Michael Collins was concerned about growing mayhem in the early months of 1922. As British forces withdrew from the 26 Counties, armed opponents of the Treaty challenged the authority of the nascent Free State.
On April 10th he wrote to his fiancée, Kitty Kiernan: "Things are rapidly becoming as bad as they can be and the country has before it what may be the worst period yet. A few madmen may do anything. Indeed, they are just getting on the pressure gradually. They go on from cutting a tree to cutting a railway line, then firing at a barrack, then to firing at a lorry and so on. But God knows I do not want to be worrying you with these things."
This letter was discovered recently by sisters Joanne and Sheelah Corbett of Bunratty, Co Clare. In an act of generous patriotism, they are donating it to the National Library. A copy was made for León Ó Broin when he compiled In Great Haste: The Letters of Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan. (The correspondence was preserved by Kiernan's sons, Felix Mary Cronin and Michael Collins Cronin.)
Why the original has turned up in Bunratty is not clear, but is probably linked to the donors' father's role in the War of Independence. When their father, Ernest Corbett, died in 1960, Gen Michael Brennan sent a telegram: "I salute the memory of a brave and loyal comrade in Ireland's war."
Brennan commanded the East Clare Brigade during the War of Independence and served later as chief-of-staff of the Defence Forces. Corbett played a small but significant part in the struggle, most notably his role in minding British general Cuthbert Lucas after he was captured by the IRA in 1920. As an extensive landowner whose brothers were members of the professional class, Corbett's home was an ideal hiding place. Lucas became a liability, however. His presence immobilised the local Volunteers and, moreover, he drank a bottle of whiskey a day. While the New York Times described his capture as "a Sinn Féin coup", he was allowed to escape after a month.
Hatred thrives when it grows in the ruins of love. Four days after Collins wrote this letter, an anti-Treaty force under Rory O’Connor seized the Four Courts, and the country stumbled into civil war.
The shooting of Collins in an ambush on August 22nd, 1922, cast him in a heroic mould. A copy of the memorial number of An Saorstát: The Free State (which has also been found) records that his last words were: "Forgive them". It contains tributes from scholar revolutionaries, including Eoin Mac Néill, who wrote: "I am a quarter of a century older than Michael Collins and I have had plenty of opportunity of seeing what was in the men of Ireland during my time . . . My testimony is that Collins was the greatest Irishman of our time . . . His personal charm, that captivated people of every kind, came from the combination of genius with the rarest kind of sincerity, a total freedom from affectation."
Margaret Gavan Duffy, wife of George one of the negotiators of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, recalled in a piece entitled "Mick": "He believed that all through the English terror his life was saved by the prayers of the Irish people, and during the tense days of negotiations in London the Saxon was astonished to see him every morning at early Mass."
Piaras Beaslai (who became Collins’s first biographer) paid a comrade’s tribute to the “Big Man”, whose “career of brilliant promise was cut short in the hour of the country’s need by one of those Irishmen whom he had loved and worked for and faced death for a thousand times”.
Alice Stopford Green said: "Ireland has had many sorrows, but she has had no woe like this . . . Our progress can be no longer along the hills of high adventure, but on the level ground where men less gifted must needs travel."
The heart of Ireland was numbed by the Civil War, Desmond Ryan lamented in his book, Michael Collins and the Invisible Army. (Ryan, who was Pearse's literary executer, died 50 years ago.) "It was the hour of reaction, of the place-hunter, the intriguer, the hopeless, the mediocre, the superstitious. Beneath the debris the spirit of the Irish revolution was buried . . . Never had the pride and self-respect of a nation been so deeply wounded."
Collins was irreplaceable, in the opinion of Prof Joe Lee: His final speeches (collected in The Path to Freedom) "suggest an ambition, unique among his colleagues in the Provisional Government, to create not only a new state but a new society".
Evidently, like Mandela, Collins possessed rare qualities of heart and mind.
The letter from Michael Collins to Kitty Kiernan is viewable at irishtimes.com