Michael Collins was killed by a bullet fired in the course of an ambush in the vicinity of Beal na mBlath in the late evening of 22nd August 1922. Meteorological Service records show that a trough of low pressure crossed the area very late in the day and that these dull conditions mean that light around sunset (roughly 20.45 to 20.50 modern time) was poor. This is all that is certain for that evening. Two opposing groups were shooting bullets at each other. About fifty rifle men and three machine-gunners fired for about half an hour. Visibility was poor. That a man was killed in the circumstances can hardly be regarded as unexpected. What might be thought surprising is that only one man was in fact killed. Had that man been anyone on either side, except Collins, it is highly unlikely that speculation as to who killed him would have arisen. It would have been accepted as inevitable. Why, then, does the identity of whoever fired the fatal shot continue to be something sought after, speculated about, the subject of rumour.

One circumstance that has contributed was the fact that an inquest was not held, nor the results of any other official inquiry, if any, made public. It is not that an inquest would or would not have named names. The attackers would hardly have volunteered evidence. Those on the government side may have or would have been compelled to.

The government had in fact made an announcement on 29th June – that is nearly two months before the ambush – that inquests “should be held on all dead civilians and also on all military killed whose deaths did not occur in definite military action.” This direction would obviously exclude an inquest on Collins’ death on the basis that it was in the course of a “definite military action”. What was, apparently, not officially regarded as a “definite military action” was the shooting dead by government forces of an I.R.A. officer, Captain T. Kenefick, on whom an inquest was held on 8th September, 1922. The jury returned a verdict of murder against General Emmet Dalton and Richard Mulcahy. Then, a week later, on 16th September a public notice signed by General Dalton appeared in the Cork Examiner newspaper ordering that no inquests were to be held in future in County Cork without written authority from him.

The machine gunner of the Slievenamon armoured car, Jock McPeake, became a suspect. McPeake had served in the machine-gun corps of the Southerland Highlanders in World War I, continued on escort duties with General Dalton after the ambush, and witnessed the shooting of two I.R.A. men near Cork city. He was apparently troubled by this and determined to leave the army and return to Scotland. When his H.Q. was changed to Bandon his colleagues there blamed him for not protecting his Commander-in-Chief at Beal-na-mBlath and he felt intimidated. He contacted the local I.R.A. and on the night of 2nd December, 1922, by prior arrangement, deserted his unit bringing with him the Slievenamon and a Lewis machine-gun. He was guided by two I.R.A. men and took the same route to Crookstown as that followed on 22nd August. From Crookstown they went to grandmother – Galvins’ house at Clodagh where the binoculars of the armoured-car were left. The armoured-car was driven to the Ballyvourney area and later used by the I.R.A. in attacks on local villages. McPeake took no further part in the fighting but remained in the Cork/Kerry border area until mid-June 1923 when he was smuggled out in a cattle-boat to Glasgow.

The Irish Government determined to pursue him and asked the British to return him to Ireland for trial. In July he was taken into custody by the Glasgow police. Irish police officers arrived in Glasgow and he was taken to Cork Jail. There was a question over the legality of the transfer since the charges to be alleged against him took place before the Irish Free State had come into official existence – this did not take place until 6th December, 1922 – and it was argued that extradition was not lawful. Nonetheless, Jock McPeake was charged before a military court in Cork with having deserted from the Irish Free State Army but when it was asserted in court that the offence was committed under the jurisdiction of a body which technically no longer existed viz, the Provisional Government, he was discharged. On leaving the court he was re-arrested by the Gardai and charged with stealing a Rolls-Royce armoured-car and its contents. He was found guilty and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. He was released from Portlaoise prison in July 1928. A group of Republican sympathisers took up a collection – for presentation to him – of £60 – a substantial amount of money at that time. He returned to Scotland, changed his name by deed poll and does not again trouble Irish history.

The above circumstances caused some suspicion to fall on McPeake in relation to the death of Collins. During the ambush he fired two prepared belts of ammunition each of two hundred rounds, on Republican position B. While with the Republicans in the Ballyvourney area after his desertion he explained that the machine-gun had then jammed because the third belt was unevenly fitted by an inexperienced operator. By a remarkable coincidence the machine-gun finished up in the hands of a later-day I.R.A. group and is supposed to have jammed in a border operation during the seventies..

The I.R.A. acknowledged the accuracy of the machine-gun fire on their position. Local people remarked that the ferns and briars had been literally cut from the top of the fence under which the I.R.A. sheltered. During the court proceedings no mention was made by the prosecution of any connection with Michael Collins and the vigour with which the case against McPeake was pressed seemed to have been caused by the formidable and dangerous nature of what he had stolen and not by any suspicion that he might have killed Collins.

Another unlikely subject of rumours was Collins friend and escort, Emmet Dalton. It was put about that he had perhaps shot Collins. This rumour was totally rejected by people who had been close to both Dalton and Collins and no circumstance had been adduced which could properly be held to lend credence to it. He was regarded as being totally loyal to Collins who had bought him to London with him during the Treaty negotiations. He had participated in the attempted rescue of General Sean MacEoin from Mountjoy Prison, Dublin where he was held by the British. Collins’ death affected him deeply and, some months afterwards, he retired from the Army. Following the official establishment of the Irish Free State in December 1922, he was appointed to the important post of Clerk of the Seanad by W.T. Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council. It is certain that he would not have received such an appointment had a shred of suspicion been attached to him by the government.

Dalton, like many thousands of other Irishmen, had seen service in the British Army and this had made him a target of rumour. The circumstances of the ambush itself further tend to belie the rumour. The accounts show that Collins was alone when he was killed and was hidden from the view of Dalton and the other members of the convoy at the time. He had run forward when he spotted some of the I.R.A. force leaving the scene and had moved around a bend in the road out of sight of his companions. The bend is that which was removed in the subsequent road-works but which, at the time, would have precluded his being in the line of fire from any of the convoy party.

In his accounts of the ambush, Dalton concluded from his military experience that the large wound at the back of Collins’ head could only have been caused by a ricochet or a dum-dum bullet. The use of dum-dum bullets in warfare was outlawed by the Hague Conference on warfare in 1899. Republicans were sensitive to government propaganda regarding the use of such bullets and the Poblacht na hEireann War News of September 25 1922 contained the news item:-

“More Dum-Dum Lying. The official [i.e. Government] report of September 17 on three Free State troops killed in Tipperary reads:- ‘The severe gaping wounds inflicted on the troops would go to show that dum-dum ammunition had been used, A report by two doctors at the subsequent inquest stated that the wounds were not caused by dum-dum bullets”.

The size of the wound at the back of Collins’ head suggested to Dalton that it could have been caused by a ricochet bullet. He apparently did not notice the small wound on the hair-line of Collins’ forehead but others, including Fr. Piggott, the Army chaplain did remark on it.

The Irish State Pathologist, Dr. Harbinson, in a 1989 R.T.E. documentary, The Shadow of Beal na mBlath, demonstrated that a high velocity rifle bullet, such as that used in a Lee Enfield rifle making an inconspicuous entry wound at or above the hair-line, could leave a large gaping wound on exiting. Apparently the bullet drives both bone particles and an air pocket in front of it producing such a result. Dr. Harbinsons’ explanation is a significant expert contribution countering the idea that a dum-dum or a ricochet had caused the wound.

Some writers in recent years, on very limited evidence have identified the person who fired the fatal shot that caused his death, basing their conclusions on accounts given by Jim Kearney and Timmie Sullivan who spoke of the role as engineers in the action. Subsequently the Florence O’Donoghue account became available when his papers were given to the National Library. The official brigade engineers are named in this account but the Kearney or O’Sullivan names are not listed and no one has ever identified either person as being present in the area to this writer. The Kearney account puts most of the fighting in the Ahalarick Bridge area – 300 metres south of the monument. Apart from the fact that the area is flat bogland, providing no cover for an ambush group, Meda Ryan is alone in putting the fighting in that area.

Three Republican participants at position B told me that they engaged with the occupants of the Leyland Touring car and the armoured car. A Local story puts Griffin – the driver of the Brewery Dray as driving his horse from the Foley farmyard where he had remained since the dray was commandeered. Griffin it is said was only a very short distance from the main Beal na mBlath road when the Crossley tender passed by. Meda Ryan also states that most of the Republicans were armed with Thompson machine-guns. All I can say about this is that I am not aware, nor have I seen suggestions to the effect elsewhere, that the attackers possessed even one machine-gun.

Fr. Patrick Twohig in his book, The Dark Secret of Bealnablath, named seven men who, in his opinion, may have shot Collins. Two were I.R.A. men from Kerry who were walking home to Glenflesk after Cork city had been occupied by Government forces earlier in August. A third person – a native of Lismore – is said to have come upon the battle scene that evening, fired shots at the convoy and saw a man fall. People who lived more than three miles from the battle scene have consistently held that the heavy firing could be distinctly heard that evening. On the other hand there is no tradition of any other stray groups of armed men passing through the locality that evening and since almost every house in the area was an I.R.A. house it would be surprising if groups could pass through unnoticed.

Almost everyone involved at Beal-na-mBlath wished that they had never been there. The reason the I.R.A. were there was that it had been selected some days earlier as Cork I.R.A. No. 3 Brigade H.Q. and Liam Deasy O/C First Southern Division had made the Brigade H.Q. the venue for an important meeting, called for the afternoon of 22nd August. Officers and men of the 3rd Brigade had arrived at Beal-na-mBlath from the fighting at Buttevant on the evening of 21st August. They did not even know that Michael Collins was in Cork, nor even in the South, until he was recognised in the military convoy which passed through on the morning of 22nd August. The I.R.A. men were a demoralised, frustrated and bitter group that had tasted defeat by Provisional Government forces in Limerick who had forced them to retreat to their own area. Long’s pub in the village filled up that morning with angry men whose pride was hurt.

The natural reaction was that Collins and his “Dublin crowd”could not be allowed pass through their area unchallenged. Many of the men at Beal-na-mBlath had been close personal friends of Michael Collins and he had chaired the meeting at which the Brigade was founded.

De Valera became aware of the mood of the men and remarked that it would be a great pity if Collins was killed because he might be succeeded by a weaker man. The Divisional Staff agreed, in accordance with general I.R.A. military policy, that the convoy should be attacked and they laid an ambush for it in the belief that it would later return by the same route.

If the I.R.A. had a clear reason for being in the area of Beal-na-mBlath, that was no clear military reason for Collins to be there. The ostensible reason for going to Macroom was to deliver rifles and a machine-gun to Commandant Conlons’ Army forces there. But it did not require the presence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army to, in effect, act as a delivery man, in particular for such a relatively minor purpose. If a military purpose had been in prospect surely a much bigger and better organised expedition was called for.

Furthermore, Collins and Dalton must have known that the Beal-na-mBlath area was predominantly republican – Liam Deasy in his book said that in the five companys areas on the routes to Bandon not one active volunteer had joined the Free State Army.

The actual convoy, in addition to being of inadequate strength for travelling through hostile territory, did not seem to be properly organised. It carried no competent guides, relying on picking them up as they went along, and had proceeded on its journey in a disorganised fashion with varying elements being out of sight of each other from time to time and having no adequate communication system. Obviously there was no definite plan for dealing with an attack. It neglected its primary purpose of protecting the Commander-in-Chief. In the course of the engagement, he became merely another soldier. When the first shots were fired at the convoy, Dalton had ordered the driver to “drive like hell” out of the ambush. Collins himself countermanded the order and said “Stop! We’ll fight them”. Even in the presence of the Commander-in-Chief, Dalton was in charge and it was for him to determine what to do.

In all the circumstances it could be said that Collins’s death at Beal-na-mBlath was a tragedy waiting to happen.

Perhaps it would be foolish to assert that, by now, all the evidence is in as to what happened at Beal-na-mBlath. All the participants have died and is anything to be gained by pursuing the question as to who shot Michael Collins? There is no question of retribution. The man who fired the shot has passed on. The passions of the time have subsided. Collins, however, was during the fight to drive England government from Ireland, a hero to all nationally-mined people. The Civil War brought a thousand Republican prisoners to their knees in mourning for a great Irishman. He remains a hero. It is as if the people do not want to let go of him. The last particular of his life and death must be known. He can only properly be laid to rest when that last particular sees the light.

That light may never shine, however. The mystery as to who fired the fatal bullet will remain. Still some conclusions can be drawn from the evidence set forth in this book-

1. The tragedy should never have occurred. Collins, knowing it or not knowing it, had determined his own fate in being part of an ill-conceived foray into a hostile environment. He had, after all, on the signing of the Treaty said “I have signed my actual death warrant”.

2. Emmet Dalton did not kill Collins.

3. Jock McPeake did not kill Collins.

4. The I.R.A. did not know at the time that Collins had been hit.

5. No I.R.A. man then or since admitted firing the fatal shot.

6. The evidence does not pinpoint the position from which that shot was fired and with all the participants dead, the men who were in that position and which of them struck Collins down will never be known.