S M Sigerson, author of "The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth?" continues to re-examine a number of myths which have distorted the facts about Collins.  Some have argued that he was merely one of several ambitious men, vying for power at the time.  But does that adequately explain his role in Irish history, his legendary stature, or his undying fascination?

The previous articles in this series are here on four myths related to Collins’ death and here on another myth.

Michael Collins giving a speech. Source: Cork Film Archive, site  here .

Michael Collins giving a speech. Source: Cork Film Archive, site here.

One argument that has been put forward to explain away the phenomenon of Michael Collins is the contention that he was merely one of several ambitious men of the time.  Some suggest that he was distinguished only by his failure to survive, by being less successful than others. 

History always involves debate.  In Collins' case, the controversy which ended his life is not altogether a thing of the past, but rages on in Ireland today.  Therefore writers on this topic are particularly liable to favour either himself or his political opponents.

This and other trivializations of Collins is often found in the mouths of DeValera eulogists.  If translated from subliminal nuance into the plainest language possible, perhaps it might read something like: "Collins' death didn't matter. Nothing would have been better had he lived.  Collins just wasn't as successful as others. Collins was a loser."

Is there a political agenda detectable, in thus waving aside the achievements of the only leader to see the British Army off Irish soil, in seven centuries of trying?

If Mr. DeValera can by reason and argument induce the people of Ireland to entrust the Nation's fortunes to him and his party ... in that event the duty of the Army, no matter what were their individual views, would be to support Mr DeValera's government, and I would exhort the people to support that government, as a government, even if I were in political opposition...

 

Progressive campaigning often turns on convincing people that (1) change is possible and (2) the candidate / party is different from the establishment, and will make change happen.  For the same reason, these two principles are often targeted by entrenched political establishments. It becomes, in a sense, their job (if they want to keep their jobs) to convince the public that change is not going to happen. It is in their interests to encourage a general disbelief that any politician is going to be different. A general hopelessness that anything can change is advantageous to the status quo. Such inertia keeps people away from the polls: they don't bother to vote. This is good for entrenched establishments. The fewer people that vote, the more likely that the usual suspects will keep their seats. Large voter turn-outs are often good news for progressives and bad news for conservatives. When the public perceives a chance for positive improvements, when a candidate stands out as offering something genuinely valuable and innovative, when the public imagination is fired: then they stand up to be counted. It is therefore definitely in the interests of some political elements to discourage this sort of thing.

 

Assassination

Government by assassination is the most extreme form of that strategy. It is one very destructive and dangerous way to make sure that there will be only one kind of candidate.

Obviously, if this were a mere question of struggle between two equally selfish and unethical men, it is not Michael Collins who would have been assassinated. If he could wipe out virtually the entire British secret service in Dublin in one day, there was no one in Ireland likely to outdo him in that department.

... while it was perfectly justifiable for any body of Irishmen, no matter how small, to rise up and make a stand against their country's enemy, it is not justifiable for a minority to oppose the wishes of the majority of their own countrymen, except by constitutional means. 

 

Collins never said it was “necessary to shoot men like" Liam Lynch or Rory O'Connor.  Nor did he ever call on the public to wade through the blood of anti-Treaty leaders. He never advocated firing on comrades as a solution to the Dáil / Army split. On the contrary, he resisted doing so longer than anyone else in a comparably responsible position (although no one's position at the time can really be compared with his).

The solution he consistently sought was a just and amicable reunification of all factions. The analysis he repeatedly emphasized was the danger of dividing the country's strength, in the presence of their traditional foe at this volatile juncture. History has justified him. 

Collins clearly declared that, while he had no problem with assassination as a weapon of war against a violent foreign occupation force, he did not believe in it as a form of government. That, apparently, is how he differed from his opponents. Tragically for us, he paid the supreme price for that difference.

 

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Portions of this article are excerpted from "The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened At Béal na mBláth?" by S M Sigerson. Available online at www.amazon.com/dp/1493784714 or www.smashwords.com/books/view/433954. Alternatively, ask at your local bookstore.

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

The first article of this series (available here) opened a re-examination of several popular misconceptions about Irish independence hero Michael Collins. Here S.M. Sigerson looks at just one of the most notorious myths – that Collins died because he was inexperienced in live combat. 

 

Ireland's Revolutionary Era (1900 - 1923) was a time when controversy pervaded practically every aspect of life on that island. As a prominent leader in the conflict, Michael Collins lived and breathed controversy.

Some of the critical national questions at issue then have yet to be agreed, to this day. It is hardly surprising, then, that debate likewise continues, concerning points of Collins’ own character.

This is especially true in what may be the single most controversial event of his storied life: his suspicious death.  In the complete absence of the sort of official inquest which one would expect to have taken place, and utterly without the kind of authoritative records such an inquest would have bequeathed to us, folklore and gossip have rushed in to fill the gaps.

Remarkable assertions, plausible and otherwise, have tried to explain away unanswered questions around the killing of Ireland's Commander-in-Chief.  Some of these propositions have acquired a currency and repetition, tossed off in the heat of political debate, in the press, in interviews, in biographies through the years. But where did these "facts" come from?  Who said that? 

The contention that Collins was inexperienced in live combat had its origins among Collins' avowed opponents, at the time of Dáil debates on the Treaty.  They formed part of general efforts to discredit Collins; in the hope of dislodging his dominant position as head of the independence movement, in public perception.

This, in itself, places the question in the context of precisely the political conflict that culminated in his assassination.  It thus cannot be separated from a campaign of character assassination that immediately preceded, and then later, attempted to excuse his death.

Michael Collins in London in 1921.

Michael Collins in London in 1921.

Emmet Dalton

The promoter of the false charge simply expresses his gratification at finding that he had been misled (by erroneous information). It is not customary for him to express gratification... that, out of all the mud which he has thrown, some will probably stick!

- A Trollope

This misstatement about the Commander-in-Chief's battle experience is in no way improved by its association with Emmet Dalton.  The ranking officer under Collins that day, Dalton was the one most personally responsible for the Commander-in-Chief’s safety there.

When asked to explain the death of the one man he was there to protect, Dalton blamed the victim, claiming that Collins didn't know enough to keep his head down under fire.  This is the origin of the charge that Collins' death was caused by extraordinary incompetence on his own part. 

But there are problems with Dalton's statements.  At a glance they are consistently and suspiciously self-exonerating. Nor are they well corroborated by others who were present.

On the other hand, there is abundant testimony regarding the Commander-in-Chief’s career of astounding survival, through bullets and cannon, through countless ambushes and daring escapes, between 1916 and 1922.  Even those who later bore arms against him during the Irish Civil War have left vivid accounts of Collins' hands-on leadership under fire, in many now-forgotten raids.

Collins was apt to come up suddenly behind someone in the street and invite him to join him immediately in blowing up a barracks... they never knew when he might be serious. 

Collins got word that Lord French would be passing through College Street a little later and he got himself a gun, rounded up anyone who happened to be nearby, and set off to lead an ambush.

 

The balance of evidence reduces Dalton's claim to absurdity. Common sense likewise belies his "expert opinion" on the military prowess of "the man who won the war".  In his early twenties at the time, Dalton's insinuation is that his own military judgment was vastly superior to that of this famous general who had just defeated the world's most sophisticated Empire.  If so, it is remarkable that Ireland did not seem to make much progress under Dalton's leadership, once that supposedly less-competent superior was removed.

Although strategic command was Collins' foremost role after 1919, evidence is overwhelming that he not only oversaw, but personally commanded, carried out, and survived more such actions than can ever be known: due to the clandestine nature of the war, and other factors which made public statements or written records far less available to historians than under normal conditions. 

 

Volatility

Many of those concerned in these events took oaths of secrecy, sworn never to discuss the actions, nor to name comrades who took part. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, parent body of the IRA)  was a secret organization throughout Collins' life.  Armed conflict against the British, although officially ended in the 26 southern counties, was still alive and well in the northeast of Ireland, and frequently spilled over the as-yet-undefined border between.  The IRB in general, and Collins in particular, were highly active in arming and directing Irish military measures there.  These were secret operations, which the Commander-in-Chief showed no qualms about carrying on without much regard for the nascent Free State government's official policy.  Indeed, up until a short time before, the IRB had recognized no government outside their own Supreme Council; their own president being, according to their by-laws, President of Ireland.

Consider the volatility, at this writing, of similar details regarding armed conflict in Northern Ireland (1970s - 1990s). Any publication of details about the underground forces' personnel, numbers, operations, precise past whereabouts etc., have been a highly sensitive issue, involving risk of reprisals.  The more active and responsible, the greater the danger inherent to those concerned.

Michael Collins' ultimate fate, shortly after shared by many of his best and brightest, proves that such a threat to those "who won the war" was certainly very real and present in 1922. 

It is Collins' long career of continual escape from enemy ambush and survival under fire, which casts his ultimate end in such a curious light.  As an explanation of his death, "inexperienced in combat" is a square peg in a round hole: a paralogism that does not fit the big picture.

Portions of this article are excerpted from "The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened At Béal na mBláth?" S M Sigerson. It is available here: (Amazon US | Amazon UK) or ask at your local bookshop.

 

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

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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Notes

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

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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