Ambushed by lack of signs leading to Collins site at Béal na Bláth

In July we had our first opportunity to come to Ireland for four and a half days and spend three of them in County Cork. 

Ambushed by lack of signs leading to Collins site at Béal na Bláth

We want to come back! People were lovely to us, the food and beer were delicious, the air and land were clear and beautiful, the music powerful, and our wise landlady left a rain jacket for our use.

But we do have one complaint. We drove around looking for Michael Collins’ birthplace and assassination site. The birthplace was comparatively easy to locate, though we did need a little help. We took pictures and studied both his birth home and the outlines of the new home which was burned down in the 1920s. If not for his descendants, even that wouldn’t be available.

His assassination site, however, was nearly impossible to find. We asked a number of people in nearby towns. Three fellows in a quick mart consulted each other with, “Isn’t that…?” “No, I think….” “Oh, you mean….”.

After several hours and other people’s guesses, a pharmacist in another town knew and tried to explain, but directions included driving about 10 miles on one of the roads looking for some kind of sign. About six miles along, we found our only (small) sign to Béal na Bláth, so we finally knew we were going in the right direction.

When we came to a crossroad in what turned out to be Béal na Bláth, I went into the Michael Collins Café to ask for directions. It turned out there was a sign “To Assassination Site” behind me. No other sign was anywhere in the 80 miles we drove that day in circles. When the county refused to put up signs, attempts to put them up on private property, with approval of the homeowners, were ripped down by the very county which should have erected them itself. How self-defeating.

In seven years when Ireland celebrates its first centennial as a nation, a flood of tourists will come from the States and other places specifically looking for information about Michael Collins, his birth, his life, his death. There are a lot of Irish Americans and here we think Michael Collins was a hero.

Dublin could claim anything to do with the War for Independence, since most of it took place there. However, in an otherwise excellent tour of the Dublin Castle, from the Scandinavian roots to the elegant spaces still in use today, Michael Collins didn’t exist. A painting of the young British Queen Elizabeth the First had a place of pride, but no painting or photograph or mention of the man to whom you owe your independence. The martyrs of the Easter Rebellion are given credit for it instead.

It’s true that England’s decision to shoot them helped turn public opinion from opposing such efforts to supporting those led by Michael Collins. But the Easter Rebellion did not succeed, as many others over the prior 700 years also did not succeed. They were brave men and dedicated to a free Ireland; they just weren’t wisely led or prepared. They tried a frontal assault for which they didn’t have the guns or men. Collins took that failure and turned it into success in less than six years’ time. He, too, was a martyr for his country’s freedom.

And Cork, which should be able to draw visitors to an unlimited variety of things about Michael Collins, his education, his family, his typical breakfast and Lord knows what else, has no signs to the place where he was gunned down for wresting Ireland away from Britain.

And even if an intrepid hunter actually finds the location despite the Irish blind eye, it ain’t much of anything. Just a cross, an unclear map, and a reference to the film. No museum with artifacts. No photos blown up with buttons to push for explanations. No Big Fella jackets or buttons with his photo. No brochures in five languages.

I can’t understand why you aren’t proud of him. Yeah, it’s embarrassing that he was shot down in home territory, but that’s the problem with civil wars — friends and family shoot each other. Still, it’s almost a century ago and that “terrorist” didn’t blow up churches and schools like today’s terrorists or freedom fighters (the interpretation depends on your opinion much of the time); he directed individual spies to be shot.

His efforts were supported by dozens and hundreds and thousands of others. Irish patriots quietly provided the information, effort and sometimes their lives, led by Michael Collins. He wasn’t the president, but he was the one who created the intelligence system, the financial investment design, the careful steps, the negotiations and the pizzazz to make independence succeed despite the president, who chose to start a civil war even though more than 60% of Ireland voted to accept the treaty terms.

So as a visitor and an outsider, I ask at a minimum that you provide public signs to something that’s an important piece of history. If you’re wise, you’ll take pride in him, teach your children about him, claim him as your own, and provide lots of juicy stuff for tourists.

You’ve got six years to prepare and one to advertise. Do it small-scale in keeping with your country, do it tastefully, do it carefully, but it’s silly to do nothing.

Gary and Alison Long


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