For years, the most stolen road sign reported by Cork Co Council was that for Béal na Bláth, the west Cork townland where General Michael Collins was shot and killed during the Civil War.
The regular thefts – infuriating for the council – were sparked by an insatiable market worldwide among collectors and Irish pubs for anything associated with the ‘Big Fella’
It was an early hint of the incredible fascination with all things linked to Michael Collins
Today, General Collins has bequeathed an incredible economic and commercial legacy to his native county – a legacy that will peak, in tourism terms at least, over the next fortnight as Cork and Ireland marks the centenary of his death.
A veritable mini-industry has developed across the Rebel County based around the life and legend of Michael Collins.
There are Collins history trails, heritage walks and special museum exhibits while multiple books, films and documentaries have been made about his life.
‘Big Fella’ T-shirts are selling like hot cakes at local festivals while mini-statues of Collins, most in the striking pose captured in a photograph as he walked back from Arthur Griffith’s funeral in August 1922, just 10 days before his own death, are popular in memorabilia shops.
Thousands of visitors flock to see his ancestral home outside Clonakilty while the Imperial Hotel in Cork – where Collins spent the last two nights of his life – has completed a major refurbishment of the room in which he stayed, returning it to a 1920s appearance.
Collins’ grave at Glasnevin in Dublin is one of the most visited in the entire cemetery with flowers regularly placed to mark his birthday, anniversary, Christmas and even St Valentine’s Day.
The IRA commander was just 31 years old when he was shot and killed.
But in his short life he had taken part in the 1916 Easter Rising, became a key figure in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was Director of Intelligence for the IRA throughout the War of Independence, was credited with devising guerilla warfare tactics that are still studied in military academies today, helped negotiate the Free State Treaty. After the Civil War erupted, he galvanised the Free State to defeat the military challenge to its authority by those who had lost the democratic vote in the Dáil on the treaty.
As the Free State’s Finance Minister, he also helped establish a firm financial footing for the fledgling country.
Historian and author Lieutenant Colonel (Rtd) Dan Harvey said the legend of Michael Collins was easy to understand given its ‘Lost Leader’ connotations and conspiracy theories surrounding the circumstances of his death.
“Neil Jordan’s 1996 historical epic, Michael Collins, has been responsible for introducing the true story of the ‘Lost Leader’ to new generations of Irish youth and indeed to a worldwide audience who might otherwise neither know about nor fully appreciate his role in Irish history,” he said.
In tourism terms, Michael Collins is now ‘box office’.
“The film starring Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts was a huge success and it spurred a demand for further knowledge about Collins which had to be met.
“There are now museums with strong Collins themes in Clonakilty, the Michael Collins Centre, the Kilmurry Independence Museum and the Cork Military Museum at the appropriately named Collins Barracks.
“Sites spread across west Cork with connections to Collins now attract historians, tourists and even school groups while there are trails, tours and history walks.
“I think at the centre of it all is the question of ‘what might have been’ if the potential of this hugely energetic man had not been cut short.”
Lt Col Harvey – whose new book Car Bombs and Barrack Busters will be released in September – served as military consultant on the Irish war film The Wind That Shakes The Barley, which was filmed in west Cork and dealt with many of the Civil War issues that confronted Collins.
Lt Col Harvey is also one of the experts featured in RTE’s Cold Case Collins programme, to be broadcast on August 24, and which aims to bring modern forensic and pathology techniques to explaining the circumstances of his death.
For some, there is almost a John F Kennedy-like aura surrounding Michael Collins – a young man, who suffers a violent death, robbing
his country of seemingly limitless future potential.
Patsy Murphy sells T-shirts across Cork markets and festivals.
“You’d be amazed at the number of Michael Collins T-shirts we sell, particularly to tourists. It is almost like he is Ireland’s equivalent to Che Guevara.”
The Imperial Hotel has always been proud of its links to the ‘Big Fella’.
Owner Allen Flynn used the Covid-19 lockdown to order a full refurbishment of Room 115, where Collins spent the last two nights of his life.
The revamp gave the room a 1920s decor and the work was carried out in full consultation with the Collins family, who have been stalwart supporters of the hotel over the years.
“It is a very fitting tribute to Michael Collins. I think the big man himself would be happy,” he said.
Not surprisingly, the room is one of the most sought after in the hotel.
Mr Flynn said interest had been building in anything related to Michael Collins in the run-up to the centenary of his death.
The hotel already had a bronze bust of Collins and will soon unveil a new portrait of the general.
“Quite a number of American historians who had an interest in Irish history would have enquired about the room.”
Mr Flynn also noted that the Imperial, one of Ireland’s oldest hotels, has links to Charles Dickens and President John F Kennedy but its association with General Michael Collins “would be one of our favourites”.
Signposts advertising ‘The Michael Collins Trail’ are now erected throughout west Cork while numerous museums offer special exhibits on the ‘Big Fella.’
The Independence Museum in Kilmurry, located just 3km from the ambush site, opened a special exhibit on Collins called ‘The Local
Kilmurry Historical and Archaeological Association (KHAA) chairperson Mary O’Mahony said the area wanted to mark its association with events of great historical importance.
“It (the exhibit) aims to give a balanced view of how the ambush impacted on the people of this parish,” she said.
“We will also commemorate two local volunteers, William Harrington and Patrick O’Mahony, who died in the fighting at Limerick in July 1922.”
A centenary edition of Michael Collins – His Death in the Twilight by the late Edward O’Mahony will be republished as a fundraiser for KHAA, which runs the museum and community space on a voluntary basis.
As a young man, Edward O’Mahony was intrigued by the day “the most important man in Ireland was allowed to be isolated and killed” and the reluctance of the Old IRA men he knew to ever talk
The last known photograph of Michael Collins was taken as he left Lee’s Hotel (now the Munster Arms) in Bandon on the morning of August 22, 1922.
It was taken by 18-year-old Agnes Hurley from Mallowgaton, who always carried her box camera with her.
Her photo adorns the cover of the republished book.
The following day, Agnes and her brother and sister, were taking freshly harvested wheat to be ground at Howard’s Mill in Crookstown when they came upon a collar on the ground at the ambush site, which Agnes also photographed. “They went up onto the road that runs parallel to the site and they found nine places where men were leaning against the fence and also spent bullets,” said Mim O’Donovan, Agnes’ niece, who donated the photographs to Cork City and County Archives in 2012.
Over the next few weeks, tourists, historians and those who are simply curious will be able to avail of bus groups and walking tours following in the last steps of the IRA commander.
Next Sunday, August 21, the largest event ever staged at Béal na Bláth will mark the centenary of the death of the man who is widely credited with having masterminded the victory in the intelligence war against Crown forces during the War of Independence.
In an historic first, both Taoiseach Micheál Martin, of Fianna Fáil, and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, of Fine Gael, will deliver orations – a symbolic gesture of solidarity between the leaders of the two Irish political parties which trace their ancestry to the split over the Treaty.
A full military guard of honour will be in place, the area has been given a lavish upgrade by Cork Co Council, and even ‘Sliabh na mBan’, the armoured Rolls-Royce car that accompanied Collins on his inspection tour of west Cork, will be on hand.
In the Taoiseach’s office in Leinster House, the portraits of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera are now both
A decade before his own death, Eamon de Valera sensed what the future held in terms of legacy.
Famously, when asked about Collins he said: “It is my considered opinion that, in the fullness of time, history will record the greatness of Collins and it will be recorded at my expense.” A shrewd and ruthless politician, de Valera was unerringly correct.