Who shot Michael Collins?
History: The Great Cover Up, Gerard Murphy, The Collins Press, paperback, 288 pages, €19.99
A new book exploring the assassination of the Big Fella insists much of what we have been told about Béal na Bláth is pure fabrication
Who shot Michael Collins? That is a question that can never be answered, but will forever be asked. Author Gerard Murphy admits as much at the beginning of The Great Cover Up: The Truth about the Death of Michael Collins. He then goes on to deliver a forensically persuasive argument in support of his case that the death of the nation's future leader was a big cover-up.
But was the Corkman ever destined to live to be the leader of a nation just finding its feet in the world? Perhaps not, thinks the writer. While the conventional narrative of Collins' death has been along the lines of only the good die young, Murphy makes no attempt to portray a man who masterminded multiple killings as the saint of popular legend. Collins was no Mr Nice Guy. He arranged the killing of a lot of people in cold blood and many wanted him dead.
"A lot of the information about (the killing of Collins at) Béal na Bláth has lain hidden for almost a hundred years," Murphy writes. "This is an attempt to drag it into the light and, while not every 'i' can be dotted and every 't' crossed, there is enough evidence here to show that much of what we have been told about Béal na Bláth is fabrication, to cover the tracks of those who had Collins killed on the one hand, and the careless military unit that happened on the other - even if much of that carelessness stemmed from Collins himself.
"It can also be stated that had Collins not been killed at Béal na Bláth, it is likely that he would have been assassinated at some other point, since he was not one to remain holed up in Government Buildings for very long. Every valley and bend on the road in the south and west of Ireland was a potential Béal na Bláth in the summer and autumn of 1922. Béal na Bláth just happened to be the one at which Collins actually died."
In other words, one of the key episodes in the formation of this country was a blend of conspiracy and cock-up.
Ireland was going through a trauma of shock and awe, a massive break-up with Britain and its sundered self. The event leading up to the war was the June 1922 General Election, where Sinn Féin found itself in the unique position of being both the party of government in Dáil Éireann, and the party of opposition. The president of the party, Éamon de Valera, was vehemently opposed to ratifying the Treaty signed by Collins, which fell short of delivering a 32-county Irish Republic.
Collins maintained that the Treaty offered "the freedom to achieve freedom" and a majority in his party took the same pragmatic view. De Valera was defeated when the pro-Treaty members of the Dáil approved the deal with Britain by a slim margin of 64 to 57.
Dev's faction, known as the anti-Treatyites, declared open war on the pro-Treaty members of their own party who had now styled themselves the Provisional Government of the Free State.
The author refers to the "fog" that has gathered around Collins, the man, the myth and the murder. One of the myths he explodes is the one propagated in Neil Jordan's hit 1996 movie Michael Collins which painted De Valera as the brains behind Béal na Bláth. The facts, as expertly outlined by Murphy, don't stand up. Dev didn't plan Collins' killing, but some of his good pals did.
One of the most telling passages in Murphy's book relates how Collins was on an "inner circle" Irish Republican Brotherhood death list, as noted in British intelligence files. The author alerts us to "three potentially useful pieces of information". The first, he says, was that "Collins was aware that he was on a death list - which might account for his depression in the week or two before his death".
Second, was that "the net of assassination was spread wider than to catch just Collins". Just three weeks before he was shot dead, Collins informed the leader of the newly established Free State, WT Cosgrave, that: "The Government is aware of plots to murder the members of the Government who are carrying out the people's mandate to restore law and order in the country."
In other words, Collins and indeed the whole cabinet were at risk of being shot by both sides. As the author puts it: "This suggests that British military intelligence had passed its information to Collins. Clearly the policy of 'doing away' with Collins had by now been extended to his most prominent lieutenants."
At the time of Collins' slaying, the world was relatively new to democracy. It was a young and somewhat untested political experiment. And indeed, major nations like Italy, Spain and Germany would soon abolish it in the lifetimes of people living today. There were a little over 20 electoral democracies on the face of the earth. Ireland was attempting to join in that small minority. Making it up as we went along, the killing of Collins may have been the tipping point that tilted Ireland to what it has become, for better or for worse.
When it happened - and the author suggests that a premonition settled on the man - the killing of Collins sent a shockwave around the world. It was intended as a decisive shunt in one direction. It ricohcheted back on the perpetrators. Those who loved Collins and those who had good reason to hate him were united in their revulsion of the deed. Divisive in its intent, it may have been, strangely, the single factor that brought a people at war with themselves - a brutally uncivil war - finally to their minds.