Michael Collins: A Beloved Irish Patriot
by Dana Green
On August 22, 1922, Ireland mourned the loss of a beloved patriot. Two months shy of turning thirty-two Michael Collins was assassinated in an ambush at Beal na mBlath (the mouth of flowers). During his short but extremely radical political life, Michael Collins accomplished the impossible by creating an Irish Free State. Collins spent his entire adult life fighting for freedom. He is remembered as the first urban guerrilla, then for laying the foundations of a state and negotiating its independence, was chairman of its Provisional Government, and then its commander in Chief of its armed forces when it was plunged into a civil war. He had the support of the Irish people and created an army to ensure that the people of Ireland would be able to keep hold of that freedom they so preciously fought for. His death is still shrouded in mystery and there are conflicting accounts of the ambush. We will look at Ireland's great patriot, his life, his work, and his death and see what one man can do for the love of his country.
To gain a better insight and understanding of Michael Collins one must be aware of his life from the very beginning to see how his upbringing shaped his political views and helped create a new country. Collins was born on October 16, 1890, near Sam's Cross, a tiny hamlet in West Cork, Ireland. He was the youngest out of eight children and grew up on the family's impressive 90-acre farm. Collins father, Michael Collins senior, died when Collins was only six years old. His father was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.). His father's relationship with the I.R.B would have lasting effects on Collins as he would eventually join and become president of the I.R.B. Another instrumental force in creating the nationalistic Collins was a local schoolteacher, Denis Lyons, who was very radical and stern in his beliefs in Irish independence and a member of the I.R.B. These men were guides for Collins on his path on being Irish and helped steer him to the road of rebellion.
Collins has been described as a man larger than life. He was known as the "big fellow" because of his stature and leadership attitude. A very passionate man, he did everything for the love of Ireland. He wept, shouted, cursed, and laughed all in the name of Erin. Many thought his temper clouded his views, but he was determined to see Ireland free. His objective was to free Ireland from Britain and he would do anything to achieve this goal. The one thing that Collins did not want was Ireland to be divided into two separate areas. Some believed he was the cause for the division of Northern and Southern Ireland, but he worked until the day he died to unite the warring factions together. In today's world Collins would be called a 'control freak'. He had to be the leader in every situation and had to know about everything. He was well organized and kept files on everyone and everything. It is generally agreed that without Collins the Irish revolution would have not succeeded or would have been impossible. As one historian has described Collins, he was "quite irreplaceable, only he had that extraordinary amalgam of courage, ruthlessness, energy, organizational flair, audacity, cunning and compassion of the complete revolutionary."
His mother fearing that her son was becoming too politically active (at the age of 14) sent Michael to live with one of his sisters in Clonakilty. He studied for the post office examination and work for his brother-in-law, who owned his own newspaper. Collins learned everything about newspapers and this interest would stay with him until his death. After a year and a half, Collins moved to London to live with another sister and stayed in London for the next nine years. He had various jobs in London, such as working at the Post Office Savings Bank and other financial firms, all the while learning the financial dealings and organisations that he would use later on in life, as Minister of Finance. All the while he participated in Irish politics and causes.
In 1909, Collins was sworn in as a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The IRB was created in the 1860's and it was an organization that "swore to free Ireland through violent revolution, and to set up an independent republic." During the early years of the IRB they did not have the full support of the Irish people who still depended on its representatives in the parliament, in England. Once they did have support of the Irish people, they realized they needed to arm themselves. In 1913, the Irish Volunteers were formed; "this was the first time in two hundred years they had the chance to organize along military lines in defense of a national principle." Collins returned to Ireland in 1916, when the IRB announced its plan for a rebellion. Collins began to realize the time was right for Ireland to gain her independence from England when she became involved in World War I. The idea for this realization was that England was fighting to help liberate small countries and even larger countries from oppression and occupation from other countries. If England was going to help these countries then they should realize that they were oppressing Ireland and they should release Ireland from its grasp and let her be her own country. The rebellion was against British involvement in the war and the British army recruiting in Ireland for WWI. They believed that Irishmen should not have to fight for the freedman of others until Ireland was free. Collins believed wholeheartedly in this ideology and partook in the rebellion. During the uprising he was a captain in the Irish Volunteer's and was imprisoned for eight months following the one week rising at Frongoch prison in Wales. He was very lucky not to have been sentenced a life term in prison or executed for treason.
During the uprising an important document was read and it took place at the General Post Office (G.P.O.) in Dublin. The G.P.O. was the symbolic heart of the uprising and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was read stating that Ireland should be free of English control and a sovereign nation. It was read by the President and the commander in chief of the Irish Republic, Patrick Pearce, who was later captured and executed by the British for leading the coup. In 1917, Eamon de Valera was elected President of Sinn Fein and appointed Collins as one of the Executives. They realized that they needed money, weapons, intelligence, and men to wage war against England and win their independence. Collins went about reorganizing the IRB after the Easter uprising had almost dismantled it. He was made President of the IRB and controlled the military operation when the British sent over troops. He was given the position of Director of Organization, which was in charge of creating "an intelligence network, organizing a national loan to fund a rebellion, creating an assassination squad and an arms smuggling operation." Collins took the job on with zeal and pride. He perfected a system where he was able to spy on the spies who were spying on him even from England. He used inside informants in every section of Dublin Castle that was the "centre and symbol of British rule in Ireland". Dublin Castle was where England "watched" the rebellious Irish men plot and scheme their way to independence. Collins's informants would give him copies of every important document that dealt with information pertaining to the moves that the British were making while in Ireland. Many times they saved his life by informing him that a raid was going to take place and he should change locations. Because of so many near misses with the British government forces, Collins was becoming a mythical figure, something larger than life.
With his intelligence agency set up and working quite effectively, Collins then set to work on his brainchild "The Squad" which was a "group of assassins, a specially selected hit squad directly under Collins orders" also named the "12 Apostles." This was the first time in Ireland's history that she had a secret assassination group. The 12 Apostles were very effective with their jobs and they eradicated almost all of the British Intelligence system known as the ‘G' division in Ireland. Collins was very careful when it came to killing these ‘G' men and he virtually paralyzed the service. He followed their movements, examined their garbage for information and had duplicate keys made to their houses. Collins thought of every move and even thought of the public's reaction to their deaths so he would time when their murders would take place. No detail escaped this man. His assassination squad did not please the general population in Ireland. Some think the assassinations may have increased the bitterness between Orange and the South thus making impossible for unity. In 1920, the Squad's most effective move came when they executed nineteen British Secret Service agents on November 20. This move showed England that Ireland had a leader that was capable of organizing treachery and malice.
Collins also helped raise money for arms through bonds and newspaper ads. The British tried repeatedly to suppress the ads but Collins was able to raise large sums of money to arm young Irish men against the English. He was also in charge of smuggling the ammunition into Ireland and for this he had to control all the activities in the ports and ships in Ireland. It is believed that almost "every gun, every pound of ammunition, every ton of coke for the bomb factories, had passed through Collins' hands." Collins was very hands-on and it showed in everything that he did. His aggressive tactics angered many in his own circle and he was condemned by them as being brash and hurting the cause.
In 1919 the Irish Volunteers came back with a renewed vengeance, strength and a new name. They called themselves the Irish Republican Army, and defended the Republic as declared by the Dail Eireann (Parliament in Dublin). The IRA was a political army for it was defending Ireland's right to have a separate parliament from England. Sinn Fein wanted self-reliance, in Gaelic Sinn Fein means "Our Selves". This created a problem because there was already a parliament in Westminster, where Irish delegates were sent to represent Ireland. Sinn Fein members pledged not to go to Westminster if they won the election while other political parties did go on to Westminster. Out of the 105 Irish seats Sinn Fein won 73 of those seats. The elected officials met in Dublin on January 21, 1919 and formed the Dail Eireann and voted on a Declaration of Independence based on the on the Proclamation read at the Easter Rising of 1916. With the Dail running Collins realized that the IRA would not be able to fight the British in the open rather he perfected modern guerrilla warfare. The British police force in Ireland was the Royal Irish Constabulary and they were spread throughout Ireland. To intimidate them the IRA used tactics of ambush, terror, and selective brutality against the police primarily, but also against Irish collaborators and the army. He studied the tactics of the Boer guerrillas and learned and improved from them. Collins knew that the Irish would not win a military victory against the British but he did hope that England would withdraw her troops and leave Ireland alone for good or agree to let them govern themselves. Collins kept up the tactics till 1921, when finally the British were willing to sit down and talk about ending the fighting and start talking about peace. Collins stated that the struggle from 1918 to 1921 could be summed up "as the story of a struggle between our determination to govern ourselves and to get rid of British government and the British determination to prevent us from doing either".
From 1919-1921, this period in history is known as the Anglo-Irish War. In response to the guerrilla tactics used by the IRA the British sent over the Black and Tans. The British government never formally said there was a war in Ireland but maintained that they were taking police action to deal with the civil disturbances and this is how the Black and Tans entered Irish history. Hundreds of people were killed and maimed by the Black and Tans and a cry of outrage was shouted in England for the government to take them out of Ireland. Realizing that only blood was going to be shed, England sued Ireland for peace. Michael Collins had brought England to the peace treaty table, which had been impossible for over seven hundred years in Ireland.
When the Dail was formed they elected Sinn Fein President Eamon de Valera as President of the Irish Republic. He appointed Collins as his Minister of Finance and immediately set him to work on the idea of a National loan. Collins was still only in his twenties and he was put in charge of advertising the loan, collecting it and issuing the receipts; and yet he was directing the campaign of guerrilla warfare and headed the intelligence agency in Ireland. To put Collins in perspective -- by 1921 he was Minister of Finance responsible to the Dail, Director of Organization and Intelligence to the IRA, Executive of the Irish Volunteers and President of the Supreme Council of the IRB, with the notion of leadership over the entire campaign. This would burn most men out, but it seems like Collins thrived off his duties and executed them with acute detail and passion. One thing that Collins did not like was being a politician and a negotiator. Eamon de Valera sent Collins and an envoy to London to discuss a treaty with Lloyd George. Collins protested saying that he was a soldier not a statesman, but he went anyway. Some historians believe de Valera did not go to London because he knew that Ireland would not get the treaty that she wished for and the people that signed it would be the ones to blame. Since he wanted to remain blameless, so he sent others in his place. de Valera was a very smart man and he knew that it was going to be impossible for Ireland to become a Republic or even united because in the end it would only be a compromise. During the Anglo-Irish war the English Cabinet passed the "Government of Ireland Act in 1920, better known as the Partition Act". The act was an attempt to provide Ireland with a federated system of government, one for the North and one for the South, thus splitting the country. The majority of the people were not in support of the act because there were two parliaments one run by Sinn Fein the other guided by the crown. The people in the southern part of Ireland were still fighting for political freedom, which was being denied by the British parliament. The country was divided 26 counties in the south and 6 in the north. Collins did not want a divided country; his dream was to unify the country to have one Ireland that was united. Not only were they fighting for political freedom but also now they had to fight to reunite their country that England just tore apart.
The peace talks went on for ten months. They were probably the hardest ten months in Collins' life. He was back in London, removed from all the action that had consumed his life for almost five years. During the talks they negotiated for External Association where they would be a commonwealth and for internal purposes they would be a Republic. England would not have this and they also wanted Ireland to recognize the King. Collins did not believe Irish citizens would agree to be subjects of the crown so an agreement was made and the King was recognized as the head of the Associated states. The British rejected almost every proposal by the Irish delegates. They would not allow an Irish Republic and would not hear of having External Association with the Empire. Only one thing remained for Ireland and it was Dominion Status and future constitutional expansion. One thing that Lloyd George would not negotiate was the partition act. As hard as the delegates tried they could not unite Ireland during the treaty talks and this was to have lasting consequences no one could realize. He signed the treaty anyway with a heavy heart, realizing that it would be a stepping-stone for the future of Ireland and once the English withdrew from Ireland they would be able to unite the north and south. Justifying the signing, Collins said he did it for the whole of the country so that Ireland would be able to have a parliament, which would have the power to make laws for future peace and order. After he signed the treaty he wrote to friends telling them that he had signed his death warrant.
December 21, 1921 was a dark day for all of Ireland because this was the day that the treaty was signed and put into effect by the delegation. On January 7, 1922, Dail Eireann the national Assembly in Ireland ratified the treaty by a vote of 64-57. The next day Eamon de Valera resigned his Presidency because he did not support the treaty. He did not believe it gave Ireland enough freedom nor were they a Republic yet. The treaty meant abandonment of the Republic proclaimed in 1916 and constitution ratified by Dail Eireann in 1919. Collins argued that steps needed to be taken in order for a Republic to be established for it could not happen in one day. He stood by the treaty saying that it "gave us freedom-not the ultimate freedom which all nations hope for and struggle for, but freedom to achieve that end." A provisional government was formed by the end of January and Collins was elected Chairman. As Chairman of the provisional government and one of the new leaders Collins was chosen to accept the surrender of Dublin Castle. British colonialism, repression and secret intelligent service were finally ousted of Ireland and Michael Collins was the first Irishman to freely step through the doors and claim victory.
With de Valera resigning the Presidency over the treaty he had spilt the IRA into pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces. On June 28, 1922 the Irish Civil War began with the Free State Army shelling the anti-Treaty positions at Four Courts in Dublin. Collins was made the Commander-in-Chief of the Free State Army (IRA). He now had supreme power in Ireland for he controlled the army. He would hold this position for only two months for on August 22, 1922; Michael Collins was gunned down in an ambush.
Before his death, Collins wrote a book called the Path to Freedom, written in August of 1922. The ideology behind the book was for the future of Ireland once the English were finally out of the country and the Civil war was over. He states in the beginning "After a national struggle sustained through many centuries, we have today in Ireland a native Government deriving its authority solely from the Irish people, and acknowledged by England and other nations of the world." He envisioned Ireland as a country which would be united, and have some international power, and most of all a free state. He said there would be no distinction in the Irish nation "it will be our aim to weld our people nationally together who have, hitherto been divided into political and social and economic outlook." In turn, the people will have held the key to their independence, economic well being and greatness.
He also saw a future were Ireland would be a recognized nation and that it could become a member in the League of Nations. He wanted Ireland to be a global power in having this position in the world Ireland would be able to promote peace to other nations. Ireland would be able to "have a voice in international affairs and would use that voice to promote harmony and peaceful intercourse among all friendly nations." Collins also pictured Ireland having close trade with cultural and social relations with these "friendly nations". He understood that in able for Ireland to unite, every phase of Irish life must be represented and that all would have a voice in the country, government, and cooperation. He had a vision and he probably would have succeeded in his vision if given half a chance.
In uniting Ireland, Collins also wanted to get rid of all British influences. He believed that the Irish people had to let go of British ways. He believed this was the problem in Ulster and if the British would leave them alone them they would have a chance to bring them back into the folds of being Irish. In order for Ireland to become her own country again she will have to lose the English grasp and find herself once more. This was how the new republic would start. The people as a whole would have to go back to using old traditions, relearn Gaelic, and re-teach everyone what it meant to be Irish.
Michael Collins took the initiative to set up Ireland as a free government, he wanted the government to be strong and he was willing to do almost anything to ensure that it was done as long as it was the government for the Irish people. The Irish wanted a government, which was not like England, they did not want a monarchy because it was British. Collins knew that the people had to unite in order for things to be better for all the people. Ireland could not have two parliaments run by two different regions of the country especially if the crown was going to be involved with Northern Ireland. They fought for this freedom now they had to keep it and lay their differences aside and come to an understanding with each other. He asked "can we not all join together to save the Irish ideal- freedom and unity- and to make it a reality?" He truly believed that Ireland would mend her differences and unite and become one again after the civil war.
Michael Collins strove for peace in Ireland; he wanted the fighting to stop and tried to bring about the two warring fractions that were splitting Ireland apart. The ten-month civil war was very bloody but the government forces were winning in the cities and much of the country areas. On August 20, 1922 Collins and a small convoy started for Cork, near his hometown, to continue his inspection of the area and see if it was coming under control. This part of Ireland he was traveling through was strong with support with anti-treaty forces. Two days later Collins and his men were driving on a road and they were ambushed. After a twenty-minute fight one man lay dead. Michael Collins had been hit in the head behind his right ear. The man who brought Ireland her freedom died two months shy of turning thirty-two. His only wish at the time of his death was to stop the civil war Ireland was embroiled in.
Unfortunately Collins death is shrouded in mystery. No one is certain who killed Collins; was it the anti-treaty forces, British secret service, or his own men? Books have been written and yet there is no clear answer. Eoin Neeson gives an example of the confusion surrounding Collins death. Neeson grapples with two accounts of the ambush at Beal na mBlath by two men that were there. Emmett Dalton is the first to give his account of the ambush at Beal na mBlath. Dalton accounts gives us a Crossley tender, one motor cyclist, an armored car and the car that Collins and he were in as the procession heading into Beal na mBlath. They came under heavy fire from the front and the behind, but there was a cart in the middle of the road making it difficult to pass. The ambush lasted about twenty-five minutes with Collins as the only person killed and one other person being wounded. M.J. Corry is the other man to give an account of the ambush. Corry's account is a little different from Dalton's. Corry has three Crossley tenders, one Rolls Royce Whippet armored car, a motor-cyclist and a Leyland Tomas racing car that had Collins in it as the convey that left Bandon. Corry also says there was a single shot fired and the convey stopped on the orders of Collins and there was no obstruction in their way on the road in Beal na mBlath. Another contradiction is the direction of the firing. Corry states that the firing was coming from the front only. Even the final moments of Collins are different. Corry says that he was holding the head of Collins and Dalton was carrying Collins feet. Dalton says that he bandaged Collins head and that a Lieutenant helped him carry Collins' body to a car. It is uncertain why these two men have such different accounts of the same day. But Neeson tends to agree with Dalton's account because of his rank and his reliability on other areas regarding the ambush.
In his short life, Michael Collins gave Ireland what they had been dreaming for, for hundreds of years: freedom. Yet, his dream never was fully seen through as de Valera fought against the treaty and a civil war erupted in the country; tearing it apart when Collins tried to bring it together. If he had lived, things may have been very different for Ireland. Many historians have glamorized him and he comes off as a mythical figure that had supernatural abilities, but was cut down in prime. We will never know what Collins' greatness could have been; we can only speculate and wish. But two things are certain: There has never been a man in Irish history to do more in a short amount of time than Michael Collins and die believing in his cause. Second, Ireland today is still fighting; they are still divided and there seems to be no end, but one day when people are able to see past their differences and look back on one man whose dream was a free Ireland. A united Ireland then maybe they will stop and the country will become one just as Michael Collins once believed could happen.
Written in 2004.