My grandfather exalted Michael Collins. Yearly on the anniversary of Collins’ slaying my grandfather would travel down to West Cork and attend the memorial service on 22 August. He would meet old timers and tears who silently roll down his plump cheeks. His proudest possession was a photo of the bandaged corpse of The Big Fellow lying in state in the Shankiel Hospital Cork. My grandfather was a teenager at the time of Collins’ death and it had a profound effect on him.
However, despite my love for my late grandfather Donald Brennan, I cannot share his views. My opinions are shaped by my own reason and reading and not out of any blind deference to a relative however much I cherish his memory.
Collins was born in a republican family in 1890. His father was very old when Collins was born and died when Collins was 6. Collins joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood as he entered manhood. He moved to Great Britain as a very young man. Despite living in Great Britain he hated his adopted country. Rather an ingrate wasn’t he? A bit hypocritical I must say. He was in the Gaelic Athletic Association. He argued that the GAA should not allow policemen or servicemen to join nor indeed pensioners from these services to join. He took the bigoted position. A sports association should be about sports and not about shunning people, cultural purism, ethnic hatred and support for terrorism.
Collins took part in the Easter Rising. He was imprisoned in Frongoch in Great Britain and released after a few weeks. This leniency was astonishing. As it turned out it was very short-sighted. Legally he could have been executed. Look at what happened in Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary when people rebelled against their governments at this time? Some were rebelling for nationalistic reasons. They were executed in large numbers. The United Kingdom distinguished itself by its exceptional mercy. A fact that was never acknowledge much less repaid by the Irish republicans.
Collins was noted even among his IRA co-conspirators as being extraordinarily vicious. He liked to insult his comrades and wrestle with him. There were suggestions that he was homosexual. This tittle-tattle is neither here nor there. Most likely this is tart gossip. He was engaged to Kitty Kiernan right at the end of his life. The notions noised about being gay are merely that – there are no first hand accounts of anyone who had gay sex with him or who say evidence of this. It is likely that he was just being a man-child, horseplaying about. He called this, ‘grabbing some ear.’
Collins was happy to kill unarmed men. He did not do it by his own hand but ordered his subordinates to kill suspected spies. He never bore arms himself in the 1919-21 period. The media somehow caught wind of his name. Newspapers wrongly attributed many attacks to him. His supporters in the Treaty debates lauded him as ‘the man who won the war.’
He was chairman of the supreme council of Fenians. The Fenians was another name for the IRB. He went to London in the summer of 1921 to negotiate with His Majesty’s Government. He signed the treaty. This was breaking the IRB oath to secure a republic. It is true that a republic did eventually come to be Southern Ireland’s constitutional title in 1949. Collins’ defended his decision on the basis that it was the freedom to achieve freedom.
He was sent to negotiate as he had been unswervingly obdurate until then. Does that mean de Valera who wanted him to fail? This is illogical. De Valera repudiated the deal but de Valera had been kept informed of developments. Sean MacBride had gone back to Ireland many weekends carrying communiques. Moreover, de Valera was in London himself at times even visiting Downing Street. However, he did not negotiate himself. It seems odd though. People say he knew he would not get all he wanted and wished to distance himself from any deal that was less than the full republican demand. Prof. Roy Foster has said that the notion that de Valera wanted Collins to sign because he, de Valera, did not want to have to sell out, is a fundamentally flawed view. What do these people propose de Valera was hoping for? The Treaty to be signed or not? If it was signed for it to be enforced or not? How could any of these outcomes benefit de Valera and his cause?
Much as I loathe Michael Collins he was better than the republican fanatics who rejected the treaty.
They say that if the Dail had voted shortly after the Treaty was concluded on 6 December 1921 then it would not have been ratified. However, Teachata Daili went home to their constituencies for Christmas. They found that many of their constituents welcomed it and asked them to vote in favour of it. As Collins said that, ”the people are our masters and not our servants as some think.”
In the event the Treaty was passed 64-57. Collins spoke well in favour of it. I do not deny his talents.
He had met Sir James Craig in London by accident in a government office. Collins made peace with the United Kingdom. The UK gave him weapons for the new Irish Army. However, he handed these to southern IRA units and these southern IRA units sent guns north. There was horrid sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Collins was breaking his vow to be at peace with the UK. His bad faith is reprehensible. He was pouring fuel on the flames in Northern Ireland. The UPA was also committing ghastly crimes – the squalid murders of hundreds of totally innocent people – of the elderly and of children. Collins’ actions cannot be interpreted as a misguided attempt to protect the beleaguered Roman Catholic populace of the Belfast vicinity. He wanted to start a guerrilla campaign in the North. He was against sectarian murders, was he? If so why not try to protect the Protestant community too?
Collins may have ordered the murder of Sir Henry Wilson. Wilson was a very courageous man and the most distinguished Irishman of his age. He was the Chief of Imperial General Staff. He was a stalwart opponent of the IRA and had recently been elected MP for North Down. He was shot dead on his doorstep in London after having unveiled a war memorial at Liverpool Street Station. Wilson was blamed, illogically, for the murder of Roman Catholics in Belfast. Two former Irish Guardsmen, O’Sullivan and Dunne, was were trying to escape from the crime. One of them had lost a leg at Ypres. Not the best choice for someone who needed to make a quick getaway. They were found guilty of the killing and hanged.
The Prime Minister Lloyd George demanded that Collins take action against the IRA. At this point Collins did. Was the slaying of Wilson the immediate cause of the Irish Civil War? Possibly. It might have been that J J ‘Ginger’ O’Connell was kidnapped by the IRA. J J O’Connell was a pro-Treaty man, a high officer in the Irish Army. In order to rescue him from the Four Courts the Irish Army went into its first action, a victorious one.
Collins was shot dead on 2 August 1922. Tim Pat Coogan in his book ‘The Big Fellow’ suggests that it was Sonny O’Neill who shot Collins. It is impossible to know at this distance. I favour the cockup rather than the conspiracy theory. The IRA ambushed Free State convoys all the time. The Free State Army attacked the IRA. There was nothing unusual in that.
Once the IRA engaged Collins’ entourage he could have ordered the roadblock cleared and sped on. One of his subordinates ordered the driver to do just this. In fact Collins countermanded him. It would have been a much wiser thing to do. Collins may well have lived on for decades but for that. One cannot doubt Collins’ physical bravery at that point but that is not the only nor even the supreme virtue in a leader. It may well be rather unimportant or even harmful. We do not need a leader who feels the need to prove his virility in this manner. A political leader is about other things such as decision making. Militarily I presume that his decision was unsound. I am not tactical expert. His enemies were unknown in number to him – in fact 5 at that time. They were hidden and in an elevated position. Sunset was coming on. There was little chance that the Free State soldiers would do more damage than they would suffer. This proved to be the case. Only two others were hit in that engagement – in fact they were slightly wounded.
Collins’ reputation was saved by dying when he did. Death as a career move, often a good one. He was killed before the Civil War got really nasty. It was partly due to his demise that the gloves came off. IRA prisoners were executed in many cases – at least 77. In Dail debates decades later it was said to be 84 or 85. There were unofficial killings of prisoners at Ballyseedy.
Would Collins have signed off on orders of frightfulness? Almost certainly he would have done so. He was noted for his extraordinary lack of mercy.
The IRA of course became extra vicious afterwards. They destroyed much of Ireland’s heritage in their torching of stately homes. They killed pro-Treaty politicians and their relatives. I must say this in their favour, I have never heard of the killing prisoners in this phase of the war but as they were on the retreat and doing hit and run they may never have had the opportunity to do so.