In search of Michael Collins: a personal Odyssey

On the 100th Anniversary of his death at Béal na Bláth, Co Cork, Pat Poland considers the contribution of the founding father of the state to the struggle for independence.

The elderly man sitting two rows in front of me at the history lecture was, quite literally, incandescent with rage. So incensed was he that he found it difficult to form his words. Standing up, he jabbed a spindly finger towards the front of the room. “Everything was going just fine until he and his ilk came along,” he thundered, barely able to contain himself. “He put this country back a hundred years!” The class shifted uncomfortably in its collective seat. Everyone looked at him, lost for words, and then the object of his opprobrium became clear. The lecturer had just flashed an image of my boyhood hero up on the screen: Michael Collins.

Picking up his notes, the outraged one stormed out, slamming the door behind him.

Since a teenager, I had read just about every book that was ever written on Collins, beginning with Piaras Béaslaí’s (hagiographical) ‘Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland’ through Frank O’Connor (my favourite), Rex Taylor (vapid), to Tim Pat Coogan (definitive). Most agreed that the man was a genius with a particular flair for finance and intelligence matters. But not all. The late Peter Hart in his last book ‘Mick’ more or less concluded that Collins was little more than a jumped-up office clerk.

Yeah. Right.

Later, I learned that the elderly gentleman’s father had been a senior officer in the RIC. The year 1922 had been a traumatic year for him, his wife and young family, with the disbandment of the force. However, in the words of Castro, “a revolution is not a bed of roses. A revolution is a struggle between the future and the past”, and the man’s father had soon re-established himself in a new profession.

However, the churlish scene at the lecture had set me thinking. I was well aware of the adage, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, and perhaps I needed to re-evaluate my own take on Michael Collins and to see whether the regard for the man that I had harboured all my life still held true.

Michael Collins was still a teenager when he became involved in the struggle for Irish independence. He was just sixteen when he joined the Gaelic League, and three years later, was sworn in as a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret organization committed to establishing an Irish Republic by force of arms if necessary. The twenty-five-year old Collins returned from his job in London in 1916 to participate in the Easter Rising, serving in the GPO as aide-de-camp to Joseph Mary Plunkett.

The idealistic Collins had a Captain’s uniform specially tailored for the occasion and, much to the annoyance of those under him, proceeded to pour the crates of beer, which they had stocked in, down the drain. (Even at this young age, Collins was beginning to make his presence felt. But, even then, he had his detractors. Frank O’Connor, who had taken the opposite side to Collins in the Civil War, referred to them as ‘Lilliputians’. One such described him at this time as being “Full of wind and piss, like the barber’s cat”).

After a week’s intensive fighting in Dublin, the Volunteers surrendered. By simply walking from one side of the hall to the other while a detective was distracted, Collins narrowly escaped execution; a blunder that the British would live to regret. Interned in Frongoch Camp in Wales – the ‘University of Revolution’ – he had plenty of time to reflect on the debacle of 1916 and to plan the next move.

“On the whole,” he wrote, “I think the Rising was bungled terribly, costing many a good life.” Connolly he admired greatly, but Pearse he was somewhat ambivalent about. Irish independence, he realized, would never be attained by frontal assaults on one of the most powerful countries in the world. A new Rule Book for future confrontations would have to be drawn up by taking the war to the enemy and utilizing his own tactics against him.

Released with his fellow-internees, Collins arrived back in Dublin on Christmas Day 1916. In the coming few years his rise in the National Movement would be nothing short of meteoric. A member of the Executive Council of Sinn Féin, Director of Organization, Director of Intelligence, and Adjutant-General of the Irish Volunteers; Minister for Finance in the (suppressed) Government, Acting President of Dáil Éireann, and, most importantly, President of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a post that made him, according to its constitution, President of the Irish Republic. But it was in his position as Director of Intelligence that he found his true métier. In the words of one biographer, “he was an organizational genius with a natural gift for espionage, and a revolutionary visionary”.

From time immemorial, Britain had used its network of informers and spies to undermine any attempt at a bid for Irish independence. As a result, down through the centuries, rebellion after rebellion had failed, quashed with a heavy hand with the leaders executed to discourage future attempts at disloyalty. Collins now set about establishing his own web of informants in every facet of society, from the Dublin Metropolitan Police to the Royal Irish Constabulary, hotel and guest-house staffs, shops, Local Government, the Post Office, Railways, Civil Service, and even at the very heart of the Crown administration in Ireland itself, Dublin Castle. Indeed, one of his principal informants in the Castle was none other than his cousin, Nancy O’Brien.

As an official in the Royal Mail, one day she was summoned by the Under-Secretary, James McMahon, who told her she was being especially selected for promotion because of her loyal dedication and her obvious disinterest in Irish politics! He had no clue as to her familial connections. Henceforth, her task would be to decode sensitive messages from London to the administration in Dublin. She made contact with her cousin that very day.

At the other end of the country, Josephine Marchment-Brown was Chief Secretary to Brigadier General Strickland, GOC of the British Army’s 6th Division at its Headquarters in Victoria Barracks, Cork. Her fascinating story is well worth reading (regretfully, too long to reproduce in this short article), but suffice to say that she had unlimited access to Top Secret documents landing on Strickland’s desk. Each evening after work, copies would find their way to Florrie O’Donoghue, Intelligence Officer of the IRA’s Cork 1 Brigade. They married in secret in April 1921.

Collins wrote, “Without her spies, England is helpless”. The British Viceroy, Lord French, privately agreed. “Our Secret Service is simply non-existent,” he noted, “What masquerades for such a service is nothing but a delusion and a snare.” This was never truer after the events of Bloody Sunday in November 1920 when Collins’ ‘Squad’ eliminated British intelligence officers all over Dublin. Crown forces retaliated the same afternoon by attacking the crowd at a football match in Croke Park, resulting in fourteen deaths. Such actions were instrumental in forcing Britain, in less than twelve months, to the negotiating table, culminating in the signing of the Treaty in the early hours of the morning of 6 December 1921.

As the delegates on both sides left the Cabinet Room in 10 Downing Street, the straight-talking Lord Birkenhead (F.E. ‘Johnny’ Smith, with whom Collins had struck up a special rapport), turned to Collins and remarked, “I have just signed my political death warrant tonight.” To which the ‘Big Fella’ replied, “I have just signed my actual death warrant.”

The acceptance of the Treaty tore the Irish Republican movement apart. The most notable casualty of the Civil War that began in June 1922 was Michael Collins.

Tragically, the man who had humbled the might of the British Empire, fell to an Irish bullet.

Fifty-seven years ago, I stood within yards of Tom Barry on Easter Sunday 1965 as he unveiled the memorial to Michael Collins near his birthplace at Sam’s Cross, West Cork, and heard him declare:

“It can be said with certainty that no man, inside of Ireland or outside it, contributed more than Michael Collins to the fight for Irish independence. None of us who lived through Ireland’s fight for freedom, believed or now believes, that Ireland could have successfully withheld the enemy … without Michael Collins’ great patriotism, courage, capacity, realism and his untiring work.“

I fully concurred with him then and nothing in the intervening years has made me change my mind.

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