Clearing the Road
Clearing the road by General Michael Collins
“The course of life and labour reminds me of a long journey I once took on the railway. Suddenly, there was a breakdown ahead, and passengers took the event in various ways. Some of them sat still resignedly, and never said a word. Others again, went to sleep. But some of us leaped out of that train, and ran on ahead to clear the road of all obstructions.” ‘
With the Treaty behind us, we were left with the herculean task of taking over the government of a nation. That would have been a colossal undertaking for men of ripe experience’ in constructive statecraft, whereas we were young amateurs of no experience.
Now, I believe In looking facts In the face. For our national and political existence. Two things, it seems to me, were absolutely necessary – security and freedom, And I maintain that it – the London Treaty – gives us these or clears the road for their ultimate attainment, then the compromise we made satisfies Ireland’s aspirations. Our history has not been, as I have so often seen stated, the history of a military struggle which lasted over seven and a half centuries. It has been much more insidious than that, though the ‘peaceful penetration’ that went on with steadfast purpose from generation to generation, I refer to England’s slow encroachment in the economic spheres.
Our main effort has been to withstand and counteract that steady pervasion and exploiting of Ireland, for this was the rodent ulcer that was eating out our national life. It was only when we became conscious of this that we found political freedom an Indispensable remedy and a cure. Our one aim, then one that shone fitfully through the gloom, though as real as the sun itself – was to rid ourselves of the abiding incubus of the enemy’s strength. No one will deny, I suppose,that it was by military force that England held this country. Her officials and judiciary could not have operated at all but for the armed strength which was always there. And taking that as the crux of the position, I maintain that the disappearance of England’s “mailed fist” from our land is clear proof that the rest lies with us alone. It was not for this or that form of government that we battled for ages.
It was for our democratic right that we and our fathers fought. That was the motive which inspiied the Land War and the Home Rule agitation, as well as the Young Ireland and Fenian movements. One of my co-signatories of the Treaty, who differed with us later, stated the position with perfect truth in these words: “It had become plain that it was physically impossible to secure Ireland’s ideal of a completely isolated Republic otherwise than by driving the superior British forces out of the country”, Britain alone, it will be recalled, had raised an army for the Great War which outnumbered the entire population of Ireland. She had, moreover, armament resources by sea and land and air which made the claim that we had beaten her to her knees pathetically absurd. Obviously, then we could not have had a republic or anything else before the Truce of July 11, 1921.We were suffering under a murderous tyranny, and making valiant efforts to assert the democratic right to rule ourselves in our own way. We did make make it very difficult for the enemy to govern us. He was thoroughly alarmed and maintained a precarious hold by sheer violence, which he explained to the world “as restoring law and order”. Our people werebeing hunted and tortured, imprisoned, shot and hanged.
Wholesale burning and merciless havoc were the daily routine of a reign of terror, of which Englishmen yet unborn will surely be ashamed. Even our women and children were warred upon without ruth. in many districts they spent the nights shivering in the fields. There was no peace anywhere. In vain our enemy ilung his force upon the quenchless spirit of our people- And at long last the British Prime Minister himself had to call a truce, and to invite to London the leaders of the ‘murderous gang’ to discuss with himself and his Cabinet Colleagues the terms of a lasting peace. In this way did Ireland secure her practical freedom, with guarantees that it could not
be violated. In this regard let me say again that it is not the Treaty as such that is all-important. Rather is it the complete witlidrawl and evacuation of alien forces of domination and permeation. For this it is which can alone leave us entirely free to develop a purely Irish civilisation. In all the talk and turmoil that followed, it was alleged that we signed theTreaty ‘under duress’ which means that we were not free agents to get everything we desired. But what, in a world like this, is not done ‘under duress’? We were not strong enough, as I have shown, to realise the full republican ideal of complete and isolated sovereignty. Moreover, we must remember that a strong minority in our country, up there in the North-East, does not yet share our national views, and must certainly be reckoned with- So in view of this and other facts, I claim that we did bring back io Ireland the fullest measure of freedom obtainable, which is to say the solid substance of independence. Notwithstanding this, we all know there were men among us who rejected the Treaty.
The leader of these compared our weary people to an exploring party that were crossing the Sahara Desert. And when they came to a green spot, false guides came along and councelled the wanderers to lie down and rest themselves and not tempt fate any further. I agree – with a reservation. The Treaty did bring us to a green oasis – the last in the toilsome desert of our strained hopes and eternal striving against overwhelming odds. Now, oasis are the natural refuge-spots of the waste, and unless the pilgrim reaches them and refreshes himself he can never reach his real destination. I say the Treaty has brought Ireland to the last oasis, beyond which there is but an easy march to go. And I maintain we have earned the right to rest for a while to renew the nation’s strength and restore our early vigour. Britain offered and agreed witli us on peace which the world considered a fair peace. I speak out plainly here. World opinion is no longer against Britain in her dealing with Ireland. And Britain knows this: she knows well besides that she can keep world opinion with her without conceding a Republic at all.
Furthermore, she does hold, rightly or wrongly, that she cannot afford to concede us our full Republican ideal: that this would break up her Commonwealth, that it would destroy her security and prestige if she were to acquiese in a forcible breaking away, which would show her so-called Empire to be an intolerable entity, and herself so feeble as to be unable to prevent it. But Britain will acquiese in the ultimate separation of her units – ourselves amongst them – by a process of natural evolution which will neither expose nor endanger the central state. So we shall do well to have a little patience- Have we not already gained great things for Ireland? The Treaty gives us the substance of independence, and must inevitably lead, sooner or later, to the complete fulfilment of our national aspirations. It is absurd to fear that under the Saorstat Eireann British Government will still be here as a political force, or ihat the British King will have any real sway among us, or that we owe ‘subservience’ or that our soldiers will he only the forces of the British Crown in new uniforms. Such statements as these are sheer misrepresentations- For the whole mechanism of British Government will for the first time be conspicuous by its absence.
When were the English, in all the age-long history of our relations, ever able to legislate for us without holding a pistol at our heads? And is it to be suspposed that they can, as though by magic legislate for us in future when the pistol of their force is removed? What was the main point which we five Plenipolentiaries had to decide and An Dail, too, and the Ard Fheis, and the nation itself at the General Election? It was this: Does the Treaty really free Ireland from effective British control? The question is not whether the Treaty gives us all that we require, and in the shape and words which we would all prefer. I doubt,indeed, whether even that would have been acceptable to all of us, because even the absolute republican form would have been disliked by, and would have alienated, many Irishmen – probably as many as the Treaty form itself has done. The Unionists say thev have sacrificec something in accepting the Free State. North-East Irishmen will say they have sacrificed a very great deal if and when they come to accept it. But the aim of us all should surely be for unity and independence. In public matters of this magnitude it must he realized that we cannot at once attain everything that each one of us demands.
We must needs accept what is essential and go ahead with that, sinking our differences – or at any rate, working for them on legitimate lines which do not undermine or destroy the basis upon which our aims must rest – the union and independence of the nation as a whole. We must be Irish first and last, and Republicans or Frue Staters only within the limits which leave Ireland strong, united and free. A bargain of enormous importance was struck in London in December, 1921, and ‘the goods’ were duly delivered; some of us may think a better bargain might have been made- But surely we will do well to stand together and accept delivery of ‘the goods’ and make the best possibie use of the unquestionable value they represent. For we do need the help of every Irish man and woman in the colossal task which lies before us. Think of the burden of building up the nation by our own efforts, alike on the cultural and material sides, which was the very soul of the Sinn Fein policy. Our labour leaders periodically point to the unemployment problem, to thousands of our people naked and hungry, and huddled like swine in so-called houses – But thg revolutionary objects of Sinn Fein wili never be attained while political thorns are strewn in ihe people’s path to replace the thorns of another day which our enemy placed there for ends of his own.
It is time for all obstructors to stand aside and stop their Nero fiddling when cries of desperation go up from our country, and we seek to feed and clothe the people and silence their anguish with prosperity and joy, too long and tragically denied them. ‘This day begins a new epoch of history”, wrote Goethe, when he heard the guns of Valmy. A new epoch of Irish history was ushered in by the guns of the Easter Rising – even though the enemy was hammering his hardest on St Patrick’s Day, 1921. There was no freedom then to speak the Irish language. We lived explosively. The firing squad was at work, and the hangman was very busy, I never expected to live to write this article, nor to see the day when ships would sail away to England wilh ihe Auxiliaries and Black and Tans, the RIC and British soldiery. together with all swarming civilian occupants of Dublin Castle. Nor did we ever expect to see the Auxiliary Division marching out of Beggar’s Bush Barracks, and our own lads – so lately hunted and harried – taking possession of those big or the Irish nation. How could I ever have expected to’see’ Dublin. Castle itself – that dread Bastille of Ireland – formally surrended into my hands by the Lord Lieutenant in the brocade-hung Council Chamber on my producing a copy of the London Treaty? We had red carpels laid for us on that momentous morning, and I recalled my only previous visit to those grim precincts as the driver of a coal-cart, with a price upon my head! That was the time that we planned our counter-intelligence system in the Holy-of-Holies itself.
Dublin Castle, as we all know, dates back to Meiller Fitz-Henry who erected a fortress, ‘To curb the city and defend it with strong forc and walls’. The walls of the Wardrobe Tower, by the way, are nineteen feel thick. We all know what thai stronghold stood for throughout the ages as the symbol and citadel of British rule. We know also how evil were the influences that radiated from it. “There is no Irish hen-wife, Arthur Griffith remarked, “who believes that good Irishmen can ever be hatched In the Dublin Castle incubator”. That antique citadel is now in Irish hands. And, I ask, what function of Government is there which we cannot now fulfil as we please? The future rests entirely with ourselves, a new order of things Is facing us. Not so long ago the present Postmaster General was a felon In penal servitude. He was presently at work in a ministerial bureau preparing to take over his share of the huge administrative machine. Gaelic lettering now appeared on our postage stamps: and stamps of purely Irish design were put in hand for the first time in the nation’s history. That is an everyday indication of what is happening: and for year’s to come the process of Irishising Ireland will show new phases and institutions of far-reaching meaning and effect, in war I am no civilian, nor am I a war-man in the day of peace. We are all plain people not greatly concerned about mere words. But we do understand facts- We do grasp the trend and’significance of things when we see the enemy putting seaward – the enemy that ruled us in our father’s time and our grandfathers and down the centuries back to the day when the Earl of Pembroke received the keys of Dublin from the Irish chieftains in the reign of King Henry 111.
We knew what it meant when we saw Britain’s troops giving up their strong places all over Ireland; the same troops which protected the battering-ram all over Cork in the Land War: the troops who convoyed out of the country the grain that would have saved millions of our people during the Great Famine: the same troops that beat the Fenians and subdued the men of ’48 and caused the burnings and horrors of ’98 and generally kept us crushed all through the centuries. When we beheld these alien forces in full evacuation, and our own soldier-lads taking their place, then 1 say that all Ireland became aware of far reaching change, with all its implications of a new epoch.
The next step was to frame a democratic constitution in the amplest sense, after searching the constitutions of the whole world and taking from them what was best, profiling in the process by all the errors and experiences of other nations. But the tasks ahead of us are huge as we take over control with a purely Irish Government of our ‘Ard-Ri’, or High King, Brian Borumha – the last wholly Irish Government that ruled the entire nation. In the transition stage we took over a huge welter of misrule and the maladministration of centuries- Then the lawless example of the late reign of terror – the example of tlie British-recruited Black and Tans – left a deplorable legacy to certain impressionable and irresponsible elements in our midst. Even in the most favourable circumstances such as a period of transition in a country is accompanied by eruptions of disorder and spasmodic turbulence, until the new Authority is firmly seated m the saddle, with bridle and spur. We now have a chance of giving our people a lift into the better life, and we their servants, desire to do all that all our people require of us. These people of ours must no longer live ihe life of beasts, as they still do in the west.
We have a chance of ending our city slums and of clearing away the shameful hovels in our countr places. In a word we have opportunities in all directions – not by traveling any soft road, God knows, but by the hard united efforts of us all in enthusiastic team work – to make this Ireland of ours something for the next generation which it was not for ourselves. It is a difficult thing to resume normal national life and to improve it after such a struggle as we Irish have had all through the ages, with a season of merciless and intensified terror so recently as 1921. It is difficult, moreover for a people like ourselves, who for hundreds of years have been deprived of any opportunity to become of governmeni and civil and military administration, to produce immediately a model state. Nor is it reasonable to suppose mat any such miracle is possible.
It is difficult to change the sword into the ploughshare, even when the fields that lie fallow call aloud. I have seen it suggested that suffering and martyrdom are necessary as a refining influence. We know what the value of such trials was in the past. and especially from 1916 onwards. But all that anguish was for an end and not for his own sake: the end in view being freedom and the nobler national life which freedom brings. So let us have done with mere barren and destructive policies or negations of policy. We must begin to build, here and now. There are some 20,000,000 acres of land in Ireland and of this is about 7,000,000 acres, or one-third of the whole, consist of waste land and bogs. Walk along the banks of’ almost any of our rivers and you will find a few fields depth on each side of that river and all along its course are quite useless lands for cultivation. Now, if you can only sink the river-beds and drain those bogs you would bring enough new land into being to stop the national haemorrage of emigration for the whole of that year. There you have the practical politics of our new day, Again my own people in Skibbereen were recently paying 44s a ton for freight on imported coal.
What power I ask you has now the British Government or any other Government, to prevent the River lee from being dredged and sunk so that a ship may come up alongside out wharves and deliver coal at a cost of 8 shillings-9 shillings a ton? Such are the prosaic yet vital tasks which await our energy. Our peopie look for deeds not words- We have to build up- a new civilisation on the foundations of the old. And here let me say it is not the leaders of the Irish people who can do this for the people. Leaders can only point the way- They can but do their best to establish a reign of justice and of law and order which will enable the people to attain their ideals- Let me repeat this with all earnestness: It Is not to political leaders that our people must look but to themselves. After all what are leaders but indviduals liable to error and weakness? The strength ol our nation musl be the strength of the spirit of the whole people. We need a political, economic and social system in accordance with our national character. It must be a system in which our material intellectual and spirtilual needs and forces will find the fullest expression and satisfaction. So, if we have the courage and the will, the exercise of our right to govern ourselves will in due time give us all that we want – prosperity and happy lives in out own country: good homes to live in, sound Irish education for every boy and girl in a new Ireland of which, by our love and labour, we can soon make a land where all can dwell in self respect and joy- These are the basic facts as I see them- And 1 hope I have ‘cleared the road’