- 19 Aug 22
In one of the most dramatic events in Irish history, the Irish revolutionary hero, Michael Collins, was assassinated at Béal na Bláth on 22 August 2022. It was an event that cemented the divisions that had erupted in the revolutionary period, and drove the formation of the two political parties that have since dominated Irish political life –Fianna Fáil And Fine Gael. On Sunday , however, at the annual commemoration in Béal na Bláth, the tectonic plates of Irish political culture will shift – perhaps radically…
Michael Collins. The Big Fella. He was a hero to many. And a legendary figure even among those who opposed him…
In the month of August 1922, exactly one hundred years ago, two towering figures of the Irish struggle for independence died. The first was Arthur Griffith on August 12th. The second was Michael Collins on August 22nd.
Arthur Griffith was a central contributor to the struggle for independence, as ideologist, activist and propagandist.
He became editor of the new weekly radical paper, the United Irishman, first published in Dublin in March 1899.
He was a member of the separatist Irish Republican Brotherhood up until 1910.
He was a founder of Cumann na nGaedheal, an umbrella body designed to co-ordinate the activities of the various groups endeavouring to counteract the continuing anglicisation of the country.
This organisation was subsumed into a wider movement under the banner of Sinn Féin – a name and term that encapsulated his future vision for Ireland. (Does the 2022 version of Sinn Féin fit that future vision? This is another matter, for a different day.)
When the United Irishman closed in 1906, Griffith named the replacement journal Sinn Féin.
In July 1914, Arthur Griffith was involved with the landing of arms for the Irish Volunteers at Howth.
He offered his services at the GPO in 1916, but was told that he could do more with the pen than the gun. Nonetheless, he was arrested and imprisoned in Reading Jail, until February 1917.
As the War of Independence drew to a close, Griffith led the Irish delegation to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 which established the Irish Free State.
Griffith was president of the Provisional Government of the new Irish Free State in 1922. But he died on August 12, of a brain haemorrhage. He was only 51.
Large crowds flocked to his funeral. Tributes from old comrades on both pro and anti-Treaty sides acknowledged his significant contribution to the independence movement. For example, the anti-Treaty leader Harry Boland is reported to have said that Arthur Griffith “made us all.”
A mere ten days later, Michael Collins was assassinated in an ambush at Béal na Bláth in West Cork. Collins was the President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He was also the Minister for Finance and the Chairman of the Provisional Government of Ireland.
It was a cataclysm, a shock almost beyond description. The Big Fella cut down in his prime.
It didn’t affect the outcome of the Civil War. That was already clear. Anti-Treaty forces had been defeated in Dublin on July 5th and had retreated in chaos towards the south. Limerick and Waterford fell on July 21st and the National Army took Cork City on August 10th.
But the IRA then resorted to guerrilla warfare and west Cork had been a stronghold during the War of Independence.
Although the details of Collins’ fateful journey are well known, the story has become freighted with myths and misconceptions.
The commander in chief of the IRA was Liam Lynch, not Eamon de Valera. Lynch was far more hard-line than Dev. While the latter was in Béal na Bláth when Collins was felled, it was by coincidence. He was trying to get back to Dublin.
Collins’ death was a matter of deep regret for even his sworn enemies on the anti-Treaty side, who acknowledged their admiration for his contribution to the independence struggle, his military strategies and intelligence – and, indeed, his ruthlessness.
The Civil War was divisive, of course, but it was also vicious and brutal. Memories are deeply embedded, on both sides of the struggle and both sides of the border. It has been a long, long way from there to here, but grudges remain, even still.
It has been contested territory for generations and has spawned a huge range of folklore, histories, interpretations and memoirs. And much evasion and misinformation too.
And yet, new and original documents still find their way into the public domain. Fascinating insights have emerged from the latest of these, Michael Collins’ diaries 1918-1922.
INWARD-LOOKING AND CONSERVATIVE
The diaries had been held by the Collins family for generations and were donated to the National Archive in November 1921, at Collins’ birthplace at Woodfield, outside Clonakilty.
They have been preserved and digitised by the National Archives –and will be available digitally at the National Archives building in Bishop Street in Dublin from September.
They are the subject of Days in the Life: Reading the Michael Collins Diaries 1918-1922 by historians Anne Dolan and William Murphy, published by the National Archives and the Royal Irish Academy.
The diaries form the first new primary source material, penned by Collins himself, for decades. They yield day to day insights into the life he lived during that brief, extraordinary period when he grew from being a central figure in the republican movement to being the most powerful man in Ireland.
Looking back at those momentous times in the life of this country, it is fair to say that Arthur Griffith’s significance to the growth of Irish independence has been shamefully downplayed.
It’s hard to understand why, except that the anti-Treaty side, having taken power after the 1932 election, then went on to dominate Irish government and culture for three generations.
The winners write the history.
If Griffith is the forgotten man of the Irish independence movement, Michael Collins is the opposite.
Thousands attended his funeral mass in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral. Over half a million lined the streets – almost one fifth of the entire population at the time.
He is a dominant figure in Irish history and folklore, comparable to Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. And this, despite the fact that he was only 31 when he died.
Collins, then, is big box office: the lost leader whose charisma and attraction have only grown, over the intervening years.
He has been the subject of much writing, debate, song and story, and also of films, notably Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins in 1996, in which he was played by Liam Neeson.
His final resting place is the most visited grave in Glasnevin.
It’d be difficult to overstate the impact of his death, and that of Arthur Griffith, on subsequent Irish history.
In less than two weeks, the Government of the time lost its two key leaders, who were also its two most republican-leaning members and the two men who had the greatest feel for the possibilities of the Treaty, especially as regards the intended Boundary Commission review of the border with Northern Ireland – which, they firmly believed, would transfer Fermanagh and Tyrone to the Free State.
Worthy as they may have been, those who then took the helm lacked Collins’ urgency and determination and Griffith’s long experience in the movement, as well as his intelligence and his communication skills.
Government became inward-looking, small and conservative. And a far more inhibited, parochial country emerged as a result – with consequences that were, in many respects, deeply problematic.
Every year, the anniversary of the death of Michael Collins has been marked by an event at Béal na Bláth – where he was gunned down – organised by a local committee, including descendants of Collins himself.
It has traditionally been a largely Fine Gael event, simultaneously celebrating and mourning the lost leader – and what might have been had he not been brutally laid low.
But this year, the centenary of Collins’ death, will be special. For the first time ever, the gathering at Béal na Bláth will be jointly addressed by the leaders of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – that is by the Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar.
As anyone who has observed the Irish political landscape will know, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael emerged from the two sides who fought the civil war. Their respective parties dominated political life in Ireland until the most recent general election. But the original division has endured for three generations.
Now, however, both of these parties are in a coalition Government. And so there are many who are beginning to see how much they really have in common – and to argue that it is, perhaps, past the time to let the civil war and all of the bloody memories that exist with it, go.
Some may disagree, modern Sinn Féin, in particular. But a century has elapsed. We can’t change what has happened, only what might happen depending on the decisions we make and the steps we take to implement them.
Rather than dwelling unduly on the past, we need to think about the future.
And so, the rapprochement at Béal na Bláth may mark another key moment where Irish politics pivots from the past and towards what lies ahead.
It would be a bit much to expect a new unitary party, or even a centrist movement a la Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche! in France.
But the next election might see the outline of such a change, perhaps beginning with a tacit agreement on a voting pact to maximise the centre and centre-right vote. The Centre Alliance.
Were that to emerge, it might well encourage Labour, the Social Democrats and left-leaning independents to look also at building a separate Centre-Left Alliance, wouldn’t it?
The Greens would hardly quibble. They’ve proven willing to work with all or none.
Who knows what the future holds? But of this we can be sure: at Béal na Bláth, on August 21st 2022, under the hand of history, and the giant shades of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, an important shift in the political topography of Ireland will certainly have taken place.
And that, surely, has to be a good thing…
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 26 Sep 22
- Live Review
- 23 Sep 22