Eoghan Harris: Hits, myths and misses surrounding our Collins
Published 28/10/2012 | 05:00
Alan Coren, the English humourist, once asked his publisher what subjects sold best. Golfing, cats and Nazis, he was told. So Coren wrote a short book called Golfing for Cats and put a swastika on the cover.
That is why I am writing this weekend about Michael Collins. As well as giving you a break from the bank debt saga, it assures me of your attention. Because the Big Fellow is now a bestselling brand.
The cult of Collins has long been a lucrative line of business for my old sparring partner, Tim Pat Coogan. But recently, he has taken to throwing in a minor brand to prop it up. Flatteringly, that minor brand is me.
A few weeks ago, he told The Sunday Times that David Norris's claim that Collins could have been gay "was the work of one Eoghan Harris" and confused the reporter enough for her to say I penned a film script in the 1990s "which suggested he might have homosexual tendencies".
Coogan also confided: "A woman wrote to me and told me [Harris] had a scene in which Collins was in bed with Lady Lavery and he interrupted his love-making to look down at some of the boys in the yard underneath, his henchmen, and said something to the effect that he would rather be with them than her."
This is pure fantasy on the part of Coogan and his fevered female informant. There is no such scene in any of the dozen drafts of screenplays I wrote on Michael Collins. Nor do I suggest in any of the screenplays that Collins
might have been homosexual -- although I do think there is a homo-erotic dimension to the cult of Collins.
But if I had written such a scene, it would have been the other way around: he would have broken off wrestling with the Squad to look up Lady Lavery. But only look her up.
Because there is no evidence to back Coogan's claim that Collins was "aggressively heterosexual".
This is a change for Coogan, who, back in the 1990s, subscribed to the chaste view of Collins. Indeed, I publicly remarked on his prim refusal to draw any sexual conclusion from his own depiction of a policeman finding Collins standing in the garden of Moya Llewelyn's house at Lusk at midnight.
Furthermore, I was one of the first people to publicly point out -- in Sinead McCoole's fine study, Hazel: A Life of Lady Lavery -- the importance of Collins's complex relationship with Hazel Lavery.
But what kind of relationship? Although Collins had a large number of "girlfriends", there is no hint that he consummated any of his affairs. And his letters to Kitty Kiernan lack the subtext and codes common to sexually active young men at the time.
Coogan's readiness to believe any nonsense he is told about my Michael Collins screenplays seems catching. A few weeks ago, a columnist in the Sunday Business Post smugly informed his greener readers that Neil Jordan had "turned down" my screenplay. As the facts are more interesting, here is the brief background to my abortive Collins film project.
Back in June 1986, I spent the bank holiday weekend working on a screenplay called The Last King with Marlon Brando at his house on Mulholland Drive. Brando was in his bullshitting and blueberry pie mode. One day, partly out of boredom, I told him the story of Michael Collins.
Brando sent me to a brilliant British producer called Barry Spikings, who had won an Oscar for The Deer Hunter. Spikings gave me a goodly sum to write a draft screenplay on Collins. It was the first of many drafts during what I sardonically call 'Harris, the Hollywood years'.
Over the next 10 years, the project hit the usual Hollywood rocks, including a weird interval with Michael Cimino. Finally, it found its way to Kevin Costner, who came to West Cork to walk the ground. Costner got distracted by Waterworld, whereupon Neil Jordan got in ahead of me and made his own movie.
During that 10 years, my draft screenplays got darker in two areas. First, like the late Dr Anthony Clare, I came to believe that Collins, in common with his adversary Winston Churchill, showed strong symptoms of manic depression in its creative mode.
Second, in relation to Collins's sexuality, I came to the same conclusion as Professor Diarmaid Ferriter: that Collins most likely died a virgin. But I go further than Ferriter in believing -- as Brenda Power has sensibly suggested -- that Collins may well have been a repressed bi-sexual. So what?
But the later drafts of my screenplays, written as the Provo campaign came to a close, are much less preoccupied with Collins's sexuality than with his use of violence -- particularly as there is no proof he ever shot anybody up close and personal enough to get blood and brains on his shirt.
That is why, when Jordan's Michael Collins came out, I criticised its anachronistic use of a Provo-style car bomb to kill a British agent. I thought this thoughtlessly played to a Provo gallery. Certainly, the cheers in some cinemas did nothing to dispel this impression.
But what baffles me most is how Coogan & Co can get worked up over whether Collins was gay while ignoring a far more incendiary issue which has always bothered me: how was Collins able to cycle around Dublin in broad daylight? Paul Bew, the distinguished historian, provided a possible answer in the course of his 2002 review of Ed Moloney's A Secret History of the IRA.
"Having identified a pro-compromise faction around Michael Collins, the British protected this faction while hitting hard at those republicans who wanted to fight on. Up to his death, Collins lied about the date of his first contact with British intermediaries; these discussions took place much earlier than he ever admitted to his revolutionary colleagues."
In conclusion, let me say there is no such thing as a definitive movie about Michael Collins. Each generation needs to give its own impression of this mythic figure. Jordan's film satisfied the 1990s need for a Collins/Adams figure -- a man of war who goes on to make peace.
Looking back, I realise none of my drafts sufficiently challenged the romantic myth of Michael Collins. Coming up to the 1916 commemorations, we need a movie which shows both the creative and callous side of our own Henry V, a heroic figure who was lucky to die before his failings were found out.
Michael Collins wasn't as morally tough as Richard Mulcahy or Kevin O' Higgins. He tried to have it both ways on the Treaty. He procrastinated before firing on the Four Courts. He behaved with bad faith by fomenting provocations in Northern Ireland.
But then, as Joe E Brown says at the end of Some Like It Hot: Nobody's perfect.