Michael Collins remains a deeply symbolic figure of both Irish revolution and counter-revolution. Historian Chris Bambery sifts through the mythology to find a complex figure channelling historic forces. This first of two articles examines the real nature of the Irish Revolution and Collin’s contradictory relationship with it.
On 22 August 1922 Michael Collins was shot dead at Béal na Bláth, an isolated crossroads, as his military convoy returned through West Cork. The men who killed him were volunteers of the Irish Republican Army, which Collins himself had led only a year before against the forces of the British crown.
Almost instantly a battle would emerge over what Collins stood for, what he represented and what he was trying to achieve.
For many he was the “man who won the war,” effective head of the IRA during the independence fight. For others he had betrayed their hopes of creating an all-Ireland Irish Republic.
For Marxists he was one of the first in a chain of leaders of national liberation struggles who fought colonialism but when they achieved their own state made peace with imperialism and imposed “order”, suppressing many former comrades who believed they had been fighting for far greater freedom.
In course of time Collins would become the symbolic figure of Fine Gael, the party which would emerge from those who championed the July 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty which created today’s Irish Republic. But Collins died 11 years before the party was founded. He is a useful figurehead, since his potent image obscures the small fact that Fine Gael was created in 1933 by a merger of the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal party and the National Guard or Blueshirts, the Irish fascist organisation who three years later would sail in a Nazi ship to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
Neil Jordan’s 1996 film biopic, with Liam Neeson playing Collins and Alan Rickman (as usual the villain) as arch-rival and President of the self-declared Republic Eamon de Valera, set a tone. It represents the settled portrayal of events: Collins as the man of action directing the Irish Republican Army’s 1919-21 war for independence, beset in the end by jealous dogmatists.
There can be no denying Collins’s importance in the Irish War of Independence and not simply as a military leader. He was Minister of Finance in the illegal Republican government, raising a National Loan of £500,000 from Irish people at home and abroad to finance the political and military parallel structures at the heart of the Irish revolution.
He also became IRA director of intelligence in 1919. As in any guerrilla conflict the intelligence war was crucial and Collins personally operated agents at the heart of the British administration in Ireland as well as eliminating British intelligence operatives.
He was the author of some of the war’s most audacious action, including the shooting of 15 British agents in Dublin in November 1920 by his ‘Squad’ of handpicked IRA volunteers. That afternoon the British forces entered the Croke Park stadium in the city where a Gaelic football final was taking place and opened fire on the large crowd in revenge, killing 14 (two of whom were children) and wounding 60. That evening two captured Republicans were shot as they “attempted to escape.” Collins’ military efficiency, and the international scandal of British reprisals, evened the odds against the world’s most powerful empire – a feat that stunned the world.
But it is a gross simplification to claim Collins was the man who won the war. Firstly, British rule was broken not just by the IRA’s military campaign, as important as that was.
Across Ireland ordinary people recognised illegal local authorities made up of elected Republicans, refused to pay taxes and boycotted British courts, organising Republican courts in their place. The Irish working class played a key role with a successful general strike in April 1918 when Britain was attempting to extend conscription to Ireland; in April 1919 the Limerick working class took control of the city and declared a Soviet – an experiment in working class self-rule – in order to defeat British military rule; railworkers waged a prolonged boycott refusing to carry armed British soldiers on trains. Mass demonstrations occurred in support of jailed Republicans on hunger strike and at the funerals of fallen Republicans.
Rural unrest flourished in 1917-19 with small farmers seizing land from the big cattle farmers to grow crops and workers taking over creameries. A Belfast engineering strike at the start of 1919 saw tens of thousands of workers, overwhelmingly Protestant, on strike for shorter hours to the great alarm of the Unionist leaders, scared as much by Bolshevism as Irish Republicanism.
But the leadership of the Irish Labour Party and the Irish Trade Union Congress accepted the argument of Sinn Féin that “Labour must wait” until independence.
Collins and the Dublin HQ of the IRA had little control of affairs across the country. The military campaign began independently of them, at Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary when Seamus Robinson, Dan Breen and six other Volunteers ambushed two policemen guarding a cartload of gelignite.
The most effective IRA unit was that led by Tom Barry in West Cork which again received little help or direction from Dublin. Collins did, however, send out organisers to encourage military action, men like Ernie O’Malley, helping create a solid cadre. And though Collins helped win physical force Republicanism to the tactics of guerrilla warfare and targeted, limited assaults (taking and holding urban centres having proved a military failure in 1916), these tactics also reflected older traditions and widespread debates in Republican circles.
The war reached its bloody climax during the first six months of 1921 when the British went all out with repression to defeat the IRA, which responded by forming more flying columns in rural areas and intensifying urban guerrilla war in Dublin city. Between January 1921 and the eventual truce in July, 1,000 people were killed while 4500 Republicans were interned without trial.
Between November 1920 and June 1921, 24 IRA Volunteers were executed, beginning with the shooting of 18 year old Kevin Barry in Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail on 1 November.
By the summer of 1921 both sides were ready to negotiate. The British government recognised it could not defeat the IRA and was also suffering imperial overstretch dealing with unrest in Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and India at a time when its economy was depressed. The Republicans were aware of war weariness among many in their own support.
A truce was declared on 11 July and a negotiating team led by Collins and Arthur Griffiths dispatched to London. De Valera as President chose not to go, claiming he wanted to stand back until he could examine any deal. The negotiating team were under strict instructions not to sign anything until they brought any deal back to Dublin for approval.
But in December 1922 Collins and the others signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in London. Why? The questions of the hasty signing of the treaty would become the subject of confusion, myth and insult in the ensuing civil war.
British Prime Minister Lloyd George was threatening the resumption of war on an even more savage scale should the treaty fail – he dangled this sword over the negotiations. But the Irish team knew the British had entered talks because their campaign of repression had failed, and they were struggling to manage the rise of nationalist movements.
This mood of revolutionary nationalism brought together an eccentric mix of political actors. Many were always uneasy with the methods they felt they needed to use to gain concessions from the imperial administrations, and even more disconcerted by the social forces unleashed by militant action.
This was true in Ireland (among leading figures on both sides of the split that would emerge in Republicanism). Collins came from a milieu of middling proprietors and farmers in rural Cork. Though he admired working class socialists like the martyred James Connolly, he did not share his expansive political vision.
Among the provincial middle classes “half a loaf was better than none.” Or as he himself put it, the treaty could be a stepping stone, offering Ireland: “…not the freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it.” That this pragmatic attitude involved an allegiance with the British Empire was not of cardinal importance.
While the British knew they could not militarily hold down the bulk of Ireland, they were very confident they could hold onto the new six county state of Northern Ireland which had come into existence prior to the truce, in June 1921. Besides the loss of northern parts of the country (and large numbers of mainly Catholic Irish nationalists) to the sectarian statelet, the treaty exacted many controls on the new Irish Free State. It would be a dominion within the British Empire, lose control over many port facilities and maintain Sterling as its currency, with control exercised from the Bank of England in London. The new state would not be a republic – its government would swear an oath of allegiance to the crown.
Pending elections to a new 26 county parliament and its vote to establish the Free State, the British government refused to recognise Dáil Éireann in any form and demanded Collins and his supporters create a Provisional Government.
The new state which would eventually emerge would be a counter-revolutionary one, as Kevin Whelan explains: “The Free State then terminated revolutionary legal experiments like the Dáil Courts, closed down the debate over the ending of English Common Law, killed off social experiments like the Soviets, stifled the emerging feminist movement, introduced a prohibition on divorce in 1925, and espoused censorship in 1929. It re-instated anglicized, middle class, Catholic values.”
All this still lay in the future. The period between the treaty vote in January 1922 and the June general election saw both sides trying to recreate unity. But the aspirations of millions for national and social rights, dignity and democracy were heading for collision with the more conservative impulses of a half-made revolution, under siege from a powerful empire. Collins was at the centre of the controversy as the storm clouds crowded in.
Part Two of this essay will examine Collins’ activities during the Irish Civil War and counter-revolution.