Tomorrow Enda Kenny will become the first sitting Taoiseach to address the annual Béal na mBláth commemoration in West Cork.
Ironically we can all take great comfort in the event, marking the death of Michael Collins — Civil War leader, subversive, finance minister, inspiring leader, treaty signatory, fallen hero, and visionary or traitor depending on your, or more likely your grandparents’, viewpoint — has become a kind of symbol for a new, more united and focused Ireland. An Ireland still growing more tolerant and at ease with itself.
That process was copper-fastened two years ago when Fianna Fáil’s Brian Lenihan spoke at the event. Though he was not the first Fianna Fáil minister to attend — Jerry Cronin, the then defence minister laid a wreath at the Collins’s monument in the 1970s after then taoiseach Jack Lynch decided that the government and the army should be represented — it would be dishonest and foolish to pretend that the ceremony and all it represented did not polarise generations of Irish people. Within living memory it occasioned vitriol and visceral division, neither of which realised any of the ambitions Collins, or those who killed him, held dear.
It is unfortunate but not unusual that it has taken 90 years for us to reach this point, for all of those who care for Ireland to realise, and act on, the simple fact that we all have far more in common than that which divides us. Like the sabotaged Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 the divisions so lethal and obvious in West Cork in 1922 had to be overcome by decades of distillation through the permanent reality that all of us are part of the same society, one reliant on the other.
It is probably too much to hope that the looming conflicts between religions and secular Ireland — stem cell research, school patronage, single-sex unions, and abortion — could be tempered by the realisation that, eventually, one must accommodate the other and neither view can dominate. In another life-colouring irony it may be more difficult for some secularists to accept this than a once autocratic but now-humiliated Catholic Church.
Collins’s early death — he was shot weeks short of his 32nd birthday — underlines his remarkable achievements but means his life is seen primarily through two prisms — the military/revolutionary one and the less precise what-might-have-been, lost-leader one. It is a national trait to compare what is with what might have been and for decades, maybe too long, Collins was the leading man in this drama. His aura still invokes great loyalty and romanticism. Just this week a coin minted to mark his anniversary proved so popular that 32,000 rather than the usual 20,000 were produced.
In another irony one of the things that Collins made great was his complete disdain for wishful thinking. His pragmatism and determination, his clarity and ruthlessness made him the man he was and the legend he is.
It is time we invoked these qualities to remember and honour the man whose tragic death diverted us from so many of the ideals he espoused and advanced. Only today we can do it together.
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