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Sunday 22 September 2019

Anniversary of Michael Collins' death: How Big Fella's legend was shaped by Hollywood and the demonisation of Éamon de Valera

Today marks the death of Michael Collins at Béal na Bláth in 1922

Michael Collins. Photo: Getty
Michael Collins. Photo: Getty
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

With his portrayal of Michael Collins in the Neil Jordan film, Liam Neeson confirmed the reputation of the Corkman as the star of the Irish revolution. But the 'Big Fella's' place in Irish popular culture had been assured - while he was still alive.

Collins was portrayed during his lifetime as a mysterious cloak-and-dagger figure, the ever elusive "Dublin pimpernel".

After after he was gunned down at Béal na Bláth in 1922, the Irish Independent described him as the "idol of the Irish at home and abroad".

In an editorial on August 24, just after his killing, the paper quoted approvingly a government statement that Michael Collins "has been slain but he cannot die".

The paper correctly forecast: "His work and worth, if not perhaps adequately recognised by all Irishmen, will be appreciated by generations yet unborn."

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

While de Valera has been demonised as the stern, puritanical figure who caused Ireland to look inwards, Collins has been cast as a dashing, romantic hero.

No other Irish leader was given the same full Hollywood blockbuster treatment- with Julia Roberts playing his fiancée Kitty Kiernan with a wildly implausible brogue.

Padraig Pearse also died young, but perhaps lacked suitable love interest for the big movie producers due to his apparent fondness for boys; James Connolly was too left wing; and Dev was, to all outward appearances, too much of a stony-faced nerd.

Fine Gael naturally sees Collins as its great link to Ireland's revolutionary past; Fianna Fail has joined in the adulation and has almost forgotten the less telegenic Dev as its founding father; and Sinn Féin has long seen the leadership by Collins of a guerrilla war as justification for its own "armed struggle" in the North.

The cult of Collins was already well established by the time of Treaty in 1921.

First Dáil: Eamonn Duggan, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins in 1919

His biographer Peter Hart said Collins was the centre of attention wherever he went, with his very own 'groupie' in the form of Lady Lavery and at least one stalker.

As Hart put it: "He was the revolution's Princess Diana, its star and sex symbol - and the first example of that 20th century phenomenon: the guerrilla celebrity."

In London, Collins was snapped relentlessly by press photographers on the street. Crowds cheered him, women ran up to him and kissed him, and rumours were rife about his alleged affairs with high-society hostesses.

According to one tall tale, Collins even had a fling with a member of the royal family, Princess Mary. There were unfounded rumours, circulated by Countess Markievicz in the Dáil, that the princess had called off her engagement on his account.

One of the secretaries to the Irish delegation at the 1921 Treaty talks described the excitement in Downing Street as Collins arrived.

"The paths were lined along the route with Irish exiles, including nuns and clergymen reciting the rosary, singing hymns, exclaiming good wishes... There were tricolours, banners, flags lengths of cloth and cardboard with wishes and slogans in Gaelic.''

The Irish Independent described his send-off from Euston station after the talks in December: "Collins was a particular favourite of the women.

"The police were powerless to check the wild stampede... and one young woman succeeded in embracing him and kissing him heartily on both cheeks. 'God bless you Michael!' were the last shouts of a few hundred of his women admirers."

There were similar scenes in Dublin when he returned home. Collins was offered $25,000 - a vast sum at the time - to write his memoirs, but he died too early to take up the offer.

The myths about Collins only grew after his death and there were plenty of implausible tales of stirring adventures and daring escapes from British forces in the popular press.

Michael Collins throws the ball in at Croke Park.

In one newspaper account, he was said to have evaded capture by pretending to be the deceased at a drunken wake, and in another bogus story, he escaped from Dublin Castle on a white horse.

After all these hyped tales of derring- do, it was inevitable that Collins would attract the attention of Hollywood.

In one of earliest movies, Beloved Enemy, there is a Collins type character who is not actually named.

The 1936 film tells the story of a posh Englishwoman Helen Drummond (Merle Oberon) who falls for handsome rebel Dennis Riordan (Brian Aherne).

In the original movie, Riordan is shot and killed, like Collins. But the film was not popular initially, so it was given a different ending where the couple live happily ever after.

In the 1959 movie, Shake Hands With the Devil, there is a Collins character, the General, played by Michael Redgrave, while James Cagney plays a sexual deviant on the anti-treaty side.

Some felt that Redgrave was too old for the role at the time at the age of 50, and one critic said he looked "more like a Mayfair banker than a Fenian rebel".

Before Neeson took on the role in the Neil Jordan epic, Michael Collins, Brendan Gleeson gave one of the best performances as the Cork icon in the RTÉ/BBC co-production, The Treaty alongside Barry McGovern as de Valera. The drama was seen as more nuanced in its treatment of political events than the Jordan movie, which stirred controversy with its implication that the reptilian de Valera (played by Alan Rickman) plotted the assassination of Collins.

Liam Neeson in 'Michael Collins'

By the late 1990s, the veneration of Collins had taken on a religious hue. In 1998, the magazine History Ireland complained that the monument at Béal na mBláth was turning into a "colourful religious type shrine".

Hoping that they could establish a spiritual link with the 'Big Fella' in the sky, devotees began leaving candles, rosary beads, holy medals, holy water and children's dolls at the monument, with notes such as 'Dear Michael, we remember you, pray for us'.

The historian Dr John Regan argued that the Neeson movie and a biography by Tim Pat Coogan were partly to blame for the cult of Collins, but he also blamed the demonisation of de Valera.

Dr Regan has suggested that while Collins has become the "James Dean of Irish history", the country has projected its disenchantment with the early years of independence on to de Valera.

While Dev has come to epitomise emigration, poverty and depression, Collins never had to take responsibility for the revolution which he had instigated, and lives on as the symbol of the Republic that might have been.

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