A snapshot from history

The 2012 commemoration cermony to mark the 90th anniversary of the death of Michael Collins at Beal na MBlath, West Cork

Dave Kenny was amazed to discover a very rare photograph of Michael Collins in his own attic

SIFTING through the remains of a dead parent’s life is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. What do you put into the bin? What do you keep? You could accidentally discard evidence of their existence: a letter that’s the sole survivor of a doomed love affair; a photo that proves some family myth was actually true.

Recently, I went to the attic to sort through my father’s papers. I’m working on a book about his mother’s family, the Nic Shiubhlaighs. They were a rebellious bunch, who were ‘out’ in 1916. My 69-year-old great-grandfather, Matt, printed the Irish War News for Pádraig Pearse. His Abbey actress daughters, Máire and Gypsy (my granny), led Cumann na mBan in Jacobs and carried messages for Cathal Brugha, respectively. My father used to tell me stories, on the rare occasions I listened, about his family’s friendships with Pearse, McDonagh, Marciewicz and, my hero, Michael Collins.

“One day, Gypsy was crossing O’Connell Bridge when she bumped into Mick who was carrying a bike on his shoulder,” my father once said. “She stopped to chat and he shushed her. There was a squad of soldiers standing on the other side of the bridge. The bike on Mick’s shoulder was a ‘disguise’.

“Gypsy used to say that Mick was fond of the ladies. She claimed that ‘a woman couldn’t sit in the same room as Collins without him putting his hand on her knee’.”

The son of an actress, my father may have been prone to exaggeration. I had evidence of his family’s relationship with the Pearses, but I wanted hard proof of their friendship with Collins. I rooted in the attic and found a photograph inscribed ‘To Maire and Gypsy, with love, Violet and Paddy June 1919’.

It was a picture of the wedding of Manchester IRA chief Paddy O’Donoghue and Violet Gore. There, sitting beside the groom, was the Big Fellow — he was the Best Man. I nearly fell through the ceiling. Last week, I contacted the national archive about the photo. They had never seen it before. Neither had War of Independence specialists, Adams Auctioneers.

“It’s a lovely picture. You can see Collins’ face clearly,” said valuer, Kieran O’Boyle.

This innocuous wedding snap, in the wrong hands, could have changed the course of Irish history. Collins had a £10,000 bounty on his head at the time. He is looking directly at the camera — something he never did during that period. In other photos he blurred his image by nodding his head. As a result, Dublin Castle had no clear pictures of him.

“The British would have given their eye teeth for this,” said O’Boyle.

If the Castle had had this picture, then Collins wouldn’t have been able to operate so openly. If caught, he would have been shot. Who knows which way the war would have gone without him?

“It’s an exceptionally rare photo and could, potentially, sell for thousands to the right collector,” said Mr O’Boyle.

You can’t always measure things in euros and cents. The Collins picture may be worth thousands, but it’s been invaluable to me in helping to trace my family’s story. That said, you could do worse than head to the attic if you’re short of a few bob.


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