Academic accuses author of creating `cult of Collins'

Author Tim Pat Coogan has been accused of doing "a tremendous disservice" in his biographies of Michael Collins and Eamon de …

Author Tim Pat Coogan has been accused of doing "a tremendous disservice" in his biographies of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera.

Speaking yesterday at the Dr Douglas Hyde conference in Portahard, Co Roscommon, Dr John Regan, British Academy research fellow at Oxford from 1994 to 1999 and author of the recently published book The Irish Counter-Revolution 1921-1936, queried the current "cult of Collins". He attributed it partly to the Neil Jordan film, Michael Collins, partly to the Coogan biography and "more importantly, the demonisation of de Valera".

Collins, as a consequence, had become "an image of lost opportunity". An image "of a dashing, handsome revolutionary", the "James Dean of Irish history", which contrasted with that of the "increasingly decrepit and blind de Valera" on whom "was projected our disenchantment with post-revolutionary society". A de Valera who had come to epitomise emigration, poverty, depression.

Collins on the other hand "didn't have to take full responsibility for the revolution he had put through". Collins, he said, "was an extraordinarily ambitious man". His death in August 1922 "speeded a return to democratic norms, even while the Civil War continued".

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"We had a military dictatorship here prior to his death," Dr Regan said. "It should be recognised for what it was . . . and he died before the worst part of the Civil War."

Collins had refused to call the Dail after the May general election in 1922. And when the Labour Party, then the main opposition, had said it would withdraw from the Dail, Collins was "prepared to abandon Labour and so create a one-party state". He had also reactivated the IRB.

It disbanded within a week of his death. The Dail was called to meet on September 9th and, on August 26th, the principle of collective cabinet responsibility was established by the government.

As to whether Collins was a democrat or not Dr Regan could not say. He was dismissive of conspiracy theories surrounding Collins's death, explaining these first emerged in 1958. "I don't think there is any mystery," he said. Collins was "never in a combat situation before. As the ambush ended he got up, stood in the middle of the road and was hit by a bullet, possibly a ricochet".

Dr Regan said that between the signing of the Treaty and Collins's death it was quite possible to read his actions as being motivated by his own advancement and self-aggrandisement. Equally his actions in attempting to consolidate the revolution could be read in terms of pure political pragmatism toward achieving a degree of independence for Ireland. The truth probably lay somewhere between the two.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times