Deceptive Manoeuvres: Daniel Murray, Florence O’Donoghue and the Death of Michael Collins

Michael Collins, whose death in August 1922 continues to be the subject of polemic.
Michael Collins, whose death in August 1922 continues to be the subject of polemic.

Denis Lenihan replies to Dan Murray’s article on Florence O’Donoghue and the killing of Michael Collins at Beal na Blath in 1922.

Daniel Murray is quite right when he says (The Irish Story, 10 June 2013) of the O’Donoghue
account of the death of Collins that it is an attempt to portray the anti-Treaty group’s ‘own
roles in the most favourable way, or in a way that would be the least embarrassing’. He is also
right to say that the account ‘was written with an agenda that must be taken into consideration
when using it.’ There is, however, rather more to the story than Murray tells.

The first thread in the story was woven not in 1964 when O’Donoghue’s group met, but in
1922, just after the shooting, when Deasy (or his adjutant, Crofts) sent a dispatch to Liam
Lynch about the ambush. It is reproduced at Hart pages 410-411.

Liam Deasy’s account of the ambush contradicts itself by suggesting that their fire forced the pro-Treaty party to retreat but that they had no knowledge of any casualties.

Unsurprisingly, despite some differences in detail, it strongly resembles the O’Donoghue document, particularly on the major points that the ambush party remained steadfast under fire and the pro-Treaty party withdrew; and that the ambush party did not know until later that evening that Collins had been killed. It avoided some of the issues which the O’Donoghue document dwelt upon, particularly why the few who remained at the site decided to open fire. A little chest-beating crept in:
The firing was terrific the enemy relied chiefly on his machine guns. Now and again you could
 hear the crack of a rifle from our little party, who never budged an inch from their position.
In a further thread, Deasy himself, in Brother Against Brother, had little to say about the details
of the ambush, although the size of the ambush party had shrunk from nine in the Lynch
dispatch and 10 in the O’Donoghue account to a mere four. He did however repeat the
assertions that ‘The engagement ended as the convoy drove off and the attackers had no
knowledge of any casualty’ (page 82).
There are two insuperable problems in accepting these accounts as accurate: they are on their
own terms self-contradictory, and they are contrary to nearly all the other detailed accounts of
the ambush, including those provided by other members of the ambush party. Had the pro-
Treaty group retreated under fire, then the ambush party would have seen that one of the
group had at least been seriously wounded and was carried to the armoured car. It would then
have been impossible for the ambush party to claim immediately afterwards that they had no
knowledge of any casualty. They cannot have it both ways.

Collins convoy on its way to Beal na mBlath.
Collins convoy on its way to Beal na mBlath.

There are several other detailed accounts of what happened at the ambush: in date order, they are Neeson 1 (1966), Neeson 2 (1968), Feehan 1 (1981), Connolly (1989), Ryan (1989), Coogan (1991), Feehan 2 (1991), Twohig (1991) and O’Mahony (1996). Apart from Ryan’s account, the others have the ambush party leaving the scene via Walsh’s Lane and Long’s Lane, which ran west from the boreen to the west of and parallel to the road (see
the maps in O’Mahony, chapter 12 and Feehan page 123).

They thus had a secure line of retreat, to deal with one of the matters raised by Murray. Having left the scene, they were unable to see Collins’ body being put in the armoured car and then in the touring car. These accounts also have the ambush party engaging the Collins party to warn their colleagues on the road to Bealnablath.

This makes sense, as the ambush party could see that it was outnumbered and
outgunned, so the alternative would have been to withdraw immediately without firing a shot.
There has also been the suggestion that ambush party was less than enthusiastic about
shooting anybody. Feehan records at page 92:

The IRA say that despite their small number they had the convoy at their mercy. They had
 excellent cover, they were firing down on them only a short distance away and they ‘could have  picked them off one by one without difficulty’. But they did not seem to want to do this.
 Whatever firing they did was very half-hearted, they say, and only enough to give the body of
 officers in Beal na blath a chance to disperse.

As Murray notes, the 1964 meeting took place because O’Donoghue ‘had been given an undertaking by Capt Sean Feehan of the Mercier Press that he would not publish Eoin Neeson’s book on the Civil War until we were satisfied that the part of it dealing with the death of Collins was in accordance with the facts.

Murray not unreasonably concludes that as Neeson’s book was published two years later
‘evidently the finished product was to their satisfaction’. This could not have been so. Neeson
had the ambush party withdrawing from the scene, and quotes one of the ambush party as
saying that ‘Four or five men with rifles pinned down by machine-guns were not in a position
to dictate action’. What makes Neeson’s account the more curious is that in the  acknowledgements in the book he expressed his gratitude to, among others, Deasy and also
O’Donoghue ‘who read the typescript and helped me avoid many pitfalls’. Perhaps
O’Donoghue had difficulty with the 1964 account also. He was, after all, only a reporter at that

Florence O'Donoghue and his wife pictured in John Borgonovo's book.
Florence O’Donoghue and his wife pictured in John Borgonovo’s book.

Neeson had another bite at the cherry in his life of Collins in 1968, in which he dealt with the ambush in much more detail. Again, he has the rearguard four waiting only long enough so that their comrades ahead would be alerted by the sound of the gunfire, and then withdrawing.
There are further complications concerning Deasy. There is evidence to suggest that he did not leave Bealnablath on the morning of the shooting, not returning until the evening – as he wrote in his book – but that he was at the ambush scene for at least part of the day and was
involved in the planning.

Twohig in 1989 spoke to Tom Foley, then aged 84, who had on August 22 1922 helped to fetch two of the landmines laid for the ambush, and who saw Deasy (page 242) ‘drawing the battle lines and establishing the field of fire’. Further at pages 156 and 243
Twohig has Foley helping Deasy to set up a Lewis machine-gun on a rock overlooking the road.
He noted: ‘Deasy has astutely omitted details of the arrangement, or even a mention, in Brother
Against Brother.’

The anti-Treatyites were reluctant to admit that they had killed Collins deliberately

Feehan (Neeson’s publisher and the giver of the undertaking to O’Donoghue) as noted also
disagreed with Deasy’s account of the ambush, notwithstanding that he recorded on page 130
of his book that he discussed the ambush with Deasy ‘many times’. Ryan recorded having
interviewed Deasy on several occasions late in 1973 and early in 1974. She too has him staying
at Bealnablath after arriving there on 22 August, arranging for documents and dispatches to be
secured and (with Tom Hales) giving directions as to the setting-up and later removal of the
ambush. He left the site as it was being cleaned up.

Having returned to the scene when the shooting started, Deasy was on Ryan’s account (page 109) able to see Collins’ body being transferred from the armoured car to the touring car. Even if he could not identify the victim as Collins, if this were true Deasy could not have written, as he did, that ‘the attackers had no knowledge of any casualty’.
If an agenda can be discerned in this series of events, it may be along these lines. On finding
out about Collins’ death on the evening of 22 August 1922, Deasy recorded that to those like
him who had known Collins intimately ‘our sorrow was deep and lasting’. He wrote of the
‘loneliness that only time would heal’ and of the strangers who later wrote about the ambush
‘many of whom caused much pain’. He considered Collins ‘to be the greatest leader of our
generation’, an impression he formed of Collins when he first met him and which had not since
changed. His death ‘brought about in many of us a real desire for the end of the war’ (pages

It was in this state of mind that he wrote the next day the dispatch to Liam Lynch. Assuming it
to have been the case that Deasy had stayed in Bealnablath on 22 August and had taken a
leading role in organising the ambush and deciding to dismantle it – the dispatch is silent on
both points – then a large part of the responsibility would have been his. This responsibility
would have extended both to Collins’ death and also to the failure of the ambush party to have
inflicted more damage, the second being due to the decisions to take up the mine(s) and to
disband the larger party.

Mixed up in this may also have been some element of fear of Lynch and a desire to put the best face on the events. In any event, while Deasy’s reactions were understandable they involved him in telling less than the truth, and colouring what he did tell. He did not mention the existence of the mine(s) (Lynch’s reply – at Neeson 1 page 161 – noted that ‘it is surprising you had not mines laid to get [the armoured car]’) and exaggerated the role of the ambush party in driving off the Collins’ party.
Having adopted this version of events, Deasy felt obliged to stick with it. He so persuaded the
1964 group and followed the script in his own book, in fact going further by trying to write
himself out from the scene at the relevant time. His explanation for leaving Beal na blath is less
than persuasive: he and Crofts went to Gurranereagh ‘where we attended to many urgent
matters and weighed up the new situation in which we found ourselves’ (page 78).

What could have been more urgent than arranging an ambush for the commander-in-chief of the opposing forces? What he said to Neeson and Feehan about the ambush we will never know, but perhaps one significant fact in the present context is that neither mentions his disagreement with Deasy over the ambush question, even though it is quite plain.

This is of course merely a hypothesis; the known facts do not permit a firmer conclusion,
which may be beyond our reach. I am currently doing some research on the Collins ambush,
and my tentative conclusion is that we do not know who pulled the trigger, and may never
know. Other aspects of Collins’ death – the role of the doctors, the whereabouts of de Valera
and the fate of Collins’ cap – also lead to agnosticism. Sceptics are invited to read my papers on
these subjects at

Coogan, Tim Pat. Michael Co!ins: A Biography (London: Hutchinson, 1990)
Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork, Mercier, 1975/1998)
Feehan, John M. The Shooting of Michael Co!ins: Murder or Accident? (Cork: Mercier, 1981)
Feehan, John M. The Shooting of Michael Co!ins: Murder or Accident? (Cork: Royal Carberry, 1991)
Hart, Peter. Mick: The Real Michael Co!ins (London: Pan, 2006)
Neeson, Liam: The Civil War in Ireland 1922-1923 (Cork: Mercier, 1966)
Neeson, Liam: The Life and Death of Michael Co!ins (Cork: Mercier, 1968)
O’Mahony, Edward: Michael Co!ins: His Life and Times (1996)
Ryan, Meda. The Day Michael Co!ins Was Shot (Dublin: Poolbeg, 1989)
Twohig, Patrick J. The Dark Secret of Bealnablath (Ballincollig, Tower, 1991/1997)
TV Film
Connolly, Colm (director): ‘The Shadow of Beal na mBlath’, Radio Telefis Eireann, 1989

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