The past is another country, and one that arrives to mixed emotions in this summer of 2022. In six weeks’ time, the centenary of one of the most divisive moments in Irish history will confront us – and awaken a dormant enmity some might have thought had long ago expired. No chance.
The killing of Michael Collins on August 22, 1922, is the gift that keeps on giving across a century, for historians, novelists and filmmakers, all ensnared to dissect a legacy of “what might have been”.
Assassinated in his prime at 32, the Big Fella’s demise conformed perfectly to Billy Joel’s hit, Only The Good Die Young, leaving behind a nation still arguing the eternal question – who pulled the trigger? Last week, an old soldier and I set out for the site of the infamous ambush – Béal na Bláth – in search of any possible energy still evident in that legendary place.
“I couldn’t stand to be there next August with the multitudes of craw-thumpers and vote-catchers more interested in Facebooking their pictures than honouring a hero,” was my co-pilot’s simple instruction.
We found the famous monument getting an archaeological makeover, engineering the site to give a sense of what it was like 100 years ago.
Standing in the spot where the Big Fella took that fatal bullet to the head, one could almost imagine how its trajectory changed the course of the nation. Touching the Celtic Cross festooned with rosary beads, I waited for an inkling of the hero, scoundrel, enigma and legend to somehow materialise – but was rewarded with only the warm June breeze.
And still the myth around Collins continues to grow, as a new book offers another possible trail of breadcrumbs about how the shot that rang out around the world came to happen in this peaceful place.
The Ballycotton Job by Tom Mahon recounts the little-known “astonishing act of piracy” in which anti-treaty forces captured a British warship loaded with arms, a daring act that set in train a civil war that nobody ultimately won.
If the bullet that killed Collins came from the haul – could the entire episode have been concocted by perfidious Albion as a final parting gift, an epilogue to 700 years of neighbourly treachery and mayhem?
In the fog of war, the legacy of Collins remains an apparition cloaked in fair deeds and foul – a revolutionary tainted as much as he was revered.
The upcoming oration by Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar should eschew any jingoistic banging of the battered green drum to perhaps instead focus on the many untold deeds that laid the foundations of our imperfect but precious democracy.
It is surely an opportune moment to appreciate all the unsung heroes whose unwavering focus and bravery contributed to the fledgling State.
Standing by his monument and wondering what Collins would make of the Ireland of 2022, one of his final statements drifted across the valley: “Let us not waste our energies brooding over the more we might have got. Let us look upon what it is we have got.” As a guide for any life, it really says it all.