Michael Collins casts a strange shadow over Irish history. On the one hand he was responsible for much of the successful guerilla and insurgent activity that brought Britain to the table, on the other, for hardline republican’s he betrayed the Republic in agreeing to and pushing for the Free State.
Of course Collins was no fool, he recognized that had probably begun a process that might result in his own death by agreeing to the deal (his quote on signing the Treaty with Britain, ‘I signed My Own Death Warrant’ has memorably been used as the title for a T. Ryle Dwyer book).
His death on this day 88 year ago during an ambush at Béal na mBláth in Cork was the second huge blow to its leadership that the fledging state had received during the civil war. The first was Arthur Griffith who died suddenly on 12 August 1924.
Happenstance, misfortune, death and war delivered leadership to WT Cosgrave who led the provisional government to official government and until democratic elections in 1932 saw power pass, peacefully, to Fianna Fail, the party formed by Eamon de Valera and composed of the anti-treaty republicans defeated during the same civil war that saw Collins die.
Brian Lenihan, the current finance minister and a Fianna Fail minister from a family steeped in Fianna Fail history, gave the address at this year commemoration at Béal na mBláth. It seemed to me a strange choice but it was welcomed by Stephen Collins in Saturday’s Irish Times:
Lenihan was the ideal choice for tomorrow’s event for a variety of reasons. For a start his grandfather, who was elected a Fianna Fáil TD in 1965, was actually a supporter of the treaty. Lenihan himself is personally popular with all sides in Leinster House, regardless of policy differences, for the innate courtesy and lack of bitterness that characterise his approach to politics.
As Minister for Finance at a time of deep crisis for the State, he is also an appropriate person to speak about the legacy of Collins. In all the hero worship of Collins, one of his greatest achievements is often overlooked. As minister for finance in the first Dáil he organised a loan of £380,000 that made it possible to establish the framework of government for a state that did not exist.
Others disagree with him of course, like Bock:
Collins’s death deprived Ireland of the one man who might have been able to save the country from the grip of clerics, vested interests and ignorant elected buffoons. It consigned the country to ninety years of mismanagement, abuse, theft, corruption and incompetence, thanks to the grasping cynics who grabbed control. It condemned future generations to the misery of a judgemental, puritanical and intolerant Catholic church. It laid the ground for an age of darkness when books were banned, contraception and divorce were outlawed, and innocent young girls imprisoned by nuns in the vile Magdalene laundries, while young boys were systematically raped in the industrial schools run by Catholic orders. Eventually we ended up with a constitution dictated by an evil old psychopath, Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, and we still suffer under his malign influence to this day.
Bock, I fear, puts much too much on one figure’s ability to change any society, even an individual as forceful as Collins. Personally, I tend to agree more with John M. Regan whose chapter in Michael Collins And The Making Of The Irish State, Michael Collins: The Legacy and the Intestacy, argues convincingly that no-one is heir to the man’s legacy.