The Big Fellow: possessor of a short fuse, a big heart and a bullying, boyish bravado. Of all the Irish patriots who enjoyed a resurrection for the centenary year, it is Michael Collins we remember in the most complex and colourful terms. We equally acknowledge his flaws, admire his bravery and mourn his violent end.
Yet Frank O’Connor, the man who revived Collins’ memory with his 1937 biography, The Big Fellow, arguably the author of the Collins who lives on in public imagination, not only fought opposite his fellow Cork man, on the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, but admitted to having danced with glee when he heard of Collins’ shooting.
O’Connor’s account of Collins has coloured our sense of the Clonakilty-born icon to this day; it was to The Big Fellow that Liam Neeson turned to prepare for his portrayal of Collins in Niall Jordan’s 1996 biopic.
Actor, director and playwright Declan Gorman’s play, also titled The Big Fellow, invites audiences to revisit the Michael Collins story and examine O’Connor’s role and motives in bringing him to life for us.
“There are very few public figures who feel that real and close to us,” Gorman says. “Even for the people who were on the opposite side to him, the sense of anguish that was felt about his death was that he was the best of us. The fundamental reason why people are still so exercised by Michael Collins is that they think of him as their brother.”
Perhaps it suited DeValera’s Ireland to have Collins forgotten about. No public enquiry into his cavalcade’s ambush at Béal na Bláth was ever made.
Collins, despite his roles as Minister for Finance in the first Dáil, president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and commander-in-chief of the army, is hardly mentioned in Dorothy Macardle’s Irish Republic, a book often cited as the official narrative of the War of Independence and its aftermath.
According to Gorman, Maccardle’s history was “compromised by her almost sycophantic regard for DeValera”.
“In 1936, Michael Collins had been very much airbrushed out,” Gorman says. “The historians were writing Collins out of history, and it took a literary writer to write him back in.”
For The Big Fellow is as much a play about O’Connor as it is about Collins. Gorman found his curiosity piqued while reading The Big Fellow: what possessed O’Connor, who volunteered with the anti-Treaty IRA in his late teens, to describe his humanising biography as a “labour of love”?
“Over the course of a decade, Frank O’Connor moved from rejoicing in Michael Collins’ death to writing a magnificent book in praise of him,” Gorman says. “This fascinated me as a writer.”
Gorman’s play sees O’Connor (Gerard Adlum) summon forth the figure of Collins (Cillian Ó Gairbhí) at his typewriter, retelling some of the defining moments in Collins’ life, before the tables are turned; challenged by the character of Collins, O’Connor recounts his own memories of the period and his involvement with the anti-treaty side.
With a cast of two, the play is demanding for the actors, both physically and in terms of their expressive range. Adlum, in particular, takes on the role not only of O’Connor but of every other character who makes an appearance in the script: DeValera, Cathal Brugha and Joe O’Reilly, amongst others.
“As soon as he walked into the casting room I knew I had the right guy,” Gorman says of Adlum. “He’s a chameleon and he can do anything: with his body, with his face, with his voice. He is a genius at multiple-role playing, which is a very specific skill.”
“But none of what he’s doing would work without the solid, implacable rock of Cillian Ó Gairbhí playing Michael Collins. He carries all the emotion. In WB Yeats’ ‘1916’ poem, he has this verse where he talks about the stone in the stream. I had that in mind in rehearsals. Cillian is the stone and Gerard is the stream shifting around him.”
This theme of duality is mirrored throughout the play: Free State versus Anti-Treaty, author versus subject, Collins’ devil-may-care man of action pitted against the studious and bespectacled O’Connor.
“There’s also the distinction between famous general and unknown soldier, because if Frank O’Connor hadn’t become a famous writer, he would have been a completely forgotten volunteer,” Gorman says.
The former artistic director of Drogheda’s Upstate Theatre Project and Chair of the Abbey Theatre’s Outreach Education group, Gorman’s theatrical work has often revolved around themes of reconciliation, most specifically with the Crossover Project, a ten-year cross border arts initiative.
Reconciling duality, then, has been something of a speciality for him. “Art that speaks to the psyche of the people is, to me, the best art,” he says. “We’re keeping connected to the stories of both men; there’s a real sense of trying to connect to audiences and connect communities.”
The Big Fellow premiered last May but is touring 16 locations in one month in 2017, beginning in Collins’ home-town of Clonakilty and closing in the Axis Theatre in Ballymun, close to his burial place in Glasnevin.
The play is far more than one of the many cultural products designed to commemorate the centenary of 1916, Gorman says: “In terms of centenaries, there’s a much more difficult set of questions facing Irish society now as we decide how to deal with the legacy of the Civil War.
"There’ll be no simple solutions in terms of parades. It’ll all have to be teased out: why did we do it all? What was the price of forming a nation?
“This play speaks directly to that, and that’s where the O’Connor and Collins thing comes in, in terms of the national psyche.”
Gorman knows, from last year’s shows, that the Collins story still has a profound impact on Irish audiences, especially in West Cork.
“We all know it’s coming. It’s prefigured into the very start of the play, but the fact of his shooting is a stunning moment in the theatre every night,” he says. “There’s this silence. People are still shocked. That’s one of the wonderful things about theatre, that we care terribly, no matter how we feel about him politically.”
Michael Collins in popular culture
Film and Television
Niall Jordan’s 1996 biopic featured Liam Neeson in the title role as Collins.
The Treaty, a 1991 made-for-TV film starring Brendan Gleeson as Collins, centred around the Treaty negotiations.
Dominic Behan’s 1969 Republicansympathising television play was refused airtime by the BBC. Behan appealed to David Attenborough, then BBC director of programming, who decided to broadcast it in the interests of free speech.
Mary Kenny’s play, Allegiance, showed at the 2006 Edinburgh FestivalFringe with Michael Fassbender, a real-life great-great-grandnephew of Collins, in the role of his ancestor.
Cork Opera House commissioned a musical about Collins by the late Bryan Flynn, which had a run in 2009 in Cork and later in the Olympia in Dublin.
Pat Talbot’s 2016 play, A Great Arrangement, examined the relationship between Collins and his fianceé Kitty Kiernan through their correspondence.
In an alternate future presented in one modification for Darkest Hour: A Hearts of Iron Game, Collins has survived and appears as dictator of Ireland.