Saturday 24 June 2017

'Most formidable champion of Ireland's cause'

Whether statesman, peacemaker or insurgent, the death of Michael Collins cemented the mythology surrounding the man

Michael Collins
Michael Collins
Prayers being said at Michael Collins' graveside. 28/8/1922 Photo: Independent Archives

Patrick Geoghegan

'This is not true! This is not true!" The shocked reaction of Kevin O'Higgins, upon hearing of the death of Michael Collins on August 22, 1922, reflected the response of many Irish people. O'Higgins, soon to be appointed minister for home affairs, hoped it must be "some fantastic devilish lie", and he refused to accept that "the greatest man that ever served this nation's cause" had fallen. In the days ahead he mourned "the infinite pathos of it", the way "that brain, with all its wonderful potentialities", had been "dashed out by fratricidal bullet", linking Collins' vision to that of Abraham Lincoln, who likewise had been assassinated at the end of the American Civil War, he suggested that Collins had died to establish the foundations of the state, to vindicate the principle of democratic government, and to ensure that "government of the people by the people" should not be allowed to perish from the land.

In the immediate aftermath there was much rumour and counter-rumour about what had really happened at Beál na Bláth in Co Cork. The Associated Press reported that Collins had fallen fighting "an overwhelming force of irregulars" and there were even claims that he had "died facing odds of 10 to one". The New York Times, for example, reported that "with 20 men he defeated 200 rebels, firing after being mortally wounded". The truth was much more prosaic. Collins and his men were ambushed by no more than nine 'irregulars', after having made the fatal mistake of returning by the same route. The story of what had really happened would gradually emerge in the weeks and months ahead, although for some it remained a controversial and disputed subject.

The Irish Independent broke the news of the death of Collins on Wednesday August 23, 1922 with a headline of 'Cruel blow to nation' and a subheading, 'Life given for Ireland'. The following day, Thursday, August 24, it published a montage of photographs of "Ireland's soldier-chief". The descriptions contained an analysis of his speaking style, with a suggestion that "earnestness of discourse" was a remarkable feature of his oratory, and contributed to his "forceful, eloquent style". In a powerful tribute to his leadership, the paper used Arthur Griffith's tribute from the Treaty debates as a central headline: "The man who won the war". This was to become a key part of the Collins mythology, and it was present from the beginning. The paper also contained some of the anecdotes that were to be another central part of the legacy, the stories of Collins narrowly evading arrest, the "hair-breath escapes", chatting and joking with British soldiers as he went through various checkpoints.

By identifying Collins as 'the man who won the war', a narrative was created about the nature of his role during the War of Independence. As Michael Hopkinson in the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography has shown, Collins was an organiser, not a fighter, and he rarely travelled outside of Dublin. Director of intelligence for the IRA, and the critical figure in the IRB, he played a key role in the guerrilla warfare campaign, but he did not direct everything. Sent to London as one of the plenipotentiaries after the truce, he helped negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty and was one of the most effective advocates for it during the heated debates at home. 'What is good enough for Mick, is good enough for me', was the view of many in the army, and it helped convince a large number of people to accept what was being offered. Elected as chairman of the provisional government, he became commander-in-chief of the Irish army just shortly before his death.

The circumstances of his death, and the fact that he died at the incredibly young age of 31, helped turn Collins into an icon and a legend. The popular image of Collins became Collins in the months before his death, in military uniform, carrying a gun, and not as the elusive, mastermind organiser who helped win the war without necessarily firing a shot himself. The tributes to Collins in the aftermath of his death, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, contributed to the making of that legend.

The main headline in the Irish Independent on Monday, August 28, the day of the funeral, was the powerful: 'Heroic Collins will tower in glory'. Collins was described in another heading as 'The idol of the people'. When someone dies it is usual, in the immediate aftermath, to lavish them with praise and elide over their failings, but some of the tributes to Collins were remarkable even in that context. In an interview with the Rev Dr Michael Fogarty, bishop of Killaloe, the life work of Collins was compared with that of Joan of Arc. He suggested that Collins "had the heart of a lion", and "had he lived in the Middle Ages he would have been a coeur de lion, a knight of endless and dazzling romance".

A photo montage of the funeral took up a full page on Tuesday, August 29. Described as "a mighty spectacle of mourning", it was considered an "unparalleled tribute" and "the greatest pageant of sorrow ever seen in Dublin". The reports of the funeral on August 29 were extensive and provided a comprehensive account of the many different groups who paid their respects, as well as the reaction across the country. Some of the details provided a unique insight into Collins the man, for example the story of how a year earlier Collins had taken to the field at Croke Park with his friend Harry Boland and how they had, "like two unloosed schoolboys, wielded their hurleys and jostled and played" before a crowd of 15,000 people.

A remarkable sign of the affection Collins was held in was that work was suspended in Dublin, as hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets to pay their respects. As reported in the paper, the funeral cortège was three miles long. The body was laid to rest in Glasnevin Cemetery, and there General Richard Mulcahy delivered a powerful tribute to "the fallen leader" calling him "a great hero and a great legend". Many on the opposite side in the civil war also paid their own tributes. Tom Barry, then a prisoner in Kilmainham jail, reported that a 1,000 prisoners kneeled to say the rosary upon hearing of his death.

Outside of Ireland, the tributes to Collins were immediate and focused on his role as a statesman and peacemaker rather than on his career as an insurgent. The British prime minister, Lloyd George, issued a statement which praised Collins for "his remarkable personal charm", and expressed a hope that a "dark chapter" in Irish history might soon come to an end.

Lord Birkenhead, the Lord Chancellor, and Tory grandee, who had also been part of the Treaty negotiations, described Collins as "complex, daring, resourceful, volatile and merry".

The New York Times believed that with the death of Arthur Griffith Ireland "had lost its brain"; with the assassination of Michael Collins it had lost "its sword".

Many Irish-Americans compared Collins to Abraham Lincoln, "stricken down by the bullet of a murderer as the greatest work of his life was nearing completion". Morgan J O'Brien, a former judge on the New York Supreme Court, described him simply as "the strongest man in Ireland's history". Collins' brother, Patrick, a police sergeant in Chicago, revealed that he had received a letter a couple of weeks earlier in which Michael had expected to be killed. But he wanted people to know that, if so, "he had died like a Collins and fighting for Ireland". The high standing of Collins, and way his death was reported in the United States, led many to believe that the killing would alienate support for the anti-Treaty side.

The reaction in the European press was similar. It was noted in Italian newspapers that the death of Collins, the "greatest man after the death of Arthur Griffith", was a huge blow to the Free State, but also to the republicans because they would lose the sympathy of people in Ireland and across the world. Pope Pius XI was reported to have felt "the deepest grief" on hearing the news, and made a strong statement against violence, warning that it "invariably recoils upon him who tries it".

The tributes to Collins continued in the days and weeks ahead. There were long queues outside Glasnevin Cemetery, as people tried to get inside and pay their respects at the grave. The Irish Independent continued to publish photographs and tributes. In a letter to the paper, published on August 30, Valentine O'Hara, a noted expert on Russia living in London, called Collins "the most formidable champion of Ireland's cause", and lamented that his life was ended by an enemy at home. For many, the paper captured the mood of the country, and the sense of determination battling despair, when it noted that, "Ireland's milestones to freedom are marked, not by victories on the field of battle, but by the sacrifices of our heroes".

Patrick Geoghegan is professor of history at Trinity College Dublin and presents the award-winning 'Talking History' on Newstalk.

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