No historical basis for Michael Collins as latter-day ‘macho man’

Demonisation of de Valera as part of the glorification of Collins ‘unfair’ says professor

Michael Collins (1890-1922) leaving 10 Downing Street, London, during treaty negotiations. Photograph: Hulton Archive

Michael Collins (1890-1922) leaving 10 Downing Street, London, during treaty negotiations. Photograph: Hulton Archive

 

The depiction of Michael Collins in some writing and on film has been distorted, and attempts to modernise him as both a latter-day macho man and a socio-economic radical are without historical foundation, Prof John A Murphy said last night.

Prof Murphy, emeritus professor of history at University College Cork, said that while Collins was “hardly a flawless hero”, his major role in the Irish revolution between 1917 and 1922 has never been seriously challenged in the 91 years since his death in the Civil War at the age of 31. Collins was killed on August 22nd, 1922, in a republican ambush.

Speaking in Bandon last night at the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate Collins’s visit to the town on the day he died, Prof Murphy said it should be remembered that Collins was not without his failings.

“He could be vain, ruthless, impatient of criticism and increasingly autocratic,” he said.

“He was also conspiratorial, especially in his Northern Ireland policy, in early 1922. Yet there is no doubt that he dominated both the civil and military sides of the independence struggle, that he masterminded the smashing of British intelligence, and swung the balance in favour of the Treaty settlement.”

According to Prof Murphy, the demonisation of Eamon de Valera as part of the glorification of Collins in some treatments was “unnecessary, unfair and irrelevant” while Collins himself had sometimes been “wrenched from his proper historical context and forced into contemporary relevance”.

“Thus, he is depicted as a very modern ‘macho’ man, cast in a late 20th-century mould, especially in the area of sexual permissiveness . . .

“He was exclusively devoted to his fiancee Kitty Kiernan. He was a practising Catholic after the manner of his day, even if occasionally anti-clerical in the Fenian tradition. He probably died a virgin, bizarre as that may sound to latter-day sophisticates,” the professor said.