Chapter 2. – INTRODUCING MICHAEL COLLINS –
INTRODUCING MICHAEL COLLINS
IT was typical of the man that he should have postponed answering those of my questions dealing with his biography until the last. Whilst, like Theodore Roosevelt and other truly great men whom I have known, Collins was an egoist, there was a side of his character that made him as modest and almost diffident as a schoolboy.
One of the last subjects we discussed together was the matter of a proper portrait to be used as a frontispiece in this book. I asked him if there were any especial photograph which he liked.
” Not one,” he replied. ” It may be that my opinion is biassed, but I have never yet seen a camera’s handiwork when I have been in front of the lens that I have not been disappointed with. But so long as a man’s alive, I do not see the use of photographs of him. It’s surely not what he looks like but what he does that matters.”
Arguing from my publisher’s viewpoint, I ventured as delicately as possible to hint that perhaps even he might fail to achieve eternal life on earth, and in the event of his failure to do so the condition which he insisted alone warranted the use of his portrait would come into being.
” In other words,” he said, with a characteristic smile, ” you mean I may be done in at any moment and you want me preserved. Is that it ? ”
” Well,” I replied, ” that may not be it, but if it is, I have your word for it that there’ll be several headaches spread around.”
” You may be easy about that,” said Collins, slipping into his army greatcoat and extending a hand for a farewell shake. ” If they get me I’ll have no complaints to make : or, if that is too much of a ‘ bull,’ at least you can be sure that if I could speak, I’d blame nobody but myself.”
And so I left the man who, in the time I had had the privilege of knowing him, had already proved himself the finest character, the most astoundingly efficient worker and the greatest natural leader of men I have ever known.
Earlier that evening I had finally wrung from Collins the story of his early life. I have his word for it that I am the only person to whom he ever confided these details. Here is the story in his own words :
” I was born in 1890 on a farm in Woodfield, Clonakilty, Co. Cork. The Irish name of the place and the name it is still known by is pronounced Paulveug. I was the youngest of eight children with two brothers and five sisters in the home.
” My father was Michael Collins, a farmer. He was born in 1815 and lived the life of a bachelor until he was in his sixty-third year. Then, at sixty-two years of age, he married my mother and she was forty years younger than he. When I was born my father was seventy-five years of age. My mother’s maiden name was Mary O’Brien. Her native town was Tullineasky, Clonakilty. She outlived my father by ten years. He died in 1897.
” All my early life I lived in childish wonder of my father. Although I was a lad of seven when he died, he had already inspired me with implicit faith in his goodness, his strength, his infallibility. I remember as if it were yesterday an instance of my faith. It proved that I could not conceive anything of his doing that was not altogether right.
” I was out in the fields with him one day, watching him at work a rare privilege in my kid’s eyes. He was on top of a wall of bog stones, and I was on the turf below him. One of the stones, a good sized one, was dislodged under his feet and came rolling down straight at me. There was plenty of time for me to dodge it, but it never occurred to me to move. ‘Twas my father’s foot had done the business. Surely the stone could do me no harm. To this day I carry the mark on my instep where it crushed my foot. It was not for many a year afterwards that I was ever able to understand my father’s great laughter as he told and retold the tale.
” ‘ Would you believe it ? ‘ he would say. ‘ There he was, barefooted, the stone rolling down on him, and him never so much as looking at it ! And when I got the thing off his foot and asked him why he had stood there and let it hit him, what do you think he replied ? He told me ’twas I who sent it down ! ‘
” And after his great laughter had subsided he would grow serious, and the pride of family that was in him would show itself. For he always finished by saying, ‘ It’s a true Collins he is ! ‘
” On my father’s side there are records of ancestors back 450 years, when they were chieftains of the tribes of Munster. Part of their slogan runs like this :
‘ ‘ Multitudinous is their gathering a great host with whom it is not fortunate to contend the battle trooped host of the O’Coileain.’
” I was a reverential kid. Reverence was not only instilled into me by my father ; it seemed a natural trait. Great age held something for me that was awesome. I was much fonder of the old people in the darkness than I was of young people in the daytime. It’s at night you’re able to get the value of old people. And it was listening to the old people that I got my ideas of Irish nationality.
” In the matter of schooling I had the education of the ordinary farmer’s son in Ireland a kind of teaching im- possible to compare with American or English systems. But at least I had the advantage of having good tutors and of a tremendous appetite for knowledge. But it was not even a secondary-school education, as that term is understood in England. It was about as much and about as good as Irish boys generally got in those days.
“A far more valuable education was at hand in the never-ceasing talk of Ireland’s destiny, the injustices from which she had suffered in the past, and was still suffering. As I grew up to young manhood the Parnell speech was the one great topic of discussion. Those were the days when every person in Ireland was thinking in terms of Home Rule. Home Rule at the early morning breakfast-table, Home Rule all the day, Home Rule by every hearth side in the evening on such fare did the young Ireland of my generation feed and grow to manhood. It was this sort of thing that made one part of the atmosphere of nationalism.
” In our own home forgathered of an evening the people who were leaders of thought in the community. Others might have dismissed them as ‘ local politicians ‘ for one reason or another a contemptuous term but, as a matter of fact, they were very intelligent as regards the doctrine of nationalism. And as for localism, in the sense that it is narrow and petty, one must regard the circumstances of an Irish family in that time. What was local to us in Clonakilty was in nowise different from the immediate environment of a Galway or a Connaught village.
” The early settlers of America, from New England to Virginia, thought along identical lines, even though they did so unwittingly and without realisation of their common purpose. From what I hear today it would seem that then there was in America more of common purpose, and in that sense of a distinctively national spirit, than there is today. But then their motive was a simple one self-preservation. So with us in Ireland at the beginning of the century. A cause, an inheritance, and a need common to us all inspired us. It wasn’t a thing that any man or set of men could govern. It was different from that.
” When an Irish boy in those days feasted on real bacon to the accompaniment of his father’s reminiscent comments the spirit of nationalism was breathed into him. For the father was saying that in his youth the pigs were raised exclusively for the landlords !
” With my sixteenth birthday behind me I took the Civil Service examinations like thousands of other Irish lads of my station. For many years the British Civil Service had appeared to be the only worthwhile alternative to independent emigration. Both meant emigration, of course. Successful candidates were seldom, if ever, put in Irish posts. Theoretically, the candidate might be sent to any part of the British Empire. But experience had taught us that almost invariably our berth would be in England. Whether to keep an eye on us or to take advantage of our native ability, the powers that be staffed their London posts almost entirely with Irishmen. And I at seventeen wanted to live in the world’s biggest city.
” Quickly, however, I discovered I was in a blind alley in the Civil Service. To be sure, it was to London I went with a clerkship in the Post Office a junior position that paid 70 a year. At the end of two years I resigned.
” Followed several years of other jobs, none of which satisfied my ideas of opportunity. First I took a minor post in a stockbroker’s office, then a clerkship in the Guarantee Trust Company of New York at its branch in the city. But with each passing year I felt more and more convinced that London for me held as little real opportunity as did Ireland.
” Of course, I had Irish friends in London before I arrived, and in the intervening years I had made many more friends among Irishmen resident in London. For the most part we lived lives apart. We chose to consider our-
selves outposts of our nation. We were a distinct community a tiny eddy, if you like, in the great metropolis. But we were proud of our isolation, and we maintained it to the end.
” When wonder is expressed, as it often is, that I could have lived eight years in London and still have been so little known that 120,000 British troops and Black and Tans could not find me in four years of hunting me in Ireland, I can only attribute it to that policy of voluntary isolation we all observed in London. And, after all, Michael Collins, junior clerk, could hardly be expected to have attracted any notice especially in an English business house. It was just that fact that had convinced me there was every chance, if I remained in England, to continue to be a clerk the rest of my life.
” And then came a real opportunity !
” Queerly enough, it was preceded by another an offer to go to America.
” It was in 1914, just before the declaration of war, that the chance came to take passage to New York. I could have gone under the most advantageous conditions, and with the one thing I had been looking for a fair chance to get ahead. But when I laid the scheme before Tom Clarke
(the Thomas J. Clarke of Easter Week) he advised me not to go. His reason satisfied me. He said there was going to be something doing in Ireland within a year. That was good enough for me. I changed my mind about going to America, and plodded along in my uncongenial job.
” It was in May 1915 after Sean McDermott had been arrested and lodged in prison to serve a four months’ sentence for making a seditious speech that I realised the climax was swiftly approaching. The British Secret Service was turning in reports from Ireland that must have been disquieting to a Government then at death-grips with the German military machine. With all the impetuosity of twenty-five I went to Tom Clarke and told him I was ready to go home and do whatever he wanted me to do. But he was not ready for me to go. The time was close at hand, he told me, but for the present I was to remain in London. I obeyed. I had good reason to obey.
” I had not forgotten what he had said to me almost a year earlier, when he had led me to turn down the offer from America. ‘ You should wait/ he had said then, ‘ for the time when we are going to do something to bring the Irish case to international notice.’
” Before the summer of 1915 was ended, however, I got the summons and hurried to Dublin. With me went fifteen of my pals all of us with years of London living behind us. Out of that little group six were killed in the rising of Easter Week, 1916. One of these was my brother-in-law.
” It may be worth the telling at this time to point out a somewhat unusual fact of a purely personal nature. It is unusual, certainly, when one stops to consider that in forty years Ireland has lost almost half her population through emigration. Out of my family of eight, only one, my brother Patrick, voluntarily left Ireland. My sister Helen, now forty years of age, became a nun and is in a convent in Yorkshire. And there is my stay in London. But otherwise we have all elected to remain in our own country. I recall how interested Richard Croker was in this. He, himself an emigrant who eventually came back to his native land, believed the day would come when Ireland would attract immigrants. However that may be, at least I think it is just as well for the world to know that all Irishmen are not eager for the opportunity of leaving their own shores.
” As for my brother Patrick, all I know about him and this information reached me indirectly is that he is a member of the police-force in Chicago. Whether he is a policeman or not I have no idea. In all the years since he went to America he has never let us hear from him.”
Several months prior to this my last meeting with Collins he had urged me to interview Eoin MacNeill, then Speaker of Dail Eireann and Professor of Ancient Gaelic History in the National University.
” You will find Professor MacNeill one of the most learned men in Ireland,” Collins told me. ” Also, there is no doubt that he is a fine patriot. As Kincola (the Gaelic name for Speaker of the House) MacNeill has held the respect of every member of the Dail ; and yet his order countermanding the 1916 rising issued by him as President of the Irish Volunteers less than twenty-four hours before the time set for the rebellion to begin undoubtedly had a great deal to do with its speedy failure.
” So far as I know, Professor MacNeill has never explained the reason for his action. I think most of us are so sure of his staunch patriotism that we could not bring ourselves to cast the slightest aspersion on him by asking for an explanation. I for one, at any rate, however, should like very much to have it and I suggest that for the purposes of making this tale of yours as complete as possible, you put the question to him.”
And so it was a few days later that I took a jaunting- car and set out from my hotel in Dublin on a six-mile drive to the MacNeill home in Blackrock, through the lovely Irish countryside.