Diarmaid Ferriter: Michael Collins was no trail-blazing feminist

Collins wrote to Art O’Brien to express his disapproval about an intelligence operation that had been delegated to a woman

Above,  Michael Collins  in London for the treaty negotiations  in December 1921. Photograph:  Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Above, Michael Collins in London for the treaty negotiations in December 1921. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

 

Michael Collins was many things, but he was no trailblazing feminist. However, judging by the speech delivered at Beal na Blá last weekend by the Minister for Justice and Equality to commemorate his killing in 1922, there has been a fairly desperate scraping of the barrel to come up with new ways to divorce Collins from his era.

Minister Frances Fitzgerald suggested it was fair to speculate that Collins, “who had built a network of trusted, smart and savvy intelligence officers who happened to be women”, would not have “stood over their retreat, not only from history . . . but from key roles in shaping the new state”.

Even a casual reading of the numerous biographies of Michael Collins would lead to the conclusion that this is delusional, wishful thinking. Collins was a remarkable character in many ways; there is no need to contrive to make him what he was not.

As historian Michael Hopkinson has asserted, Collins was a gifted administrator, organiser and public communicator. He co-ordinated an effective military intelligence operation during the War of Independence, and “can still be regarded as the essential man in the winning of a large measure of independence”.

Highlighting Collins’s limitations, however, is also essential for a balanced historical overview, as Hopkinson also observed:

“There is little evidence that he had any breadth of economic and social vision . . . he had a limited Gaelic-revivalist philosophy and was strongly anti-socialist. 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, arguably owed much to Collins”.

Secretaries and couriers

In his favourable 2005 biography Mick, the late Peter Hart suggested that Collins likely saw female republican activists as “the servant class of the revolution, rarely as colleagues or comrades, more often as landladies, maids or cooks”.

Collins’s attitudes towards women, Hart concluded, “were firmly Edwardian”. That is hardly surprising, for he was firmly a product of the Edwardian era.

In June 1920, he wrote to Art O’Brien, with whom he worked closely in the gathering of intelligence, to express his disapproval about an intelligence operation that had been delegated to a woman. “I don’t think a great deal of the people who give these commissions to ladies.”

Collins also idealised the supposed exceptional purity and obedience of Irish women, writing to O’Brien in 1921 that Irish women who were spying for enemy forces during the conflict were not Irish at all; they were “Irish of a type that is not Irish”. The British, he said, “cannot get Irish girls to do this class of work for them”.

Regarding his articulated visions of the future, the idea that women would be a formative influence in shaping the new state is hardly supported by his limited, cliched meanderings about the restoring of what Collins characterised as an ancient, glorious and democratic Gaelic civilisation.

Whole nation united

The Path to Freedom

“It was simple and harmonious. The people had security in their rights and just law . . . their men of high learning ranked with the kings and sat beside them in equality at the high table”.

So how was Collins going to reinstate this blissful civilisation for the new free state? By looking to the “remote corners” of the south, west and northwest of the country, and especially to the authentic Irish women of Achill Island, the inheritors and keepers of the Gaelic civilisation flame.

“Today, it is only in those places that any native beauty and grace in Irish life survive. And these are the poorest parts of our country! In the island of Achill, impoverished as the people are, hard as their lives are, difficult as the struggle for existence is, the outward aspect is a pageant.

“One may see processions of young women riding down on the island ponies to collect sand from the seashore, or gathering in the turf, dressed in their shawls and in their brilliantly coloured skirts made of material spun, woven and dyed by themselves, as it has been spun, woven and dyed for over a thousand years. Their cottages are also little changed. They remain simple and picturesque.

“It is only in such places that one gets a glimpse of what Ireland may become again.”

The path to freedom for Irish women? I don’t think so.

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