Oration at Béal na mBláth on 24/08/2008
By: Sean Kelly , Ex-President GAA
A chaired go leir idir cléir is tuath is perihelia iontach speisialta dom an t-oráid seo a tabard inniu I ndilchuimhne Michéal Ó Coileáin an laoch uasal fior-chroga, fior-ghaelach a dúnmharaiodh san áit álainn se – Béal na mBláth – ceithre scór agus sé bliana o shin. Cé gur fada an tréimhse é ceithre scór agus sé bliana, is fior a rá go bhfuil cuimhni senn ar a shaol agus ar a dhein sé ar son na hÉireann chomh láidir agus chom beo anois agus a bhi riamh. Cé gur maraiodh an fathach uasal grelach ar an 22 lunesan 1922 in bhfaighidh an gaisce a rinne sé ná an saoirse a thug sé duinn in éag go deo. I sli amháin at Micheál Ó Coileáin nios beo anois ná mar a bhi riamh agus at a theocrat deafaach, dúshlánach le sonrú, ni amháin anseo ach ar fud na hÉireann in gcoitinne.
Cosúil leis an mblath a éagann gach geimhreadh agus a áthfhásann gach Earrach, tugann an comrade bliantúil anseo I mBeál Alainn na mBláth, borradh agus athels dá shaol, dá thráithe agus dá eácht ar son na Fodha.
Never before have I been so honoured as when Dermot Collins rang me and asked would I give the oration for the great Ml. Collins here today. To have the honour of giving the oration for a man whom many regard as Irelands greatest patriot is an absolute privilege if also a daunting task. Nevertheless, I stand here before you today not as one, who grew up surrounded by tales of the greatness of Ml. Collins himself, but largely one who came to recognise that greatness through my own study of history. I grew up at a time when as Maurice Manning put it here in 1999, “the name of Ml. Collins was unfashionable, neglected or ignored”. We learned all about the folklore of De Valera, but we hear very little about the folklore of Collins. This was not surprising. Dev was alive in all his glory, Collins was dead and in his grave. For years there was what Ryel Dwyer called the “conspiracy of silence” – people, perhaps understandably did not speak about those dark days of the Civil war and said little about the years leading up to it. Instead our focus and admiration was directed at 1916 and the proclamation. My grandfather who played a leading role in our areas in the War of Independence took no part in the Civil War. But he spoke little about either. It was only a few years ago for instance that I leaned that one of my closest neighbours is one of those mentioned as having been here at the ambush in Béal na mBláth during that fateful evening in August 1922. It was never spoken about, thus we never knew about it. It is sad to think that all those brave men who fought side by side to gain freedom for Ireland, should fight one another when that freedom was in their grasp as established by the Treaty – not full freedom but “the freedom to achieve freedom” as Collins prophetically declared. De Valera’s years in power were to prove Collins correct as we attained more and more freedom with the passing of the years.
Therefore, it is in a spirit of reconciliation, inclusiveness and compassion that we come here today to honour the man who did more than anyone else to make it possible (in the words of Kevin O’Higgins “the greatest man ever to have served the nations cause”) For true freedom is not of the body but of the heart. It brings an openness of mind and a generosity of spirit that sets the human soul free. Collins had that in spades. Even though some of his former comrades despised and plotted against him he could not despise them.
When Harry Boland died he wrote to Kitty Kiernan expressing his regret and sadness, even though Boland had bitterly fallen out with him. Collins wrote “I’d send a wreath, only they’d return it, torn up”. Brugha, too, was another outspoken enemy of Collins but Collins could always admire his forthrightness and even, bluntness.
For that reason we must consign to the scrapheap any semblance of bitterness and poison that might still remain after the Civil War. We must realise that these men had far more in common than divided them and that the politics of meanness, begrudge and division do not serve the free Ireland that our forefathers bought to achieve. Collins always sought to look at the bigger picture. If we are to be true to his name and to be true inheritors of his legacy, that big picture of what is best for Ireland must always be before us our guiding light our benchmark.
In that regard one has to welcome and admire the power sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland in the present time and, particularly, admire and express gratitude to all those who have helped to bring it about. Collins cared more than most about the North Eastern part of this island. As a man who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of Ireland he would have admired the sacrifices and courage of all sides who have helped bring peace, reconciliation and mutual respect for traditions that has now evolved and hopefully, will continue to evolve, peacefully and purposefully in Northern Ireland.
Another shining example of the inclusiveness and openness that Collins craved was the recent opening of Croke Park to Rugby and Soccer. Indeed, having been involved during that great debate, I often took inspiration and spiritual guidance from the sacrifices of Collins and his colleagues. When the going got tough, the tough got going. Ml. Collins never shirked responsibility. He stood up and put his views before the Dáil and the people and left them decide. It was imperative, to do the exact same with Rule 42. The reasons for a preferred course of action had to be put to the members and they had to be given the facility to express their views in turn and vote accordingly. This was done and Croke Park was opened. We were worried at the time that such action could split the GAA but that split never occurred. That speaks volumes for the sincerity and commitment of those against opening Croke Park. They accepted the verdict of the majority and the GAA now stands more powerful, more respected and more united than ever before as a result. Their respect for the democratic vote of the members, despite how unpalatable it was to many of them was a shining example of our maturity as a nation. The bigger picture which Collins craved was seen and understood and prevailed. Hopefully, this situation will still obtain after Lansdowne Road is re-opened.
There is no doubt about it but that Collins loved the GAA and all things Gaelic. He said himself that together with Sinn Féin and the Gaelic League, the GAA “helped save the soul of the nation”.
Coming from Cork it is not surprising that his preference was for the small ball. He loved hurling which he described to an enquirer as “a civilised sport because it’s part of the most civilised race on earth”. It was said that when he played hurling he “became a king of small cyclone which nothing could withstand”. When going to secondary school in Clonakilty he helped the local paper with Hurling and Football reports and thus also learned to type.
Collins played a huge part in the GAA in Britain where he befriended such legends as Liam McCarthy and Sam Maguire. It was Sam Maguire who swore him into the I.R.B. Collins played for the Geraldines Club and at the age of 17 became its secretary. Soon it was transformed into a properly functioning unit. When the Treasurer was involved in the misappropriation of funds, Collins despite his tender years insisted on his expulsion. Thus we see the integrity, organisation and probity of which he became famous. Subsequently as the mastermind of the War of Independence and as Minister of Finance where he successfully organised the officers of state through the brilliant loans and bonds scheme he championed.
He joined the Gaelic League and learned Irish sharing in Pearses ideal of an Ireland “not free but Gaelic as well”. As Minister for Finance he gave a grant to Croke Park to help it prepare for the Tailteann Games and he was a frequent visitor to Croke Park and other venues for football and hurling matches. Padraig Puirseáil
In “The GAA in its Time” tells us that he attended the Leinster Hurling Final between Dublin and Kilkenny on 21 September, 1921. Collins threw in the ball and addressed the players – “You are not only upholding a great game, you are also upholding one of the most ancient and cherished traditions of Ireland”, he told the players before a crowd of 20,000 people.
When in Frongoch prison after 1916, the Irish prisoners played Gaelic games and held Gaelic classes. Thus Frongoch became known as a University of Revolution.
There were so many Kerry footballers there at the time that under the guidance of the legendary Dick Fitzgerald they won the Wolfe Tone trophy – the All-Ireland championship of Frongoch. When two Kerry footballers were released and subsequently re-arrested and sent back to Frongoch, it was said Kerry had arranged for their re-arrest so that they would be back in jail for the Championship of the University of Frongoch.
Collins was said to be a good hurler, playing at wing-back or centre-field. He was said to have a short temper and didn’t like losing. He insisted that all medals and trophies be purchased from Dublin firms again showing in a practical way his commitment to all thing Irish.
He also took part in athletics excelling in the long jump. He must also have been a good sprinter for he won the 100 yards in a sports event at Frongoch prison where he was an inmate 1320, saying to the runner-up as he passed him by , “Ah, you whore, you can’t run”. I often wonder was the same bravado going through Eamonn Coughlan’s mind as he passed the Russian to win the World 1,500 metres championship in 1982 !!
Thus there was no doubting whatsoever Collins love and participation in the GAA both as player and administrator. He said the GAA reversed the trend of looking to London for leadership. “It provided and restored national games as an alternative to the slavish adoption of English Sport” he opined.
For a man who admired and loved, played for, worked for, supported and praised the GAA so much it is surprising that he has never been formally honoured by our great organisation. This is an aberration that needs to be corrected. The GAA through the name of its trophies, clubs, fields and stands has honoured many great irish patriots but the name of one of the greatest patriots of all is conspicuous by its absence. When I mentioned this a few years ago I was asked “What about honouring Dev?”. I pointed out that Dev played rugby and his GAA pedigree would be pale in comparison to that of Collins. But, today, in keeping with the spirit of the Age of Inclusiveness I now say – by all means honour Dev, honour both Dev and Collins; for its far better to honour both than to do nothing.
Indeed, when Clare contested the football All-Ireland Final in 1917 ?? “up Dev” became the rallying cry of their supporters as De Valera encouraged by Collins had successfully contested the elections in Clare. Dev. was also proud of our native language and in later years went to Croke Park regularly for national finals. His first official visit in 1932, when he presented the cup to the winning Kilkenny captain James Walsh and his last visit was in 1972 when Offaly played Kerry. Kerry lost so we’ll say no more about it !!
It is also true that De Valera and Collins worked close in the cause of Irish freedom and Collins respected Dev, as the chief but as T. Ryle Dwyer points out “his devotion to the Chief has become obfuscated by the passing of time”. Collins helped spring Dev from jail. Ml Collins through his contacts in Liverpool arranged safe passage for him to go to the U.S. in 1919. He showed great kindness in caring for Dev’s family while Dev was in the States, even visiting personally and taking time to play with the children. He arranged a car for Dev’s wife, Sinead, and gave her money. Mrs De Valera never forgot his kindness. Collins encouraged and canvassed enthusiastically for Dev to become President of the I.R.B. and also supported him as leader of the Ir. Volunteers. Ml Collins backed De Valera’s controversial interview in America and vetoed him the money he requested to continue his propaganda work in the states staring “when he (Dev) speaks in America, he speaks for us all”.
While it was unfortunate and totally tragic what happened afterwards in the arrangements and aftermath of the Treaty and the Civil War, if we are to believe Fr. Sean Quilter, Dev’s chaplain as quoted in J.J. Barretts, “In the name of the Game”. “Dev had a great love for Collins and prayed for him every day of his life”.
So why shouldn’t the GAA honour both men now? It would become a powerful symbol of unity, a statement like the opening of Croke Park, that we are an inclusive, open and mature society and that the hatchet of the Civil War which has pierced the heart of this nation and almost all its citizens for generations, has been buried forever. A gesture like this from the GAA would do far more than all the talk in the world to advance the cause of Ireland for which Collins and Dev and all our patriots fought to achieve.
If the GAA doesn’t do it, others might grasp at my suggestions but coming from the GAA it would have far more resonance and meaning. After all it was the GAA through its parish rule and county boundaries that was instrumental in healing the bitter divisions of the civil war. Brothers who fought brothers, and friends who had fought friends cast their enmity aside for the sake of the honour and glory of the little village or for the pride and esteem of the county jersey. This is well documented in my own county where the GAA “became the catalyst that helped heal the wounds of the GAA” (J.J. Barrett) after some of the bitterest and most inhumane acts of violence had occurred in the Kingdom.
In 1924, Kerry made their first appearance in Croke Park in 9 years and their first action was to go “to the spot where Hogan was shot and knelt in prayer”. Their example was not lost in the crowd. The healing process had begun, brothers were brothers again, united in a common purpose and interest. “We did it for Kerry”, they said. All around the country the GAA became a similar catalyst so today I say to my colleagues in the GAA – “Let us bring the healing process to fulfilment and bury the hatchet for everyone by honouring in a fitting way the memory of one of our greatest members – Ml Collins and his comrade in arms – 1916 to 1921, Eamonn De Valera.
Michael Collins primarily saw himself as a soldier, a soldier of considerable skill, cunning and courage. When he was prevailed upon to go to London for the Treaty talks he said “I go in the spirit of a soldier who acts against his best judgement at the order of his superior.” But as a soldier he was most successful and elusive. Despite a price of 5,000 being on his head he continued to escape capture often in the most romantic, debonair, thrilling way as he stayed one step ahead of the British as he outmanoeuvred and destroyed their intelligence network. Once when the infamous Cairo gang sent him a death notice saying : –
“an eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
Therefore a life for a life”
Collins just laughed at it saying, “I’m quite safe so If they get me I’ll claim I haven’t received my death notice yet”. The British grudgingly admired his tenacity with Brigadier Ormonde Winter, Head of Intelligence in Dublin Castle stating that Collins “combined the characteristics of a Robin Hood, with those of an elusive pimpernel – shrouded in a cloak of Historical Romance”. Lloyd Georges trusted friend Tom Jones wrote – “here was Collins during the great war? He would have been worth a dozen brass hats”. Some praise from an Englishman. Some praise indeed.
Once when the British raided his office and meant to capture him he walked coolly down the stairs against them carrying vital documents saying to one of them as breezed past – “A nice job you have, spying for the crown”. Even the night before Bloody Sunday when almost the entire secret service of the crown were wiped out in Dublin, Collins told his men that the killings were to be done at 9 o’clock adding “those whores, the British, have got to learn that the Irish can turn up on time”.
As Tim Healy advised at the time, Collins and his colleagues should not have gone to London for the treaty talks, without at least De Valera and probably Stack and Brugha going as well. After all, the British delegation included world renowned and experienced individuals including their Prime Minister, Lloyd George, Churchill, Chamberland, Birkenhead and Greenwood. De Valera, from his almost two years in America had his 4 meetings with Lloyd George in July 1921, should have know more about what was possible and how to attain it than anyone else. It is reasonable to assume that if an agreement acceptable to everybody was attainable, then Dev. Stack and Brugha would probably have volunteered to go. It should also be remembered that Northern Ireland had already been established with Sr. James Craig as Pre under the government of Ireland Act 1920.
But be that as it may, if Dev, Stack and Brugha had gone or even if one of them had gone, particularly Dev. there would probably have been no rift in the Cabinet. No rift in the Dáil and no Civil War and there would have been no need for the plenipotentiaries to be going back and over to Dublin consulting and being confused during the arduous treaty negotiations.
Collins also put too much faith in the Boundary Commission believing it would cede Fermanagh and Armagh to the south thus making the north unviable, “shorn of these counties it would shrink into insignifance”. As we found out it did nothing of the sort.
The final mistake Ml Collins made was again one of a soldier. When ambushed here in beautiful B na mBlath, Dalton shouted “Drive like hell” but the soldier in Collins caused him to shout , “Stop and Fight”. A lone bullet was to cost him his life and let to ferocious acts of gemocide and reprisal on both sides of the C W that his dignity as an Irishman and as a soldier would never countenance or tolerate.
Ml Collins legacy has been well documented and historians will grapple with the details for generations to come. The freedom and peace we enjoy today is the ultimate legacy for which he and his colleagues successfully fought during the War of Independence and which was made possible by the Treaty of 1921, which Collins signed at 2.20 on 6/12/1921, and which has seen us gain more and more freedom by incremental steps – “the freedom to achieve freedom” as he said himself.
But how have we handled that freedom and lived up to the vision which Collins had for our country?? That is the question ?
He wouldn’t be too impressed with the prevalence of guns, knives and drugs in our society.
While the gun has thankfully been taken out of Irish politics, it must also be removed from our gangland territories as must the knife and we have to strive as a nation to educate the growing menace of drugs. Ml. Collins observed – “A gun is a dangerous thing for a young man to have. One day he may use it in a quarrel over a girl, or over a shilling or over a word”. Alas, how often in recent times have we seen the loss of young life to the gun or the knife in hideous violence.
Collins had a great respect for old people. He said “Great age held something for me that was awesome”. But do we respect old age today? Do our elderly feel free and safe in their homes? The recent decision in the courts to force a Garda Superintend / Ass. Commissioner to retire at 60 reflected a poor attitude to ageism in our society something that needs to be addressed.
Collins also wanted an even distribution of wealth but this is far from being achieved. The recent downturn in the economy suggests we should visit again this question and try to implement Collins vision for the distribution of wealth.
Nowhere, was Collins vision more clear than in his desire to develop our own energy supplies. He envisaged using our water to generate power. He called it the White Cone of Ireland”. What would he have made of our failure to develop wind and sea power in recent years. We are now paying the penalty as we are the prisoners of the major sources of energy in the world.
I doubt if Collins would be too enamoured by the situation whereby Irish fishermen can’t capture certain fish in Irish waters, yet foreign trawlers can export these same fish into Ireland.
Neither would he have been too impressed to have seen a herd of cattle shot in a field recently simply because they didn’t have tags. I’m sure the IFA or ICMSA could have helped to round these animals up and disposed of humanely without sending a cold chill down the collective spine of rural Ireland by such wanton action.
There are many other areas of Irish life that would be worth holding a mirror up to see how they compare to Collins vision for Ireland.
But at the same time we have come a long way since Griffith and Collins brought the Treaty to us in 1921. Griffith died under the strain of it all. Collins lost his life at the tender age of 31 years, 10 months and 6 days. As Francis Costello tells us, he died on a day that he had hoped to marry his sweetheart – Kittty Kiernan.
But because he died so young – two years younger than Our Lord – he has never grown old. His appeal grows from age to age. Like Cle Guevara, John F. and Robert Kennedy his cult following grows by the decade. There will be more books, more songs and more films made of his life. In tabloid terms he is the pin-up boy of Irish Revolutionary History, in Broadsheet terms he was a soldier of repute and a statesman of great promise.
Collins served and died for this country. But he never looked for anything in return. The soldier saw it as his duty to serve his country. He would never boast of having done his country some service. In answer to a question why he didn’t praise some soldiers for carrying out his instructions successfully he replied
“why should I thank people for doing their part? Isn’t Ireland their country as well as mine? And he added:
“We have a chance now of giving our people a better life, we have a chance not by travelling any soft road but by a hard united effort, to make Ireland something for the next generation, which it was not for ourselves”. Our country today is living testimony to his and his colleagues success in those endeavours. The challenge for all of us is to do the same for our future generations. In that way we will be fulfilling the dreams for which Collins and his colleagues fought and because of that the Legacy of Collins and the challenges it poses will always be relevant. Collins may have died here on 21/08/’22 but his spirit never died. As long as people gather in this place and as long as Ireland is a free nation the name of Collins will always be ?????? and that will be for eternity.