Eoin Neeson writes about one of the most tragic and controversial events in modern Irish history
Eighty-one years ago Michael Collins was killed in action during the Civil War at Béalnabláth, west Cork, not far from his birthplace.
Ever since, that tragic event has been the subject of controversy - much of it silly and acrimonious and often based on dogmas such as: - "I've studied it, therefore I'm right", when citing little more than second-hand answers (years after the event); these remain selective hearsay, not fact.
The tendency to force facts to fit a theory, and superficially plausible inferences like: - "'X' said that A said he shot a soldier. 'A' was a decent man who wouldn't lie. I remember exactly what he said 50 years ago. He was a marksman, therefore couldn't miss. It was a dum-dum bullet, therefore the wound was big at the back. There was a small entry wound in Collins's forehead, so it wasn't a ricochet," have added to the confusion.
A reliable, though unpublished, survey of the ambush site was made in the late 1940s by my friends, Lieut-Gen M.J.Costello and Tom Barry. Their conclusions were similar to my own later findings, which they called "definitive".
My books, The Civil War in Ireland (1966) and The Life and Death of Michael Collins (1968), contained, respectively, the first published collated account of the ambush from participants on both sides and the first published detailed comparative analysis. Nothing I've seen published subsequently adds to this, but some has been misleading.
Without conclusive evidence it is unlikely that exact details will now be known. Nevertheless, circumstantial evidence indicates the probable sequence.
The essential facts are:
1. An ambusher fired a single rifle-shot at a specific target about the time Collins was hit;
2. Collins was killed;
3. There was a large wound behind his right ear; and
4. Whether by new, old or God's own time, it was dusk and the light was poor.
The main points of dispute centre on:
A. Who fired the fatal shot?
B. Was it direct or indirect (i.e., ricochet)?
C. Was there also a frontal wound?
D. The bullet - normal, coated high-velocity .303, 7mm Mauser or "dum-dum"?
E. And, last but not least, where was Collins heading that evening?
Some are readily answered.
Virtually beyond doubt the fatal shot was fired by Denis "Sonny" Neill of Kilbrittain, one of a six-man anti-Treaty clearing party that fired on the convoy to warn their dispersing comrades of its approach from behind. He'd been a British army territorial and was considered a good shot - not a "marksman".
The action is reported to have lasted 30 to 40 minutes, a surprisingly long time for such a fire fight.
The six "ambushers" came under considerable fire from the Vickers machine-gun in the armoured car, from the convoy troops armed with Lee Enfield rifles and, allegedly, Thompson sub-machine-guns and at least one Lewis light machine-gun. "There was little chance to raise our heads let alone get an aimed shot off in dusk at all," said one of them, Jim Kearney.
After about 20 minutes the Vickers gun developed a stoppage. John McPeake, the gunner, half deaf and nauseous from cordite fumes, raised the (then) circular hatch cover to clear it. (The hatch and cover were later changed).
During this "lull" Neill fired his aimed shot, range 150-190 yards. No other shot was fired by any of these men at this time.
Several reports attributed to Neill state different targets. All are second-hand, all but one were passed on many years later and only one accords with cross-referred statements. The exception is his verbal report to Liam Deasy, as follows: "I saw a head coming out of the armoured car and I fired at it."
Significantly McPeake's contemporary statement is: "As I raised the hatch cover 'whang!' a bullet hit it and blew off a lug."
Given poor light, being under fire, the subsequent realisation that Collins had been killed and the time lapse; factor in that Collins evidently stood in the lee, right (south) of the armoured car, and the most probable picture emerges - Collins was killed either by the ricocheting bullet or by the lug.
This would also explain the difficulty presented by the (large) wound being behind the right ear, otherwise out of the line of enemy fire, but not of a ricochet off the armoured car.
Dr Oliver St John Gogarty, who performed the autopsy in Dublin's College of Surgeons, had experience treating wounded soldiers during the first World War. He had no love for the anti-Treaty side. Nevertheless, he was adamant that the (single) wound was caused by a ricochet. This outline, while remaining conjectural, ties up most of the loose ends and accommodates to the facts without recourse to notional forehead entry wounds unperceived by Gogarty, etc.
It also renders the notion of a "dum-dum" bullet irrelevant.
The dum-dum was a flat-nosed, half-coated lead rifle bullet, not unlike a revolver bullet, originating in the Indian town of that name. It expanded on striking, causing a large, ugly wound. Of limited range, it was notoriously erratic. The standard coated .303 rifle bullet can be readily modified - i.e., by abrasion - to approximate a dum-dum, with similar effect, and often was during the first World War. It is known to have been used in Ireland by the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries.
Finally, as part of his stated intention to "try to end this thing", Collins, chairman of the IRB, had arranged a meeting of IRB officers, neutral and from both sides, for Desmond's Hotel that night in Cork.
Following an article of mine on the Civil War (May 24th) a correspondent challenged both the likelihood of a ricochet and this meeting, but offered no facts, only hearsay.
The correspondent also confused the meeting with the activities of an ad-hoc group calling themselves the Concerned Citizens of Cork (of whom my grandfather was one), which had nothing to do with belligerents on either side.
Col Frank Thornton was directed by Collins to arrange the meeting. Thornton contacted and spoke to Liam Deasy, who passed him on to Liam Lynch and Tom Hales. Thornton was ambushed and wounded en route. Nonetheless, and confirmed to me by IRB-men Florrie O'Donoghue, Liam Deasy and Seán Ó Muirthile, arrangements for the meeting proceeded.
Emmet Dalton has been cited in support of the view that no meeting was intended. Dalton was not a member of the IRB and for that reason - as he confirmed to me - would not have known about it.
• Eoin Neeson's book Birth of a Republic is a narrative account of republicanism from 1798 to 1923