Jim Higgins MEP
Jim Higgins M.E.P.
When Frank Metcalfe telephoned me on my mobile phone several weeks ago he simply asked me to ring him back but he didn’t leave a message. I was caught up in the turmoil of The McBrearty affair in Donegal in the immediate aftermath of The Morris Tribunal’s second report. I was absolutely swamped with telephone calls and thought that it might be yet another complaint about alleged Garda misconduct. Little did I realise that when I returned Frank’s call I was to be accorded the greatest honour that I could ever have imagined. Frank was inviting me to deliver the oration at the Michael Collins commemoration ceremony at Beal Na Bláth.
On a personal note can I say that my late father who died many years ago must be smiling from the high on today’s occasion. He was a hugely ardent admirer of Michael Collins having seen Collins on a platform in Castlebar in 1921 with my father’s late granduncle who was then chairman of Mayo County Council. My father was totally enchanted by the sheer magnetism of Collins and the power and passion of his oratory.
I went to secondary school to St. Jarlaths College, Tuam. As a 12 year old first year student the priest who was teaching us Irish gave the class an essay under the title “An Fear Ba Mho Tioncar Ar Saol Na H-Eireann Le Caoga Blian Anuas” – the man who has had the most influence on Irish life for the past 50 years. I asked my father whom I should write about. The reply was immediate and spontaneous – who else but Michael Collins. He gave me a lot of assistance with the essay rhyming off Collins’ traits, influence and achievements. The priest obviously was not a Collins admirer because when I got my essay back it as scrolled in red biro and littered with the comments “Mi-cheart” when my father saw this he absolutely exploded. He went over to the priest’s private room and arrived back with a broad smile on his face and the comment; “That so and so got a right good lesson from me. He now understands his Irish history”. 83 years ago tomorrow at this sacred spot one of our greatest tragedies in the troubled history of Ireland unfolded in a matter of minutes.
The uprisings of the 16th & 17th Centuries as well as those of 1798, 1803 The Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 and the Fenian rebellion of 1867 were all vital as expressions of defiant nationalism and republicanism but they all ended in failure to achieve their immediate aim – to rid Ireland of the neighbouring invader.
The ruthless suppression of the 1916 rising but particularly the execution, if you may call it that, of 15 of its leaders, inflamed rather than extinguished that spirit. There was now no turning back. Nationalist Ireland was awaiting to be unleashed but the big question was – was there somebody out there who, learning from the lessons of the past, could pull together and harness the huge upsurge of nationalist fervour for one final and successful push. After all the centuries of failure, after all the bloodshed of the past would this upsurge end in yet another false dawn. But thanks to the vision of Collins, thanks to his determination and intelligence, thanks to the meticulous attention to detail of one man, a west Cork man, the might of Britain would be forced to succumb and Ireland after 700 years of bondage would be a free nation and the dismantlement of the powerful British Empire would be unstoppable. Recognising that the might of the British army could not be defeated by conventional warfare methods it was Collins who devised a whole new and effective strategy – The Flying Column and The Ambush. It was Collins who recognised that after all the failed and isolated uprisings of the past, success would only be achieved if the movement became a nationwide one – hit them hard, hit them often, hit them where it hurts, hit them everywhere. It was Collins’ genius and planning that infiltrated the sophisticated British intelligence network so that he knew exactly what their plans were and could counteract same. It was Collins who penetrated the hitherto impenetrable Dublin Castle, the nerve centre, of the foreign occupier. It was Collins’ integrity and charisma that engendered absolute trust and confidence in the legions who rallied behind his leadership.
It was Collins’ extraordinary leadership qualities after a 700 year struggle for independence that led to the unprecedented situation where Britain, realising that Ireland was now ungovernable, came looking for a truce and a ceasefire in July 1921.It was Collins’ realism that underpinned his approach to The Treaty negotiations, that while nationalist Ireland had been liberated, you could not bomb one million protestant unionists into a united Ireland. Collins saw The Treaty as a stepping stone. While the Unionist oligarchy in the six counties were certainly in no mood for doing immediate business with the new Free State, the partitionist mindset and mentality of the next decades was almost as much the fault of southern governments as those in the North. That there should be no contact good, bad or indifferent, between the two contiguous governments on the small island of Ireland for almost 50 years is just so incredible and a terrible indictment. The visit of Sean Lemass to Belfast and the visit of Captain Terence O’Neill to Dublin were historic but only a small step forward.
The partitionism and the longer it went on provided space and scope for blatant and ruthless Unionist majority domination over the Nationist minority. The reality is that while articles two and three of ‘Bunreacht Na H-Eireann’ laid claim to the six counties of Northern Ireland the Nationalist governments in the south effectively abandoned our fellow nationists north of the border. While Ard Fheis speeches carried the mandatory aspirations about a united Ireland, the truth is that for year’s southern governments stood idly by in the full knowledge that the civil rights of the minority in the North were being trampled upon. I find it difficult to believe that a Collins led Irish government would have turned such a blind eye. While his first and immediate task would be the building up of the new Irish Free State he would almost certainly have tackled the issue early and on two fronts, first of all by trying to build bridges with the Government in the North and secondly by insisting that the British Government intervened to stop the anti-nationist discrimination, the Gerrymandering of election results, the Anti-Nationalist, Anti Catholic Bias in housing policy and employment. The abject failure to do so was the single biggest factor that led to the festering sectarianism and polarisation that brought the misery, mayhem and murder of the recent 25 year period. Had the Irish Government in the south, as Collins would have done, faced up to its responsibility to defend our beleagured brethren in the North, we would not have had the sieges of the Catholic enclaves, we would not have had Bloody Sunday in Derry, we would not have had the atrocities on the British mainland, we would not have had the Provisional I.R.A., we would not have the worsened polarisation and sterility that we have at present.
What naturally goes through our minds at a time like this is the question of how Ireland and Irish politics would have developed had Michael Collins been allowed to live and to lead. Well we can only conjecture. He was after all only 31 years.
One of Collins’ greatest assets was his single mindedness and organisational skills. I have no doubt that had he lived he would have welded together a political party, which would be a dominant force in the modern Ireland. While he attracted to himself lots of able, courageous, loyal and dedicated followers Collins had that indefinable something that truly only great leaders possess. What would he thing of the legacy he left to the Ireland of 2005? I had the honour of being minister of state at the department of defence for two years and three months from 1995 to 1997. As minister I visited Cyprus, Syria, Jerusalem and South Lebanon on two occasions to inspect at first hand the work of the Irish troops wearing The Blue Beret of the United nation. The force commander in South Lebanon General Wjozniak told me that he had six contingents under his command keeping the Israeli-Backed South Lebanese Militia and Hezbolloh rebels apart. He said that when he wanted a delicate job done he sent for The Irish. He described them as not alone peacekeepers but as peacemakers. I thought to myself Collins would be so proud of he National Army of which he was the first Commander in Chief.
What would he thing of the current An Garda Siochana, The Civic Guards, established to keep law and order? I think he would be very proud that his grandniece Nora Owen was Minister for Justice. I think that he would be equally proud that the force is still one of the few unarmed police forces in the world. But I suspect that he would be disgusted at the manner in which the force’s reputation as a fine force has been sullied by the criminal behaviour of certain Garda in Donegal. Under Collins the perpetrators certainly would not have been allowed to retire with gratuities and full pension rights or transferred on active duty with full pay. He would have booted them unceremoniously from the force.
What would he thing of the performance of the politicians of the modern era? I know he would turn in his Glasnevin Grave that some of the inheritors of his unselfish legacy as Yeats called it “Fumbled in the greasy till” and took hundreds of thousands in bribes for political favours. Would he have approved of Ireland’s participation in Europe? I believe that he would be very proud of the fact that the Ireland he liberated and founded is now a very proud full and equal partner in the most successful political experiment in history and which sees De Gaulle’s dream of united Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals on the brink of realisation.
I know he would take a particular pride in the fact that Irish, the language he learned and loved is now, a last, recognised as an official working language within the European Union. On the negative side he would be disappointed that the language which is such a distinctive gauge of our nationality is not more widely spoken. As regards the Celtic Tiger I’m sure Collins would approve. But as Minister for finance he sketched out his vision of the economic potential of the New Free State. As Chrissy Osborne illustrates in her beautifully written book “Michael Collins Himself”, Collins foresaw huge prospects for the development of Ireland’s natural resources, a modern, well-equipped fishing fleet, the development of electricity system based on Hydro and peat burning plants. A man of his time, a man truly ahead of his time but there is one thing of which I am absolutely confident – Michael Collins would frown at the fact that one of our richest modern natural resources, The Natural Gas find off the Mayo coast is being given away as we speak to a foreign company for literally nothing – no royalties, a derisory tax rate and massive write off’s. Who knows but that under his management, Ireland would not have experienced the economic doldrums, the unemployment and the mass emigration that afflicted us for centuries.
About 20 minutes by road from where I live is the grave of Michael’s sister Kitty. She was a primary teacher at Carrowgowan National School, Bohola, Co. Mayo. Her home, which is perfectly preserved, is less than ten minutes drive from the birthplace of The Land League founder Michael Davitt. In a recently published school re-union magazine she is descried as follows: “Kitty Sheridan (Nee Collins) was appointed as assistant teacher in Carragowan in the early 1900’s and later became principal. She retired in the late 1940’s. She was from Cork and sister of the late Michael Collins. She is remembered as dignified and generous. She prepared many of her pupils for special occasions like First Holy Communion and Confirmation in more than a spiritual way as she often washed and dressed those who found themselves in a less fortunate situation than most. She was also blessed with a good singing voice and sang in the church choir. She was married to Joe Sheridan, Bolola, brother of Martin Sheridan, Olympic champion”. As a matter of interest Kitty’s Brother-in-Law Martin Sheridan is probably the greatest Irish born athlete of all times having won five Olympic Gold medals for the shot-put, hammer and pole vault. He won twelve North American Championships and was the holder of sixteen world records. So impressed was King Constantine of Greece at Martin’s performance at the Athens Olympics in 1906 that he commissioned a special statue of Martin which stands in the main square in Athens to this day.
One has to muse how somebody from Woodfield in West Cork found love in rural Co. Mayo so many years ago. Can I thank you for your hospitality and attention. I am sure that some of you will remember a West Cork man who used to be a regular panellist on the Late Late Show by the name of Matt Doolin. Matt invariable asked the guest of the show “but do you not think that the people of West Cork are particularly friendly”?. To that question I can say a resounding “Yes”; not alone particularly friendly but determined, brave, proud and Gaelic.
Let us also remember today the men and women who stood shoulder to shoulder with Collins – Arthur Griffith, Dick Mulcahy, Gearoid O’ Sullivan, Sean McEoin, Nancy O’ Brien, Joe O’ Reilly, W.T Cosgrave, Kevin O’Higgins, Desmond Fitzgerald and the countless others. You nurtured in your midst the greatest of all Irishmen from woodfield to London, from London to Dublin, from the G.P.O to Frongach, from Frongach back to Dublin, from Dublin to his own beloved West Cork from West Cork to Posterity.
Ni Fheicimid a Leitheid Aris.