Béal na mBláth is one of the most portentous sites in Irish history. It was here 95 years ago on this day on 22 August 1922 that General Michael Collins, commander-in-chief of the Irish army was ambushed and killed.
The annual commemoration takes place each year on the Sunday closest to August 22nd. He was only 31 years old when he was killed by a sniper’s bullet when his convoy was ambushed at Béal na Bláth, an isolated crossroads in the hills of West Cork, which I visited last week. Collins was also a shareholder in The Southern Star, the Nationalist newspaper which competed with the Unionist Skibbereen Eagle in West Cork. Today I’ll also be visiting the Michael Collins Museum in Emmet Square, Clonakilty and attending a talk on his life and death in the hall of the Parish Church at the other end of the square where Collins had been an altar boy in his youth. The threads and life of General Michael Collins run deep in his native West Cork.
— Eric G. E. Zuelow (@EZuelow) August 22, 2015
Michael Collins played a major part in Ireland’s history after 1916. Collins had been involved in the Easter Rising in 1916, but he played a relatively low key part. It was after the Uprising that Collins made his mark leading to the treaty of 1921 that gave Ireland dominion status within the British Empire.
— Lorraine Mulholland (@lorraineelizab6) August 22, 2017
Michael Collins was born in October 1890 in County Cork near Clonakilty. This area was a heartland of the Fenian movement. His father, also called Michael, instilled in his son a love of Irish poetry and ballads. At school, Michael was taught by a teacher called Denis Lyons who belonged to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the village blacksmith, James Santry, was a Fenian. He told the young Michael stories of Irish patriotism and in such an environment, Michael grew up with a strong sense of pride in Ireland and of being Irish.
“One day he’ll be a great man. He’ll do great work for Ireland.” – Michael Collins’ Father, also named Michael, on his deathbed about his son, who was 6 at the time.
When he was 15, Collins emigrated to London. He worked as a clerk for the Post Office and he lived within the large Irish community in London. This community was never absorbed into London’s society itself. There were many people in London who felt that the Irish undercut the wages paid out to other workers and many in the Irish community felt ostracised. While in London, Collins joined Sinn Fein and the Gaelic League and in 1909, he became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood being inducted by one Sam Maguire, a Protestant Nationalist from Dunmanway after whom the “Sam Maguire Cup” presented to the winners of the GAA All Ireland Senior Football Final is named.
— JohnnyMcEvoy (@JMcEvoyMusic) August 22, 2015
In 1916, Collins returned to Ireland to take part in the Uprising in Dublin. He fought alongside others in the General Post Office. He played a relatively minor part and was not one of the leaders who was court-martialed. Collins was sent to Richmond Barracks and then to Frongoch internment camp in Wales. He was released in December 1916 and immediately went back to Ireland.
— Glasnevin Museum (@glasnevinmuseum) August 22, 2017
His goal now was to revitalise the campaign to get independence for Ireland. Collins was elected to the executive committee of Sinn Fein and he led a violent campaign against anything that represented British authority in Ireland – primarily the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Army. The murder of RIC officers brought a tit-for-tat policy from the British. Ireland, post-World War One, was a dangerous country to be in. The more killings that were carried out by Collins and the men he led in the newly formed Irish Republican Army (IRA), the more the British responded with like.
Collins is most famous for his leadership of the republican military campaign against Britain (the War of Independence) through the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The notorious Black and Tans and the ‘Auxies’ were used by the British Army to spread fear throughout Ireland (though primarily in the south and west). Violence led to more violence on both sides. On November 21st, 1920, the IRA killed 14 British officers in the Secret Service. In reprisal, the British Army sent armoured vehicles onto the pitch at Croke Park where people were watching a football match, and opened fire on them. Twelve people were killed. In May 1921, the IRA set fire to the Custom House in Dublin – one of the symbols of Britain’s authority in Ireland. However, many of those in the Dublin IRA were captured as a result of this action. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was given some blunt advice by his military commanders in Ireland. “Go all out or get out” – meaning that the army should be allowed to do as it wished to resolve the problem, or if this was not acceptable at a political level, the British should pull out of Ireland as the army was in an un-winnable position as matters stood then.
In 1918, the British government attempted to introduce conscription in Ireland and Collins went on the run to avoid the call-up. He became the IRB’s organiser-in-chief and assembled a network of spies within government institutions.
In the 1918 December general election, Sinn Féin took 73 of 105 Irish seats, with Collins winning his seat for South Cork. In Dublin, January 1919, they declared themselves a sovereign parliament – Dáil Éireann – and then declared independence. Éamon de Valera was elected president of the Dáil and Collins was appointed minister of home affairs and later minister of finance. In this role he organised the hugely successful Dáil loan which financed the republican government.
“History recounts the fact that to-day we are a sovereign nation with our own army, our own Gardai and our own flag”
When a truce was agreed with Britain in July 1921, Collins and de Valera were the two most powerful men in republican Ireland. Collins led the Irish delegation at the peace conference in London which resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921. This brought the Irish Free State into existence and partitioned the island, with six predominantly Unionist counties in the north remaining outside the Free State. The Treaty was passed by the cabinet in Dublin by one vote, with de Valera opposed, and was accepted by the Dáil by a very small majority. Collins became chairman and finance minister of the provisional government.
Collins is said to have commented when he signed the treaty that:
“I tell you, I have signed my death warrant”
There were many in the south who believed that Collins had betrayed the republican movement. These people, including de Valera, wanted an independent and united Ireland. Some believed that Collins had sold out to the British government. Few seemed to realise that Collins was not a politician and that he had been put into a situation in which he had no experience of what to do. He was up against British politicians who were experienced in delicate negotiations. Some have argued that de Valera deliberately put Collins in this situation knowing that if he came back with an unacceptable treaty, it would seriously damage the reputation of Collins and weaken whatever political kudos he had in Ireland – therefore removing any potential threat he may have been to de Valera at a political level.
— Joe Preston (@upthewoodenhill) August 22, 2017
“In my opinion it gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire… but the freedom to achieve it.”
The Dáil accepted the treaty by just seven votes. This, in itself, seemed a justification of what Collins had set out to achieve. Arthur Griffiths replaced De Valera as president of the Dáil and Collins was appointed chairman of the provisional government which would take over Ireland once the British had left. Those who did not support the treaty fell back on violence and a civil war took place in Ireland from April 1922 to May 1923. The IRA split into the ‘Regulars’ (those who supported the treaty) and the ‘Irregulars’ (those who did not).
On August 22nd, 1922, Collins journeyed to County Cork. He was due to meet troops of the new Irish Army. His car was ambushed at a place called Beal na mBlath and Collins was shot dead. To this day, no-one is completely sure what happened or who killed him. No-one else was killed in the ambush. Collins’ body had to be transported to Dublin by sea and lay in state in Dublin for three days and thousands paid their respects. Thousands also lined the streets for his funeral procession.
Collins bequeathed to posterity a considerable body of writing: essays, speeches and tracts, articles and official documents in which he outlined plans for Ireland’s economic and cultural revival, as well as a voluminous correspondence, both official and personal. Selections have been published in “The Path to Freedom” (Mercier, 1968) and in “Michael Collins in His Own Words” (Gill & Macmillan, 1997). In the 1960s Taoiseach Sean Lemass, himself a veteran of the 1916 Rising and War of Independence, credited Collins’s ideas as the basis for his successes in revitalising the Ireland’s economy. The loss of Michael Collins at a crucial time led to increased bitterness and atrocities in the Civil War and no doubt a more divided, inward looking and backward Irish Society afterwards.
Michael James Collins – 16 October 1890 – 22 August 1922
Irish revolutionary leader, Minister for Finance, Director of Information, and Teachta Dála (TD) for Cork South in the First Dáil of 1919, Adjutant General, Director of Intelligence, and Director of Organisation and Arms Procurement for the IRA, President of the Irish Republican Brotherhood from November 1920 until his death, and member of the Irish delegation during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations. Subsequently, he was both Chairman of the Provisional Government and Commander-in-chief of the National Army.
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.