CHAPTER 1 – HOW IT HAPPENED
HOW IT HAPPENED
It began belligerently. It grew into a friendship I valued more than any other I ever made. The reference is to my relationship with Michael Collins. I tell it not because these two facts matter to anyone except me, but because they are in themselves proof of the greatness of this Irishman. And, inasmuch as I found him, in nine months of intimate association, the finest character it has ever been my good fortune to know, I mean to adduce such proof as I can as will tend to justify my opinion.
My job as a newspaper correspondent took me to Dublin early in December, 1921. I made the trip from London aboard the train that carried the five plenipotentiaries and the Treaty they had signed the night before. But it was not until several days later that I met Collins.
Of the no correspondents representing newspapers in all parts of the world at that first public session of Dail Eireann, none could have been more unconversant with the Irish situation than I was. But that did not prevent my quickly discovering that Collins was far and away the most interesting figure in all that remarkable parliament. An interview with him was patently what newspaper readers most wanted. So I made it my business, during a lull in the proceedings, to follow him into the lobby and introduce myself to him. He made an appointment to see me at ten o’clock that evening at the Gresham Hotel.
A quarter of an hour before time, I arrived at the Gresham and sent my card upstairs. Ten minutes later boiling with rage, all the more maddening because I realised that the interview would be regarded in newspaper circles as a rare ” beat,” and at the same time in the depths of my ignorance counting these inexperienced, untried statesmen as distinctly small fry I sat down at a desk in the lounge and wrote the following note :
” DEAR MR. COLLINS,
” You invited me to visit you here at ten o’clock this evening. Word is now brought me you are ‘ too busy ‘ to see me. Is this the answer you wish me to send to my fifteen million readers in America ?
” HAYDEN TALBOT.”
Further to express my outraged feelings I scorned to put the impudent note in an envelope. I folded the sheet of paper once and addressed it merely, ” Michael Collins.”
In three minutes by the clock the note was returned to me with the following reply written in one corner :
” I thought I said 10.30 and will be down at 10.30. Please wait and oblige, ” M. C.”
It was not only a case of the ” soft answer ” ; it was evidence sufficiently striking to convince me that here was a big man. Even before I knew more about him than what these few words told me, he had made me ashamed of myself for my arrogance.
He kept me waiting only half as long as I had expected, and as soon as our eyes met it was apparent he intended to go more than halfway to be friendly.
” This is no place to talk,” he said hurriedly. ” Come upstairs with me.”
Now that I look back on it I am sure Collins had quite forgotten who I was. Many times since he has proved possession of a marvellous memory, but with the desperately urgent matters then weighing on his mind it would have been impossible for him to have visualised me from my card. Seeing me was different. And a sense of this, even while my earlier hostility was still uppermost, had place in my consciousness.
He sprang up the stairs two at a time physically, as well as mentally, Collins was the embodiment of speed and swiftly showed the way down a corridor that led to the rear portion of the hotel. Later, I was to learn that this whole wing was occupied by the organisation that since has come into official being as the Free State Government. As we passed quickly along I caught sight of one room stripped of its bedroom fittings and literally packed with men for the most part wearing trench coats and caps.
Almost at the end of the passage Collins stopped and pushed open a door, nodding to me to follow. As I stepped over the threshold I saw Arthur Griffith seated at a table busily writing. He glanced at Collins and then immediately resumed his labours. Collins strode across the room and opened the door of the adjoining room, again nodding to me to follow him. So finally we came face to face in the last of ten communicating rooms. I noted that the door opening into the passage was fitted with two heavy bolts.
” Have a drink ? ” asked my host, for the first time his eyes showing the glint of a smile.
Almost before he had removed his thumb from the pushbutton, a youngster in the inevitable trench coat and cap opened the door of the adjoining room, took Collins’ order and disappeared. In ten seconds he was back again with a tall glass containing my wish.
” Sorry,” apologised Collins, ” but I am not drinking myself.”
In the next quarter of an hour, while I explained at length the importance, from his viewpoint, of taking the public into his confidence (that public which my newspapers reached !!!), ! had abundant evidence that I was present at a secret conclave of the Treaty leaders, the first one, as I later learned, to be held after the signing of the Treaty. A dozen times while I was closeted with Collins, young, eager, serious-visaged chaps stuck their heads into the room and brought their chief close to them with a peremptory nod. A swift whispered word or two and they would be gone. Without knowing it at the time, I was witnessing the working out of a scheme to force an early adjournment of the Dail to give these leaders time to undertake a campaign of education that would result in a crystallisation of public sentiment that would compel Dail Eireann to accept the Treaty.
When I had finished stating my case I asked Collins what he wished to say for publication. For a space he sat looking at me soberly as if weighing the consequences of departing from his long established policy of silence. Then he sprang from his seat and crossed the room in three strides.
” Do you mind if I bring Mr. Griffith in ? ” he asked.
A moment later I discovered another quality of this man that stamped him truly big. In his attitude towards Griffith and be it remembered that Griffith himself went on record in the Dail as being prouder of his association with Collins than of any other incident in his life there was the limit of respectful yielding. I subsequently discovered that Collins maintained this attitude towards the lowliest of his supporters. He listened to advice from his chauffeur. But while we three were together that first night, Collins made it evident, even to me, a stranger, that his was in no sense the yielding of an inferior to a superior ; it was rather the well-mannered deference of a junior to a senior equal.
Followed fifteen minutes of staccato interchange of opinions Collins doing most of the questioning and Griffith furnishing for the most part monosyllabic replies. The discussion revolved around the advisability of making any statement for publication at that time. They talked freely, seeming to ignore the fact of my presence. Finally, Collins tore a few pages from his notebook and wrote the following :
” At a late hour I talked with Michael Collins. He was reticent, had little to say and was reluctant to say it. He supported the Treaty and stood for it. He was not very concerned with oaths. He was concerned about getting the English out of Ireland and having a chance of going ahead to rebuild the Irish nation. He is full of hope and buoyancy, and although he is well aware that the Treaty does not mean full freedom he states emphatically that it does give freedom to show the Irish capable of making their national status secure and strong. He says he is the practical man, and he looks forward with hope to the future with confidence in the will and strength of the Irish people to make themselves a nation among the nations. He thinks of Ireland as a home of freedom for the individual a place where men and women shall be really free.”
It was not as much as I had hoped for, but it was all he would volunteer that night. There was a great deal more I might have sent off from the cable office and it would have been infinitely more worth while in a news sense. So far as any direct prohibition was concerned I could have done so. Neither Collins nor Griffith had asked me to treat their conversation as confidential. But experience in interviewing English and European statesmen had taught me their viewpoint in the matter. Whereas in America anything that is said to a newspaper man is properly part of an interview and so to be published, a different rule of conduct prevails on this side of the Atlantic. Frequently the so-called ” interview ” is written by the person interviewed. Invariably the article is edited and signed by him before publication. Fortunately for me, on this occasion I took no liberties. If up to that evening I had held the mistaken view that Irishmen were relatively as undeveloped and unimportant in statesmanship as, say, Filipinos under Spanish rule, that half-hour had quite undeceived me. Here was another George Washington another Thomas Jefferson. And only 150 years ago an ignorant world made the error of holding them cheap !
I never did discover whether Collins granted me the interview and made his statement purposely incomplete merely to test my trustworthiness. In any event, he gave no other interview during that period until, a second time, he yielded to my persuasions.
It was the night of January 4, 1922, the night following the day of bitterest recriminations the stormy sessions of Dail Eireann had yet produced. Hour after hour, Brugha and Stack, MacEntee and Childers, Markievicz and Mac-Sidney had hurled their charges of treason at Collins and Griffith. President De Valera ever the conciliator but more than ever this day the misunderstood, misrepresented, maligned idealist had hotly denounced references to his Document No. 2. Having been discussed in secret session as a confidential document, he insisted it must not be referred to in public sessions of An Dail. After Griffith had disgustedly declared against this tying of his hands, but had bowed to the wishes of the Republican leader, a surprise was sprung on the Dail by Cosgrave, ablest of Collins’ lieutenants. By as cunning a bit of parliamentary manoeuvring as any national assembly ever saw, Cosgrave managed to read into the record the oath of allegiance to the British Crown which was contained in De Valera’s Document No. 2.
The trick stung De Valera into a violent rage. In the midst of a denunciation of the methods of his opponents he suddenly sprang a surprise on his own account. Since the Treaty supporters were trying to make political capital out of his desire to keep Document No. 2 a secret, he would take the wind out of their sails by agreeing to publish it at the close of the day’s session !
True to his word, De Valera had mimeographed copies of the mysterious document distributed to the Dail and the newspaper men just before adjournment. Almost immediately Griffith was on his feet charging that De Valera had omitted parts of the original text. The uproar that followed was abruptly squelched by an adjournment. Immediately afterwards, Desmond FitzGerald then Minister of Publicity of Dail Eireann, and generally regarded at that time as De Valera’s personal Press agent called the newspaper men together in the lobby and handed out a ” Proclamation ” signed by the President of the Irish Republic.
The first sentence showed me that it was a virulent attack on the Treaty supporters and an apologia as regards Document No. 2. I was sure Collins and Griffith knew nothing about it. Without waiting to read further, I made for the private room reserved for the Treaty leaders. Unceremoniously I burst in upon them and handed the Proclamation to Collins. I waited while they read it together. Their half-smothered comments as they scanned the vitriolic lines were unprintable if human.
” Has he given this to the Press ? ” asked Collins.
When I told him this was the case, he dropped into a chair and began to write feverishly. At the same time Griffith started hunting through his attaché case.
” Here is Document No. 2,” said Griffith a moment later, pulling out a much-worn sheaf of papers on which were many marginal notes in lead pencil. ” I will show you how it compares with the one he made public tonight.”
For the next ten minutes he pointed out the paragraphs that had been deleted from the document brought forward at the session. What Griffith had charged in the Dail was amply justified. The omissions were there for anyone to see.
Collins interrupted us to ask Griffith to listen to what he had written. Immediately Griffith had approved it, Collins handed the statement to me.
” Do what you like with it,” he said.
A few moments later I put the following despatch on the cable :
” It is likely that the Treaty may be beaten but that does not in any way indicate that I am without hope. Ireland is not going to be deprived of her right to live her life in her own way no matter who tries to deny or to defer that right. The Irish people have already decided that the Treaty meets with their approval as being the practical course to adopt at the present tune. The Treaty has been signed by England, and surely it cannot be advanced that England is going to keep a treaty that she has not signed but is going to break a treaty that she has signed. This Treaty does give us a chance and does give Ireland a chance to work out its own future on something like fair terms. If the Treaty is beaten I have already stated that I as one of the plenipotentiaries am absolved from further responsibility. The Treaty is then dead, and those who have killed it have, of course, the position in their hands to follow their policy, and their policy is unknown to me. If the opposition throws the Treaty away they ought first to have the alternative Treaty duly signed to put against it. So far as I am aware there is not an alternative Treaty. A document has been produced as an amendment, but before that can be honestly put as a real amendment the president ought to secure the signatures of the English delegates and secure ratification of the new document by the English Parliament. Then it would be a Treaty. This course will make the new document equal to the Treaty, and even when the new document is signed and ratified by the English I am certain that plain people will scarcely see any material difference between it and the Treaty. One important thing must not be forgotten. If we offer this new document as our proposal for final settlement it commits us morally to finality. It puts a definite boundary to the march of our nation, and that must not be done, and I as one Irishman and a public representative of this country cannot agree to that.
When Collins wrote this, his best information indicated a total of 63 votes for the Treaty enough to give a majority of two if every eligible member of the Dail voted. But as he later explained to me, there were not a few members who intended to vote against the Treaty while secretly glad that it was sure to be accepted. To frighten these members into voting honestly Collins at all times before the vote expressed grave doubts as to the result. The wisdom of this policy of pessimism was reflected in the final majority of seven for the Treaty.
If I had known as much about the part Document No. 2 had played in the Treaty negotiations as I know now, I could have marvelled as much as I now marvel at Collins’ gallant refusal to let the people know the truth about De Valera’s duplicity. In its proper place I shall tell the whole story of those long months of negotiations in London and of the part De Valera, in Dublin, played in them.
Meantime, Collins had been engaged in writing a series of ten articles for publication in the newspapers I represented a series intended to deal with the hitherto untold incidents leading up to the Treaty negotiations as well as the inside story of the negotiations themselves. As a matter of fact the series contained no revelations, but dealt with facts that were chiefly encyclopaedic. The situation as it then existed prohibited Collins from divulging the truth. So it came about that I addressed a note to him from London reading in part as follows :
” Demands from both American and English sources have been made on me:
” (a) To persuade you to write your own story for publication in book form, or
” (b) to write a book about you myself, and in the event of my failing to do the former, it looks as if I must do the latter ! !
” No one better than I knows how criminal it is to ask you to add a jot to the sum total of your days’ labours, but also no one better than I appreciates your tremendous capacity for work and your disregard of personal considerations where the good of your country is concerned. I am sure, moreover, you keenly appreciate the vital importance of sparing no pains to acquaint the plain people of America and England with the truth about Ireland, and to this end nothing could compare in point of widespread circulation with a book ‘ By Michael Collins.’
” Then in order to put within its covers facts which you have made plain to me you are loath to touch upon, but which readers of both countries are hungering to have perhaps you would not object to my adding certain biographical data about you by way of an addendum.”
In a day or two came Collins’ answer, reading in part as follows :
” I have thought carefully over the proposal you make, and although I should like to meet your wishes I really cannot possibly find the time to do anything that would be up to standard, and I must, therefore, ask that you do not press me in this regard.
” In my own opinion a book about me would be of little value except it was written by somebody who was closely associated with me in the troublous times. I really don’t think it could be done by anybody but myself.
” Perhaps we could talk it over when we meet again.”
I went immediately to Dublin and, after several conferences with Collins, succeeded in gaining his assent to my undertaking the telling of his story. In order to give him an idea of the kind of information English and American readers wanted from him, I prepared a series of written questions covering as comprehensively as I could the whole story of Ireland’s fight for freedom. These I submitted to Collins. A few days later he sent for me.
“I’m going to answer every one of your questions,” he began. ” What’s more, I’m going to tell you things you haven’t asked about. You’re undertaking a big job, and it is worth while doing it thoroughly. I’ll help you to do just that.”
And that is how it happened.