The imag­ined Michael Collins and the real one

This­ro­bust­ly­de­mys­ti­fy­ing ac­countofCollins’sle­gacy take­saknot­ty­sub­jectand un­pick­si­t­ex­pertly

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In his en­try on Michael Collins for Cam­bridge’s Dic­tionary of Ir­ish Bi­og­ra­phy, pub­lished in 2009, the late his­to­rian Michael Hop­kin­son con­cluded: “Through all the spec­u­la­tion, hero-wor­ship­ping and re­vi­sion­ism, Collins can still be re­garded as the es­sen­tial man in the win­ning of a large mea­sure of Ir­ish in­de­pen­dence.”

Michael Collins: The Man and the Revo­lu­tion

is a ro­bustly de­mys­ti­fy­ing ac­count of Collins and his legacy, which skil­fully dis­sects such spec­u­la­tion, hero-wor­ship­ping and re­vi­sion­ism; it also won­ders, search­ingly and provoca­tively, why we still “need him to be great” as it takes us through numer­ous strands of his life and legacy. Mur­phy and Dolan are two of the most tal­ented his­to­ri­ans of their gen­er­a­tion; they pon­der, parse and then pounce on the back of im­pres­sive re­search and can be glo­ri­ously ir­rev­er­ent but do not lapse into cyn­i­cism. This com­bi­na­tion makes for an ab­sorb­ing book of im­pres­sive orig­i­nal­ity and depth. The prose is stylish and spiky, though it does oc­ca­sion­ally be­come over­wrought and in­dul­gent.

This is not another bi­og­ra­phy of Collins; in­stead the au­thors have un­packed him through the ex­plo­ration of key themes: his ad­min­is­tra­tive and mil­i­tary meth­ods; his prac­tice of pol­i­tics; his be­liefs and celebrity; and then his death and af­ter­lives. The range of doc­u­ments and pho­to­graphs re­pro­duced is another strength of the book, al­low­ing read­ers to see for them­selves how Collins and his con­tem­po­raries enun­ci­ated the themes cov­ered.

That wider cast­ing of Collins is cru­cial; de­spite the con­tention of Arthur Grif­fith dur­ing the An­glo-Ir­ish treaty de­bates that Collins was “the man who won the war”, and the blather and bravado that have some­times been a part of the an­nual Au­gust speeches at Beál na Bláth, where Collins was killed in 1922, he was not a one-man revo­lu­tion. This book is a de­tailed re­minder that he makes lit­tle sense “with­out the con­text of the peo­ple who sur­rounded him” – a cru­cial point given the ten­dency to see him “as the sum of the Ir­ish revo­lu­tion”, which has re­duced him to “a car­i­ca­ture of his many parts”.

Collins was aware of the power of his im­age, and his own ac­cep­tance of some of the wilder claims made about him “may have been one of his more con­sid­er­able flaws”, but he was his own hard­est taskmas­ter from an early stage. Much of the work he was in­volved in af­ter the 1916 Ris­ing with the Ir­ish Na­tional Aid and Vol­un­teer De­pen­dants’ Fund was mun­dane – “for the most part he wrote let­ters, day af­ter day, week af­ter week” – and he was al­ways frus­trated with those who were, in his own words “ex­cel­lent in the­ory bur rather weak in prac­ti­cal de­tails”. He ex­pressed the be­lief in Jan­uary 1920 that “peo­ple who are very busy are never so busy that they can­not do some­thing ex­tra”.

For him, pen-push­ing and ad­min­is­tra­tive ef­fi­ciency was an ex­ten­sion of battle, and his ex­as­per­a­tion with tar­di­ness com­pelled him dur­ing the War of In­de­pen­dence to con­tin­u­ally stray be­yond his min­is­te­rial brief of fi­nance. The au­thors have high­lighted, for ex­am­ple, a large body of ne­glected cor­re­spon­dence in the archive of the un­der­ground Ir­ish repub­li­can gov­ern­ment that doc­u­ments his at­tempt to man­age the Dáil’s re­la­tion­ship with its rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Lon­don, Art O’Brien. But Collins was also prone to lapses in dis­ci­pline, as when he ar­rived at Worm­wood Scrubs prison in Lon­don in Oc­to­ber 1921 to visit pris­on­ers, drunk and boast­ing.

Func­tional killing

Collins had a “rudely func­tional ap­proach to killing”, but he did not con­ceive and “work” the Squad, who car­ried out ex­e­cu­tions to try and scup­per the Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence sys­tem in Ire­land, alone. The bru­tal meth­ods of war­fare he sanc­tioned amounted to “ter­ror in its fullest sense”. While he wore numer­ous hats (min­is­ter for fi­nance, di­rec­tor of in­tel­li­gence for the IRA,


Michael B Barry now has a trilogy of books that il­lus­trate the Ir­ish revo­lu­tion un­der his belt. This packed col­lec­tion fol­lows pho­to­graphic his­to­ries of the 1916 Ris­ing and Civil War. In the re­gion of 650 pho­tos are used here, in chrono­log­i­cal or­der, and they of­fer a com­pelling and tex­tured over­view of the pe­riod, sourced from var­i­ous Bri­tish and Ir­ish ar­chives, mu­se­ums, pe­ri­od­i­cals and news­pa­pers. It is as­serted “many have never been pub­lished be­fore” but more de­tail on that would be help­ful; it would also be bet­ter if the sources of the pho­to­graphs were given in the ac­com­pa­ny­ing cap­tions.

In ad­di­tion to the pho­to­graphs there is the wel­come in­clu­sion of some paint­ings, posters, car­toons and archival doc­u­ments, as well as some con­tem­po­rary pho­to­graphs along­side a few newly cre­ated maps, but there is too much in­cluded on some of the pages, and the re­pro­duc­tion of some of the doc­u­ments as a re­sult is on too small a scale for them to be eas­ily read­able. The book does, how­ever, do jus­tice to a mul­ti­lay­ered revo­lu­tion and its man­i­fold vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tions. Barry’s ad­mirably wide range of sources means there are a host of im­ages here that are dra­matic, ar­rest­ing, dis­tress­ing and even play­ful, and it is a very rea­son­ably priced book given its den­sity, va­ri­ety and orig­i­nal­ity. pres­i­dent of the supreme coun­cil of the IRB) and was an im­pres­sive leader, his stature was also mag­ni­fied by the fail­ings of his en­e­mies. He could also trust too eas­ily, med­dled too much and with re­gard to the IRA he did not have an iron grip but rather “flashes of lim­ited con­trol”. There were those, such as lead­ing Cork IRA fig­ure Tom Barry, who hailed him in pub­lic but crit­i­cised him pri­vately as “he never shot a man in his life”.

As one of the “re­luc­tant” ne­go­tia­tors of the An­glo-Ir­ish treaty, Collins could be ei­ther foren­sic or bel­liger­ent de­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances, although the chore­og­ra­phy of reach­ing the deal in De­cem­ber 1921 might have been teased out more by the au­thors. Collins was a “for­mi­da­ble” politi­cian, con­stantly cal­cu­lat­ing but not a team player and prone to melo­drama. What he ac­tu­ally be­lieved is dif­fi­cult to dis­cern and strangely ne­glected by his bi­og­ra­phers. Since his death he has been re­cruited to count­less causes, but he was not a deep thinker. He was de­riv­a­tive in his me­an­der­ings on the idea of an Ir­ish “na­tion” and aped the sen­ti­men­tal mush about the west­ern seaboard beloved of his gen­er­a­tion de­spite all the guff ped­alled about Collins as the great “mod­erniser”.

He did not sub­scribe to a par­tic­u­lar so­cial or eco­nomic ide­ol­ogy, and his re­li­gious prac­tice ap­pears to have been driven by prag­ma­tism. As to his au­thor­i­tar­ian ten­den­cies in the af­ter­math of the treaty and dur­ing the Civil War, when he was chair­man of the pro­vi­sional gov­ern­ment and then com­man­der-in-chief of the Free State Army, the au­thors are some­what scep­ti­cal of the ac­cu­sa­tion that he was con­temp­tu­ous of democ­racy. Some of his col­leagues voiced their con­cerns about the lack of pri­or­ity he at­tached to gov­ern­ment meet­ings, but Collins, like them, con­tin­u­ally sought to frame his pro-treaty ar­gu­ments in re­la­tion to the im­por­tance of a demo­cratic man­date.

Such was his celebrity that in Jan­uary 1922 at a fancy dress party in a small vil­lage out­side Burn­ley in Lan­cashire, one child at­tendee dressed as Collins. Liv­ing up to his rep­u­ta­tion “may have even cost him his life”; this was what De Valera had re­ferred to in Jan­uary 1921 as “your fame or no­to­ri­ety if you pre­fer it”. Collins was of­fered huge sums for his me­moirs (£10,000 in one case). His star­dom irked his en­e­mies in­clud­ing Or­monde Win­ter, Bri­tain’s for­mer di­rec­tor of in­tel­li­gence in Ire­land: “the fuss the English pa­pers make about him makes me vomit.” The fawn­ing jour­nal­ism was also mocked by Con­stance Markievicz: “I also heard that Princess Mary is to be mar­ried to Michael Collins,” she com­mented sar­cas­ti­cally in the Dáil.

A chap­ter is de­voted to Collins’s death, high­light­ing how im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards the myth-mak­ing was in full flow, with a state­ment from army head­quar­ters sug­gest­ing “for­give them” were his last words. The re­al­ity of the cir­cum­stances of his death – the worse for wear with drink and mak­ing a stupid mil­i­tary blun­der by stop­ping to re­turn fire – took sec­ond place to the con­spir­acy the­o­ries (many mo­ti­vated by spite) and other im­pon­der­ables. As is ob­served la­con­i­cally, “an or­di­nary death just would not do”. The anti-treaty side’s re­sponse to his death was mixed; some were vexed by the pur­ple prose of the eu­lo­gies, but for many soldiers and politi­cians “this was also a very pri­vate kind of loss”.

As to his af­ter­lives, au­thors of books, plays and me­moirs as well as film-mak­ers posited the Collins they needed and he “en­dured in all the ways we wanted him, far more than any other fig­ure from that time”. Part of the need to un­der­stand him, it is ar­gued, is to ac­cept that the imag­ined Collins mat­ters as much as the real one. This book clev­erly does jus­tice to both.

Diar­maid Fer­riter is pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Ir­ish his­to­ry­atUCDan­dan colum­nist. His new­book,

Ir­ish Times On­theEdge:Ire­land’sOff-Shore Is­lands:AModernHis­tory,is­pub­lishedby


‘‘ This book is a de­tailed re­minder that he makes lit­tle sense with­out the con­text of the peo­ple who sur­rounded him – a cru­cial point given the ten­dency to see him “as the sum of the Ir­ish revo­lu­tion”

Michael Collins pos­ing as a busi­ness­man: an im­age from The Fight for Ir­ish Free­dom: An Il­lus­trated His­tory of the War of In­de­pen­dence

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