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Michael Collins' heartbreak and naivety explored in new documentary

The final journey of the ‘big fella’ is travelled by the RTÉ broadcaster John Creedon in a programme to be shown this evening.

THE FINAL JOURNEY taken by Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins is traced by RTÉ broadcaster John Creedon in a documentary to be shown this evening.

In Michael Collins’ Last Day, which you can watch at 6.30pm on RTÉ One, Creedon retraces the Big Fellow’s final 24 hours and his journey into West Cork on 22 August 1922, the fateful day when he met his death at Béal na Bláth. It is the third programme in the Great Irish Journeys series.

Creedon described it as family viewing, and an insight into Collins’ last day both for those who know every inch of his story and those who may not.

Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Collins was one of the delegates involved in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, which provided for the establishment of the Irish Free State. He said it offered Ireland “the freedom to achieve freedom”, explained Creedon, adding:

The setting up of the 26-county State, it would be first step in a 32-county Ireland. The people on the other side of the Civil War had the same ideal – but how they went to go about it, they differed.

There were men in the Civil War who had grown up and fought together, said Creedon, but then found themselves “on opposite sides of the argument”.

“It’s a terribly sad story in many ways”.

He described Collins, who had gone to the south of the country to visit forces in his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Free State Army in 1922, as “young, intelligent, swashbuckling, handsome… a quite brilliant man”.

Creedon “could see all that brilliance and all that genius and all that swagger, I could see how that kind of leadership is still on the ground these days”. But he also asked himself, “was [Collins] a little naive, militarily?”

By coming back to Cork before the place was settled, when the midwest of the county was “a concentration of the regrouping anti-treaty forces”, to drive through Béal Na Bláth twice in that time period, “there was a good chance there would be a concentration of anti-Treaty feeling there, anti-Treaty troops”.

“You’d have to say he was warned about going back to Cork,” said Creedon, who as part of the journey found out more about one particular reason for Collins’ trip south: finding anti-Treaty money.

He had his reasons, one was to try and stem the flow of money from anti-Treaty people, laying claim to money in banks in Cork saying they were the real banks.

The journey

Creedon’s journey during filming began just as Collins’ did: at the Imperial Hotel on Cork city’s South Mall, where Collins had “bounced down the steps” to meet his troops at 6am.

He travelled in a similar car to Collins’ cream-coloured open-top touring vehicle, and spent almost a week filming, meeting with locals and historians. The journey made Creedon reflect on the those who fought in the Civil War, “if they would be disappointed at how quickly we sold out to our financial overlords”. But he also noted their message of “we do have a right to be here – we do have a right to speak up for ourselves”.

“I’d be very keen to point out that people on both sides of the argument were men and women of principle,” said Creedon. “The irony is they shared the same principle”

Pic: Wikimedia Commons

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Creedon saw West Cork through Collins’ eyes while on his journey. He experienced the trip that led to Collins’ death on a similar beautiful and warm day, with the smell of the hayfields in the air, the countryside shining, glints of fuschia and the scent of honeysuckle at different turns.

He saw why Collins loved his home; could imagine him playing hurling outside.

“He was back in his home county, a place he loved,” mused Creedon. “It was now back in Irish hands. He had been part of the liberation. He just couldn’t wait to get back to see his folks. So I can see how particularly in the end of that day he would have been flying high, with confidence and swagger, on a successful tour of duty.”

But he was oblivious to what lay before him.

Emmet Dalton, Collins’ commanding officer in Cork, “had warned him how dangerous it was in this territory”.

When they came upon the ambush: “Dalton shouted ‘drive like hell’; Collins said ‘no, we’ll fight them’. There was one man killed – Collins.”

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Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Éamon de Valera

Creedon questioned whether Collins is “misrepresented” when it comes to the Treaty, as having ‘sold Ireland out’. However, he said he can see why some of the people would have been unhappy about partition.

On the subject of Éamon De Valera, Creedon noted that “despite popular rumours that Dev ordered to have [Collins] shot, it wouldn’t appear to have been true”.

According to the accounts Creedon heard of the meeting that took place after Collins was spotted in West Cork, De Valera argued against attacking or killing him, saying it would be “a propaganda disaster”.

To Creedon, the military minds at that meeting “probably found it hard to resist – ‘if he sails in and out of here without us landing a blow, we will be laughed at’”.

The real message

Collins’ grandniece told Creedon that “[Collins'] heart was broken because he so yearned for unity, that people who agreed on 98 per cent of it were now on the opposite sides of war. That really pained him.”

According to Creedon:

It’s easy to wave flags and take sides, it’s easy to be a pub know-it-all about this. But the real message is those were for the most part people who had a good vision for us in the future. What happened to them is a terrible tragedy.

Creedon knows that Collins’ death is often debated, and anticipates that he will be hearing from both sides in years to come.

“I expect with a story with Collins who is so hotly contested, I will have people tapping my shoulder in pubs saying ‘that gate was never there when Collins passed by’,” he laughed.

“I did me best.”

John Creedon presents The John Creedon Show on RTÉ Radio 1, Monday – Friday 8pm – 9.50pm. Michael Collins’ Last Day will be broadcast tonight on RTÉ One (television) at 6.30pm.

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