chickening out

Michael Collins (Irish leader)

Michael John ("Mick") Collins (Mícheál Seán Ó Coileáin; 16 October 1890 – 22 August 1922) was an Irish revolutionary leader, Minister for Finance in the First Dáil of 1919, Director of Intelligence for the IRA, and member of the Irish delegation during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations. Subsequently he was both Chairman of the Provisional Government and Commander-in-chief of the National Army. He was shot and killed in August 1922, during the Irish Civil War.

Although most Irish political parties recognise his contribution to the foundation of the modern Irish state, members and supporters of Fine Gael hold his memory in particular esteem, regarding him as their movement's founding father, through his link to their precursor Cumann na nGaedhael, a name adopted in 1923 by the pro-Treaty wing of Sinn Féin.

Early years

Born in Sam's Cross, West Cork, Ireland, Collins was the third son and youngest of eight children. Most biographies state his date of birth as 16 October 1890; however, his tombstone lists his date of birth as 12 October 1890.

His father, also called Michael, had become a member of the republican Fenian movement in his youth, but had left and settled down to farming. The elder Collins was sixty years old when he married Marianne O'Brien, then twenty-three. His father died when Michael was only six years of age.

Collins was a bright and precocious child, with a fiery temper and a passionate feeling of nationalism. This was spurred on by a local blacksmith, James Santry, and later, at the Lisavaird National School by a local school headmaster, Denis Lyons, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, an organisation Collins would eventually lead). Collins was tall and strapping, and loved sports.

After leaving school, the 15-year-old Collins followed in the footsteps of many people from Ireland, especially of the Clonakilty area, and moved to London. While there he lived with his elder sister, Johanna ("Hannie"), and studied at King's College London.

In February 1906, Collins took the British Civil Service examination in which (to pass it) he praised the "greatest empire"; he was employed by the Post Office from July 1906.

He joined the London GAA and, through this, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret, oath-bound society dedicated to achieving Irish independence. Sam Maguire, a Church of Ireland republican from Dunmanway, County Cork, introduced the 19-year-old Collins into the IRB.

Easter Rising

Michael Collins first became known during the Easter Rising in 1916. A skilled organiser of considerable intelligence, he was highly respected in the IRB, so much so that he was made financial adviser to Count Plunkett, father of one of the Rising's organisers, Joseph Mary Plunkett, whose aide-de-camp Collins would become.

When the Rising itself took place on Easter Monday, 1916, he fought alongside Patrick Pearse and others in the General Post Office in Dublin. The Rising became (as expected by many) a military disaster. While some celebrated the fact that a rising had happened at all, believing in Pearse's theory of "blood sacrifice" (namely that the deaths of the Rising's leaders would inspire others), Collins railed against what he perceived as its ham-fisted amateurism, notably the seizure of indefensible and very vulnerable positions such as St Stephen's Green that were impossible to escape from and difficult to supply. (During the War of Independence he ensured the avoidance of such sitting targets, with his soldiers operating as "flying columns" who waged a guerrilla war against the British, suddenly attacking then just as quickly withdrawing, minimising losses and maximising effectiveness.)

Collins, like many of the other participants, was arrested, almost sent to the gallows and wound up at Frongoch internment camp. There, as his contemporaries expected, his leadership skills showed. By the time of the general release, Collins had already become one of the leading figures in the post-rising Sinn Féin, a small nationalist party which the British government and the Irish media wrongly blamed for the Rising. It was quickly infiltrated by survivors of the Rising, so as to capitalise on the "notoriety" the movement had gained through British attacks. By October 1917, through skill and ability, Collins had risen to become a member of the executive of Sinn Féin and director of organisation of the Irish Volunteers; Éamon de Valera was president of both organisations.

First Dáil

Like all senior Sinn Féin members, Michael Collins was nominated in the 1918 general election to elect Irish MPs to the British House of Commons in London. As was the case throughout much of Ireland (with many seats uncontested), Collins won for Sinn Féin, becoming MP for Cork South. However, unlike their rivals in the Irish Parliamentary Party, Sinn Féin MPs had announced that they would not take their seats in Westminster, but instead would set up an Irish Parliament in Dublin.

That new parliament, called Dáil Éireann (meaning "Assembly of Ireland", see First Dáil) met in the Mansion House, Dublin in January 1919, although De Valera and leading Sinn Féin MPs had been arrested. Collins, tipped off by his network of spies, had warned his colleagues of the dangers of arrest. de Valera and others ignored the warnings, believing if the arrests happened they would constitute a propaganda coup. In de Valera's absence, Cathal Brugha was elected Príomh Aire (literally 'main minister', but often translated as "President of Dáil Éireann"), to be replaced by de Valera, when Collins helped him escape from Lincoln prison in April 1919.

In 1919, Collins had a number of roles. That summer he was elected president of the IRB (and therefore, in the doctrine of that organisation, de jure President of the Irish Republic). In September he was made Director of Intelligence of the Irish Republican Army, as the Volunteers had come to be known (the organisation's claim to be the army of the Irish Republic was ratified in January 1919). The Irish War of Independence in effect began on the same day that the First Dáil met on 21 January 1919, when an ambush party of IRA volunteers acting without orders and led by Seán Treacy, attacked a group of Royal Irish Constabulary men who were escorting a consignment of gelignite to a quarry in Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary. Two policemen were shot dead during the engagement and the ambush is considered to be the first action taken in the Irish War of Independence.

Minister for Finance

In 1919, the already busy Collins received yet another responsibility when de Valera appointed him to the Aireacht (ministry) as Minister for Finance.

Understandably, in the circumstances of a brutal war, in which ministers were liable to be arrested or killed by the Royal Irish Constabulary, the British Army, the Black and Tans or the Auxiliaries at a moment's notice, most of the ministries existed only on paper, or as one or two people working in a room of a private house.

This was not the case with Collins, however, who produced a Finance Ministry that was able to organise a large bond issue in the form of a "National Loan" to fund the new Irish Republic. The Russian Republic, in the midst of its own civil war, sent a representative to Dublin to acquire a "national loan" from the Irish Republic, offering some of the Russian Crown Jewels as collateral (the jewels remained in a Dublin safe, forgotten by all sides, until the 1930s, when they were found by chance).

In retrospect, the sheer scale of Collins' workload and his achievements are substantial. He created a special assassination squad called The Twelve Apostles designed to kill British agents; arranged the "National Loan"; organised the IRA; effectively led the government when de Valera travelled to and remained in the United States for an extended period of time; and managed an arms-smuggling operation.

Collins and Richard Mulcahy were the two principal organisers for the Irish Republican Army, insofar as it was possible to direct the actions of scattered and heavily localised guerrilla units. Collins is often credited with organising the IRA's guerrilla "flying columns" during the War of Independence, although to suggest Collins organised this single handedly would be false. He had a prominent part in the formation of the flying columns but the main organiser would have been Dick McKee, later executed by the British in retaliation for Bloody Sunday (1920). In addition, a great deal of IRA activity was carried out on the initiative of local leaders, with tactics and overall strategy developed by Collins or Mulcahy.

In 1920, the British offered a bounty of £10,000 for information leading to the capture or death of Michael Collins. His fame had so transcended the IRA movement that he was nicknamed "The Big Fellow". Irish author Frank O'Connor, who participated in the Irish Civil War, gave a different account of the nickname. He said that it began as an ironic, even scornful, reference to Collins' efforts to be taken seriously by others, seen as bordering on self-importance

Among national leaders, he made enemies of two particular people: Cathal Brugha, the Minister for Defence who was overshadowed by his cabinet colleague in military matters (despite Collins being officially only Minister for Finance, and Brugha supposedly in control of defence), and de Valera, President of Dáil Éireann.

Following a truce, arrangements were made for a conference between the British government and the leaders of the as yet unrecognised Irish Republic. Other than the Soviet Union, not a single other state gave diplomatic recognition to the new country, despite sustained lobbying in Washington by de Valera and prominent Irish-Americans, as well as at the Versailles Peace Conference by Seán T. O'Kelly.

In a move that astonished observers, de Valera — who in August 1921 had made the Dáil upgrade his office from Prime Minister to President of the Republic, which ostensibly made him equivalent to King George V in the negotiations — announced that as the King would not attend, then neither would he.

Instead, with the reluctant agreement of his cabinet, de Valera nominated a team of delegates headed by Arthur Griffith, with Michael Collins as his deputy. With heavy misgivings, believing de Valera should head the delegation, Collins agreed to go to London.

Anglo-Irish Treaty

The majority of the Irish Treaty delegates including Arthur Griffith (leader), Robert Barton and Eamonn Duggan (with Robert Erskine Childers as Secretary General to the delegation) set up headquarters at 22 Hans Place in Knightsbridge on 11 October 1921 and resided there until conclusion of the negotiations in December. Collins took up separate quarters at 15 Cadogan Gardens. His personal staff included Liam Tobin, Ned Broy and Joe McGrath. Collins himself protested his appointment as envoy plenipotentiary, as he was not a statesman and his revelation to the British (he had previously kept his public presence to a minimum) would reduce his effectiveness as a guerilla leader should hostilities resume. Collins knew that the treaty, and in particular the issue of partition, would not be well received in Ireland. Upon signing the treaty, he remarked I have signed my own death warrant.

The negotiations ultimately resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty which was signed on 6 December 1921, which envisaged a new Irish state, to be named the "Irish Free State" (a literal translation from the Irish language term Saorstát Éireann, which appeared on the letterhead de Valera used, though de Valera had translated it less literally as the Irish Republic. The Irish Free State was established in December 1922.

The treaty provided for a possible all-Ireland state, subject to the right of a six-county region in the northeast to opt out of the Free State (which it immediately did). If this happened, an Irish Boundary Commission was to be established to redraw the Irish border, which Collins expected would so reduce the size of Northern Ireland as to make it economically unviable, thus enabling unity, as most of the unionist population was concentrated in a relatively small area in eastern Ulster.

The new state was to be a Dominion, with a bicameral parliament, executive authority vested in the king but exercised by an Irish government elected by a lower house called Dáil Éireann (translated this time as "Chamber of Deputies"), an independent courts system, and a form of independence that far exceeded anything sought by Charles Stewart Parnell or the subsequent Irish Parliamentary Party.

Republican purists saw it as a sell-out, with the replacement of the republic by dominion status within the British Empire, and an Oath of Allegiance made (it was then claimed) directly to the King. The actual wording shows that the oath was made to the Irish Free State, with a subsidiary oath of fidelity to the King as part of the Treaty settlement, not to the king unilaterally.

Sinn Féin split over the treaty, and the Dáil debated the matter bitterly for ten days until it was approved by a vote of 64 to 57. In the process Cathal Brugha remarked that Collins was not a senior military man and yet the newspapers were describing him as "the man who won the war". The reality was, however, that Collins was the man most responsible for the IRA's war effort during the Anglo-Irish war. De Valera joined the anti-treaty faction opposing the perceived concessions. His opponents charged that he had prior knowledge that the crown would have to feature in whatever form of settlement was agreed. His bitterest opponents even accused de Valera of "chickening out" of leading the delegation, in the knowledge that a republic could not possibly result from the negotiations in the short-term.

Provisional Government

Under the Dáil Constitution adopted in 1919, Dáil Éireann continued to exist. De Valera resigned the presidency and sought re-election (in an effort to destroy the newly approved Treaty), but Arthur Griffith defeated him in the vote and assumed the presidency. (Griffith called himself "President of Dáil Éireann" rather than de Valera's more exalted "President of the Republic".) However, this government, or Aireacht, had no legal status in British constitutional law, so another co-existent government emerged, nominally answerable to the House of Commons of Southern Ireland.

The new Provisional Government (Rialtas Sealadach na hÉireann) was formed under Collins, who became "President of the Provisional Government" (i.e., Prime Minister). He also remained Minister for Finance of Griffith's republican administration. An example of the complexities involved can be seen even in the manner of his installation:

  • In British legal theory he was a Crown-appointed prime minister, installed under the Royal Prerogative. To be so installed, he had to formally meet the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Viscount Fitzalan (the head of the British administration in Ireland).
  • According to the republican view, Collins met Fitzalan to accept the surrender of Dublin Castle, the seat of British government in Ireland.
  • According to British constitutional theory, he met Fitzalan to "kiss hands" (the formal name for the installation of a minister of the Crown), the fact of their meeting rather than the signing of any documents, duly installing him in office.

Allegedly, Collins was late to this ceremony by seven minutes and was rebuked for this by Fitzalan. Collins replied, "You had to wait seven minutes but we had to wait seven hundred years!"

The Treaty was hugely controversial in Ireland. First, Éamon de Valera, the President of the Irish Republic was unhappy that Collins had signed any deal without his and his cabinet's authorisation. Second, the contents of the Treaty were bitterly disputed. De Valera and many other members of the republican movement objected to Ireland's status as a dominion of the British Empire and to the symbolism of having to take an oath to the British king to this effect. Also controversial was the British retention of Treaty Ports on the south coast of Ireland for the Royal Navy. Both of these things threatened to give Britain control over Ireland's foreign policy. Almost half the TDs in the Dáil opposed the Treaty, which was narrowly passed on 7 January 1922, by 64 votes to 57. More seriously, most of the Irish Republican Army opposed the Treaty, opening the prospect of civil war.

Curiously, in hindsight, the partition of Ireland between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland was not as controversial. One of the main reasons for this was that Collins was secretly planning to launch a clandestine guerrilla war against the Northern State. Throughout the early months of 1922, he had been sending IRA units to the border and sending arms and money to the northern units of the IRA. In May-June 1922, he and IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch organised an offensive of both pro- and anti-treaty IRA units along the new border. British arms supplied to Collins' Provisional government were instead swapped with the weapons of IRA units, which were sent to the north. This offensive was officially called off under British pressure on 3 June and Collins issued a statement that "no troops from the 26 counties, either those under official control [pro-treaty] or those attached to the [IRA] Executive [anti-treaty] should be permitted to invade the six county area." However, low level IRA attacks on the border continued. Such activity was interrupted by the outbreak of civil war in the south, but had Collins lived, there is every chance he would have launched a full-scale guerrilla offensive against Northern Ireland. Because of this, most northern IRA units supported Collins and 524 of them came south to join the National Army in the Irish Civil War.

In the months leading up to the outbreak of civil war in June 1922, Collins tried desperately to heal the rift in the nationalist movement and prevent war. De Valera, having opposed the Treaty in the Dáil, withdrew from the assembly with his supporters. Collins secured a compromise, the "Pact", whereby the two factions of Sinn Féin, pro- and anti-Treaty, would fight the soon-to-be Free State's first election jointly and form a coalition government afterwards.

Collins proposed that the envisaged Free State would have a republican constitution, with no mention of the British king, without repudiating the Treaty, a compromise acceptable to all but the most intransigent republicans. To foster military unity, he established an "army re-unification committee" with delegates from pro- and anti-Treaty factions. He also made efforts to use the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood of which he was president, to get IRA officers to accept the Treaty. However, the British vetoed the proposed republican constitution under the threat of an economic blockade, arguing they had signed the Treaty in good faith and its terms could not be changed. Collins was therefore unable to reconcile the anti-Treaty side, whose Army Executive had decided in March 1922 that it was not subordinate to the Dáil.

Civil War

In April 1922, a group of 200 anti-Treaty IRA men occupied the Four Courts in Dublin in defiance of the Provisional government. Collins, who wanted to avoid civil war at all costs, did not attack them until June 1922, needing to know the result of the general election which proved favourable to his party. British pressure also forced his hand. On 22 June 1922, Sir Henry Wilson, a retired British Army field marshal now serving as Military Advisor to the Craig Administration, was shot dead by two IRA men in Belgravia, London. At the time, it was presumed that the anti-Treaty faction of the IRA were responsible and Winston Churchill told Collins that unless he moved against the Four Courts garrison, he (Churchill) would use British troops to do so.

In fact, it has since been said that Collins himself ordered the killing of Wilson in reprisal for failing to prevent the attacks on Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland. Joe Dolan — a member of Collins' "Squad" or assassination unit in the War of Independence and in 1922 a captain in the National Army — said this in the 1950s, along with the statement that Collins had ordered him to try to rescue the two gunmen before they were executed. In any event, this forced Collins to take action against the Four Courts men and the final provocation came when they kidnapped J.J. O'Connell, a provisional government general. After a final attempt to persuade the men to leave, Collins borrowed two 18 pounder artillery pieces from the British and bombarded the Four Courts until its garrison surrendered.

This led to the Irish Civil War as fighting broke out in Dublin between the anti-Treaty IRA and the provisional government's troops. Under Collins' supervision, the Free State rapidly took control of the capital. In July 1922, anti-Treaty forces held the southern province of Munster and several other areas of the country. De Valera and the other anti-Treaty TDs sided with the anti-Treaty IRA. By mid-1922, Collins in effect laid down his responsibilities as Chairman of the Provisional Government to become Commander-in-Chief of the National Army, a formal, structured, uniformed army that formed around the nucleus of the pro-Treaty IRA. The Free State Army that was armed and funded by the British was rapidly expanded to fight the civil war. Collins, along with Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O'Duffy decided on a series of seaborne landings into republican held areas that re-took Munster and the west in July-August 1922. As part of this offensive, Collins travelled to his native Cork, against the advice of his companions, and despite suffering from stomach ache and depression. Collins reputedly told his comrades that "They wouldn't shoot me in my own county." It has been questioned why Collins put himself in such danger by visiting the south of the country while much of it was still held by hostile forces. What historian Michael Hopkinson describes as 'plentiful oral evidence' suggests that Collins' purpose was to meet Republican leaders in order to bring the war to an end. In Cork city, he met with neutral IRA men Sean Hegarty and Florrie O'Donoghue, with a view to contacting Anti-Treaty IRA leaders Tom Barry and Tom Hales to propose a truce. Hopkinson asserts though that, although Éamon de Valera was in west Cork at the time, 'there is no evidence that there was any prospect of a meeting between de Valera and Collins'.

Collins' personal diary outlined his plan for peace. Republicans must 'accept the People's Verdict' on the Treaty, but could then 'go home without their arms. We don't ask for any surrender of their principles'. He argued that the Provisional Government was upholding 'the people's rights' and would continue to do so. 'We want to avoid any possible unnecessary destruction and loss of life. We do not want to mitigate their weakness by resolute action beyond what is required'. But if Republicans did not accept his terms, 'further blood is on their shoulders'.


The last known photograph of Collins alive was taken as he made his way through Bandon, County Cork in the back of an army vehicle. He is pictured outside White's Hotel (now Munster Arms) on 22 August 1922.

On the road to Bandon, at the village of Béal na mBláth (Irish, "the Mouth of Flowers"), Collins' column stopped to ask directions. However the man whom they asked, Dinny Long, was also a member of the local Anti-Treaty IRA. An ambush was then prepared for the convoy when it made its return journey back to Cork city. They knew Collins would return by the same route as the two other roads from Bandon to Cork had been rendered impassable by Republicans. The ambush party, allegedly commanded by Liam Deasy, had mostly dispersed to a nearby pub by 8:00pm, when Collins and his men returned to Béal na mBlath but the remaining five ambushers on the scene opened fire on Collins' convoy. The ambushers had laid a mine on the scene, which could have killed many more people in Collins' party, however they had disconnected it by the time the firing broke out.

Collins was killed in the subsequent gun battle, which lasted approximately 20 minutes, from 8:00pm to 8:20pm. He was the only fatality in the action. He had ordered his convoy to stop and return fire, instead of choosing the safer option of driving on in his touring car or transferring to the safety of the accompanying armoured car, as his companion, Emmet Dalton, had wished. He was killed while exchanging rifle fire with the ambushers. Under the cover of the armoured car, Collins' body was loaded into the touring car and driven back to Cork. Collins was 31 years old when he died.

There is no consensus as to who fired the fatal shot. The most recent authoritative account suggests that the shot was fired by Denis ("Sonny") O'Neill, an Anti-Treaty IRA fighter and a former British Army marksman who died in 1950. This is supported by eyewitness accounts of the participants in the ambush. O'Neill was using dum-dum ammunition, which disintegrates on impact and which left a gaping wound in Collins' skull. He dumped the remaining bullets afterwards for fear of reprisals by Free State troops. Collins' men brought his body back to Cork where it was then shipped to Dublin because it was feared the body might be stolen in an ambush if it were transported by road. His body lay in state for three days in Dublin City Hall where tens of thousands of mourners filed past his casket to pay their respects. His funeral mass took place at Dublin's Pro Cathedral where a number of foreign and Irish dignitaries were in attendance.

Collins' shooting has provoked many conspiracy theories in Ireland and even the identity and motives of the assassin are subject to debate. Some Republicans maintain that Collins was killed by a British 'plant'. Some Pro-Treaty accounts claim that Éamon de Valera ordered Collins' assassination. Others allege that he was killed by one of his own soldiers, Jock McPeak, who defected to the Republican side with an armoured car three months after the ambush. However, historian Meda Ryan, who researched the incident exhaustively, concluded that there was no real basis for such theories, 'Michael Collins was shot by a Republican, who said [on the night of the ambush], "I dropped one man"' Liam Deasy, who was in command of the ambush party, said, 'we all knew it was Sonny Neill's bullet'.

Films about Michael Collins

A fictionalised version of Collins' life is in the 1936 movie Beloved Enemy, starring David Niven as a British Officer. Unlike the real Michael Collins, the fictionalised Collins "Dennis Riordan" (played by Brian Aherne) is shot and recovers.

A British documentary by Kenneth Griffith, Hang Up Your Brightest Colours was made for ITV in 1973, but refused transmission. It was eventually screened by the BBC in Wales in 1993 and across the United Kingdom the following year.

An Irish documentary made by Colm Connolly for RTE Television in 1989 called The Shadow of Béal na Bláth covered Collins' death.

A made for TV film, The Treaty, was produced in 1991 and starred Brendan Gleeson as Collins and Ian Bannen as Lloyd George.

In 1996, Michael Collins became the subject of a film by director Neil Jordan. Titled Michael Collins, Liam Neeson plays the title role, and Julia Roberts plays Collins' fiancée, Kitty Kiernan. Brendan Gleeson played the role of Collins' aide Liam Tobin. A great grand-nephew of Michael Collins, Aengus O'Malley, played the role as a student in a scene filmed in Marsh's Library. Although the film received praise for bringing the story of Michael Collins to a wide international audience, Irish historians criticised it for its lack of historical accuracy.

See also


External links

Further reading

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