Of all the many rebel leaders to shine out of Irish history only one stands out as a really effective revolutionary: Michael Collins --- He took hold of a potentially revolutionary situation in Ireland and made it work.’
Born in 1890 in County Cork, he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood while still in his teens and at the age of 26 took an active part in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Fighting at the rebel headquarters in the GPO Collins watched as two brigades of reinforcements swelled the British ranks. And he wondered about the strategy of the rebels in seizing buildings and attempting to hold them against a tightening cordon of well-trained troops.
Heavily outnumbered and bombarded by artillery, the rebels held out for five-and-a-half days, but under pressure from the intense artillery fire and with much of the city in flames the order was given to ‘lay down arms.’
Although he had fought in the rebel headquarters at the GPO, Collins was regarded by the victorious British as being just one of the rank-and-file. Sixteen of the more prominent leaders were executed by firing squad. As the prisoners were being marched to board a ship to take them to gaols in England a fellow prisoner remarked to Collins, ‘Sure it was a good fight, Mick’ and got the terse reply, ‘What do you mean a good fight… we lost, didn’t we.’ Such was his mood as he joined hundreds of other rebels in a special prison camp at Frongoch in Wales.
There were men from nearly every county in Ireland in the camp and Collins put those who were members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in charge of the huts and camp administration. At ‘Frongoch University’ classes were held on intelligence gathering, military tactics, and in particular, aspects of guerrilla warfare. Collins was determined never again to be caught in ‘an English duck shoot.’
When they were released in December 1916, Collins and his IRB cadres immediately made contact with those rebels who had managed to evade arrest. These Volunteers had kept a subversive network alive after the defeat at Easter and Collins used this basic undercover structure to mould Irish hearts and minds for a new fight for national independence.
In conjunction with the moderate Sinn Fein organisation, Collins and the ‘IRB machine’ won massive support in two by-elections in early 1917. In the first by-election they stood the father of the executed 1916 leader Joseph Plunkett and in the second a candidate who was still imprisoned in a British gaol. To cap it off, later in the year Eamon De Valera, whose death sentence had been commuted in 1916, won a huge victory in County Clare.
Collins used the IRB and the Volunteers relentlessly to change Irish public opinion away from the old Parliamentary Party. An IRB colleague, Thomas Ashe, was arrested for making a seditious speech and went on hunger strike. He died while being forcibly fed in gaol.
Ashe had taken part in the Easter Rising and Collins organised his funeral as a national demonstration. Volunteers with rifles flanked the coffin. At the graveside a firing party gave full military honours and Michael Collins in full Volunteer uniform gave a short oration. Declaring to the huge crowd, “That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make over the grave of a dead Fenian.”
When the British government tried to extend conscription to Ireland, resentment hardened among all shades of nationalists. On the promise that Ireland would have Home Rule at the end of the war more than 200,000 Irishmen had gone off to fight for the British Empire in Europe. They had gone as volunteers, not conscripts, to fight for ‘king and country.’
Now, Collins and the new movement rekindled the anti-war sentiments of the 1916 leaders and mass rallies were organised against conscription. The British abandoned the plan, but too late to stop another flow of sympathy to Sinn Fein.
December 1918 saw the first British general election for eight years. Women who were over 30 years could vote for the first time, as could all men over 21 years of age. Films of the time show Collins on the campaign trail, and there is no doubt about his energy and his charisma. Stories are told of the ‘laughing boy’ and his love of wrestling with anyone game enough to take him on.
Sinn Fein was primed and ready. Although De Valera was the leader, it was the Collins ‘machine’ that delivered victory. The Republican cells active since Easter Week, 1916, now achieved an overwhelming victory, with almost 75 per cent of seats going to Sinn Fein. The Sinn Fein candidates had stood on an ‘abstentionist’ ticket. In other words, they would refuse to take their seats in the British House of Parliament, and in 1919 they set up an underground government known as Dail Eireann.
Among those elected were Eamon De Valera, Michael Collins and Countess Constance Markievicz; the first woman to win a seat in a British General Election. But who as a Sinn Fein candidate took her seat in the revolutionary underground government. Many of those elected were still in gaol when the Dail met for the first time.
Collins was a natural leader, a dominant figure yet loved by those who worked with him. On the run with a price of 10,000 pounds on his head and often with a subscription for 50,000 pounds under his hat (he was Minister of Finance in the underground government) Collins directed and coordinated the Volunteers later to be known as the Irish Republican Army.
The scene was set for a confrontation. The British knew it was one thing for the Dail to declare an ‘independent republic’ -- it was another thing to win it against the might of the British Empire. A cat and mouse game developed.
On the Irish side, Collins was impatient. He knew that he had a potential revolutionary situation in his hands. And yet he could not see a way to force it. He said at one Sinn Fein meeting, “The sooner that fighting is forced and a general state of disorder created the better” and he added “the country would get more from it” than the position of stalemate that then existed. Neil Jordan, who directed a film on Collins, subscribes to that view, “How often has independence been achieved without bloodshed? Very rarely. They could never win a conventional war.” In an interview with Fiachra Gibbons in the Guardian Weekly, Jordan said, “Collins used force with great care, concentrating on the upper echelons of the establishment and the intelligence services that is why he was so effective.”
In response to the British tactic of burning down the nearest peasant cottage to the site of an ambush, Collins had the IRA retaliate by burning two mansions. This recognition of how to hurt the ruling class earned him the hatred of the House of Lords but it stopped the burning of the homes of the poor. He also understood that the real enemy was not the ordinary foot-slogging soldier and concentrated on eliminating agents and informers: the ‘eyes and ears’ of British intelligence in Ireland.
Guerrilla leader Ernie O’Malley has testified to Collins’s knack of having his finger on the pulse of things. O’Malley recalled being with Collins, when two officers of the IRA asked for more arms for their area. He reminded them that there was a particularly arrogant and sadistic Black and Tan officer in their area. “Go back there and shoot him and then I’ll get you more arms,” was his reply.
Latter day revisionists of Irish history claim there was no need for such killing or for physical force. Some baulk at the idea of the necessity of the carnage. But carnage was rampant in the Europe of the time. Four years of the ‘war to end wars’ had claimed the lives of millions of young men on the bloody quagmire battlefields of Europe.
Men who had been urged to ‘fight for the freedom of small nations’ had instead found themselves being slaughtered in the interests of imperialist empires. Influenced as much by what they had suffered in the gas fumes and mud of the trenches as by Fenian ideology, ex-soldiers and released rebels forged the militant arm of the independence movement.
After what they had been through and convinced their country was worthwhile, they would know the dignity of a different type of combat; guerrilla warfare, perfected by Michael Collins and the IRA. As Jordan has said, “All these young guys emerged from rural and working class backgrounds and they changed the whole politics of the country.” To any thinking man or woman that was very much the necessity of the times.
Collins was an inspiration to every anti-colonial movement in the twentieth century. Asian guerrilla leaders like Mao Zedong of China and General Vo Nguyen Giap of Vietnam claimed urban guerrilla warfare was transformed by the ‘Big Fellow’ from County Cork. Within 20 years of his death the guerrilla tactics he invented and employed were being used in France, Holland and other European countries against yet another empire builder. Later in the century Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela would adopt similar tactics.
His one tactical mistake was the event which made him realise it was time to compromise. In May 1921, the IRA seized the Dublin Customs House, which was then the administration centre for the British in Ireland, with the intention of burning it down. The attempt failed. Two IRA men were killed and 120 forced to surrender with the loss of valuable weapons to the British.
Although the IRA was still strong in the country; in Dublin, Collins had lost most of his best men. But both sides had reached a stalemate and within four weeks, in June 1921, an approach by British Prime Minister, Lloyd George set the scene for a truce.
In December 1921, a treaty was signed that set up an Irish Free State comprising 26 counties with six of the Ulster counties remaining under British control. Collins regarded the treaty as a ‘stepping stone’ to an eventual United Ireland. ‘Freedom to gain freedom,’ as he put it. Shortly after he had signed it he is reported to have said, “I have signed my death warrant.” Within nine months, he was dead.
News of his death in an ambush in his native County Cork shocked the country and the world. Republican anti-treaty prisoners in gaols under his government fell to their knees in prayerful mourning. Ireland would not know his like again. Brendan Behan, no lover of what the Free State became could still write The Laughing Boy a poem in honour of Collins:
For all you did and would have done, my enemies to destroy,
I’ll praise your name and guard your fame, my own dear laughing boy.
‘And would have done’; surely raises the question of whether or not Collins could have ended the Civil War sooner had he lived and perhaps prevented the counter-revolution that destroyed the aims of the Republic. The tragedy for Ireland is that we will never ever know. Lesser men of all shades have tried to write him out of history. He has been denigrated in Britain, and even at times in Ireland over the years. This writer can remember it being frowned upon to mention him in republican circles in the 1950s. But what cannot be denied is the fact that Michael Collins beat the British in the guise they chose to adopt as the champion of small nations. It must be acknowledged that at the height of the British Empire, Collins had to gauge the measure of success. And that in less than three years of armed combat he had won the first independent Irish state in 700 years.
The Irish history revisionists are reluctant to admit that the Irish resistance was as valid as any against Hitler in World War II. Ireland’s struggle was old and long sustained throughout centuries of occupation. The Irish writer, Oliver St John Gogarty, has written:
'Hundreds of Irishmen in every age were glad to put their necks in risk of England's halter and quick-lime. Collins alone pulled his generation out.’
Michael Collins’s life is not merely a story of heroism against overwhelming odds, but an expression of ideals forever with us. The resistance of ordinary men and women to the powerful and unjust in many countries has been inspired by his example. In that sense, it is right to regard him as a universal soldier.
J.A. O’Brien is the author of ‘Against The Wind: Memoir of a Dissident Dubliner’. His grand-uncle, William O’Brien, at the age of nineteen, took part in the Easter Rising and was later interned at the Frongoch Internment Camp.
Robert Kee; Ireland; A History.
Frank O’Connor; The Big Fellow.
Ulick O’Connor; Michael Collins.
Oliver St. John Gogarty; As I Was Going Down Sackville Street.
Fiachra Gibbons; The Guardian Weekly. (1997).