MICHAEL COLLINS – MY UNCLE
By his nephew the Late Michael Collins
(with the kind permission of Justin Nelson author of “Michael Collins The Final Days”)
Michael Collins was born in “Woodfield” near Sam’s Cross, Clonakilty, West Cork. The Collins family were evicted from their homes in Limerick in the latter part of the 17th Century. They were troublesome even then, and causing so many problems that the decision of the Magistrate was to banish this unruly and troublesome clan to the nether-most regions of the King’s Realm,- known as West Cork, where they and their descendants would never again cause any difficulty to his Majesty’s liege men and women. In this, they succeeded for a few hundred years, but after this lapse, Michael Collins made up for it!.
Collins’ father, that is my grandfather, was almost 60 years when he married, for he had to wait, as was normal in those days, until my great grandfather had died. He then took the land which was occupied by three brothers, Maurice, Thomas, and himself Michael John Collins. He married Mary Anne 0’ Brien of Sam’s Cross who was 34 years younger than him. They had a most wonderhul marriage, from which was born eight children, five girls and three boys. Early in 1877 their first child Margaret was born, to be followed by Johnny, (my father), Johanna (called Hannie) Mary, Helena (who later became a Nun), Patrick, Kathleen and finally Michael.
Grandfather Michael Collins and Mary Anne O’Brien could speak Greek and Latin fluently and also Irish, which they learned from the hedge schoolmasters at the time. Though there was a very large gap in years between them, their’s was a very close and fruitful relationship. Michael Collins was the youngest of the family of eight and was born in Woodfield on the 16th of October, 1890. He had a reverence from the time he was a very small boy for elderly people, and he had not an unusual but unique relationship with his father for the few years they shared together. My grandfather had a particular habit of once a week devoting twenty entire minutes to each of his children separately.
My father, Johnny, the eldest in the family, absorbed the knowledge of agriculture, horticulture and mariculture imparted to him by his father. Hannie, the eldest of the girls, absorbed his extraordinary knowledge of English literature, while Helena who later became a nun knew every constellation in the sky from her father’s teaching. She recalled to me how clearly he said to her one day when one of the comets was passing, –
“I haven’t had much time in my busy life, Helena, to get down on my knees and pray, – but when I’m out here like I am to-night and see the majesty of the Heavens I tell Him ‘I believe You made it, and I believe also that I am a tiny subject of Yours”. “You can do a lot of praying, Helena” he said “but you won’t get much closer to God than when you are under the creation of the stars”. Michael, at that young age of four, heard the poems of Kickham and Davis from this old man who was his father. My grandfather, Michael John Collins, had in his library every single work of Shakespeare, and the works of Thomas Hardy, and Sir Peter Barrie. He was an insatiable reader and to each of the children in turn he imparted his philosophy of life.
“I haven’t been over burdened with the wealth of this life, but I will give you three things which I hope will always stand to you in life, — namely a strong faith, a work ethic, and a love of education, for as you educate yourselves, you will, if it is within your potential, build yourselves into men and women who think for themselves.” “I will impart to you the love of my country which is one of my greatest gifts”. This was not the “pint inspired” love of Ireland. This was an old man giving to his children his love of the culture, of the heritage, of the real Irish tradition, the music of Ireland and the writings of men like Charles Kickham and Davis.
My grandfather, and Michael’s father, Michael John Collins senior was with the Fenians in 1867, and his grandfather was with Taigh O’Donovan in Clonakilty which was the only rising other then Emmet’s rising outside Wexford in 1798. My grandmother Mary Anne O’Brien made every stitch of clothing that they all wore. She was an extraordinary woman and gave to them also the very strong character that her husband also passed on. The young Michael Collins absorbed everything the old man told him and the relationship was extraordinary because Michael Collins died when the son who was called after him was only six years old. He had already sown the seeds of love of country in him and it’s a recorded fact, because I read it myself as it was written down by my aunt in 1896. “We gathered round Dada’s death bed and he said to us; ‘Take care of your youngest, for one day he may do great things for Ireland”.
After my grandfather Michael Collins died the young Collins transferred quite a degree of that love and affection to his eldest brother, my father Johnny, and he helped with the work on the family farm. He went to school as Lisavaird where the schoolmaster was Denis Lyons, an old Fenian. On his way home each day he passed the forge of James Santry. I mention these two men, for history will never say much about them. Denis Lyons was an extraordinary teacher and was only maintained in his position in the school because the British fortunately paid more heed to his educational abilities than to the Irish nationalism which burned within him.
Collins absorbed from Denis Lyons the love of these traditions I have mentioned earlier. Lyons saw in return, a young boy eager to learn and ask questions, and eager to use his God given intelligence. On the way home from school he would make the inevitable visit to the forge of James Santry. James had made the pikes for the 1867 rising and James’s grandfather was another who was with Taigh O’Donovan in the rising at Shannonvale outside Clonakilty in 1798. Michael Collins said one day to my father, “James Santry is one of the finest men that I have ever met”. “Why would you say that?” said my father. “I saw”, he said, “the spark from the anvil as he made the gates for all the farms around here, but I also got from him the spark he put into my heart of the love for Ireland”.
It was from those two men, and from the quiet national spirit at home, that Michael Collins set out, even at that very young age, to make himself a slave to the freedom of his country.
When he dragged in a bucket of potatoes from my grandmother’s garden in 1898 at the age of eight he asked my father who commended him for his extra work would he reward him by giving him truppence. My father, Johnny said “Of course I will, but what do you want it for?”. “Dad”, he said “I’ve been reading lately the works of a man called Arthur Griffith which I get from James Santry”. “He is beginning to speak” he said, “at the corners of Dublin streets and telling the growing numbers of his listeners that we must not be looking to France, and Spain or the red wine of the Pope any more. “Sinn Fein” he said, “Ourselves Alone, – that’s what we must depend on”.
What coincidences history throws up?. A young fellow of eight years of age who had never even been to Cork City, not to mind anywhere else, reading on the pamphlet called “Scissors and Paste” which took its name from the way the salient points that Griffith was trying to put across, were pasted on a hard board background.
34 years further on, Arthur Griffith, who was undoubtedly the most under-regarded patriot of our country, was able to say in the closing weeks of his life, “I have no ambition that my name go down in Irish History, but if it does, I want it to be associated with the name Michael Collins. For he is the man who carried on the struggle, and after having brought it to a successful conclusion, faced the realities of the facts at that time”.
Michael Collins finished his formal schooling at 12 years of age, but he was to read every play that Shakespeare wrote, the entire works of Thomas Hardey and Sir James Barrie and many other books that this great old man, his father, had collected in their home in Woodfield. Knocknagow, which he cried over, was an inspiration for him, so that he would try and ensure that its likes would not happen again in a future generation.
He had also read at the age of 12, books such as The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. This basic groundwork of economic thought is still valid to-day, and was in fact the text book when I did my final accountancy exam on economics. I think you will accept how unusual it was for a young fellow from Sam’s Cross, Woodfield, to have read it at 12 years of age and had made notes on the side of the book of the relevant items therein to similar countries such as ours.
After leaving the National School, he went on and did further studies to equip himself for the English Civil Service. That was the only job outlet in those days, for they would all have to go away in turn with the exception of Johnny, my thther, his eldest brother. Michael went at the age of 16 to the Post Office in London in 1906. In his very first week over there his mother died, but sadly he had no money with which to return home for his mother’s funeral. He, along with his sister Hannie and their second cousin Nancy O’Brien went to Mass for their mother at Brompton Oratory. This was the very same church to which he went to attend daily Mass during those Treaty negotiation days fifteen years later.
Collins threw himself into the Gaelic League in London. He joined the Geraldines Hurling and Football Club and soon became its Secretary. He was enrolled into the IRB by the man whose name is now famous on the All- Ireland Football Trophy, – Sam Maguire. But I believe one of the greatest benefits he had in London at that time was his sister Hannie who lived in Kensington Gardens. She had preceded him by several years and was now gaining promotion in the British Civil Service. She took the words of her father to heart and right to her dying day, she too was a voracious reader. Collins went to many plays in London and widened the scope of his reading.
He attended three hour classes to improve his reading of English on three nights a week, and also took classes about conferring one’s thoughts to paper in a concise fashion. He wrote essay after essay, His second cousin Nancy O’Brien, who also worked in the post office, was astonished at the improvement in expressing himself and in putting his thoughts together in writing. He would give her essays to constructively criticise and she, who was the same age as himself would ask, “What is this all about Michael ? “.
“Nancy” he said, “If I am to ever lead my country to freedom I will want to know how to express myself how to put words on the overriding conviction I have, that instead of being a victim of happenings, I will cause things to happen. I will then practice for as long as it takes me to express myself clearly without notes, because in speaking from a written script, the heart isn’t in the words. The nuances of the word, and the inspiration in the words come from the heart and they have to be expressed through that most errant organ, the tongue”. These are extraordinary expressions for a man of 17 and 18, and that is what he gave himself unswervingly to do.
Often he would have liked to gone out with the lads, or to have gone with Nancy O’Brien and his sister Hannie to the plays, but Collins was keeping an eye on developments back home in Ireland. He was securing and bringing his potential slowly to its fuller development.
When word of the rising came he returned to Dublin and was Aide de Camp to James Plunkett in the GPO in 1916. I don’t know, how many people have read his comments on it, – “It was the greatest bloody fiasco that we ever were engaged in. There was courage, there was patriotism but there was bloody all else. There was no organisation”.
After this, yet another abortive rising, Collins who was now 26 was incarcerated in the grounds of the Rotunda Hospital, which was even then, and still is, one of the most famous Maternity Hospitals, not only in Ireland, but perhaps in the world. Collins was there for a couple of weeks. His second Cousin Nancy O’Brien had in the meantime been transferred back to Dublin on promotion. When she found that the prisoners were going to be shipped from Dublin Docks to Frongoch prison, to Brixton and other Jails, she thought she would seek him out on their way down the Quays to Alexander Basin from where the ships would depart.
In her own words, “There was never a more dejected, down-hearted and dispirited looking group of men”. They were pelted with rotten eggs and tomatoes by the women of Dublin City. Understandably so, for there was no employment for them in the Dublin of the time, and they were dependent on the money coming back from the Front from their husbands and sons fighting with the British Army. They regarded these youngsters as a crowd of pups.
Through all the despondency and the dejection she heard the familiar whistling of The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee. She found Michael ebullient, and full of the joys of Spring. “What has you so good humored? “she asked Michael as she walked alongside him. “I have twelve names here Nancy and after six weeks I know we’ll be ready for the next round. And we will win the next round with men of integrity and commitment”.
“Michael” she said, “you’ll soon be 26 and should you not be thinking of your future?. Will you be able to get back into the Civil Service?” He put his arm around her and said “Come here Nancy girl, where can you do better conceptual thinking than in the grounds of the Rotunda Maternity Hospital?”!.
These were prophetic words and they were to become reality in a very short while. As he was marched down the Quays he thought of the fiasco of the GPO Rising and was determined that next time things would be planned differently. There would be no sitting target, no static positions where the Helga could come up the Liffey and blast the hell out of us.
“We were like lambs to the slaughter. ‘Noble’ they called it. ‘Shameful’ I’d call it”. Surely by this stage of the twentieth century, these true hearted genuine Irishmen should have learned from the mistakes of the past and ensured that they would never find themselves in such a position again.
On his release from Frongoch prison he began collecting men and women for his Movement. Collins went for four weeks to Southhampton, Manchester and Liverpool. All over Dublin City he met the navvies, the dockers, the sailors, the barmen, and particularly the dairymen and the fruit sellers because these people in a natural situation would arouse no suspicion with the British during their daily rounds selling their fruit and vegetables in Moore Street and other places.
Collins met the vast majority of this disparate group of people once only. I spoke to several of them who remember their meeting as if it was yesterday, still remembering the impact of that meeting which showed his power and determination, and the conviction that he could win the vital necessity of confidentiality. “If you get them over the Irish sea I’ll have them, (i.e., guns) taken from you by safe men to safe houses and you will never be under suspicion”, he told the men working on the cross-channel boats. He established for himself around the perimeter of Dublin City seven or eight bolt holes where he could go when under extreme pressure.
The British were beginning to see that the movement was gathering momentum and for the entire duration of the War of Independence he was convinced that the best form of disguise was none at all. It is now hard to imagine that Collins fought against the might of the Empire of Britain from a bicycle as he cycled from one of these bolt holes to another.
There was a price of £10,000 on his head, and where the average worker’s wage in those years was two pounds, two shillings a week, not one Irish Citizen harboured the thought of betraying this young West Cork man who was becoming the main figure of hope of this fight.
Dan Breen had set the ball rolling with the Soloheadbeg ambush in Co. Tipperary on 21st. January 1919 along with his comrades Sean Treacy, Seamus Robinson, Sean Hogan, Tim Crowe, Patrick O’Dwyer, Michael Ryan, Patrick McCormack and Jack O’Mara. Dan came up to Dublin to report to Collins, his Commander-in Chief Ironically at that time Collins’ working day was 5am to midnight, and as my mother said, with a degree of irony, “He had fixed the appointment for Dan for 5am, which would be the nearer the time that Dan would be going to bed never mind coming to an appointment!.
I visited Dan Breen, who later became a T.D., many a time myself during the last few years of his life, – most of which was spent in the Brothers of St. John of God in Kilcroney, and learned an invaluable amount of Irish History from him. Those who may have seen him on Telefis Eireann in its early years may recall hearing Maurice O’Doherty trying to get some criticisms out of Dan about Collins, and when asked towards the end of the interview what he thought of Collins, that raw faced powerful man looked into the television camera and without any embarrassment said “I loved him”.
Breen told me himself he went into that meeting with Collins in 1919 full of the spirit of Solohead at 5 o’clock in the morning and Collins said to him, “I have a quarter of an hour left so let’s get down to business”. “I want to tell you Comdt. Breen that your command is at risk. You broke two of my orders at that ambush”. And Dan told me he was truly astonished. “You had a married man in the ambush” he said “and you as Commander showed yourself flamboyantly and ostentatiously to the end”.
Dan, the raw faced Tipperary man said, “Christ Mick, what are those bloody words you’ve said”? “They’re criticisms, and they shouldn’t have happened”. Dan was off his guard and downhearted, but before he knew where he was, Collins was across the desk and having grabbed him by the shoulders they ended up grovelling on the flat of his back on the floor where they wrestled for a few minutes!. Dan then told him how on many a night on the Galtees he would never have gotten through without a plug of tobacco and a small Jameson.
Dan Breen was asked by Collins nine months later to do a special task which needed a special man. He was summoned to Dublin and Michael detailed what he wanted done. “You will be accompanied by a man who knows Dublin like the back of his hand”, he said. They found themselves up in the Drumcondra area at 2am in the morning with the British Army all around and his companion said, “Don’t worry Dan, we can always escape through Professor Carolan’s rear garden across the wall and we’ll be on a back road then and we’ll get away safely”.
They had forgotten that Professor Carolan had built a glass house under the bedroom window and, as Breen told me, he jumped straight through it with his hat on !. Dan was incarcerated in the Mater Hospital where he told me he was so injured that he had no interest at that moment in the future of Ireland, and couldn’t care less what happened to Collins in the fight. In his own words; “I was falling into a broken sleep when at 6:30am a little biteen of a nurse came in and said; “And how are we this morning Mr. Breen ?“. “I told her” he said, “in non-dictionary language how I was and hoped she was somewhat better”. “She plumped up my pillows. I was now awake and I saw there were two British Soldiers on each door of the ward. She was kind, even though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. She said to me, ‘Take that medicine under the pillow when I leave, Mr. Breen”. Breen put his hand under the pillow and he told me with tears in his eyes “God dammit Michael, under that pillow was the Plug of Mick McQuaid and a baby Jameson, – the two things I needed most”.
I relate this incident to illustrate how, for Michael Collins, his men and women were first in his thoughts and in that extraordinary organisational ability that beat the British, nothing was left out. For him, no task was too big or too little. Here was a man taking on the might of the Empire and yet he recorded in his mind what Dan would most appreciate at this time. No wonder Dan loved him and though they differed subsequently, Breen spoke with extraordinary clarity and driving conviction of what a tragedy Collins’ death was to the Nation.
Curfew was nine o’clock but Collins didn’t know the meaning of curfew. He was running this war from 5 in the morning ‘till midnight and he knew that the most vital ingredient in the war with the British was to beat them to the punch. There the the only successful revolutionary in Irish history realised that even if he was to have a chance to win, he must get inside the thought process ot the British.
In Neil Jordan’s epic movie Michael Collins, the main person in Dublin Castle is depicted as Eamon Broy. The fact is that the main man in the Castle was the great and brave Dave Nelligan who wrote those absorbing articles 30 years later in the Evening Herald called The Spy in the Castle detailing what life in the Castle was like then. He, Broy, Kavanagh from Kilmacow in Co. Kilkenny and James McNamara laid their individual collective lives on the line every day they went into that Castle and with every document they got out safely to Collins. It is a fact that right through that vital period of 1919 and early 1920 the documents of instruction to every army and barracks in Ireland were in the hands of Collins before the officers and the head constables in those barracks ever got them.
That was the tremendous organisation, and clear thinking of an extraordinary mind that finished its formal education at 12 years of age but used every minute and hour of each day to convert the dream of a young fellow into the reality of freedom that you and I enjoy to-day.
In 1919 Mr. de Valera decided that, as an American citizen, he would gain entry to President Wilson and would have an influence on America in this fight for freedom. de Valera was married with a young family and it is amazing that he spent seventeen months in the United States. During all that period, terrifying warfare was going on back home, where the British, with an eye on world public opinion, could not have their armies carry out despicable acts to beat down this dedicated young bunch of men who were taking on the might of the great British Empire.
However, they brought over the “Auxies” and the Black and Tans, and the war, in which Collins’ over-riding determination was that the least possible number should be killed, turned dirty. Villages, towns, localities were shot up, burned and brutalised. Collins met fire with fire. The ambushes continued and grew more successful.
The tide was beginning to turn. The vast majority of the people were fighting and following the instructions of this man they idolised because of what they knew were his characteristics. Each of them were men and women who were not expendable. Nobody should be put at risk but nobody demurred from the ultimate sacrifice that was asked of them to ensure that the cap-touching, forelock tipping of centuries and the castles and stately homes that were a reminder to boys and girls that we were a slave nation would be changed forever. That would not be the lot of the Irish people ever again, and therefore there was this tremendous will to win. Collins went from post to post, meeting the problems of the day, and every commander, no matter how small the unit was throughout the entire island knew that if there was a problem, “Get to Mick, and he’ll get it done”.
The British were now desperately worried as to how they could cope with these will-o-the-wisps who would hit them and then vanish. In late 1919, Nancy O’Brien whom I mentioned earlier, had got rapid promotion in the Post Office. She was sitting in her office when she was sent for by the head of the British Post Office,the civilian side of British rule in Ireland, The Hon. James McMahon. He said to her, “We are aware of your dedication and your work”. “I must say to you”, he said, “that there’s a young man from your own country who like all of the idiots in century after century would look at the might of the British Empire and think they could take it on. Michael Collins is his name”. “Oh! Yes!” she said, “I’ve heard of him”. “That man” he said “ will fail inevitably like all those damn fools before him. To get to the point Miss O’Brien”, he said “We must admit he has the military information even before the officers to which it is sent. Whitehall is now so worried that they are going to send the vital civilian information necessary for running this outpost of our Empire in code, and we have decided, because of your dedication and your lack of interest in this person that you will be the person to decode all of these messages
Nancy O’Brien was shocked to say the least and having got the instructions that it would start from the coming Wednesday, she contacted Joe McGrath and said, “I need to see Mick”. Joe McGrath knew that Nancy O’Brien would not look for Mick unless something important was on. He got back to her, “Mick will meet you in Vaughan’s Hotel at 8 o’ clock tonight”. “He’d better be on time said Nancy 0’ Brien, “because the curfew is 9 o’clock and as a loyal servant of the British Empire and I must be at home in my bed myself by then!”
She went to Vaughan’s Hotel at 8 o’clock, where she recognised, -swinging from the parapet by his finger tips, his Cork backside. Collins got out of that problem, and had a word with Christy the hotel porter who came out and told her where to go in Parnell Square, and that Collins would meet her there.
When they met she told him what had happened and she said he laughed in the midst of all the stress and worry – “God dammit, Nancy” he said, “You’ve heard me express my admiration of the Great Empire that could hold so many parts of the world enchained for so many centuries, and now” he said, “they are allowing all of the civilian information for Ireland to come through my second cousin!” “From Wednesday, every day between 2:30 and 3:30 you will have whatever you decode in the hands of Joe McGrath, Liam Tobin or Desmond Fitzgerald. I want no excuses “ he said. “Be there!. How you get it out – thats your worry, because when you are working for me you will express your own ingenuity and from what I know of you, you are intelligent enough, even if you are from the other side of Clonakilty”. “Michael” she said, “ What will I do about lunch?” He looked her up and down and said “Do without lunch and it will help to get some of that weight off you”.
The messages flowed and the war was now at its height. Collins was now under tremendous stress and one particular thing was worrying him. He met Nancy 0’ Brien and said to her – “Have you got any messages for me that you are not passing on?”. She was carrying out the coded message in the chignon she wore on her hair. “I’m getting concerned with one or two of my colleagues who are wondering what is going on. I’ve given you everything I have got”, she said. So he left her and five days later he came back and managed to meet her. “Nancy” he said, “Are you sure you are giving me everything?” “Well” she said, “apart from this very strange letter I got a few days ago supposed to be from a secret admirer. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. It referred to the seat on the canal where he and I were sitting when the Angelus bells were ringing, and the beautiful sheen of my auburn hair which caught the glint of light from the 3rd window, and all that sort of nonsense “Nonsense ? “he said “The 3rd window is where Beasley and Stack are in prison 6pm is the time of the changing of the guards and you lapped up that bloody nonsense and didn’t tell me” he said. “I’m expected to fight a war with the might of Britain and my own second cousin falls for that as if it is from an admirer
It’s about time I told you that the said Nancy 0’ Brien is my own mother, and I have experienced occasions similar to the next minute or two when she turned around and said “I have laid my life on the line for you for the last six months and that’s all you have to say to me – abuse and contempt. “You can run your own bloody war, Mick, in the future for your own Ireland. I am the leavings of the near escapes, the anxieties and all of the worries” and she stormed off and left him there.
At 2am on the following morning, at the height of the Dublin trouble and the warfare, she awoke in her digs in lona Rd, Glasnevin to the sound of gravel being flung up at her bedroom window. She said “What a nerve. This is probably somebody that Mrs. Murphy, my landlady is to mind for a few weeks, because he is on the run from Tipperary or Limerick or somewhere like that. She made her way to the window, and there standing in the little square of grass was Michael Collins. She put on her dressing gown and came downstairs to the hall door.
“Nancy a Gradh” he said, “Sure you’re my own and you are the best I have. You’ve no idea of the pressures I’m under. I’m not at all well, but we must now pull off the final stroke and win. “I am in touch” he said “with my brother Johnny down at home, and the Woodfield area is where they’re beginning to plan a major assault. I was anxious this evening and I’m sorry I hurt you. I was upset about it and there was no way I could go to bed without coming over to apologise to you”
This is but another example of the hundreds of incidents where Collins showed that laying his own life on the line was nothing because others were prepared to fight to the death if necessary. She was just astonished, and terrified for him having to make his way back to 0’Connors by foot, – (over 4 miles to Donnybrook) during the curfew. As he headed off he looked back over his shoulder and shouted to her “Dammit Nancy, I forgot, – I left the bag of “bull’s eye” sweets on the windowsill for Mrs. Murphy “
If any of you are ever in West Cork, you should go to the place where Collins was born near Lisavaird. Stand on the foundations of the new house that my father built for my grandmother in 1900, and there in your mind’s eye you can visualise the magnificent farmhouse that was there before it was burned to the ground by the British forces. Within that top room my father Johnnie, together with Tom Barry and Liam Deasy planned strategy of the Kilmichael ambush which took place on the 28th. November. Kilmichael was the catalyst in the War, with the entire force of 23 soldiers being wiped out by the West Cork Brigade.
That was the type of guerrilla warfare which was later adapted by Yitzak Shamir in the Israeli 1967 war, Mao Tse Tsung in China and the countless revolutionaries in Africa. It was the first example of guerrilla warfare brought to its fullest conclusion and that was the thinking of young Michael Collins. Shamir even called his crack regiment, “The Mickail “ during that Israeli war.
One of the finest scenes in the recently released Michael Collins movie showed Collins’ beloved henchman Joe 0’ Reilly coming to him on an evening of his first relaxation for years with Harry Boland and Kitty Kiernan in the Royal Marine Hotel in Dunlaoire. Kitty xvas dancing with Harry and Michael in the film was relaxed and nodding off as he listened to Frank Patterson’ s singing on the stage.
Joe O’ Reilly ran in and said “Blast you Michael, I was looking for you everywhere. They’re looking for a truce “. The utter sheer joy that Neeson portrayed in his brilliant characterisation of Collins summed tip that one moment of precious success, – satisfaction. The joy of winning that all of us know after a lot of losses on the way up, was what Collins enjoyed to the full. Yet he was wondering what was ahead of him now. What would be the ultimate settlement?
Dc Valera had returned after an extraordinary seventeen months in America and Harry Boland wrote to Michael to say that his 50th attempt to see President Wilson met with the same result of the previous 49. He never succeeded in meeting the U.S. President. There were eleven Irish – American Societies in the eleven major cites of the Sates that time. Mr. De Valera visited every one of them. He asked them to accept that they were Irishmen first and Americans second. Irish Americans, will not accept this now any more than they would accept it then.
They were Americans first for the simple reason that their parents had brought them out of an Ireland where there was no chance of work and they got that opportunity in America and to the extent that they took it they rose in American society and if they didn’t take it they sunk to the depths and became ghettoised.
When he spoke to John Devoy, the greatest Fenian of them all with O’Donovan Rossa, Devoy stood before him in Seattle and said, “No, Dev – being an American first doesn’t make me any less of an Irishman, but my father brought me here after spending 12 years in British jails. I came here and I got a chance. I’ve made a success of my life, but that doesn’t lessen my love for the homeland. It accentuates it to this extent that I now have earnings that can help”.
Each of those eleven societies dissolved or became ineffective within seventeen months. Mr. de Valera came back to Ireland, and was nominated as President of the Republic by “The Blacksmith from Ballinalee”, Sean MacEoin. Dev was now a man of international stature, because of the worldwide publicity given to him. In 1916 after being Comdt. in Boland’s Mills he wrote claiming his right to life on the basis that he was an American citizen, and so he was saved.
Then came the Truce, and many of these simple fine Irishmen went back to their homes and pints were shoved into their hands. It was a period of great upset in Ireland. Collins saw the discipline dissolve. Breen and Tom Barry saw it and they expressed an urgency to the Irish Republican Brotherhood to get on with some type of settlement.
The first clear sign of jealousy was arising between Dev and Collins. Dev wanted Collins to go to America, and Collins knew there would be nowhere in the world he’d be more out of place. Eamon de Valera then went himself to London to see Lloyd George as to what were the outlines of the potential settlement. Over two days, he met Lloyd George alone for seven and a half hours.
Mr. de Valera was a brilliant man, a man who subsequently showed great negotiating ability and yet he knew because of his intelligence and because of the clarity with which LLoyd George put it to him that the only settlement available would incorporate in stone what was already enacted by the British Parliament, the fact that six of the Northern counties,- (though Carson looked for nine ) were now part of an Ulster that wished to remain as part of the British Empire.
Eventually, a delegation was decided on to go and negotiate the Settlement. Michael Collins got the second copy of the five plenipotentiary’s document and it is his copy signed by de Valera which is shown here. The document states, and note the wording; “Negotiate and conclude”.
Collins was beginning to discern the dissensions that were beginning to build up and at first refused point blank to go. One of his closest associates was the great Bat O’Connor, whose home, lovingly looked after by Mrs. O’Connor was his favourite bolt hole. Many, many years afterwards I met her at the graveside ot her husband who was buried as near to Mick as they could put him. With a smile on her 82 year old face she said
“Michael boy, do you know what I was saying to Bat, and I felt he understood me, even though he is buried down there 36 years?. “Bat”, she said, “I don’t know which of the two of you I love most, but there was nothing in it so take the odds”!. That was the sort of relationship that was there. Their eldest daughter is now 87 and is a Carmelite Nun in Simmonscourt Road, Ballsbridge.
She tells the story that one day as a small child, she had hurt her leg the day before, and she was home from school. When Collins would call to her home she would always clean Michael’s bicycle and she would get the Bulls Eye sweets from him in return. That night she heard her father and Michael discussing in an adjoining room until 5.00 in the morning. She recalls it was the only time in her life that she heard two men crying. Collins wouldn’t go home.
“I’m being set up” he said, and eventually close to 5.00 am she heard her dad say, “Well everything seems to have failed, Mick, but Dev had anticipated this would happen and he asked me to ask you, to go, – for the love of Ireland?”
In his thirtieth year, Collins sat down across a table to negotiate
with the might of that British Empire. Remember that extraordinary genius that won the 1939 -‘45 World War for Britain, Winston Churchill who was only the fourth in the British delegation; consisting of Lord George, Chamberlain, Birkenhead, and Churchill.
When the British Negotiators brought the signed Treaty back into the House of Commons, as one can read in Hansard, if given a chance to view it, they were castigated , demonised and absolutely abhorred by the Opposition and the general run of English people for what they gave away to this upstart Collins, and were asked how they could not brow beat “this lot of Paddies” into submission.
Years later, my father spoke with Birkenhead who told him that Chamberlain, Churchill and himself were astounded at the learning of this man, – of his knowledge of economics, of his planning for the fliture of his country, of the winning of the every concession, some minute, that he could get in the negotiations. That Treaty was signed on 6th. December ‘21 and it is absolutely true that as Birkenhead was leaving the Chamber said;
“Well Collins, I signed my political death warrant”.
“That’s nothing” Michael replied, “I’ve just signed my actual death warrant”.
Collins knew the rumblings at home. I should emphasise here that every time they returned from these negotiations, Collins interceded with Dev to meet him and to discuss tactics. Dev would not have anything to do with him. Collins turned then to the Organisation into which he was sworn by Sam Maguire, The Irish Republican Brotherhood, the ultimate Organisation of responsibility. Without exception, they told Michael to do the best he could, and that no man could do more than he could.
That he did.
Collins came back to a Cabinet that was divided. Austin Stack had been promoted, though his Department, because of his inefficiency, was a joke to his colleagues. Collins felt hurt and slighted. He said to Nancy O’Brien that night, “Our Cabinet now is more divided than the Cabinet in hell. I see sad times ahead”.
The Treaty terms were debated in the Chamber and the bitterness developed, but when we look at Government majorities over the world now, how many Nations would be thrilled with the majority of 2 or 3, not to mind the majority of 7 given in favour of accepting the terms of the Treaty?.
Collins begged, with all the powers he had, “ Dev, now that you didn’t go yourself, by all means oppose us in this house, castigate us, push us further so that we can go again, as we have the right under this Treaty to discuss it in the immediate years ahead, but, do it within the Dáil.” “One of the greatest things we’ve got” he said,” is the conviction that the Boundary Commission can meet on an equal footing of two sovereign Governments. The British have undertaken that ‘if three of the Six Counties wish to join the 26, then there will be no valid reason for Stormont consequently.
However jealousy and small mindedness prevailed. Collins said in those prophetic words; “It gives us freedom to achieve freedom. The ideal must always be there, and the ultimate freedom will be the determination of successive generations of Irish men and women working within the democratic process because the time for fighting is over. If we seek for that ideal, and if we come together now that we have the British Army and the British trappings of power removed, there is no limit to how far we might go”.
I think History has now recorded that one of the two greatest errors committed by a great Statesman, Mr. de Valera, was in his not going to London as Head of the Treaty negotiating team. He was the educated man, being a Professor. He was President of the Republic. He was an American citizen who carried great power and had he, even after deciding not to go to London, subsequently followed the democratic process and opposed literally what the Settlement fell short of, -then democracy might have prevailed and Ireland might have gone further forward.
Mr. de Valera met the great Field Marshall Smuts. If you read Smuts’ biography, you will see that he who became Governor General of South Africa after the Boer War, had come to meet Mr. de Valera, not as an emissary of Lloyd George but as an emissary of the King. He expressed to de Valera his great admiration for the work done by Collins in achieving the military freedom of Ireland. In Smuts’ biography, it states that Mr. de Valera accepted that there was no question of a Republic being attainable for generations to come.
The Cabinet tried to install the Treaty, which was passed by the majority itself. Mr. de Valera left the chamber and democracy was not allowed to prevail. They broke on the Oath which was an empty formula. Then came the second mistake of this man, who subsequently was a great Irish Statesman. Mr. de Valera throughout his life was a deeply conservative and religious man. He was a man of great ability and a man of deep faith. After Mass, on the 17th March 1922, (Believed to be Carrick-on-Suir) he addressed a crowd of 20,000 and he said to them,
“To prevent this Treaty working, we will wade, if necessary, through brother’s blood”.
Sadly that’s what happened, and Michael Collins died in an ambush from fellow Irishmen at Beal an Blath, – one of the many tragically killed on both sides.
Subsequently Michael sought to justify his actions for the pact with de Valera, in a lengthy statement which was afterwards republished in “The Path to Freedom”, the collection of his writings which appeared postumously:
“The policy of the anti-Treaty party had now become clear — to prevent the people’s will from being carried out because it differed from their own, to create trouble in order to break up the only possible National Government, and to destroy the Treaty with utter recklessness as to the consequences. A section of the army, in an attempt at military despotism, seized public buildings, took possession of the Chief Courts of Law of the Nation, dislocating private and national business, reinforced the Belfast Boycott which had been discontinued by the people’s government, and ‘commandeered’ public and private funds, and the property of the people.
Met by this reckless and wrecking opposition, and yet unwilling to use force against our own countrymen, we made attempt after attempt at conciliation.
We appealed to the soldiers to avoid strife, to let the old feelings of brotherhood and solidarity continue. We met and made advances over and over again to the politicians, standing out alone on the one fundamental point on which we owed an unquestioned duty to the people — that we must maintain for them the position of freedom they had secured. We could get no guarantee that we would be allowed to carry out that duty.
The country was face to face with disaster, economic ruin, and the Imminent danger of the loss of the position we had won by the national effort. If order could nor be maintained, if no National Government was to be allowed to function, a vacuum would be created, into which the English would necessarily be drawn back. To allow that to happen would have been the greatest betrayal of the Irish people, whose one wish was to take and to secure and to make use of the freedom which had been won.
Seeing the trend of events, soldiers from both sides met to try and reach an understanding, on the basis that the people were admittedly in favour of the Treaty, that the only legitimate government could be based on the people’s will, and that the practicable course was to keep the peace, and to make use of the position we had secured.
These honourable efforts were defeated by the politicians. But at the eleventh hour an agreement was reached between Mr de Valera and myself for which I have been severely criticised.
It was said that I gave away too much, that I went too far to meet them, that I had exceeded my powers in making a pact which, to some extent, interfered with the people’s right to make a free and full choice at the elections. It was a last effort on our part to avoid strife, to prevent the use of force by Irishmen against Irishmen.”
The purpose of his visit there was to meet the remaining Leaders of the Brigades,- those men he loved, (and they loved him in return), in the hope that they might sort out some way of ending this Civil War, which Collins more than anybody in the Government tried to stop. To such an extent that as a sovereign Government, they were entitled to criticise him for not taking on the situation of the Four Courts earlier, but they couldn’t understand this abiding loyalty of Collins, to his men and his reluctance to engage in hostilities with them.
Put superbly in that tragic five seconds in the film where the young soldier who finished off Harry Boland and said with justification that —“He was one of them”. A broken hearted Commander-in-Chief thinking of the times that had been, said
“No, God Almighty he was one of ours”. Each one of them who participated in the fight were Collins’s ‘till the last breath he drew.”