Michael Collins was an Irish leader who helped his country achieve independence. However, a few years after the Irish Republic was proclaimed, Collins was dead. His death remains a mystery. Here, SM Sigerson, an author of a book related to the assassination, tells us about four myths surrounding his death. 

Michael Collins, his life and times, command an inexhaustible fascination for people everywhere. This is perhaps because they are a sort of microcosm of a political predicament that continues to repeat itself all over the world.

An ancient, semi-feudal oppressor. A people literally dying for self-determination.  A vigorous new generation, chomping at the bit to ‘have a go’. A wealth of new thought and thinkers, transforming political debate, intellectual and cultural life.

Among the best and brightest, a young leader steps into the breach: with the genius, vision and courage that turns the key and brings it all together. Spearheaded by him, his people sweep all before them.

Such popular leaders are sometimes fortunate, and live to rule; shepherding the people through the pangs of establishing their republic. Others fall in the conflict; tragically cut off in their prime, setting their world back decades.

 Michael Collins addressing a crowd in Dublin, 1922.

Michael Collins addressing a crowd in Dublin, 1922.

We've seen this drama replayed in many nations. If mythology was created to teach us of classic dilemmas that may be cyclically repeated by humanity down through the ages, perhaps this is one of the key dilemmas.

No wonder that Collins' story has so much to say to us even now. If it's the stuff that dreams are made of, it has also been plagued by myth making in every sense. Mythology can have two potential functions: to illuminate the facts, or to obscure them. Some myths give meaning. They help us understand our mysteries. Another sort may simply be disinformation: concocted expressly to prevent understanding.

Because there has never been any full, official inquiry in to the death of Collins, his story is not much more than a folk tale. A number of myths about it have taken on a powerful life of their own; often tolerated and even disseminated by official sources.

In “The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth?” eleven popular misconceptions are listed which, almost without exception, have served to mislead the public about what really happened.

Most of these are easily traceable to sources by no means entirely objective or disinterested - when not to actual political opponents of the man whose death they seem to trivialize. We are going to consider a few such myths here.

Myth 1:  That there is an "official story"; that we know what happened.

Myth 2:  The anti-Treaty side did it.

Myth 3:  "No, stop and we'll fight them."

Myth 4:  Collins died because he was "careless of personal danger"


Myth 1: That there is an "official story"

Origin: Anecdote, folklore, irresponsible commentators.

Translation: "No investigation necessary."

That there never has been any official, public inquiry into the death of Michael Collins [1] is a glaring omission that cannot be excused in any modern democracy.

We haven't even the basic dignity of an official story to pull to pieces. We have only the illusion of one. Unexamined anecdote, conflicting testimony and rumor have been allowed to stand in its place. In reality, there is no official story.

As matters stand there is no real evidence to show what caused his death, and we can only presume it was caused by gunshot. There is no evidence to show that Collins didn't die of a heart attack, or that he was not poisoned and that the wounds were not inflicted afterward. [2]

The eyewitness reports are highly contradictory. None of those present were ever formally questioned by the authorities. There is no autopsy report that we can read. All we know for certain is that shots were exchanged at Béal na mBláth and that only Collins died.

Yet inquests were held in the death of Cathal Brugha, Harry Boland, Sean Hales, Liam Lynch "and a host of others who died from gunshot wounds... Contemporary newspapers show inquests in the deaths of soldiers as well as officers killed in action were commonplace." [3] The authorities' failure to convene any such examination in Collins' death is more than a regrettable oversight.


Myth 2: The anti-Treaty side did it

Origin: Popular assumption, based on contemporary press reports.

Translation: "Case closed."

The assumption that the anti-Treaty soldiers (that is, those who did not support the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty that led to Ireland coming into being) shot Collins is no more than that.  As such, it is directly attributable to the lack of any official investigation.

Allegations that he was shot by someone other than the ambushers is not a far-fetched theory, but originates with corroborated eyewitness testimony.


Myth 3: "No, stop and we'll fight them."

Origin: Emmett Dalton.

Translation: "Dalton was not to blame. Collins (i.e. the victim) was to blame."

How many discussions of the events at Béal na mBláth turn on references to these words? How many of the journalists, politicians and others who've quoted this famous line have any idea of its provenance?

Like so much conventional wisdom about Béal na mBláth, this anecdote originates in the account given by one single witness only. It is the version of events given by Dalton. Significantly, it is the version which most seems to excuse Dalton's failure, as chief bodyguard, to keep his priceless charge alive. It is not corroborated by any other source.

This should be enough to restrain prominent commentators from quoting it as gospel.


Myth 4: "Careless of personal danger"

Origin: Folklore, well-meaning biographers.

Translation: "Collins (i.e. the victim) was to blame."


Where courage and judgment are equally required, I would rather send in a clever coward, than a stupid hero.

-  Michael Collins, 1922 [4]


No one survives the kind of attention that the British secret service focused on Michael Collins by mere ‘luck’. In the course of several years on their ‘most wanted’ list, he survived continuous, organized, sophisticated efforts, by the world's most formidable imperialist war machine, to infiltrate his organization, capture and/or kill him.

Running an army entirely dependent on volunteers and constantly recruiting them, he was particularly exposed to such assailants. A number of operatives joined the movement, distinguished themselves, and managed to penetrate quite near him. Expressing a keen desire to meet Collins, some were ultimately exposed and executed.

This sent a very clear message indeed: trying too hard to find Collins was a short way to end in a ditch with a hole in the head. Then there are the many eyewitness reports, scattered throughout his life in Dublin, of his stunning skill in swiftly dispatching the occasional lone armed attacker, with his bare hands and championship wrestling skills.

These were dangerous times. The Irish were playing for high stakes, and had their eyes on the prize: the golden ring of national freedom, which had eluded their forebears for centuries. The struggle required great physical courage in its combatants, and a willingness to take risks.

Yet no one in Collins' position could have survived the War of Independence, had he been ‘careless of personal danger’.


"The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth?" by SM Sigerson is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


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1) He is referred to herein as "Collins"

2) John M Feehan The Shooting of Michael Collins: Murder or Accident?  Mercier Press, Cork, Ireland, 1981

3) Ibid.  Tim Pat Coogan, in his authoritative biography Michael Collins, seems to err in asserting that no inquests were held in deaths that occurred during "military action."  Arrow Books, London, 1991

4) Hayden Talbot, Michael Collins: His Own Story Hutchinson & Company, London, 1923

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones