The big fellow’s legacy

Michael Collins’s vision of Ireland as a centre of economic excellence has been compared by many commentators both to our Celtic Tiger excess and our current woes, writes John Daly

THE military achievements of Michael Collins remain a remarkable chapter of Irish history. But it was his inspirational vision of Ireland as a centre of economic excellence that marked him as a forward-thinking modernist.

The comments came from Simon Coveney, the agriculture minister, as he launched a book detailing many of the orations given annually at Béal na mBláth, the site of Collins’s killing during an ambush on Aug 22, 1922.

Mr Coveney, who gave the oration at the commemoration in 2004, said the historic site was “a place we go to listen to people talk about Ireland and the challenges that face us”.

On Sunday next, the 90th anniversary of Collins’s death will be commemorated when Enda Kenny becomes the first serving Taoiseach to deliver the oration.

Dermot Collins, chairperson of the Béal na mBláth Commemoration Committee, who produced the book, said: “Michael Collins holds an exalted place in the memory of Irish people.”

He also said the annual tribute, on a back road between Bandon and Macroom near Crookstown, ensures that Collins’s “enormous contribution was never forgotten”.

Among the speeches contained in the book are those by Liam Cosgrave, Mary Robinson, John A Murphy, Austin Currie, and Tim Pat Coogan.

Maj Gen Pierce Beaslai, who gave the first oration in 1923, reminded his audience, which included many who had served with Collins, that “the Big Fellow is with us, looking down on our work, making us ashamed of being weak or lazy or selfish; preaching to us by his example to give of the best that is in us — all our energies — to the dream of his life: An independent Gaelic Ireland, whole and undivided, holding a proud place among the nations of the world”.

In 1973, then attorney general Declan Costello, remarking on the political upheavals of that tumultuous time, said: “We have need today of the inspiration Michael Collins can bring into our lives. We are living in times of great national distress, where small groups of men blinded by twisted ideologies are committing hideous crimes against their fellow man.” He urged the need “to remember the past; we need to recall sacrifices which others have made; we need to learn from the example of unselfish lives.”

In 2007, David Puttnam, member of the British House of Lords and film producer who commissioned director Neil Jordan to write the original screenplay about Collins that eventually became the 1996 film with Liam Neeson in the title role, said: “Ireland was gifted a figure to rank alongside other 20th-century leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela — men who, having freed their own people from the shackles of oppression, became icons for peace and reconciliation everywhere.”

He added that “Michael Collins is the most wonderful example of a life suspended somewhere between history and myth — and that alone makes this annual gathering of enormous significance.”

The late Brian Lenihan, former minister for finance and the only member of Fianna Fáil invited to give the annual address, described Collins in 2010 as “a man of energy and action: an astute politician; a man of extraordinary organisational and administrative ability; a pragmatist who believed he could over time bring Ireland total independence; a driven ambitious man who was born to be a leader”.

However, it is the observations made in 2000 by Risteard Mulcahy, eminent cardiologist and son of Richard, the chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army during the Troubles, that now seem most prescient.

“I wonder what Collins and the other political and military leaders would have thought of our country today,” he mused just a few years before Ireland’s economic sovereignty was sacrificed through greed and avarice.

“Would they think their sacrifices were in vain if they were to witness the progress of materialism and the obsession with money and personal power in recent times, the Celtic Tiger, the corruption which is infiltrating our political, professional and public lives?”

Or, as Ed Walsh, founding president of the University of Limerick, declared at last year’s commemoration: “Michael Collins, were he around today, would put the fear of God into those who abuse their secure positions and fail to put Ireland first at this time of great crisis.”

Collector coins

* The Central Bank of Ireland yesterday launched two collector coins commemorating the 90th anniversary of the death of Michael Collins.

A €20 gold proof coin and a €10 silver proof coin have been issued and are available both individually and as a set.

They were designed by artist Thomas Ryan and feature a portrait of Collins. The obverse side of the coin features the harp.

Speaking at the launch, Gerry Quinn, chief operations Officer at the Central Bank, said: “Our collector coins continue to be very popular with the public and the interest in this collector coin has been overwhelming.” A total of 12,000 units of the €20 coin will be issued along with 8,000 units of the €10 coin. In addition, 6,000 sets featuring both coins are now available at a cost of €50 (gold proof), €48 (silver proof) and €95 (double proof).

Coins can be bought by downloading an order form from, by calling 1890 307 607, or directly from the Central Bank of Ireland on Dame St in Dublin.

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