In the north London Borough of Islington there stood for many years in the last century a house named “Michael Collins House”. It was owned and occupied, not by Irish people, but by a Welshman who used to delight in telling how he came to purchase and rename the house.
Kenneth Griffith, an actor and polemical documentary filmmaker from Tenby in Pembrokeshire, purchased the four-storey house with compensation he received after Britain’s Associated Television network (ATV) suppressed a film it had commissioned him to make in the early 1970s about a subject of his own choosing.
“For ATV, I decided to organise a film which would communicate to the British viewer the truth about our terrible role in Ireland”, Griffith explained a decade later. “I decided to do this by relating the life of perhaps the greatest – and certainly the most successful – Irish patriot: Michael Collins”, he added.
Griffith completed the film in 1973, but ATV refused to broadcast it “in view of the present delicate political and military situation in Northern Ireland”, according to the ATV chairman, Sir (later Lord) Lew Grade. Griffith protested in vain that the political and military troubles in Northern Ireland were precisely what motivated him to make the film.
“I believed that if I told the story of [Collins’s] life from birth to his early death, I would be necessarily explaining to the British viewer the reasons, the facts that had compelled this good, hard-working boy to become the most brilliant, unshiftable activist leader that Ireland has ever produced”, Griffith said. “Britain opposed certain truths being spoken on British television, particularly about Ireland...I believed that the centuries-old trouble would only cease when the British people looked fearlessly at their history on that island of Ireland and honestly judged themselves”.
He titled the 117-minute film “Hang Up Your Brightest Colours: The Life and Death of Michael Collins”. He took the title from a phrase that George Bernard Shaw had used in a letter he wrote to Collins’s sister Johanna (”Hannie”) after Collins was killed at Béal na Bláth 100 years ago this month (August). Shaw wrote: ‘My Dear Miss Collins, Don’t let them make you miserable about it... how could a born soldier die better than at the victorious end of a good fight?... So tear up your mourning and hang up your brightest colours in his honour, and let us all praise God that he did not die in a snuffy bed of a trumpery cough, weakened by age, and saddened by the disappointments that would have attended his work had he lived.”
The Daily Telegraph editor and former Conservative Party cabinet minister William Deedes said that there was “nothing inaccurate” in “Hang Up Your Brightest Colours”. The future Labour Party leader Michael Foot described the film as “wonderful”, but it was withheld from British audiences for more than 20 years. It was broadcast on BBC Wales in 1993 and on BBC Two (in England only) in August 1994. It can now be seen in its entirety on YouTube.
London is a fitting location for a house commemorating Michael Collins. He lived there for nearly 10 years, from 1906 until early 1916. He worked for the Post Office, served as secretary of the Geraldines GAA club and of the London County Board. It was also in London that he joined the Irish Volunteers and the IRB, with whom he served in the GPO during Easter Week 1916. He spent much of the final months of 1921 living in Knightsbridge and Kensington during the negotiations that led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December of that year. *
Kenneth Griffith, who described himself as “a Welsh Protestant Brit”, made two further films during the 1970s that examined why his Michael Collins film was suppressed and that told the stories of nine veterans of the War of Independence. These films – respectively “The Public’s Right to Know” and “Curious Journey” – were also withheld from broadcast and were only seen by a limited audience at the London Film Festival in 1980.
Griffith, who died in 2006, is quoted in Liz Curtis’s 1984 book Ireland: The Propaganda War observing that the only films that had been suppressed of the nearly 20 that he had made were the ones that dealt with Ireland. He said that his 90-minute film about Napoleon Bonaparte had a single line cut from it – the line where he quoted Napoleon saying: “If I had achieved sufficient power, I would have separated Ireland from England.”
* This article was amended on Friday, August 19th, 2022