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The death of Michael Collins and the what-ifs of Irish history

The revolutionary-turned finance minister died aged just 32.

Image: Alamy

THE DEATH OF Michael Collins, 100 years ago today, gave rise to arguably the greatest “what if” in Irish history.

The ‘Big Fella’ was killed in an ambush in Cork on 22 August 1922, at the age of 31, towards the end of the Civil War. When he died, Collins was Minister for Finance in the newly established Irish Free State, and Commander-in-Chief of the Free State army, making him one of the most pivotal figures in the struggle for independence.

It’s often suggested – particularly by critics of various Free State policies in the following decades – that Ireland would have been a very different place had Collins lived.

But it’s difficult to know precisely what sort of Ireland Collins was fighting for, as independent historian John Dorney points out.

Dorney, who has written several books on the Irish independence movement, says that Collins’s premature death means much of his life “had been actually securing independence. rather than [building] the exact kind of Ireland that he wanted.”

Collins was born in Woodfield, a republican stronghold near Clonakilty in Cork, so he was exposed to nationalist ideals from a young age. But it was his time working in London as a civil servant that gave him the shrewd pragmatism that enabled him to rise through the ranks in the IRB.

Gabriel Doherty, a historian in UCC, explains that, for an on-the-run insurgent, Collins “actually used paper, a very great deal.”

“He brings a sort of a civil service mentality to his Republican work,” Doherty says. “Carbon copies, keeping comprehensive files of correspondence as much as it was possible, all of these types of standard bureaucratic tools.”

In terms of political ideology, he wasn’t an out-and-out socialist like James Connolly, Doherty says, but he did “owe some sort of debt” to him.

Dorney says it’s “not really true” to describe Collins as left wing – he adhered to Sinn Féin’s ideology that Ireland should be self sufficient and have “enough employment for 20 million people”.

“It’s not terribly different from the kind of things that Fianna Fail tried to do in the 1930s,” Dorney says.
harry-boland-michael-collins-eamon-de-valera Harry Boland, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera Source: Alamy Stock Photo
Doherty also remarks that “I wouldn’t necessarily say that he sort of had a very, very well developed idea of of what freedom would bring.”

In London, Collins joins the IRB and in 1916, returns home to partake in the Easter Rising, but it’s in 1919, with the advent of the first Dáil and the War of Independence, where he begins to emerge as a key figure.

Doherty notes: “He emphasised the need to map the journey, as well as recognise where the destination is, that there’s no point in saying ‘this is what we want for our country, this is what we desire for our country’ without saying ‘how are we going to get there?’”

War of Independence

As well as being the new Minister for Finance, Collins was elected president of the IRB and Director of Intelligence in the IRA. Among the operations he oversaw during the war was a notorious assassination unit called “the Squad” to target British spies.

Again, Collins’s civil service background is evident in the way he operated during this time. Doherty explains that, from his observations of the constraints of bureaucracy, he was “much more willing to break down the walls, as it were, that bureaucracies create.”

And while his leadership during the war is broadly seen as effective, it was not without issues. “It generated a lot of personal animosity,” Doherty says.

“A great deal of his alienation between himself and Cathal Brugha, for example, arose because Brugha believed that Collins wasn’t respecting Brugha’s role as Minister for Defence and was to a certain extent usurping it.”

De Valera and the Treaty negotiations

It’s these aspects of Collins’s character that are often omitted from good cop/bad cop narratives about his relationship with Eamon de Valera. When a truce was agreed with Britain, de Valera sent Collins to London for treaty negotiations – against his will. But that’s not the full story, Dorney explains. “De Valera’s argument was that Collins was sent over to London, yes, but he was sent over to refer back to the Cabinet before he signed the Treaty and he [Collins] never did.”

treaty-talks-in-the-cabinet-room-of-no-10-downing-street-in-london-in-1921-on-the-left-is-the-british-team-including-lloyd-george-and-winston-churchill-to-the-right-are-heads-of-the-irish-delegation Artist's impression of the Treaty negotiations. Collins is on the right Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Both Dorney and Doherty agree that the idea that Collins and de Valera had a frosty relationship is somewhat simplistic, and the reality is they were essentially aligned ideologically. Dorney says: “A lot of it was personal – both of them had big egos, both of them wanted to be the big man.”

Doherty points out that, before the Treaty negotiations, it’s unlikely that the two men had much of a relationship at all – after the Rising, de Valera was imprisoned in Wales, and shortly after he escaped in 1919, he went to America and stayed there for 18 months. Even when he returned to Ireland, “both men are on the run.”

So it took Collins signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty to truly pitch the two against each other, with de Valera protesting that its terms were an unacceptable compromise. But Doherty casts doubt on the suggestion that “de Valera was setting Collins up in the Treaty negotiations knowing that they would fail”, arguing that this is based on the assumption that compromise was broadly unpopular.

“The treaty, broadly speaking, commanded a degree of support. Not, obviously, within Republicanism – there was a split within republicanism – but not necessarily everyone in Ireland was a Republican.”

Dorney adds: “De Valera’s argument was: we can’t sell what you have to the rank and file here, we need something better than that’ … but I wouldn’t say ideologically there was much between them.”

‘Wishful thinking’

However similar their views were, it’s undeniable that Collins and de Valera came to represent the warring factions that emerged out of the Treaty. Indeed, de Valera is alleged to have declared in 1966: “It is my considered opinion that in the fullness of time history will record the greatness of Michael Collins, and it will be recorded at my expense.”

Collins died before the end of the Civil War, and before the Free State properly took shape as an independent state – de Valera, by contrast, was at the top of Irish politics for the next three decades, and has come to be associated with the Catholic conservatism and economic stagnation of those years.

Doherty says: “Every country needs an idea that things might have been better had somebody lived – you see [that] in America, for example, with JFK.”

Dorney concurs: “People can imagine that things would be great had he lived – you know, all the problems Ireland had in terms of the economy, in terms of the Catholic Church and all that, that Collins would have changed all that. Maybe he would, but to be honest, I doubt it.”

Doherty believes much of the what-ifs about Collins are “wishful thinking”. In fact, he adds, some experts believe Collins “had all the makings of a dictator”, not unlike the fascist figures who would dominate Europe in the coming years – “somebody with a sort of a subversive or a militaristic background, who achieved a great victory”.

michael-collins-1890-1922-irish-revolutionary-leader-at-funeral-of-arthur-griffin-dublin-16-august-1922-see-description-below Collins in uniform at the funeral of Arthur Griffith Source: Alamy Stock Photo

But Doherty doesn’t hold that view himself, however: “I don’t think he needed to get round the democratic process because, as he’d shown during the Treaty debates, he was a very, very accomplished debater … and I think he would have found it relatively straightforward to manage the issues of cabinet government.”

Reflecting on Collins’s legacy – and how a certain Neil Jordan biopic embellishes the truth about him in parts – Doherty isn’t too concerned about modern-day perceptions of the Big Fella.

“​​The fact that many people take their history from [that film], who don’t necessarily read books about Collins or look at TV documentaries, is itself testimony to its enduring power. And I think that is down to its quality.”

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