John Rodden
Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin | Published: 17 March, 2024
ISSUE 19 | Pages: 181-196 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2024-12562

Creative Commons 4.0 2024 by John Rodden | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

In the wake of the heightened attention accorded Michael Collins on the occasion of the centennial anniversary of his death in August 2022, this review essay addresses both the most recent and the most influential scholarly and popular treatments of his life and legacy. This material provides a window on both Ireland’s past and present – and also its future. When addressing Collins’s role in that contentious and much-contested past, new and more established scholarly studies by biographers and historians assist us not only to understand it better, but likewise also grasp the unique symbolic role that Collins occupies in Irish political life today. The fact is that many Irish people – and Irish Americans – simply cannot easily talk about Collins in balanced terms, or with the sort of historical detachment that they can bring to other bygone leaders of Ireland. He is a lightning rod for controversy in contemporary Ireland, with his very name sparking a debate whenever politically minded Irishmen get together. Unlike other Irish historical figures who have largely receded into the past, his life and death remain subjects of fascination on a national scale, with radio and television documentaries, fictionalised dramatisations, and even multimedia spectacles dedicated to the scrutiny of his brief life and tragic death. The review essay covers more than twenty biographies and biographical portraits, the majority of which have appeared in the twenty-first century, along with three dozen Collins-themed topical monographs as well as several research articles and selected pieces of journalism.

A raíz de la creciente atención recibida por Michael Collins con motivo del centenario de su muerte en agosto de 2022, el presente ensayo aborda los trabajos académicos más recientes e influyentes sobre su vida y su legado. Se trata de un material que arroja luz sobre el pasado y el presente de Irlanda – así como también sobre su futuro. A la hora de tratar el papel de Collins en el discutido y contencioso pasado, nuevos estudios académicos a cargo de biógrafos e historiadores nos ayudan a entenderlo mejor a la vez que vislumbran el rol simbólico que Collins ocupa en la vida política irlandesa actual. Es un hecho que muchos irlandeses – y americano irlandeses – simplemente no pueden hablar sobre Collins de forma aséptica, o con la distancia histórica que sí proyectan sobre otros antiguos líderes irlandeses. Collins atrae la controversia en la Irlanda contemporánea a la vez que suscita el debate allí donde se encuentran irlandeses con intereses políticos. Al contrario de otras figuras históricas que han quedado relegadas al pasado, la vida y la obra de Collins continúan siendo objeto de fascinación a escala nacional, a través de documentales de radio y televisión, representaciones dramáticas, e incluso espectáculos multimedia dedicados a escudriñar su corta vida y trágica muerte. El presente ensayo revisa más de veinte biografías y retratos biográficos, la mayoría de los cuales han aparecido en el siglo XXI, además de más de tres docenas de monográficos centrados en Collins, así como artículos de investigación y periodísticos.

Michael Collins; Eamon de Valera; Emmett Dalton; Sir Henry Wilson; Brendan Behan; Neil Jordan; Tim Pat Coogan

A century ago, on 22 August 1922, the most idolised and arguably most controversial leader in modern Irish history, Michael Collins, was killed in a sudden ambush. Born in October 1890, he was just 31. Historians and biographers have wrangled endlessly about how he died and who killed him. Age-old disputes about these matters have hardened into bitter feuds between rival camps for whom Collins deserves to be exalted or execrated. The arguments over Collins and his legacy were covered exhaustively with headline reports throughout the summer of 2022, culminating in the coverage of his centenary festivities that August, both in the Irish and British media. Elsewhere, however – even in the Irish-American press – the memorial events and associated controversies were little discussed.[1]

Has that “oversight” by Irish America to do with anxiety about his legacy – and its implications for Ireland’s future? Irish Americans, with often boozy nostalgia, have tended to romanticise Ireland’s past – a luxury that the native Irish have not been afforded (as my aunts and uncles in County Donegal never cease to remind me). Whatever the cause, the “case of Michael Collins” provides a window on both Ireland’s past and present – and also its future. When addressing Collins’s role in that contentious and much-contested past, new and more established scholarly studies by biographers and historians can assist us not only to understand it better, but likewise also grasp the unique symbolic role that Collins occupies in Irish political life today.

“Hero” or “sellout”? Those charged words appear everywhere in the journalistic treatments and internet discussions of Collins, reflecting the intensity of his admirers’ affection and his detractors’ derision, respectively. Public discussion about Collins quickly turns to arguments – more so than with any other figure in Irish history – and even many scholars speak about him in passionate terms, pro or con.

The fact is that many Irish people – and Irish Americans – simply cannot easily talk about Collins in balanced terms, or with the sort of historical detachment that they can bring to other bygone leaders of Ireland. A century after his death, he is a lightning rod for controversy, with his very name sparking a debate whenever politically minded Irishmen get together. Unlike other Irish historical figures who have largely receded into the past, his life and death remain subjects of fascination on a national scale, with radio and television documentaries, ficionalised dramatisations, and even multimedia spectacles dedicated to the scrutiny of his brief life and tragic death. Moreover, at least twenty biographies and biographical portraits, the majority of which have appeared in the twenty-first century, along with three dozen Collins-themed topical monographs, have debated his life and legacy, often highlighting the still-mysterious – and probably never to be conclusively resolved – questions about what transpired on his fateful last day. The periodically erupting controversies associated with Collins’s final hours resemble the disputes about the assassination of John F. Kennedy more than four decades later, in November 1963, as some interviewees in a BBC documentary of 2007 and several historians maintain.

Rumours have circulated widely since the 1920s, with little support from scholars, about the alleged involvement in Collins’s death of Ireland’s most notable politician, Eamon de Valera, leader of Ireland for more than twenty years, including serving sixteen years as Taoiseach of Ireland. He and Collins were strong republicans and close comrades ever since the Easter Rising of 1916 who worked closely together until the Irish Civil War of 1922-23 set them against each other as the leaders of opposing factions. One established historian and strong partisan of Collins who believes that “Dev” was actually his diabolical enemy is T. Ryle Dwyer, though he stops short in Michael Collins and the Civil War (2012) of finding him guilty of any direct involvement in Collins’s death. Nonetheless, Dwyer leaves the reader with the impression that de Valera was a rival who envied Collins’s mystique and charismatic appeal – and who certainly could have harboured motives to eliminate him once the civil war began, whereupon “General Collins” assumed command of the opposing pro-Treaty forces.

Revised and updated in light of emergent scholarship in 2016, Tim Pat Coogan’s The Man Who Made Ireland: The Life and Death of Michael Collins, which after three decades in print still stands as the best biography in an estimable field, is also severe in its overall assessment of de Valera’s relationship to Collins, accusing him of “vindictiveness and pettiness”, though he firmly rejects the idea that de Valera played any role in the ambush (429).[2] Coogan’s judgments are rendered especially authoritative in view of the fact that he has also authored another stellar full-length biography, Eamon de Valera: The Man Who Was Ireland, where he writes that to “assert his ascendancy over colleagues […] and secure dominance over Collins in particular” became one of de Valera’s top three political goals during the war years, along with “keep[ing] control over the Irish Americans” and “taking over the reins of the peace process and work[ing] himself into a favourable negotiating position with the British” (1995: 197). Like other biographers, Coogan notes that Collins risked his life to spring de Valera from a London prison and then braved even greater perils during strict curfews to make weekly visits to Dev’s family during the latter’s eighteen-month absence to the U.S. during the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21), which the Irish typically refer to as the War of Independence. Yet de Valera “repaid the kindness Collins showed his family in Machiavellian fashion”, writes Coogan in his foreword to a collection of Collins’s papers entitled The Path to Freedom (1996), by “manipulat[ing] Collins” to head the delegation which signed the ill-fated Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 that split the IRA in two and led to the civil war months later (xvii-xviii).

Did de Valera send snipers to murder Collins in the ambush that claimed his life on August 22, 1922 – under the duplicitous lure of proposing to meet him for a diplomatic tête-à-tête near his native home in County Cork? Whatever one’s answer to that question, it is notable that the “Dev” rumours have not died out but rather only increased with the passing decades. The ongoing altercations in Ireland about Collins’s alleged “assassination” is also distinguished by the tendency of some public officials – who fear accusations of siding with rival factions – to be careful to use the term a “killing”, not a “murder” or “assassination”. The BBC program in 2007 alluded to this fact and pointed out that, in this respect, the complexities of Collins’s death are even greater than in the case of the long-simmering JFK controversy – and far darker and more complex, since conspiracy theorists and enemies of de Valera have pushed the idea that de Valera somehow participated in it, or at least indirectly supported it – while the 1996 film Michael Collins, directed by Neil Jordan and starring Liam Neeson as Collins, also leaves this impression and has helped promote popular misconceptions. The publication of a selection of material from Collins’s diaries in the national archives during the months before his centenary in 2022 – which included diary entries ranging from 1918 to 1922 – has done nothing to clarify the issues surrounding the “killing”, let alone quell the controversy. As the title of Diarmaid Ferriter’s study of the long shadow cast by the civil war phrased it, Ireland was “between two hells” for many decades after the civil war ended in May 1923 – and the ongoing disputes about Collins and “Dev” are inextricably connected to that hellish history.

Yet the hagiography of Collins is by no means without dissenting notes. Indeed, some Irishmen – then and now – would sooner treat Collins as an Irish version of Benedict Arnold. Ever since the publication of Margery Forester’s path-breaking biography in 1971, Michael Collins: The Lost Leader, which profited from interviews with Collins’s contemporaries and unrestricted access to family material, historians have tended to absolve de Valera of any involvement, arguing that it was sheer coincidence that he was also nearby in County Cork that fateful day. The prevailing consensus among scholars today is that Collins was inadvertently killed in a sudden ambush borne of opportunity in the midst of a chaotic civil war – and with no nefarious machinations by de Valera at all.[3] “Chaotic” is the word: apparently around three dozen anti-Treaty soldiers had been waiting for Collins’s convoy through the night, and had largely disbanded by early morning; fewer than ten were still present at dawn when he showed up.[4]

A few historians take a third position, however.[5] They argue that one of Collins’s own comrades – Emmett Dalton, a senior aide – shot him in the head from behind under the cover of the ambush. They point out that, except by an accident or a ricochet, it was extremely unlikely that an ambush party firing from 500 feet away would have hit him, let alone that the bullet would have lodged in his head. Further feeding suspicion is the fact that Collins alone was killed in the ambush – though he was travelling in a convoy of two dozen men purportedly serving as his bodyguards. In The Man Who Made Ireland, Coogan addresses conjectures, noting that the charges against Dalton represent the “ugliest” scenario” “of all”, for they accuse one of Collins’s closest comrades of “deliberately killing him for British ‘blood money’” (2016: 417). These attempted incriminations bolster the rumour, supported with scattered evidence, that the “assassination” was carried out by an Irish Judas secretly doing the bidding of the British – which turns Collins not just into an Irish JFK but far more: a crucified Christ.

On this view, Collins’s “assassination” was a revenge “hit”, with the British suspecting that Collins authorised the assassination of one of his political enemies, Sir Henry Wilson, which occurred two months to the very day, June 22, before Collins died. Coogan and other biographers have repeatedly rejected what might be termed “the Dalton theory”, but it is a hardy perennial that survives, along with the enduring conjectures that de Valera “had a hand in Collins’ death”, as “the most sustained allegation” of the numerous conspiracy theorists who swarm about “the great Irish ‘whodunit’ mystery” (2016: 416, 407).[6] In his judicious joint biography of Collins and de Valera, Big Fellow, Long Fellow, T. Ryle Dwyer concludes: “There is no real evidence to support the conspiracy theories” (1998: 331).

It is common knowledge that, while the War of Independence was still raging in 1921, Collins did indeed have plans to assassinate Wilson, whom he characterised in a provocative and much-quoted statement, as a “violent Orange partisan”.[7] Historians still dispute when (or if) Collins changed his mind on the assassination plans. Frank O’Connor, the highly regarded Irish short story writer and a fellow Corkman, revised his generally positive biographical portrait of Collins, The Big Fellow (1937), adopting two decades later the stern view that Collins behaved in a deceitful and dastardly fashion as he continued to pursue his vengeful plan against the top British commander in the war. More recently, Ronan McGreevy’s Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP (2022) acknowledges the historical uncertainties about Collins’s behaviour, concluding nonetheless that Collins’s ruthlessness throughout the War of Independence in carrying out his guerrilla campaign against the British did much to bring about the Civil War.

A fourth position – which also has not settled the controversy yet reflects meticulous research and cogent argument – has arisen in the last half-dozen years, and it incorporates parts of the first two theories, while leaving de Valera out of the picture. In The Great Coverup: The Truth about the Death of Michael Collins (2018), Gerard Murphy, an historian as well as a forensic expert, argues that Collins was indeed lured into an ambush on that fateful August day on the pretext of participating in negotiations with anti-Treaty representatives aimed at ending the hostilities. According to Murphy, the man who organised the killing was Florence “Florrie” O’Donoghue, an erstwhile IRA commander and close colleague of Collins, who likewise had been a combatant in the 1916 Easter Rising as well as in the War of Independence (in the Cork Brigade). Murphy does not claim that O’Donoghue, who died in 1968, fired the fatal shot, but his forensic analysis concludes that it was not fired accidentally or at close range. It must have been fired from a considerable distance from a powerful rifle –and, like the shot that killed President Kennedy, it blew away the back of Collins’s head. So, the shot did not come from someone of Collins’s party. Murphy acknowledges that he cannot identify the shooter, noting only that any of a dozen or so men on the scene might have pulled the trigger. According to Murphy, the “great cover up” emerged because the national anguish over Collins’s death was so great that the assassins kept silent thereafter. It therefore suited both sides to claim that Collins’s death was a tragic accident. Pro-Treaty supporters of Collins could evade charges that they had betrayed their leader; anti-Treaty forces avoided facing widespread contempt that they had tricked Collins with a peace feeler to come to his own home county (where, naively, he thought he would be safe) and sprung their dastardly trap against him.

Planned assassination? Abrupt ambush? British hit job? Whatever position one takes, “Who killed Michael Collins?” “Who actually killed Michael Collins” is a question around which “mystery surrounds” to the present day, as The Corkman observed in mid-August 2022.

As I have suggested, the scenario that a dastardly Dev was somehow involved in Collins’s death is memorably depicted in the biopic Michael Collins.[8] Given the swirl of debate and dissension surrounding Collins, who was the key military strategist during the War of Independence that eventually led to the Irish Free State, it is hardly surprising that even the very name of his centenary is not without controversy. Collins today remains just as much, if not more so, in the colloquial phrase of one biographer, a “hot pratie” (Mackay 1996: 8). Irish authorities therefore opted in August 2022 to name it a “commemoration”, not a “celebration”.[9]

It is an index of Collins’s importance in contemporary Ireland that strenuous efforts were made to use his centennial as an occasion for healing Ireland’s deep political divisions –which are of course rooted in Irish history. At the gala event held in Collins’s honour on August 21, the centennial eve of his death, the government heads of two of Ireland’s major parties – Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar – delivered speeches in a symbolic bridge-building gesture to reconcile both anti-Collins and pro-Collins partisans. The annual tribute to Collins sponsored by Cork leaders had never before been attended by a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach. Martin’s participation provoked altercations throughout 2022 over the scale and substance of the “commemoration” for Collins, because Martin had been allowed to speak despite successfully resisting pressure to support a commemorative statue of Collins in Dublin – which has infuriated passionate admirers of Collins.

Why no Dublin statue for Collins? Martin had worried about bringing down a firestorm of criticism not only from members of his own party but also from Sinn Féin – the party that has been steadily gaining power in recent elections (it captured the most votes in the national election held in 2021). To this day, numerous Sinn Féin politicians and their backers remain outspokenly critical of Collins’s decision to compromise with the British and sign a treaty that did not promise a “united” Ireland. For Collins negotiated and reluctantly signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty that established a “divided Ireland” between a Catholic South and a Protestant North. Regarding the treaty as what he termed “a stepping stone” to a united Ireland – rather than a permanent historical terminus – he accepted an autonomous twenty-six county Irish Free State in the south. That is precisely the “step” that Sinn Féin has long anathemised as a betrayal because the treaty sacrificed the six Ulster counties that remain to this day part of British-ruled Northern Ireland. Collins’s compromise, in their eyes, was self-compromising.

And far worse: it also provoked the bloody civil war that followed during 1922-23, when “General Collins” became the commander of the pro-Treaty forces that executed Irish comrades who had fought alongside him against the British just months earlier.

Sinn Féin still officially sees itself as the heir of the republican tradition of a United Ireland – and therefore views Collins with dismay or even outright contempt. Some Sinn Féin leaders have family members who were executed by Collins’s pro-Treaty forces during the civil war. Historians have established that at least 81 men were summarily executed, with no official apologies ever issued. Critics of Collins, especially those who have had relatives liquidated by these extra-judicial killings authorised by Collins, also invariably note that, when Collins returned to Dublin after signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty, every single widow of the martyred leaders executed in the failed 1916 Easter Rising took an anti-Treaty position. To many Sinn Féin supporters, the willingness of Collins to oppose such a consensus was the act of a scoundrel and a sellout – and has forever marked him as a traitor to the cause.

That damning verdict may gain wider support if Sinn Féin supporters convince the Irish public that the archives of the hateful British occupiers contain heretofore hidden truths about Collins’s capacity to act with harshness and ruthlessness, all of which is suggested in Ed Power’s Irish Times review of the May 2023 RTÉ TV documentary Taking Sides: Britain and the Civil War. Hosted by Michael Portillo, the former British defence secretary under John Major, it publicised little-known material in British archives addressing the Irish Civil War. One commentator described the unsettling documents in the archives as “fascinating bombshells” (cited in Power 2023: n.p.). In a much-quoted statement, Portillo himself characterised the archival material as “history that most Irish people would prefer not to know” (cited in Power 2023: n.p.). The most astonishing disclosure was that, faced with the takeover of the Four Courts by anti-Treaty forces as the civil war took shape, General Collins appealed to Westminster for supplies of poison gas, apparently with the intention to toss gas grenades into the building in order to oust his former comrades.[10]

The Mystique of “Mick”

Do you believe that America – or Holocaust-haunted Germany, or France with its Vichy past – is roiled with controversy over the erection and removal of historic statues? Well, look again at Ireland, where there still live people whose family members and neighbours were killed as “traitors”, without trial, on Collins’s orders as the civil war commander. To all these anti-Treaty and anti-Collins voices, Collins himself is the traitor, an expedient schemer who cut a deal with the British to divide Ireland – and then murdered his old comrades. On this view, he warrants condemnation, not kudos.

Meanwhile, opposing the predominant view of Collins among strong Sinn Féin supporters, the Fine Gael party regards Collins as one of its founding fathers and a revolutionary hero. Or even more: many admirers of Collins honour him as a founding father and inspiring visionary of modern Ireland – its military hero, its national liberator, and its first head of state. Irish Americans who lionise “Mick” view it as a travesty that the nation’s capital has nothing for Collins comparable to a George Washington statue or the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. One Fine Gael TD, Patrick O’Donovan, Minister for the Office of Public Works, expressed the widespread outrage during the preparations for the centennial events for Collins: “I know of nowhere in the democratic world, certainly where a leader of a democratic nation is assassinated, [in which] there is no national commemoration to him”.[11]

For most Fine Gael politicians – and even for some Sinn Féin voters – the revolutionary soldier/politician/statesman Collins is an iconic figure and a tragic hero. Boisterous, square-jawed, barrel-chested, he was just under six feet tall, though he gave IRA colleagues the impression that he was much taller, as James Mackay discusses in his Collins biography. Yes, indeed: Collins seemed larger than life to his revolutionary comrades and was affectionately dubbed “the Big Fellow” by them during the War of Independence.[12] Frank O’Connor’s The Big Fellow treats the last half-dozen years of Collins’s life – from the Easter Rising of 1916 to his death – and focuses on the man’s character, writing about Collins with respect and sympathy despite having fought against him on the anti-Treaty side in the civil war.[13]

Collins’s fearless audacity, boyish charm, and infectious laugh turned him after his death into a mythic figure to his sympathisers. He was “the most wanted man in Europe” during 1919-22, as Coogan wrote in his foreword to a collection of Collins’s writings, The Path to Freedom, a man who “smiled his way through a hundred hold-ups, never wearing a disguise, never missing an appointment, never certain where he would spend the night” (1996: xi). His incredulous comrades marvelled that Collins somehow enjoyed “an immunity to arrest”. His invulnerability seemed to “stem from” an “audacity” and “bravado” so pronounced that he defiantly refused “to accept that he was a wanted man” (166) as Ulick O’Connor wrote in his biography, Michael Collins: The Troubles (2001), which is based on extensive interviews with people who knew him well. Also invaluable as documentary history is Joseph McKenna’s The Fight for Dublin, which draws on witness accounts and archival documents in highlighting the head-to-head strategic battle in street warfare conducted between Collins and British Intelligence chief Colonel Ormonde de l’Épée Winter. Although both authors tend to romanticise Collins and burnish the legend of his outsized presence by telling the story of the events of 1919-21 through the filter of traditional “great man” history, their narratives make for absorbing reading.

Collins’s puckish chutzpah became part of his legend, for his “immunity to arrest seemed to stem from his audacity”, as Ulick O’Connor puts it (2001: 166). With a £10,000 bounty on his head as the IRA’s Director of Intelligence, he would pedal on his bicycle through the Dublin streets, visiting his lieutenants in their hideaways. Answering to the alias of “John Grace”, he brainstormed with them a repertoire of guerrilla warfare street-fighting tactics that are still taught as part of military science curricula – and which, as Joseph E. A. Connell emphasises in The Shadow War, have been adopted and adapted for jungle insurgency operations by Latin American and Asian revolutionaries ranging from Che Guevara to Ho Chi Minh. Collins’s planned and organised assassination campaigns have brought him fame for their effectiveness, admiration for their shrewdness, notoriety for their ruthlessness, and denunciation for their brutality. Both Connell and Nicholas Ridley’s Michael Collins and the Financing of Political Struggle focus on Collins’s activities in the War of Independence. Whereas Ridley concentrates on Collins’s astute, methodical procedures for secretly raising and transferring IRA funds in his clandestine capacity as Minister of Finance, Connell explains how Collins’s radical experiments in insurgency, political and psychological as well as military, were always aimed at a sole target: the enemy’s will to fight. Collins sought to wear down Britain’s strength of purpose, not to secure outright military victory. And that goal was perhaps the single greatest lesson drawn from his campaigns by later anti-colonialist guerrilla leaders – and their counter-insurgency opponents – across the globe.

One of the irresistible attractions of Michael Collins, a.k.a. John Grace, for young guerrillas with big dreams has had to do with his aura of invulnerability, a perception vital to the popular mythology of the posthumous Collins. “Grace” was indeed the hapless “explanation” of his colleagues to make sense of Collins’s apparently miraculous, comic-book-like invisibility and invincibility: their impetuous chief must be blessed with a touch of the supernatural. As an example of Collins’s dauntlessness, Ulick O’Connor cites the testimony of Eamon Broy, the invaluable IRA spy who filed intelligence documents compiled by the British and secretly fed Collins material from them. One day the pair met for a handoff and were stopped as part of a sudden British army sweep. “I was terrified”, Broy recalled:

Collins had his socks full of papers, with names on them and military codes. The impudent fellow went straight up to the officer in charge of the search party and chatted with him. The officer fell victim to the charm of Mick who had him roaring with laughter. The other soldiers, seeing that Mick was chatting with their commanding officer, assumed he was a friend and we were let through without examination. I was sweating but it didn’t seem to take a feather out of Mick. He was chuckling all the way down the road as if he was going to his office. (O’Connor 2001: 166)

Countless other anecdotes echo this one, along with quips and rejoinders by “Mick” that are endlessly – and proudly, delightedly, defiantly – quoted by admirers of Collins. Arriving at Dublin Castle on January 16, 1922, to obtain the keys to the Castle to symbolise the handover of power to the new Irish Free State Government, Collins was in a heady mood. He met at 1:45 p.m. with the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Viscount FitzAlan of Derwent, who received him with the greeting: “You are seven minutes late, Mr. Collins”. Collins’s spirited, defiant reply – which is not apocryphal – has been so often cited that it has entered The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: “We’ve been waiting over seven hundred years. You can have the extra seven minutes” (231).

The numerous stories of Eamon Broy and others about the derring-do, unflappable “Mick”, along with memories of his ripostes to patricians and paper-pushers alike, adorn the Collins legend. Widely publicised in recent decades, they have helped endear him to the Irish public since the 1990s, when he also became immortalised for Americans who saw the dynamic performance by Liam Neeson in Michael Collins. The movie became a surprise international hit that has served to lend him an aura of fascination combining elements of JFK and Che Guevara – as if a Camelot under the reign of a swashbuckling Garibaldi-cum-restrained Robespierre.

Even among historians, as I have suggested – and certainly within the public at large –it is indeed indisputable that the devotees of Collins vastly outnumber his detractors. Chrissy Osborne, an Englishwoman, is so smitten with Collins that she refers to him throughout her biographical portrait, Michael Collins: Himself, as “Michael”, with chapter titles such as “Michael, The Man Who Loved His Food and Also Loved a Joke” and “Romance and the Women in Michael’s Life”. Particularly within the Irish diaspora, among Irish Americans above all, casual observers thrill to the image of the heroic young “rebel with a cause” cut down in the prime of life. They believe that Collins negotiated the best possible settlement with the powerful British Empire in 1921 – “the freedom to achieve freedom”, as he put it –and that his step-by-step vision for a gradually maturing republic has been validated by the course of contemporary history. In fact, already by 1931, with the passage of the Statue of Westminster by the British parliament, the Irish Free State progressed from dominion status within the British Empire to a status approaching full sovereignty and soon to the adoption (in 1937) of the current Irish Constitution. On this view, if the anti-Treaty forces had simply waited patiently another decade, there would have been no need for a civil war – and Collins himself, barely 40 years old, would have lived to see his prophetic vision of “freedom” for Ireland becoming realised.

Many admirers of Collins enthusiastically cite the words of W. T. Cosgrave, first president of the Irish Free State: “Michael Collins was the greatest Irishman who ever lived”, “greater than” all the Irish heroes of the previous millennium, Cosgrave added, ranging from the tenth-century Gaelic king who liberated Ireland from Viking domination, Brian Boru, to Charles Stewart Parnell, the leading Irish politician-statesman of the nineteenth-century, whose ceaseless campaigns for Home Rule foreshadowed Ireland’s ultimately successful struggle for independence in the next half-century.[14]

Lest that judgment seem merely a ritualistic memorial gesture of an admiring colleague, a nationwide survey eight decades later confirmed that the Irish public concurred. The poll of January 2000 named Collins not just the nation’s “man of the century” but of the millennium (Hart 2006: xiv).

The Man and the Myth

The cult of Collins is nothing short of insatiable. In Mick: The Real Michael Collins, Peter Hart refers to it as “The Story”, observing that “the legend, the myth of Michael Collins captivated the world” already in the 1920s “and continues to fascinate” (Hart 2006: xiv). Collins is apotheosised as the godlike young leader, on whom the romantic hopes and dreams of Ireland were placed. Some Irish grieve “for all that might have been”. The Lost Leader is the title of Margery Forester’s poignant biography published more than a half-century ago. The Cork historian J. J. Lee, in his excellent contribution to Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State, gives voice to the poignant, irresistible, near-endless “what ifs” that reveries about the “might-have-beens” of Michael Collins provoke:

If only de Valera had gone to London, if only Collins hadn’t signed the Treaty, if only de Valera hadn’t opposed it, if only he hadn’t withdrawn from the Dáil, if only Collins had attacked the Four Courts immediately after Rory O’Connor occupied it, if only he had delayed the attack further, if only he hadn’t attacked it at all, if only he had attacked Northern Ireland, if only he had withheld all support from the IRA in the north, if only he hadn’t deluded himself that he could cod Churchill with a ‘Republican’ constitution, if only he had defied Churchill’s insistence that the Constitution must stick to the letter of the Treaty, if only he hadn’t sought compromise in the Pact election, if only, indeed, he had taken a different route from Macroom to Cork on 22 August, and if only, in the end, he had chosen to drive through the ambush […] instead of continuing to fight, if only he had lived for – how long – and with what assumed consequences. (Lee 1998: 24)

Thanks to the numerous “practitioners of ‘if only’ history”, as Lee calls them, the Collins historiography – as this purported shortlist (!) of might-have-beens suggests – is “suffused with ‘if onlys’”. They have multiplied in the last quarter-century, in two waves, first in the late 1990s after Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins film and a second time during the runup to the wave of publicity accorded Collins as the centennial of his death approached in August 2022.[15] Yet no consensus exists as to where all these ‘if onlys’ would have led. Ultimately, as Lee observes, Collins “prove[s] an exceptionally elusive subject – almost as elusive for the biographer as [he was] for the British” (Lee 1998: 26).

Ulick O’Connor acknowledges in his biography that Collins’s virtuosities made him an ideal candidate for myth-making: “He had an Irishman’s gift for laughter and an Englishman’s sense of efficiency, a formidable combination. He was a handsome charmer with well-cut features and robust physical health” (2001: 167-68). Adding to his mythic stature – and to the Christ imagery – was the fact that General Collins organised a select group of a dozen marksmen during the Anglo-Irish War who would be sent out as his “executioners” through the Dublin streets to murder British army leaders. His handpicked snipers became known as “the Twelve” or “the Apostles”. As if that were not enough, the story has long gone around – apocryphal to be sure – that his dying words, as comrades held him in their arms, were: “Forgive them”. By contrast, Peter Hart contends in Mick: The Real Michael Collins that the “real” Collins was a hard-nosed pragmatist who had contempt for Irish mysticism, deplored rebels who counted rosary beads rather than British corpses and was a close reader of and sympathiser with the freethinker Robert Ingersoll, the so-called “Great Agnostic” of the American Midwest. Hart’s highlighting of Collins’s study of Ingersoll was a heretofore little-remarked biographical fact and does indeed suggest that Collins was a far cry from “mystical Mick”, something close to a dreamy, romantic successor to Patrick Pearse.

Although characterisations of Collins’s inner circle as “the Twelve” or “the Apostles” are obviously integral to “St. Mick” mythology, claims about the astonishing exploits of “the Squad” – the common moniker for Collins’s handpicked hit men, a phrase not freighted with haloes – are not just hagiography. The snipers’ cold-blooded exploits are told in vivid detail by eyewitnesses extensively quoted in T. Ryle Dwyer’s The Squad: And the Intelligence Operations of Michael Collins, the first book to make extensive use of participant-witness testimony from members and colleagues of the Squad about their killings. Conducted as part of an oral history project by the Bureau of Military History during the 1950s, the interviewees quoted by Dwyer – all of whom speak from the grave, having been guaranteed that no material would be released before their passing – tell the “inside story” in their own voices of how British soldiers and spies were hunted down and murdered. Shocking in their frankness as well as chilling in their barbarity, these are first-hand accounts of IRA terror by the assassins (or “killers”?) themselves. Dwyer weaves the testimony into a spellbinding narrative that also discloses the personal agonies and family struggles that Squad members underwent. Eschewing legend-building and leader worship, Dwyer’s sober study – as do the careful analytical monographs of both Michael T. Foy in Michael Collins’s Intelligence War and J. B. E. Hittle in Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War: Britain’s Counterinsurgency Failure – makes clear that Collins was the mastermind behind the IRA’s astonishing success in its campaign to bring the giant British Empire to its knees.[16] Or as the title of Tim Pat Coogan’s biography puts it simply: Michael Collins was “the man who made Ireland”.

Although it is easy to slip from historiography into hagiography when narrating events in Collins’s life, the masterful biographies of Coogan, Dwyer, and Peter Hart properly maintain a healthy distance from the latter tendency. As Hart writes in Mick: The Real Michael Collins, it is necessary to do

work [that] is analytical and systematic rather than heroic. Forget the usual assumptions that Collins was a uniquely gifted phenomenon or a selfless patriot driven by ideals alone. These depictions, while not necessarily or wholly false, are clearly a product of propaganda and politicking. I have started from the premise that the mature Michael Collins was a politician who saw and acquired power with unprecedented and unequalled success. (Hart 2006: xx)

Hence in his study Hart focusses on the specific lessons that Collins drew from the failed 1916 Easter Rising, on how he trained his men psychologically as well as physically, on tactical steps that he took to exploit fully the limited resources at his disposal. Granted, it is a very fine line between being “a uniquely gifted phenomenon” and a man who can attain and maintain power “with unprecedented and unequalled success”. Certainly, among the larger public, the line between man and myth has crossed into the latter, with the inevitable outcome that a cult of personality around Collins has made him a posthumous celebrity both at home and abroad. The origins and emergence of Collins as a national icon in the early 1920s are investigated in Amber Anna Colvin’s The Performance of Celebrity, a phenomenon that has reached stunning, and indeed absurd, lengths a century later. “Michael Collins” T-shirts and beer glasses are hawked throughout Cork, known as “the Rebel County” in his honour. Road signs that bear the name Béal na Bláth (“Mouth of the Flowers”, in folk tradition), directing drivers to the West Cork village near the obscure spot of his death, are stolen regularly – and sold at hefty prices to collectors of Collins memorabilia. Local civic and business leaders have joined to promote him in his native county. Tourism is booming; the Imperial Hotel, where he spent the last two nights of his life, was booked solid for months in 2021-22 as the national countdown to August 22 proceeded – and had been thoroughly refurbished to match its look in 1922. Meanwhile, a lock of Collins’s hair fetched $22,000 in May 2022 at a London auction. A pair of letters to his fiancée, Kitty Kiernan, sold for $12,000 a couple of weeks earlier in New York, along with an account by a Collins friend of his killing, delivered in testimony to a Cork County judge in August 1922.[17]

Collins’s funeral was the biggest since the death of Parnell thirty years earlier. No more would Collins have to complain about “squandering my life” when he allowed himself a few hours of rest. “How often with a shout he used to get out of bed in the morning at 5:00 or 6:00”, recalled a comrade interviewed by Ulick O’Connor, “crying, ‘All the time that is wasted in sleep’” (2001: 199). Another biographer, James Mackay, in his colourful and well-informed Michael Collins: A Life, summarises the verdict of Collins’s closest comrades that he pursued his daily round “with the manic intensity of a demented leprechaun” (1996: 95).

The Laughing Boy – and the Verdict of History

Five months after Collins died, in February 1923, a baby was born of a Dublin mother who knew and hero-worshiped her intrepid “Mick”. That boy would also become quite a rebel, also spending time in gaol and expressing undisguised defiance of the British: the poet-playwright Brendan Behan. Behan’s ballad to Ireland’s “lost leader” is much quoted by votaries of the Collins flame. Behan’s mother Kathleen had called Collins “The Laughing Boy” – and that phrase served as the title of Behan’s great ballad, a version of which he first wrote at the age of thirteen. He included a version of it in his play The Hostage – and he would sometimes sing his ballad into the wee hours of the night in Dublin’s famed “literary” pub, McDaid’s:[18]

sss

T’was on an August morning, all in the dawning hours,

I went to take the warming air, all in the Mouth of Flowers,

And there I saw a maiden, and mournful was her cry

‘Ah what will mend my broken heart, I’ve lost my Laughing Boy.

So strong, so wild, and brave he was, I’ll mourn his loss too sore,

When thinking that I’ll hear the laugh or springing step no more.

Ah, curse the times and sad the loss my heart to crucify,

That an Irish son with a rebel gun shot down my Laughing Boy.

vvvv

The maiden, speaking with the sentiments of Behan’s mother, concludes:

vvvv

For all you did, and would have done, my enemies to destroy,

I’ll mourn your name and praise your fame,

Forever, my Laughing Boy.

vvv

No man is a prophet in his own county. “They won’t kill me in my native place”, Collins reassured his aides when they warned him not to go to Cork, which was partly held by pro-Treaty forces, on that fateful last weekend a century ago. Sadly, it should be noted that another, darker prophecy that he voiced months earlier was, however, spot on. For Collins never had any illusions about the risks he was running on returning home from London in December 1921 with a half-loaf, compromise treaty that even included the reprehensible provision of an “oath of allegiance” to the British crown, which was abhorrent to de Valera and many old comrades. Biographers and admirers of Collins often cite his prescient rejoinder to an English signatory to the treaty. “I may have signed my political death warrant”, said the Englishman. Collins replied: “I may have signed my actual death warrant”.

Before his own death more than a half-century after Collins in 1975, Eamon de Valera, now in his 90s, delivered a startling prophecy of his own that made headlines. Looking back on a long and storied life, he speculated about how he and Collins might one day be viewed in the Ireland of the future: “It is my considered opinion that, in the fullness of time, History will record the greatness of Collins and it will be recorded at my expense”.[19]

The fullness of time may have arrived – and History seems to be proving Dev right.

Notes

[1] Regarding this neglect, see Rodden (2022). I have drawn on this short op-ed for my discussion of the controversies that erupted over how to conduct the memorial events held in August 2022 to commemorate the centennial anniversary of Collins’s death.

[2] A few years later, distilling the two pioneering biographies of Collins and de Valera written by Coogan, T. Ryle Dwyer writes in his joint biography of the two men, Big Fellow, Long Fellow (1998), that de Valera “certainly took no direct part and it is most unlikely that he had any input into the ambush” (330).

[3] Dennis “Sonny” O’Neill is usually identified as the man who fired the fatal shot, which killed Collins in a “ricochet”, thus giving rise to the “ricochet theory” or the “stray shot theory”. On this view, O’Neill had no idea that he had hit Collins: his death was an inadvertent casualty, a sheer accident.

[4] Cold Case Collins, an excellent RTÉ Television documentary in which a police investigation into Collins’s demise was conducted, was broadcast on 24 August 2022 as part of the national commemorations of Collins’s death. The show laid the blame on Collins himself for his rash behaviour during the ambush. Rather than stay within the circle of his convoy or remain in their armored vehicle, as a panel of experts noted, Collins darted out ahead of his men and began firing at the snipers – and paid for his temerity with his death. The programme was hosted by a former official Irish state pathologist, Marie Cassidy, who reopened this “cold case”. She aimed to “settle the case of Collins” once and for all, in consultation with top forensic specialists, detectives, military personnel, archivists, and historians. The results fell short. Cassidy and her panel rejected the Dalton conspiracy theory, instead endorsing a version of the “stray shot” theory.

[5] See, for instance, Mícéal Ó Cuinneaghain, who emphasises that Dalton had served during the Great War in British military intelligence and in the 1930s returned to Britain to do the same as an agent in MI6.

[6] Coogan calls Dalton “a man of outstanding character and ability”, who “would have shot himself sooner than have injured Collins”.

[7] The Times of London, 24 March 1922. See also McGreevy for a discussion of Collins’s overall view of Wilson.

[8] On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of the biopic in late November 2021, Paul Whitington in the Belfast Telegraph summed up the enduring controversy over the film’s vilification of de Valera. Many viewers were outraged that Jordan “depicted the father of the nation as a sneaky and Machiavellian character who ruled by stealth and was largely responsible for the Civil War”. Nonetheless, added the critic, “the notion that Dev, with Jesuitical cunning, sent Collins to the Treaty negotiations in his stead knowing that embarrassing compromises, including partition, were inevitable, has long been widely believed”.

Whitington also notes that Neil Jordan and Warner Bros. were enticed by the interest that Kevin Costner, already a major star in the early 1990s, showed in the role of Collins. Personal conversations that I have conducted with Irish Americans in the U.S. provoke me to speculate whether, given Costner’s own ignominious fall in reputation in the wake of numerous #MeToo accusations against him for sexual misconduct, the intertwining of his image with that of Collins might ultimately tarnish the long-term international image of Collins himself (and might even serve to shift the relative weight of popular judgment toward de Valera’s side). As yet, although such possibilities currently remain in the realm of conjecture, Collins’s status as a political celebrity make them highly pertinent to the future of his historical reputation.

On the eve of the centennial commemorations of Collins’s death (21 August 2022), Neil Jordan was asked on RTÉ Radio’s This Week program if his depiction of de Valera represented “a fair portrayal”. Jordan replied: “No, of course not, no”, and added with a laugh, “I was never a fan”. Lest this statement be misconstrued as a criticism of his film, let alone an apology, he added: “I’m sorry if some people take the implication from it that de Valera had a hand in his assassination. I didn’t intend that at all”. Referring to his film as an “allegorical drama”, he maintained that “the broader thrust […] is true”. He concluded, as if to reverse his earlier answer: “I think on balance it’s not unfair”.

Jordan’s full remarks received no attention. As their headlines reflected, most press reports – including RTÉ News (with its headline “Film portrayal of de Valera ‘unfair’ – Neil Jordan”) – ignored virtually everything that Jordan had said after his opening reply, as if he had issued an unequivocal, if belated, public apology.

[9] See, for instance, Ó Liatháin’s report in The Corkman. Significantly, after the 2022 centennial events, the Michael Collins Commemoration Committee was formed to handle all subsequent ceremonies honoring his memory.

[10] According to the documents, the British – convulsed with memories of chemical weapons in trench warfare during the Great War – were appalled by the request. Defenders of Collins point out, rather uneasily, that he proposed nothing worse than did Churchill, who advocated sending British bombers – disguised as Free State planes – to annihilate the anti-Treaty rebels in the Four Courts. That proposal, too, was rejected by Westminster.

[11] See Eoin English’s report in The Irish Examiner.

[12] Liam Neeson’s lofty stature in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins deliberately conveys the misleading impression that Collins dwarfed the lanky de Valera, who stood 6 feet 4 inches, which of course serves to make Dev’s own nickname of “The Long Fellow” impossible to imagine.

[13] The 2018 reprint of The Big Fellow features an introduction by Neil Jordan, who reports that Frank O’Connor’s anecdote-rich portrait of Collins influenced the screenplay of the film. O’Connor’s decision to address only Collins’s last six years, beginning with the Easter Rising, turned Collins’s life into “a fairy tale” by “conflat[ing] [it] with the Irish revolution of 1916-23”. The pattern had already been set by Pierce Beasley’s massive, quasi-official, family-endorsed biography, Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland (1926), which devoted a scant 26 of its 900 pages to Collins’s life before 1916.

[14] Quoted in Ulick O’Connor, 168; and on the website of the Collins 22 Society under “Collins and Politics”.

[15] During this first wave, even Coogan in his 1992 study, The Man Who Made Ireland, could not resist responding to the “question asked incessantly in Ireland”, “What would have happened if Collins had lived?” Coogan devotes most of his concluding chapter to this question, offering the opinion that “Ireland would have benefited enormously had he lived” (422). Dermot McEvoy’s novelised treatment of the posthumous Collins, Terrible Angel, takes the “if only” conjectures to a new level, portraying Collins returning from Heaven to earth (actually, Manhattan!) after seventy years by order of Michael the Archangel, who commands him to liberate an IRA captive about to be extradited to Britain.

[16] More recently, in We Bled Together: Michael Collins, the Squad and the Dublin Brigade (2018), Dominic Price further enriches our understanding of how Collins and his men operated. Drawing on newly available documentation from the Military Service Pensions archives and surveying the vast and varied material addressing the military history of the independence campaign, Price gives us an accessible and invaluable overview of how Collins prosecuted the war effort. Price discusses the military chains of command within the IRA during the war, provides organisation charts and maps detailing the movement patterns of IRA battalions, itemises weaponry types, evaluates the range and quality of the intelligence network under Collins, and even specifies the exact addresses of safeguard “stash” locations and Dublin safe houses.

[17] Perhaps nothing better reflected the sensationalism and hype around Collins’s life and death than Paddy Cullivan’s The Murder of Michael Collins. Cullivan’s multimedia show highlighted the August 2022 festivities marking the Celtic pagan festival of Lúnasa and was staged in the Mourne Gullion Strangford Geopark of Northern Ireland (spanning a region in County Armagh and County Down). Lúnasa is a Gaelic festival that celebrates the start of the harvest season every August.

Cullivan’s gala event featured an extravaganza of “Collinsmania” that would have been worthy of a David Bowie production. Produced and choreographed by Cullivan, the Collins spectacular was a multimedia pageant aimed at inquiring into that mysterious day of 22 August 1922. The phantasmagoria consisted of exhibitions of images, displays of performance art, and hours of singing and dancing. Designed chiefly as popular entertainment rather than as a scholarly historical investigation, Cullivan’s theatrical spectacle illustrated the amazing level that the obsession with Collins’s death and legacy reached in August 2022.

[18] Brendan Behan, The Hostage, first performed in Dublin in 1958. Already by the early 1950s, Collins was the object of lavish emotional tributes. My late Uncle Eddie tended bar at McDaids during the 1950s and remembered the bibulous Behan’s teary-eyed threnodies well.

[19] Spoken in 1966 and quoted in Coogan, The Man Who Made Ireland (2016: 432).

Works Cited

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Behan, Brendan (1959). The Hostage. London: Wyndham’s Theatre.

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Cold Case Collins (2022). RTÉ Television (August 24).

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Connell, Joseph E. A. (2020). The Shadow War, Michael Collins and the Politics of Violence. Dublin: Wordwell Books.

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_____ (2016). The Man Who Made Ireland: The Life and Death of Michael Collins. Rev. 2nd ed. New York: Random House.

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Dwyer, T. Ryle (1998). Big Fellow, Long Fellow: A Joint Biography of Collins and de Valera. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.

_____ (2005). The Squad: And the Intelligence Operations of Michael Collins. Revised 2nd. Ed. Dufour.

_____ (2012). Michael Collins and the Civil War. Revised 2nd ed. Cork: Mercier.

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Foy, Michael T. (2006). Michael Collins’s Intelligence War: The Struggle between the British and the IRA, 1919-1921. Stroud: Sutton.

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Lee, J. J. (1998). “The Challenge of a Collins Biography.” Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State, edited by Gabriel Doherty and Dermot Keogh. Cork: Mercier Press.

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Ó Liatháin, Concubhar (2022). “Taoiseach, Tánaiste to Jointly Address Michael Collins Centenary Commemoration.” The Corkman (May 15).

_____ (2022). “Could Mystery of Collins’ Death Be in Affidavit?” The Corkman (August 17).

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| Received: 06-11-2023 | Last Version: 13-12-2023 | Issue 19, Think Piece