Collins: history and myth


Ninety years after the untimely death of Michael Collins, it is right to say he was essential in the winning of a large measure of Irish independence, but wrong to present him as a progressive, left-leaning social democrat

AS TAOISEACH Enda Kenny and his speech writers prepare for his address at the annual Michael Collins Commemoration at Béal na Blá tomorrow, this one marking the 90th anniversary of his death during the Civil War, they may well be wondering: what is there left to say? What further superlatives and grandiose assertions marking a belief in the brilliance of his life and the tragedy of his premature demise can be articulated? In recent years, some dramatic claims and exaggerated conclusions have abounded at Béal na Blá, but they have, for the most part, represented misty-eyed, romantic and selective indulgence, simplifying what was a complex life and overlooking the anger and confusion of Ireland in the early 1920s.

In his 2006 oration, for example, Enda Kenny spoke of “the brilliant west Cork boy, the military genius, and the one-man revolution who made Ireland ungovernable, forcing the British empire not just to a truce but to its knees”. During his oration in 2001, the then leader of Fine Gael Michael Noonan suggested that during his lifetime, Collins had placed “a heavy emphasis on the maintenance of public order, the security of life, personal liberty and property”. Presumably that was not a reference to his time as director of intelligence of the IRA, an indication of the tendency to be highly selective when dwelling on his career.

Last week, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney entered the fray as a warm-up act for Kenny by asserting in Cork City Hall that what impressed him most about Collins was “his mind as a modernist”, his championing of exports and competitiveness and his vision of Ireland “as a place of economic excellence, willing and able to compete in international markets”.

Senior figures in Fine Gael are likely to continue to find the Collins they want in order to address their contemporary priorities, as they have repeatedly done in the past. A few years ago when making the case for the Collins 22 Society who are, quite justifiably, seeking to have a statue of Collins erected outside Leinster House to mark the centenary of his death, Gerry O’Connell, as vice-president of Fine Gael, insisted Collins would “find common ground with the first-time house buyer, the young married couple that have the ground swept from under them under a barrage of stealth taxes and rip-off practices. Michael Collins would find common ground with the people who use our public health services.

There is much truth in the assertion made by the British film producer Lord David Puttnam, in his address at Béal na Blá in 2007, that Collins was an example of a life suspended somewhere between history and myth. Puttnam also said he would go to his grave believing that had Collins lived he would have forged his own place alongside the likes of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, “men who, having freed their own people from the shackles of oppression, became icons for peace and reconciliation everywhere”.

That last assertion is fanciful, particularly when the depth of feeling that caused the Irish Civil War is considered, and the fact that neither Collins nor his contemporaries had any idea how to free their fellow nationalists in Northern Ireland from “the shackles of oppression”. Puttnam, however, was hardly going to be measured in his comments. In the late 1980s, he played a role in bringing to fruition what became the 1996 Neil Jordan film Michael Collins, by commissioning Jordan to write the original screenplay. The film did much to promote the myth of Collins at the expense of others, most notably Eamon de Valera, and the film was almost cartoonish in its depiction of heroes and villains.

MAKING THESE observations is not about denigrating Collins. There is little doubt that he was an exceptionally talented and often brilliant organiser and strategist. In 2005, the provocative biography of Collins by the late Canadian historian Peter Hart offered new and measured perspectives on his career. Hart clearly demonstrated that Collins had nerves of steel and was brave, but he was primarily an outstanding administrator and a skilled and opportunistic networker rather than a trigger-happy macho soldier. When not badgering IRA soldiers to pull up their socks and stand on their own feet, he was expressing frustration at the ineptness of his fellow Sinn Féin ministers (with de Valera, with whom he worked very well before the signing of the Treaty, often mediating), and developing his spy network, members of which were forces in their own right and not just puppets of Collins.

Collins wanted a short war, and could not master everything; no one person, as Hart acknowledged, directed or controlled the war. Collins was just capable or determined enough to work harder than everybody else, and de Valera had to remind him at one stage that “the almighty did not give everybody the ordered mind he gave you”. Collins was also a difficult and often petulant colleague, and during and after the Treaty negotiations he was very much led by Arthur Griffith. In the subsequent fallout from the signing of the Treaty, he consistently outclassed and outperformed de Valera. Of course, the divisions in the republican movement after the Treaty were painful and difficult, but decisiveness was one of Collins’s principal characteristics.

It should be acknowledged, however, that Collins shared many of the limitations, conservative attitudes and prejudices of his contemporaries. According to the esteemed historian of the War of Independence, Michael Hopkinson, while it is undoubtedly the case that Collinss successors on the pro-Treaty side lacked his charisma and popularity, and that the political comeback and dominance of de Valera from the late 1920s to the late 1950s tempered the perpetuation of the Collins myth, “there is little evidence that Collins had any great breadth of economic and social vision”. The book of his collected speeches, The Path to Freedom (1922) suggested he had no sympathy for social radicalism and embraced a limited Gaelic revivalist philosophy. In addition, as Minister for Finance, “he allowed his civil service to achieve a control that resembled that of the Whitehall Treasury. The bureaucratic conservatism of the Free State, therefore, owed arguably much to Collins”.

Hopkinson was accurate in suggesting that Collins can still be seen as the essential man in the winning of a large measure of Irish independence. But to present him as a progressive, left-leaning social democrat, and a champion of a caring welfare state, or an early twentieth century Eddie Hobbs, or, indeed, the great modernist advocate of the international markets, is both ahistorical and completely unnecessary.

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