The Big Fella had a broader view of Ireland’s future than any of his peers
On a mantelpiece in my boyhood home of Tudor Hall, Monkstown, there stood a clock that had been taken from Dublin Castle.
My mother steadfastly averred that it stopped at the moment Michael Collins received the independence of Ireland from Viceroy Lord Edmund FitzAlan.
Legend has it that the Englishman remarked to Collins prior to the handover that he was seven minutes late, to which Collins replied along the lines of: “Ah, sure you had 700 years, we’ll let you have the other seven minutes.”
He was certainly right about the length of time hostilities had existed between the two islands. One might therefore have imagined that the castle handover would have been a joyous occasion. But the political atmosphere was far from it.
Partition meant that the main industrial and taxation bases of Ireland lay north of the new border. The South, economically speaking, was in effect getting the Guinness brewery and a large farm made up of thousands of small unviable units.
The 26 counties’ sole purpose — until TK Whitaker and Seán Lemass nudged the State into the Common Market in 1973 — would continue to be the supply of cheap food and cheap labour to our nearest neighbour.
In addition, the new State would have to pay for the cost of repairing the wartime damage, the cost of settling the land issue and other expenses such as RIC pensions.
Devastated or not, the new State — with the same constitutional status as Australia or Canada — did have some monumental advantages. There would be an Irish Army and civil service and the much-feared RIC was to be replaced by an unarmed Garda Síochána,
However daunting its prospects, I have interviewed survivors of the period who spoke of those early months as a “new dawn” and a hard-to-comprehend sense of freedom.
But along with the new institutions, new storm clouds were forming. The Anglo-Irish Treaty had been passed by a Dáil majority of only seven votes. Its membership — thanks in part to Collins’ manipulation of the selection process in favour of “forward candidates” — was out of sync with the wishes of the people who had suffered at the hands of army, Auxiliaries, Black and Tans and sometimes IRA action.
The people wanted peace, but one powerful voice in particular was raised against it. Éamon de Valera used incendiary language in his denunciation of the treaty. The last commandant of 1916 to survive the Rising, he had achieved near-Godlike status on his American tour, which had occupied him throughout most of the fighting.
He had returned from the US only six months before a truce was declared, leaving behind in American banks some millions of dollars which he had raised to further the cause of Irish independence. He would later gain control of some of this money to create and control the Irish Press newspaper group.
Once back in Ireland, he discovered a new star had arisen, and immediately attempted to dim it by getting Michael Collins to leave Ireland and go to the US for propaganda purposes.
Collins refused. Then in July of 1921 when peace broke out, de Valera went to meet Lloyd George in Downing Street, but refused to take Collins with him, deeply wounding the younger man.
De Valera spent some days alone with Lloyd George. By the time he left Downing Street, he knew exactly the terms the British were offering. When it came to negotiate in October that year, he refused to return to London. This time he did manage to pressurise Collins into entering the gap of danger. It would prove the worst decision of de Valera’s life.
Time would later confirm Collins was correct in his contention that although the treaty did not confer full freedom, it offered a stepping stone to it.
Ironically, nobody would prove this more than de Valera, as he successfully used the independence conferred by the treaty to stay out of World War II — even though Ireland was a member of the Commonwealth.
This “proof” came at a terrible cost. When Civil War broke out in June 1922 with the shelling of the Four Courts by the Free State Government, divisions were opened up by society that are only showing a tendency to mend in our day, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil governing in coalition.
Probably the greatest single loss in the prospect of healing was the death of Collins himself. He had a broader, more international view of affairs than practically anyone else of his time. A month after the Civil War began, even as the guns crashed out all over Ireland, he prepared a lengthy memorandum for Desmond FitzGerald, in effect the minister for external affairs. It was an order to provide as much information as possible on developments as diverse as Danish agriculture, hydropower, the Swiss use of a citizen army and Lloyd George’s use of the cinema to further his policies.
It is far from fanciful to imagine that some of the thought processes in this memo bore fruit in Ireland’s joining of the then European Economic Community.
Collins also stipulated that ways should be found to use the Irish language whenever possible.
He really did have an independent Ireland in prospect and realised also that it would have to be paid for and run on efficient modern lines.
His vision did not include partition as a permanent state of affairs, however.
It would always be a subject for conjecture as to what his use of subterfuge — including the use of force, and paying Northern teachers from the Irish secret service fund to teach Irish history and language — might have led to.
His cabinet would not have been united in supporting this policy and it is doubtful if the public would either. But the answer to these and other great questions was lost at Béal na mBláth.