Wednesday 17 July 2019

Béal na wha? Troubled history of remembering Michael Collins

Courage and ability: The late Brian Lenihan delivers an address at the Béal na Bláth in 2010
Courage and ability: The late Brian Lenihan delivers an address at the Béal na Bláth in 2010
Controversial figure: Michael Collins is pictured in the back of his car in 1922, just hours before he was killed by a republican sniper

Brian Murphy

Michael Collins played a significant role in securing Irish national freedom. Sadly, however, the annual Béal na Bláth commemoration of his life and achievements has all too often been rooted in controversy.

In August 1923, the first anniversary of the death of Collins was marked in Béal na Bláth by what the Irish Independent described as "a big military display". The Civil War had drawn to a close only three months earlier, so it was hardly surprising that the commemoration ceremony for their first Commander-in-Chief encompassed a show of strength by the victorious Free State Army.

Though Collins had been assassinated by a republican sniper, he still retained the respect and affection of those who had opposed him in the Civil War.

For a period, the Béal na Bláth seemed to open the door to the possibility of Civil War reconciliation. The leading dignitaries at the second annual Collins commemoration in August 1924 were WT Cosgrave, the President of the Executive Council, and the Garda Commissioner Eoin O'Duffy.

Though O'Duffy, who was a bête noire of republicans, unveiled the large memorial cross which still stands at Béal na Bláth, the Irish Independent noted that "a striking feature" of the commemoration was that many of those who attended were "not in consonance with Michael Collins's views after the Anglo-Irish Treaty had been signed".

Hopes that the commemoration might become a non-partisan event were, however, to gradually evaporate in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The emergence of Fianna Fáil as a potent political force meant that old animosities became more entrenched.

In August 1933, by which stage Fianna Fáil had entered government, PJ Ruttledge, De Valera's Minister for Justice, took the controversial step of banning the commemoration.

Just a month after the banning of the commemoration, the Blueshirts joined with Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Centre Party, in September 1933, to form a new party, Fine Gael, with O'Duffy as its first leader.

In August 2001, the former Fianna Fáil Minister David Andrews suggested that had Collins lived, he would likely have rejected the ideology of Fine Gael. This drew an angry response from the then Fine Gael leader, Michael Noonan, who said at Béal na Bláth that over the years Fianna Fáil had sought "to play down the importance of Collins".

Noonan also made reference to the fact that previous Fianna Fáil Governments had prevented the Irish Army from participating in the ceremonies at Béal na Bláth.

In 1972, Fianna Fáil Minister for Defence Jerry Cronin rescinded the controversial ban on Army participation. Cronin attended the ceremonies, but the main oration was made by the former Fine Gael Taoiseach, John A Costello.

In 1978, a future Fine Gael Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, availed of the platform to prepare the ground for his Constitutional crusade.

Appropriating Collins's legacy for political purposes has often proven to be contentious. In 1970, at the outset of the Troubles, the Fine Gael Leas-Ceann Comhairle Denis Jones told the commemoration that "Collins's solution to the Northern Ireland problem was one of peaceful integration".

Jones's view, however, sits uneasily with the reality that even after the Treaty was signed, Collins continued to smuggle arms into Northern Ireland.

In 1984, Kevin Burke, the editor of An Phoblacht, the Sinn Féin newspaper, focused on the then Minister for Justice Michael Noonan's praise of Collins as "a glorious example for us all to follow". Burke rhetorically asked: "How did Collins deal with the British military on the streets of Dublin? By bomb and grenade; lie in wait and, secretly, throw it."

In 1982, Michael O'Leary, the leader of the Labour Party, was invited to give the keynote address, but having been "advised not to do so" by party colleagues, O'Leary reluctantly declined. Within weeks, O'Leary had defected to Fine Gael.

Recent years have seen the emergence of a real and generous willingness to extend the commemoration.

The director of the National Museum, Pat Wallace, in an inspiring speech at Béal na Bláth in 2003, said that the vision of Michael Collins should not be associated with one party.

Many people's memory of Béal na Bláth will forever be associated with the late Brian Lenihan.

Like Collins, he was a man of rare courage and great political acumen. Lenihan was the first Fianna Fáil TD to be invited to deliver the oration.

Lenihan's grandfather had fought for Collins in the Civil War, but he subsequently joined Fianna Fáil. In his address, he rightly recognised that it is not mutually exclusive to admire the achievements of both Collins and de Valera.

Lenihan concluded by stating: "The spirit of Collins is the spirit of our nation, and it must continue to inspire all of us in public life, irrespective of party or tradition."

It was a noble appeal to place Collins's legacy beyond the scope of tribal party political joustings.

Brian Murphy is completing a PhD in the School of History and Archives, UCD. He was previously a speechwriter to two Taoisigh.

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