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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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Michael Collins:
Ireland's Lost Leader

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This bust of Michael Collins overlooks his birthplace at the Collins Memorial Center at Woodfield, West Cork

by Suzanne Barrett

Ninety-one years ago, rifle shots rang out over a lonely West Cork road and claimed the life of Ireland's seemingly invincible leader. Few names conjure up so much passion as that of Michael Collins. Gunned down just two months short of his thirty-second birthday, Michael Collins' death closed a page of history for a generation of Irishmen. Whether because of shame or rife emotion, no one wanted to discuss the man who was perhaps the brightest star in Ireland's crown, the man who almost single-handedly brought the mightiest nation on the face of the earth to its knees. What kind of man could do this? What manner of man would try? To understand, we need to probe beyond the legends, both fact and fiction, into the very character of Michael Collins.

Born in a rough stone cottage at Sam's Cross between Clonakilty and Rosscarbery, Michael Collins spent his early years on his father's ninety-acre farm. He grew into a virile, handsome young man instilled with a history of nationalism learned from his father and mentors James Santry and Denis Lyons. Santry was the local blacksmith whose own father had forged pikes for earlier risings, and Lyons the Lisavaird schoolmaster, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood of which Michael himself was to join and later become its secretary and president.

Michael's brilliance showed early in his life. At fifteen he had passed the boy clerk exam and found a position in London's West Kensington branch of the Postal Savings Bank. Here he learned finance, which combined with his extraordinary bent for detail, would propel him into the directorship of the newly declared Irish Republic by the time he was 27. From thence, it was a short hop to appointment as Director of Intelligence where he exhibited astounding mental acuity. During this time, he carried a price of £10,000 on his head. Due to the unavailability of good identification photographs, Michael was able to travel about Dublin City on a bicycle, in view of the British Security Forces, the Royal Irish Constabulary, and the Black and Tans. He operated out of a number of offices in the city, moving only when capture became imminent. During the War of Independence, Michael rarely slept in his own bed, but lodged with friends in safe houses scattered throughout Dublin. At one time he had over thirty hideouts in the city.

In six short years, Michael had organized a highly successful Dáil loan to sustain the Revolutionary Government, masterminded the attack and reprisal method of guerilla warfare which enabled small "flying columns" of men to whittle away at the fierce might of the British Empire, and kept impeccable records on every aspect of Irish Intelligence operations. None worked harder or more diligently. By 1920, Michael was working as many hours as he could remain awake, and he had contacts everywhere. A number of women, with whom he was reputed to be having affairs, were in fact, couriers for one operation or another. These included Moya Llewelyn Davies, his second cousin Nancy O'Brien who eventually married his older brother Johnny, Madeleine (Dilly) Dicker whose mother ran a guest house in Dublin, Madge Hales of Bandon (sister of Sean and Tom Hales), Leslie Price, later the wife of Commandant General Tom Barry, and his tireless secretary Sinéad Mason who learned that Michael's office was wherever he was and regular working hours an impossibility.

These are the available facts. There is more, however. We learn also that he was brave, courageous, hardworking, tenacious, given to boyish pranks, dedicated, a lover of children and the elderly, and he tolerated no weakness in anyone, especially himself. As a young man he was a heavy smoker, but by 1919 had given it up saying to his sister Katie that cigarettes were making him a slave, and he'd be a slave to nothing. His detractors say he was also cruel and calculating, ruthless and a two-timer. It's true Michael could not stand laziness or waste, and he was a stickler for punctuality. He detested pencilled correspondence, remembered cruelties inflicted on his friends, and saw that the perpetrators paid, usually with their lives. Can we learn more from Michael's own words?

Michael had deep concern for his countrymen. In a letter to Donal Hales, Irish Ambassador to Genoa and a journalist, Michael writes of his concern for the torture Donal's brother Tom endured to protect Collins. "Enclosed I am sending you a copy of statement made by your brother Tom, as to his treatment after arrest .... The statement has made a profound impression and will have far-reaching effects. I hope you will be able to get very wide publicity for it as it begets a state of affairs that no civilized nation can let pass unchallenged." Of his enemy Cathal Brugha, he said: "We came to the topic for the thousandth time of the Dublinites. I have often said that Brugha commanded respect and I still say the same. I respect a fighter and B. is one. Only he is misguided. Yet even in enmity he is capable of great sincerity--which is more than I can say of the others." When Harry Boland, his rival for the love of Kitty Kiernan, lay in hospital, Michael said in a letter to Kitty: "Last night I passed Vincent's Hospital and saw a small crowd outside. My mind went to him lying dead there and I thought of the times together, and, whatever good there is in any wish of mine, he certainly had it. Although the gap of eight or nine months was not forgotten--of course no one can ever forget it--I only thought of him with the friendship of the days of 1918 and 1919." When Peadar Clancy and Dick McKee were tortured, Michael insisted that the bodies be dressed in Volunteers' uniforms, then , risking capture, stepped out of the crowd at Glasnevin to pin a memoriam message note onto the coffin: "In memory of two good friends--Dick and Peadar--and two of Ireland's best soldiers. Míceál O'Coileain, 25/11/20."

His loyalty to de Valera remained steadfast, even though he was opposed to Dev's sending him to London as part of the Treaty delegation. "To me the task is a loathsome one. I go, I go in the spirit of a soldier who acts against his best judgment at the order of his superior." Many times in the course of events, Collins disagreed with de Valera's high-handedness, but he always thought of himself as a soldier who would have done anything for his leader. Even at the end, when he knew of de Valera's hostility, he would not retaliate in kind.

As with many heroes, there has been much revisionist history about Michael Collins that makes it difficult to separate myth from reality. We know the following two things:

Michael Collins had a broad vision for Ireland. He foresaw increased productivity, expanded trade, a higher living standard for the citizens, and a harmonious amalgamation of differing ideologies into a force for the general good and welfare of the country.

In addition, Michael possessed in extra measure keen wit, superior intellect, an abundance of energy, patriotic zeal, love of country and his fellow man, and a commitment to Ireland. At that time he was convinced that better days lay in store for Ireland.

Each year on the Sunday nearest August 22nd at Bealnablath a commemoration ceremony takes place at the monument alongside the road where Michael was killed. Friends and family members attend; ranks swelled with visitors. It is a solemn occasion, a tribute to a great man cut down in his prime. A few years ago, to mark the anniversary of Michael Collins' death, Liam Neeson, the Ballymena-born actor who took the part of Michael Collins in the celebrated film about the Clonakilty-born hero of the fight for Irish independence, unveiled a monument of Michael Collins in Clonakilty.

A memorial committee has organized a festival of events surrounding the official unveiling and which includes the publication of a limited edition of the West Cork People, a local newspaper which was published in Clonakilty between 1900 and 1908. Its editor was Patrick O’Driscoll, formerly editor of the Southern Star and he was married to Margaret Collins, sister of Michael Collins.

One wonders if Ireland would have followed a different path had he lived. One thing certain, the treaty Michael signed, the freedom those delegates won from Britain, though not a full freedom, has not been augmented since that time. Today six counties remain a part of the British Commonwealth, despite the Good Friday Agreement. Would Michael have advanced his words into deeds? Was the treaty a "stepping stone to achieve a total freedom?" We must wonder still.

For further reading, I recommend the following books: Michael Collins - A Life by James Mackay, Michael Collins and the Troubles: the Struggle for Irish Freedom by Ulick O'Connor, The Man Who Made Ireland by Tim Pat Coogan, In Great Haste: the Letters of Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan ed. by Leon O'Broin, and The Illustrated Life of Michael Collins by Colm Connolly, Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State.

Until next time.

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