Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Michael Collins: Tragic Hero of the Irish Counter-Revolution

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Historian Chris Bambery argues that Michael Collins had to turn on the revolution he helped create in order to stabilise Irish capitalism. Those who view him as a man who tried to remove violence from Irish politics ignore the repression he led and the forces he acted in service of. The first part of this history asses his contribution to the revolution before the civil war – it can be read here.

Within months of signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, Michael Collins would be shot dead. He died both Chair of the Provisional Government of what would become the Irish Free State, and commander-in-chief of the Irish National Army.

The Irish Free State formally came into being after Collins’s death, in December 1922, by vote of the new 26 county parliament, but in reality its creation can be dated to January of that year when the Treaty was narrowly approved by a vote of its republican predecessor, Dáil Éireann.

The body which approved the Anglo-Irish Treaty represented all 32 counties of Ireland and claimed to represent an Irish Republic declared in arms by the 1916 Easter Rising. That Republic was twice re-affirmed by the votes of the Irish people in two all-Ireland elections, one in December 1918 and the other in May 1921 when they voted overwhelmingly for Sinn Féin.

In contrast, the Irish Free State would represent just 26 counties, with six counties separated off into a new Northern Ireland statelet which remained part of the United Kingdom. It was also a dominion within the British Empire and thus not a republic. It recognised the British crown’s authority.

At first Eamon de Valera – President of the Republic proclaimed in 1916 – argued for a renegotiation of the Treaty to secure a more Republican state, particularly to remove the oath of allegiance to the British Crown, but it was clear Britain would not tolerate that, while many IRA leaders rejected such an approach as implicitly settling for less than an all-Ireland Republic.

On the Treatyite side Arthur Griffith, Kevin O’Higgins and William Cosgrave were content with what the Treaty as signed, and their focus had shifted to a restoration of bourgeois order and the free market economy.

On the Treatyite side Arthur Griffith, Kevin O’Higgins and William Cosgrave were content with the Treaty as signed, and their focus had shifted to a restoration of bourgeois order and the free market economy.

Collins was more ambiguous, holding that the creation of a new state meant the Republican struggle could continue using constitutional reform, negotiation. diplomatic pressure and military means with the creation of an Irish army. Whether he would have remained true to this strategy or succumbed to the institutional pressures of the evolving Free State is a matter for speculation.

In March 1922 the IRA split, with the majority pledging to defend the 32 county Irish Republic and a minority around Collins forming the core of the new Free State army.

Nevertheless, within Sinn Féin peace negotiations continued, resulting by May in a ‘pact’ between Collins and de Valera whereby voters in the upcoming 26 county election were urged to support a panel of candidates formed by both sides, each of whom would have as many TD’s as they currently had in the Dail. A coalition government uniting both sides would then be formed.

Collins’s colleagues were kept in the dark about the unity agreement and were furious. So was the British government. Churchill told Collins the British would intervene militarily against such a government. On the eve the June election Collins repudiated this pact urging people to vote for Treatyite candidates against anti-Treatyite ones. Yet many would vote according to the agreed pact.

The Treatyites took 45.3 percent of the vote, the anti-Treatyites 28.1 percent. This was heralded as proof that the Irish people democratically endorsed the Treaty. But because of confusion around the Pact it was not so clear cut. Of 124 candidates elected on the Sinn Féin ticket, both Treatyites and anti-Treatyites, 118 were re-elected, reflecting Collins and de Valera’s aim to essentially preserve the old Dail.

Within a matter of days the Free State army, using artillery given them by the British, bombarded the Four Courts in Dublin where hardline IRA forces had established themselves. The decision to launch the Civil War was taken before the new Irish Parliament met and it was subsequently prorogued until late summer, meeting only after Collins’s death.

The Provisional Government claimed it was reacting to the Four Court’s garrison kidnapping a senior officer in the new Irish army, retaliation for the arrest of an IRA officer trying to enforce a boycott of Belfast goods in response to the pogroms there. Both were escalations in the growing crisis but do not explain Collins and Griffiths’s decision to begin the Civil War.

A more important incident was that of 22 June 1922, the former Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson was shot dead in London. Wilson had become military adviser to the northern state government and Collins held him responsible for the anti-nationalist terror.

The British blamed the killing on the IRA units in the Four Courts, although papers found on one of his two assassins suggested they were acting on Collins’s orders. It was too good an opportunity to miss, and the British used it to spur civil war and finally deal with anti-Treaty forces. The British government demanded Collins attack the Four Courts or they would rip up the Treaty and take control of the 26 counties. The Four Courts was attacked by the Free State Army on 30 June, before the new parliament could meet to debate the way forward. As it happened the scheduled 1 July opening never took place. This is how the civil war was launched and the Free State settlement secured – without civilian governance and under threat of violence from the British Empire.

This is how the civil war was launched and the Free State settlement secured – without civilian governance and under threat of violence from the British Empire.

One reason that Collins chose to strike was that the Four Courts IRA were preparing for an offensive along the border with Northern Ireland. They believed by doing this they could claim the high ground of Republicanism and rally majority Republican opinion behind them. Collins had followed a deeply ambiguous policy towards Northern Ireland, arming the IRA there, and encouraging earlier military action, but also negotiating with the Unionist prime minister, Sir James Craig. Collins was frightened the anti-Treaty forces could exploit these contradictions and rob him of the anti-partition mantle.

Though at first the symbolic humiliations of the Treaty, such as the oath of allegiance to the British Crown, had excited most controversy, it was increasingly the plight of the northern Catholic minority that focused minds.

The Unionists government created their sectarian state by violence, shielded and facilitated by British power.

Jonathan Burdon summarises this bloodbath: “The price in blood had been heavy: between July 1920 and July 1922 the death toll in the six counties was 557—303 Catholics, 172 Protestants and 82 members of the security forces. In Belfast, 236 people had been killed in the first months of 1922, more than in the widespread troubles in Germany in the same period. In Belfast there had been a vicious sectarian war…the statistics speak for themselves: Catholics formed only a quarter of the city’s population but had suffered 257 civilian deaths out of 416 in a two-year period. Catholic relief organizations estimated that in Belfast between 8,700 and 11,000 Catholics had been driven out of their jobs, that 23,000 Catholics had been forced out of their homes, and that about 500 Catholic-owned businesses had been destroyed.”

The new Royal Ulster Constabulary was heavily armed and overwhelmingly Protestant. It was backed up by an armed militia, the B Specials, recruited largely from the pre-war Ulster Volunteer Force, formed to stop Irish Home Rule. As nationalists fled south, Republican anger intensified. Demands for pragmatism and an ‘end to violence’ meant little to those still living under occupation and subject to terror.

Demands for pragmatism and an ‘end to violence’ meant little to those still living under occupation and subject to terror.

This is not to say Treatyite fears of British intervention were unfounded. Certainly the Provisional government took British threats to rip up the Treaty very seriously. Kevin O’Higgins would later tell the Free State parliament: “We had very good reasons to believe that we anticipated by a couple of hours the creation of conditions under which this Parliament never would have met – conditions that would have brought back the British power – horse, foot, artillery and Navy – in hostile relations to this country.”

Under British compulsion, leading Treatyites further divested their new state of democratic trappings. Collins appointed himself commander of the Free State army and that evening announced the creation of a War Council consisting of just himself, Richard Mulcahy, Army chief-of-staff, and Eoin O’Duffy, assistant chief-of-staff.

Censorship was imposed, despite the press being overwhelmingly pro-Treaty, and the courts (both those inherited from the British and those set up by the Dail) and habeas corpus, were suspended. When Diarmuid Crowley, the Supreme Justice of the Dail Courts ruled that anti-Treaty prisoners who had not been charged must be freed and that the Dail must convene, Collins’ government abolished the Court.

John M. Regan points out: “The absence  of  any  legislative  body  meant that the Provisional Government was not accountable to any other institution and in the circumstances granted Collins in theory, if  not in practice, dictatorial  powers.”

After several postponements, Collins proposed on 5 August that they should “postpone parliament until we clean this matter up definitely.” In other words, Collins’ intention was that the parliament was not to meet until after the end of the Civil War and in the meantime martial law would be exercised by a military council of three men.

The Free State Dail would only meet in late August 1922 because the Labour Party, which had polled well in June, threatened to resign its seats unless it was convened. If the major opposition party (the anti-Treatyites were boycotting this assembly because to enter required an oath to the Crown, but also because in the atmosphere of repression they feared being taken prisoner or worse) withdrew, the new parliament would lose much of its legitimacy.

Republican military action in Northern Ireland had been officially called off on 3 June, with Collins issuing a statement that “no troops from the 26 counties, either those under official control [pro-treaty] or those attached to the [IRA] Executive [anti-treaty] should be permitted to invade the six county area.”

Repression out-lasted Collins and became even bloodier after his assassination by anti-Treaty fighters. Eighty-three executions were carried out by the Irish Army, including four prisoners not tried or convicted of any charge. Many others were simply killed with no pretence at justice. As in any civil war terrible things were done on both sides, but on the government side the implementation of reprisal killings posed major questions about the nature of the new state, about its leaders, about the role of the military, and about the rule of law.

The new Irish Army was formed from those in the IRA who backed its charismatic leader, Collins. They included the Dublin ‘Squad’, which had carried out an effective policy of assassination of key figures in the British military and administration.

men were recruited from the demobbed British Army – which was being run down after the Great War – and even from the prisons. Collins described his new army as “an armed mob” shortly after the civil war began.

But there were not sufficient numbers of them, and men were recruited from the demobbed British Army – which was being run down after the Great War – and even from the prisons. Collins described his new army as “an armed mob” shortly after the civil war began. Many recruits sold weapons and ammunition to the other side, carried out robberies, or deserted.

The first stage of the war was a battle of set-pieces with the IRA (the rebels had claimed that title) first trying to hold positions in central Dublin, and then in Munster, the south-west province where they had been most effective during the war with Britain. But the new Irish Army had artillery and armoured cars – provided by the British – and the rebels could not hold fixed positions against this sort of firepower.

The second stage of the war was a guerrilla campaign in which the IRA tried to make the new state ungovernable; but the IRA lacked the popular support it had had in the fight against the British. In particular, it was denounced by the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, the Irish Army grew frustrated in a difficult insurgency, and atrocities were the consequence. County Kerry saw some of the bitterest fighting. March 1923 saw a series of notorious incidents in Kerry, where 23 Republican prisoners were killed and another five judicially executed in a period of just four weeks.

An infamous massacre took place at Ballymullen Barracks in Tralee. In retaliation for five National Army men being killed by a booby-trap bomb, nine Republican prisoners were tortured, then taken to Ballyseedy crossroads, and there tied to a landmine. The mine was detonated. The survivors were machine-gunned.

Over the next 24 hours, five Republican prisoners were blown up by a mine at Countess Bridge near Killarney and four at Cahersiveen. Another Republican prisoner was taken out into the woods and summarily shot. That March, 27 Republicans were officially or unofficially executed.

Earlier, in December 1922, the IRA had shot dead a member of the Irish Parliament and seriously wounded another. The Irish Government had ordered the execution of four senior IRA leaders who had been in jail since the summer. The reprisal killings shocked many across Ireland, regardless to their view of the Treaty.

Eventually, civilian governance would re-assert itself, and check military rule at the end of the civil war. After a period in jail, de Valera re-organised many anti-Treatyites into an effective political force – Fianna Fáil, which accepted the new Irish state and its parliamentary democracy. Before they came to office in 1932, the outgoing pro-Treaty government burned records relating to the repression during the civil war.

But the dirty work of counter-revolution had been done. The Free State was a successful containment of the energies unleashed after 1916.

During the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s a strong revisionist school of Irish history blossomed which challenged the notion that Irish Republicanism had any popular mandate in 1919-1921 and emphasised the democratic credentials of the subsequent Free State, representing democracy or constitutionalism in contrast to the authoritarianism of its opponents. Part of this was an attempt to divorce the creation of the Irish state from anything which might compare to the activities of the IRA during the Northern Ireland Troubles.

belonged to a distinctive type of nationalist revolutionary in the first half of the 20th century, with contemporaries like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey or Jozef Pilsudski in Poland.

So, Tom Garvin wrote: “Irish democracy had to be forcibly imposed . . . the conquest of Leinster, Munster, and Connacht by the Free State army in 1922–23 resembled a liberation rather than the invasion by fascistic ‘Green and Tans’ it was claimed to be by so many noisy republican and leftist propagandists in Ireland, Britain and America.”

This “liberation” thesis ignores the real forces behind the counter-revolution: an alliance between British imperialism and elements of the domestic elite who wanted to stabilise the Irish class structure. Collins, as a key organiser of the military and intelligence operations in the revolution, was ideally positioned to discipline the revolution on behalf of those forces.

He belonged to a distinctive type of nationalist revolutionary in the first half of the 20th century, with contemporaries like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey or Jozef Pilsudski in Poland. Both were military leaders who freed their countries from foreign occupation. Both claimed to champion democracy and the rule of law, but citing the need for ‘stability’ and ‘national unity’ both ended up as semi-dictators. Whether Collins would, or could have gone down a similar road, we will never know – but the parallels are striking.

All that remains for us is an honest reckoning with the contribution he did make to killing the revolution he helped create. One hundred years since his death, the Republic proclaimed in 1916 remains unrealised. The future, thankfully, remains unwritten.

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