belief in the need for self-expression was fulfilled through membership of writers' groups. In 1999 she published a poetry collection, Twentieth century revisited, and in 2001 From pardon and protest: memoirs from the margins; while the title attracted some criticism, given that she herself described her life as privileged and sheltered and thanked her domestic staff individually and by name, most reviewers paid tribute to her commitment to public service and to understanding others' point of view, underpinned by religious faith. A book of reflections, Friends in high places, was published posthumously in 2007.
In many respects the life of Una O'Higgins O'Malley mirrored the intellectual evolution and deprovincialisation of the Irish catholic haute bourgeoisie over the twentieth century; even those who disagreed with some of her positions or saw her as naïve recognised a deep personal integrity and practicality which turned wounded introspection into an engine for the resolution of Irish conflicts through personal contact and mutual refashioning. She represented the best aspects of the experience-based, self-examining Irish liberal catholicism developed after Vatican II.
She died in Dublin on 18 December 2005; her friend Enda McDonagh described her as 'in many ways Ireland's queen of peace in the twentieth century Her ambition was that the Irish people could be a forgiving and a forgiven people' (Irish Times, 21 December 2005).