Michael Collins was born in County Cork in Ireland. When I visited Cork City I found it refreshing, invigorating and cathartic to get into conversations with strangers in pubs about history and what comes from it. In Cork, it is common to talk about Mick in hushed tones. Diplomacy is not my strong point, in fact there is no point in trying anymore, but to criticise Collins in Cork would be daft. The eternal argument over Collins and De Valera is one of the most stimulating conversations I have had. I will offer my assessment later, I can only do it humbly and respectfully as an outsider, as some would say it is none of my business.
In a sense he was a weapon, designed with one target in mind; The Irish Republic. He got most of that target. That the goal was achieved at the age of 30 was phenomenal. To take on the might of the British Empire, who had just won the1st World War, and win is staggering. To take on the Brits in a full scale military adventure could never work, purely on the numbers. But I will offer some ideas based on by Trans Irish Sea experience that may be able to see both sides.
The English Normans started colonising future ports in Ireland for whatever reason. Money or power maybe, because it was there? The Irish would rebel more and more over the years. Cromwell promoted Catholicism by outlawing it. O’Connell united the country in defiance and a peaceful demand for self-determination that turned to death for him and millions of others as the British Government did nothing to feed the famine on their doorstep. Parnell resisted for political change, but his weakness was Katie, the woman he loved.
The British made the mistake of executing the Martyrs of 1916, fanning the flames. By 1919 the country was ready to fight. With a mandate for Sinn Fein in parliament. Collins who had been preparing in British prisoner of War camps went to work. His strategy was to get good intelligence, and strike at the root cause of the problem. The G section of the Dublin Police in the Castle were targeting him and his Republican friends. He was advised by his top agent, Ned Broy, that the rest of the Dublin police may be sympathetic or swayed, so he left them alone. Carefully considered and planned assassinations of the spies who were after him, and warnings of the same to any informer had its effect on the government of Ireland. Soon he was a wanted man. The British assumed that he was just a murderous thug, but evaded them by dressing in a three piece suit and charming the pants off anyone he met. Skulking round Dublin at night was his normal behaviour. He had a way of reading a person immediately. In reacting to any situation, he could disarm and charm anybody, enemy, potential enemy, people caught in the crossfire. One time he jumped out a skylight and surprised a Librarian I think it was, immediately seeing her shock he charmed her and politely asked for the exit.
His work rate was incredible. He was mainly the minister for Finance, and prepared the accounts for the movement and would take personal charge. He would travel to Eamon De Valera’s wife to give her money at great personal risk to himself. His ability to motivate, inspire, encourage and get locked in pubs, with his mates in the Volunteers led to a loyal, disciplined and dedicated unit that would follow orders in the common cause.
One time someone in Munster, was about to carry out an act of vengeance. He came straight down from Dublin and remonstrated with the man. He knew that it was not the fighting, but how you fought that mattered. Revenge bred revenge and the Volunteers, in his opinion, had to be better than that.
The Black and Tans, a rowdy, bunch of ex-soldiers, probably with post-traumatic stress, were let loose on Ireland with little restraint or strategy. They carried out indiscriminate murder and lootings, the burning of the centre of Cork and the shooting of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Tomas McCurtain, in front of his family. The idea was to break the Irish will and stop the Volunteers, by showing that they could do more and worse atrocities. The Irish were not for breaking; they had a coherent leadership and focussed military that they could back without question.
In my opinion the call for a ceasefire did not happen due to a traditional military defeat, but a moral one. Lloyd-George had been at Versailles punishing the Germans, and when he concentrated on Ireland he could see that Britain had lost the moral argument. He won the biggest war in history against German aggression denying self-determination to the French and Belgians. He refused to talk to the Suffragettes until they stopped using violence, knowing that he was going to give them the vote anyway. But Hamar Greenwood had been lying about the situation blaming Sinn Fein murder gangs when the Tans were far worse. The press were getting wind of the truth and the British people were swinging behind their Irish brothers and sisters. Blood has flowed both ways across the sea, with a shared history and geography, unity of all these peoples was important. So they called a truce, essentially due to a moral disadvantage. This, as ever, could never be admitted to, and the British, to save face had to negotiate hard. A Republic was out of the question as it threatened the Empire. De Valera had met Lloyd-George and he was told this I am sure and he realised that though similarly slippery, the Welsh Wizard was more than a match for him in the political stakes.
Dev possibly felt threatened by Collins so sent him to negotiate the Treaty, also knowing that his reputation would be tarnished if and when he was bested by the Brits. The main negotiators were Collins a 30 years old soldier and Griffiths an unwell journalist, against Lloyd-George, Churchill, Birkenhead and Austen Chamberlain. They got what they could and were in no position to push for any more. An Irish Free State, a partition of the North and swearing allegiance to the King were what had to be accepted. De Valera was incensed, at his most selfish; he threatened to wade through blood at Limerick to defeat the treaty. With the Dail packed with rebels, rebel they did. The country may not have understood, as they had their own country back. But Civil War it was. Collins was left in charge. Having achieved the impossible, he was now in unfamiliar territory.
Civil War is always a tragedy after liberation. Surely Collins would have been a loyal deputy to De Valera; he negotiated the Treaty instead of him after all. Perhaps when unity was most needed, De Valera failed. The most important moment and the Country was divided. Could Collins have been a great leader if he lived? Who knows, he had achieved most of what every previous Irish rebel wanted. What more could he do?
We can only speculate at what might have been if he had lived. But War leaves you exhausted, physically, emotionally and morally. Old soldiers do not do well in life and almost never in politics. Fighting for a single goal, does not lead to the need for compromise in Government. His legacy and the later good work of De Valera, facilitated the Republic. Use it wisely, people died fighting a just War for it. The fight was for Irish self-determination. It allowed Ireland the right to speak its own language, sing its own songs and promote its own culture and history. If a culture is colonised by foreign media and corporations, are you still free?
If you give up the struggle for freedom, you may wake up and discover your City or County is no different to one in England, the USA, Japan, Australia or Paraguay. If you lose your identity, what are you, and who are you.
Collins lived short, but burned brighter than anyone. For me his legacy is that there is always struggle. Fight in yourself, in your environment, in a relationship or against another organisation. It is not just the fight; it is how you do it. What better example as how to fight anything than Collins. Churchill, the old traditionalist, despised him at first. But, when he fought his War, he had learnt to fight by all means necessary, with whatever or whoever was at hand, with the soldiers as people not units.
Whatever you fight against in your life, do it properly. Ask yourself the question, what would Mick do? You could read the ancient text ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu. Mick might have read it when young, but I suspect it was in his heart and soul, because like the English say about Churchill, “Cometh the hour, cometh the Man.”
Whoever exported Irish pubs around the World was a fecking genius. Doing it without the two main ingredients, the Craic and drinkable stout is astonishing. Or would you rather watch Premier League Football, read the Sun and the Daily Mail and be the work slaves of American Corporations?
If the Irish can recognise what makes them unique, then sell it to pieces. Globalisation will only make Ireland a Corporation colony, in my view. With independence you are free to be yourself and live within your means, in your own culture.
As an outsider, I guess that was what the Irish Republic was about. Please Ireland, don’t lose your identity. Your greatest gift is yourselves and the mighty Craic. Sell it, but please don’t dilute it. People died for it a long time ago. Please don’t let that struggle be in vain.