Michael Collins: Love, hate, and the Big Fellow’s public image

On the 125th anniversary of Michael Collins’s birth, Ryle Dwyer examines how attitudes to him have fluctuated through the decades, including a period when he was almost forgotten

Michael Collins: Love, hate, and the Big Fellow’s public image

WHEN Michael Collins was killed in 1922, there was considerable anguish and national mourning, while his nemesis Éamon de Valera was widely reviled.

But growing up in Tralee, Co Kerry, during the 1950s and early 1960s I never remember hearing the name of Michael Collins mentioned in school. It was as if he had been written out of history.

My introduction to 20th-century Irish history was at university in Texas, while taking a course on Europe between the two world wars. We had to do a research project and I wrote on the causes of the Civil War of 1922-23.

I was stunned to learn that it had essentially nothing to do with the partition question, but revolved instead around the question of Ireland’s international status. A letter that Michael Collins wrote on the morning that he signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty enthralled me.

“Think what I have got for Ireland,” he wrote. “Will anyone be satisfied? I tell you this. Early this morning I signed my own death warrant. I thought at the time, how odd, how ridiculous a bullet might just as well had done the job five years ago.”

In short, he signed the Treaty even though he realised this would likely lead to his death. He thought at the time he might as well have been killed in the 1916 Rising.

During a private session of the Dáil from which the public and journalists were excluded during the Treaty debate, Collins challenged de Valera to provide the Dáil with an alternative to the Treaty.

The Long Fellow duly took up the challenge by presenting what became known as Document No 2. It included the Treaty’s partition clauses verbatim, so partition was obviously not at issue as far as de Valera was concerned.

He admitted that there was only a “small difference” between Collins and himself. “I felt the distance between the two was so small that the British would not wage war on account of it,” de Valera explained. “You may say if it is so small why not take it? But I say, that small difference makes all the difference.”

The delegation had gone to London to try to secure the real freedom that Canada enjoyed. Although the British king was still nominally supreme — with a supposed right to veto legislation, he was really only a figurehead with no actual power, even in Britain.

Canada, Australia, and South Africa were so far away that Britain could not interfere in their affairs, but Ireland was so close that the British would interfere in Irish affairs at will in the name of the king. Thus, Ireland needed something extra to ensure against British interference.

The British offered to include in the Treaty a firm stipulation that the Irish Free State would have the same status as Canada “in law, practice, and constitutional usage”.”Collins accepted that the Treaty did not accord “the ultimate freedom that all nations desire”, but he insisted that it provide “the freedom to achieve it”. It would be a stepping-stone to the desired independence.

After Collins’s death, his successors tried to prove he had been right by demonstrating that dominion status amounted to real independence. Kevin O’Higgins played a major role in the Balfour Declaration of 1926, which stipulated that “the United Kingdom and each of the dominions were autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs”.

In 1931, the Statute of Westminster became law just five days after the 10th anniversary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, formally recognising dominion independence. De Valera candidly admitted on coming to power a few months later that he had underestimated the freedom conferred by the Treaty.

When he then sought to use that freedom to abolish the Treaty-oath prescribed for members of the Dáil, the Cumann na nGaedheal opposition tried to frustrate his every move, going so far as to instigate the British to wage economic war against this country.

Hence it took de Valera almost 10 years to prove that Collins was indeed right. This was done by unilaterally by abolishing the Treaty-oath, and by persuading the British to surrender their Treaty-right to use Irish ports and whatever facilities they might desire in time of war, or international tension.

De Valera also introduced a new Constitution, voted in by a plebiscite in 1937, replacing the king as head of state with a democratically elected president. Any lingering doubts about the country’s independence were dispelled by staying out of the Second World War, despite the fulminations of Winston Churchill.

Thus Collins was proved right about the Treaty containing the freedom to achieve the desired freedom, but ironically it was de Valera who proved this in the face of the determined opposition of Fine Gael, which had essentially betrayed the Collins legacy. As a result, de Valera got the credit, and Collins was essentially shunted into the shadows of history, from which he did not begin to re-emerge until the 1960s.

Collins was gradually accorded proper recognition with a series of biographies, television documentaries, and eventually the movie starring Liam Neeson.

In 1996, I was invited to deliver the oration at Béal na Bláth. In this address I highlighted the small difference that had divided Collins and de Valera.

“There can be little doubt that the greatest tragedy in Ireland during the 20th century was that this small difference led to a civil war which left a residual bitterness that was to poison Irish politics for decades,” I contended.

It was therefore time for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to put aside their political posturing and acknowledged that the historical and ideological differences between them were just shadows. Articles 2 and 3 had been written into the Constitution in order to perpetuate the myth that de Valera opposition to the Treaty revolved around the partition issue.

The Kilmichael and Crossbarry Commemoration Committee responded by issuing a statement to the press in indignation. “It would appear that Dr Dwyer would have no qualms about dropping Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution,” the statement read.

“Is Dr Dwyer implying that Michael Collins would agree — to such an act of treachery — as dropping article 2 of the constitution?”

Less than two years later in 1998, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution — replacing Articles 2 and 3 — was approved by 94.39% of the electorate. That was by far the highest approval of any amendment to the Constitution.

More than a decade and a half has passed since then, but we still have the posturing between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael over their supposed differences. There never were any real differences between them — it was always just politics and personalities.

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