Let the Big Fellow rest in peace

Ninety-one years after he was killed in an ambush in West Cork, it is surely time to allow Michael Collins to rest in peace.

Put bluntly, the annual trek to the monument at Béal na mBláth has lost its purpose. There just isn’t anything more to be said or written about Collins.

God knows, enough has been said and written already, some of it nonsensical and some of it bordering on the preposterous.

Down through the years since 1922, Collins has been painted in political garments of a thousand different hues. Like some arcane biblical text, his relatively short life has been dissected over and over again by eager exegetes, with very varying results.

The claims made about him, the views or attitudes or putative policies attributed to him (or inflicted upon him) down the years make him out to be a mix of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Che Guevara. The exegesis has gone from the amateurish to the outlandish, with a fair bit of hagiography along the way. And I have no doubt that Collins, if we could work some miracle and bring him back, would now knock a few heads together and say “Move on!”

All that aside, the Big Fellow, as he came to be known, has been fortunate in his biographers. The first one I read was Michael Collins by Rex Taylor, published in 1958. In 1972 Calton Younger published A State of Disunion, consisting of four extended profiles of Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, James Craig, and Éamon de Valera — a good read.

That same year came the Sphere edition of Michael Collins: The Lost Leader by Margery Forester, which was to remain the best biography until Tim Pat Coogan’s Michael Collins, published in 1990.

This last is the best book on Collins, an achievement all the more remarkable because Coogan would not be considered, certainly by academics, to be a professional historian. The book is also notable for the frank manner in which the author deals with an aspect of Collins’ life that has proved contentious — the West Cork man’s relationships with women. Would Collins ever have been able to claim — in a foreshadowing of US president Bill Clinton’s famous comment during the Monica Lewinsky affair — “I never had sex with that woman?”

The woman in question was Lady Hazel Lavery, wife of the Belfast-born painter Sir John Lavery. Then again it might also have been Moya Llewelyn-Davies, Susan Killeen, or Dilly Dicker.

The one thing of which we are sure is that it wasn’t Kitty Kiernan, the dark-haired girl from Granard to whom Collins became engaged at Christmas 1921, just weeks after the fateful Treaty negotiations ended in London.

It was during the long spell in London for these negotiations that Collins spent time in the company of Hazel Lavery and Moya Llewelyn-Davies.

The casting of Julia Roberts as Kitty Kiernan in Neil Jordan’s 1996 film Michael Collins helped to highlight the sexual dimension of the lost leader’s life, though it is doubtful if the real Kitty would ever have referred to Collins and his friend Harry Boland, who were rivals for her hand, as “gunslingers”. If there is anything new left to say about Collins — and I’m not at all sure there is — then it would be about his relationship with women.

Because I’m convinced there is nothing new left to say, I believe it is time to bring the curtain down on the annual commemoration, and the oration which is the centrepiece of it.

This year, the man invited to deliver it was RTÉ’s Bill O’Herlihy. Now, Bill O’Herlihy is a nice man and has established a very entertaining and insightful partnership with John Giles, Liam Brady, and Eamon Dunphy on big soccer occasions. He is a very good anchorman for RTÉ, but why would I or anybody else traipse down to Béal na mBláth to hear what he has to say about Collins?

Who will it be next year — a sports personality? And perhaps that will be followed by an invitation to the Miss Ireland of 2015 to offer a new “feminine perspective” on Collins?

The whole thing has lost its purpose. I think it’s time to wrap it up and allow the Big Fellow to rest in peace. I suspect, though, that it will continue for another nine years, until the centenary of Collins’ death in 2022.

What then of Tim Pat Coogan’s article on this page last Thursday?

He had an ulterior motive, and cleverly invoked the image of Collins the “strongman”, the man of action. This, unlike the succession of orations, wasn’t offering any reinterpretation of the Collins legacy. It was really a cri de coeur for decisive action from today’s political leaders.

Tim Pat’s article was permeated by a barely concealed anger — an anger shared by many of us as we contemplate the awful mess made of our country by what he called “a variety of corrupt and lazy politicians, senior civil servants, businessmen, bankers, lawyers, accountants, and stockbrokers”.

What Collins would be today (and here I am committing the very sin I’ve accused others of by attributing a view or an emotional reaction to him) is very angry at our stultifying complacency as a people.

One thing can be asserted with certainty about Collins — he was no James Connolly. He came from rural Ireland and therefore had attitudes to land and private property that would have ill-fitted him to counter or outlaw the scandalous land speculation of the Celtic Tiger.

The truth, of course, is that we cannot know how Collins would have comported himself in post-Civil War Ireland. Hence the seemingly unending stream of speculation is utterly pointless.

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