One of the most iconic figures that emerged out of the Easter Rising was Michael Collins. Born in 1890, he was the third son in a family of eight children. Some sources would suggest that the Collins family were part of a very ancient clan who were widely spread over County Cork.
Collins' father did not marry until he was 60 years of age, which was not unusual in this era. He met Mary Anne O’Brien, then 23. All their children were said to have been over-achievers and to have had a rich intellectual lifestyle inherited from past generations of republican family and communal ties. The seventh son of a seventh son, the elder Collins was said to have carried the gift of prophesying, determined by Irish tradition and belief.
Pictured, Michael Collins
On the elder Collins' death bed, he prophesied that the then-young 6-year-old Michael would become a great figurehead in Ireland, and that one of his daughters would become a nun. Both of these prophesy came to pass.
Already steeped in Irish history through his family, Collins Jr. would go on to give credit to headmaster James Santry at Lisavaird National School and Dennis Lyons, a local blacksmith, as the first nationalists outside of his family to inspire his pride in his Irishness.
The origins of his nickname, ‘The Big Fellow,’ are said to have come from his family, because he was always keen to take on any task way beyond his years. ‘The big fellow’ became a term of endearment. This nickname would follow him into boarding school at Clonakilty National School, when he was only 13, this name had been established very early on as a young child and not, as some claim, when he became a political or military leader.
During the school week, he lived with his elder sister Margaret and her husband, Patrick O’ Driscoll. At the weekends, he would return to the family farm and would ‘muck in' and do any and all chores that needed to be done. When O’Driscoll founded the newspaper The West Cork People, such were the young Collins' talents that O’Driscoll trusted him to assist him with general reporting jobs, and preparing issues for the newspaper.
Leaving school at 15 years of age, Collins then took the British civil service examination in Cork in 1906. He was appointed to the department of the Royal Mail. Feeling trapped in an office, he then moved to London to live with his sister Hannie [Joanna] and got a job as a messenger at Home and Co., a London stockbroker. He then made the decision to study law and secured a place at Kings College, London.
Talented, noisy [as the Plunkett family can attest,some of whom though of him as rude ] and always looking for ways in which he could expend his talents in Irish affairs, he joined the London Gáelic Athletic Association [GAA], where he became an accomplished wrestler, among many other sports he involved himself in. It was through the GAA that he met another Cork man, Sam Maguire, from Dunmanway. It was Maguire that introduced 19-year-old Collins to the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
In 1915 Collins was employed by Guaranty Trust Company of New York's branch in London and then moved to New York . Wherever he went, he would seek out the IRB, or anything to do with Irish politics, always believing that Ireland would have to take up arms to win back her Independence. His heart belonged in Ireland, and, when homesickness overcame him, the thoughts of Ireland were ever present . So in early 1916 he moved back to Dublin, where he joined Craig Gardiner & Co., an accountancy, as a part-time accountant, on Dawson Street. It was through this company that he met Count George Noble Plunkett, who had been created a Papal Count by Pope Leo XIII.
Count Plunkett offered Collins a job as his financial adviser, which he took up. [Some sources would argue that it was through the IRB that he was offered the role of Financial Advisor to Count Plunkett.] However, in this scenario, the Count in turn introduced Collins to his sons, Joseph Mary, George and John [Jack]. All the Plunkett family members were involved in the IRB or Irish movements of one kind of another.
Count Plunkett's interest in politics likely came mostly through his sons, though it was after the execution of Joseph that he became radicalized. Collins, of course, was in his element -- here he was in the midst of a family that not only understood his motives for ‘war against the British‘ but he was a big part of it all, joining the IRB immediately in Dublin. As an organizer of quite considerable intelligence, he soon became highly respected within the IRB and was taking part in preparing arms and drilling troops for the insurrection. He would also be attached to Joseph Plunkett, who was one of the IRB's seven inner-sanctum leaders, ultimately shot for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising. [Plunkett had tuberculous and was only days out of hospital, having undergone major surgery.] Collins became Joseph's aide–de-camp at the rebellion headquarters in the General Post Office of Dublin on that fateful 1916 Easter Monday morning. This was Collins' first appearance in Irish national events.
Collins was not a background aide–de-camp -- while still administering to Plunkett’s needs and commands, he was active in the fighting, alongside James Connelly and other members of the Rising’s leadership. His well-earned nickname, ‘The Big Fellow,‘ came into play at this pivotal moment, and earned him the respect of all those present, including Cumann na mBan, plus some ordinary citizens who just happened to be in the GPO at this fateful moment in history, and, not least of all, the leaders. Although the Easter Rising was considered a military disaster, it would appear that these brave men and women achieved their goal of holding their positions for the minimum time required to sustain a claim to independence under international criteria.
When the surrender was initiated by Pearse and the other leaders, Collins, like all of the other participants was arrested and taken prisoner, and sent with large numbers of men to Frongoch internment camp in Wales. Not a person to let anything like being locked up in a prison cell deter him, he began to hatch plans for ‘the next time’ while serving his sentence!
In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, all of the leadership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood was killed, either shot or imprisoned, creating a void of a magnitude that appeared insurmountable, without a rudder to steer the IRB ship [some had said it was beyond repair]. But all knew that Kathleen Clarke [wife of Thomas Clarke] held the all-important IRB documents.
Clarke understood full well that she now had to hand these over to a most trusted and capable person, someone who had the ability to manage these documents with the priority and importance that she attached to them. By June 1916 she sent out a communiqué to the IRB to begin a dialogue, declaring the Rising to be only the beginning and directing Irish nationalists to prepare for "the next blow."
Via the 'grapevine' of the Irish prisoners' network in Frongoch, Collins learned about Kathleen Clarke’s communication with the IRB. So it was no surprise that on Collins' release from Frongoch just before Christmas 1917, Collins headed straight to Dublin to visit Clarke. Not unsurprisingly, it was during the discussion she had with him that Clarke appointed Collins as secretary to the National Aid Volunteers Dependents Fund [FAVDF]. Not least, she also passed on to him the secret organizational information and all contacts that she had held in trust to better reestablish the independence movement.
It was at this time that Collins first began to emerge as a major figure. Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Fein and editor and publisher of the United Irishman,[and then the Sinn Fein Newspaper] and Collins spearheaded this post-rising independence movement. It was under Griffith's policy, and not least Collins' too, that all of the mainstream Irish movements would continue to act under the umbrella group of the non-violent Sinn Féin -- to better unify all of the different fractions of the nationalist movements.
They agreed to disagree on Griffith's moderate proposal of a duel monarchy, which Griffiths had based on the Hungarian model. By October 1917, Collins had risen in rank to become a member of the executive of Sinn Féin and director of organization for the Irish Volunteers, while de Valera, another veteran of the 1916 Easter Rising, stood for the Presidency against Griffith. Griffith stood down in favor of de Valera and supported de Valera's politics.
Pictured, Arthur Griffith. founder of Sinn Féin and editor and publisher of The United Irishman.
During 1917, Collins had traveled around Ireland promoting his ideas and politics, recruiting and, in general terms, making himself known to the people of Ireland. It was while he was touring that he was invited to a ball in Longford by his cousin Gearóid O’Sullivan, who introduced him to the Kiernan twin sisters. The hotel providing the venue for the ball happened to belong to the Kiernan family. Collins started a relationship with Kitty Kieran, one of the twins, and this relationship turned into an engagement, and subsequently a date was set for their wedding. Despite the fact that Collins was often on the run from the Crown forces, their relationship was intense, and some 300 letters between them is a testament to this. A date was set for a joint wedding between Kitty’s sister Maud and Collins' cousin O’Sullivan and Kitty and Collins. And as history now records, this joint wedding did not take place. Collins' death prevented this from happening.
By 1918, Sinn Féin had become a force to be reckoned with, and they swept into high office on the back of the electorate, giving them an overwhelming parliamentary majority in Ireland, with many seats uncontested. Collins was elected an MP for Cork South, with members of Sinn Féin now having the right to sit in the House of Commons. None of the Sinn Fein MPs took up their seat in Westminster -- instead, they chose to set up their own Irish parliament in Dublin.
Pictured, members of the First Dáil, April 10, 1919. First row, left to right: Laurence Ginnell, Michael Collins, Cathal Brugha, Arthur Griffith, Éamon de Valera, Count Plunkett, Eoin MacNeill, W. T. Cosgrave and Ernest Blythe. Kevin O'Higgins is in the third row (right).
Some sources would suggest that, more than any other individuals in the Dail, Collins and de Valera (left) were the architects of the fight with British authorities that ended Britain's long strangulation of Irish nationalism. "The Big Fellow," of course, was a good-looking, legendary athlete, while de Valera was perceived as an nerdish, bookish, bespectacled intellectual, and earned him the name of ‘The Long Fellow’ -- however, they could not have differed more in their methods of achieving their shared goal of an independent Ireland. Collins favored an outright guerrilla war fought in the dark back streets of Dublin and rural Ireland, while de Valera favored a more conventional out-in-the-open fight on home ground, in the Dail, refusing any services or advice from a British-run government.
Collins' methods of gaining intelligence was to encourage the followers of Sinn Féin to gain employment in Dublin Castle, particularly in the Intelligence Department. So it was with a guerrilla fight in mind, Collins encouraged de Valera to go to the United States to fund-raise. When de Valera set sail, to raise money for the cause of Irish Independence, the leadership of the Dail and other Irish movements fell increasingly to Collins, with Griffith serving as Acting President 1919-1921. With de Valera in the United States, Collins masterminded one of history’s most successful guerrilla campaigns.
His encouragement of men to gain employment in Dublin Castle paid off handsomely, with all his informants serving the cause well by supplying him with information, flowing straight into his hands. British army units and police barracks were ambushed on a regular basis by well-trained Irish ‘flying squads’ tipped off by Collins, as casualties mounted.
Dublin Castle and London were very aware that Collins was behind all of these casualties, with Home Secretary Winston Churchill raising the stakes by dispatching agents to Dublin, posing as business men or journalists. The notorious, brutal, undisciplined, trigger-happy Black and Tans were also sent to control the Irish, to try and infiltrate Collins' organization, in their bid to capture or kill the elusive Collins. This was a very bad mistake by Churchill as within days of these agents arriving in Dublin, Collins had all of their names and address. These had then been passed on to the ‘Irish Flying Squad,’ who killed off as many as 12 men. [Some sources would say they killed 14 men.]
Retaliation by British forces followed at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park, Dublin -- in total more than 30 lives were lost with approximately 60 casualties that "Bloody Sunday," 21st November 1920.
By the time de Valera had arrived back in Ireland in 1921, it was fully enmeshed in the conflict. To try and counteract this outrage, de Valera, with Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack [veterans of the 1916 Rising], attempted to pressure Collins to assume the reins of fund raising in the United States, something Collins adamantly resisted. So, in the elections of May 1921, all the candidates fielded by Sinn Fein were returned unopposed, with some Sinn Féin candidates gaining seats in Northern Ireland. De Valera, then, tried and failed to get Collins to desist from ambushing the police, and other British barracks, but failed, so he relented, issuing support for the IRB against his own better judgment. However, with the Collins' led guerrilla tactics taking their toll on British forces [and on Collins' own soldiers], pressure was put on Prime Minister Lloyd George to reach a compromise , an effort which had been spawned by growing Irish American outrage at British rule in Ireland. Calling for negotiations between the warring sides were the British Labour Party, The London Times, The House of Lords, famous playwright and author George Bernard Shaw, and not least Pope Pius XI. With all of this pressure taking its toll on Lloyd George, Westminster made overtures privately to Arthur Griffith, which he very much welcomed.
By July 1921 a truce was offered by Lloyd George, which astounded Collins, de Valera and Griffith, which they however very much welcomed. After the truce, de Valera received an invitation to visit Lloyd George on the 14th July 1921. He went to London to meet Lloyd George. At this meeting De Valera was under no illusions and what type of response he would get. No agreement was reached, and in fact Lloyd George threatened that if the war did nor cease, he would put a soldier in Ireland for every Irish man, woman and child in order to end the war. De Valera came back with proposals for the Dáil to consider, to send a delegation [peace conference] to Westminster to negotiate terms and conditions for what history has now recorded as the “Treaty Negotiations“ to take place in Westminster [October–December 1921].
By August, de Valera had also managed to gain approval from the Dáil to change the Irish constitution of 1919, to upgrade his position [office] from Prime Minister to the President of the Republic of Ireland, now declaring himself to be the full equivalent of King George V. Once de Valera had been declared president, he then argued that he should not be one of the delegation who went to negotiate a treaty. Collins argued very forcefully that he was a foot soldier and not a negotiator, insisting that de Valera was the best person for this role. In the end, however, those chosen to travel to Westminster for the negotiations, with their administration staff, were:
Irish Side: Arthur Griffith [Founder of Sinn Féin / Chair - Secretary for Foreign Affairs], Michael Collins [Secretary of State for Finance], Robert Barton [Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, MP Kildare –Wicklow / West Wicklow], Eamonn Duggan [MP Louth-Meath / South Meath], George Gavin Duffy [MP Dublin County / West Wicklow] Erskine Childers
British Side: David Lloyd George [Prime Minister ] Austin Chamberlain [Leader of the House of Commons], Lord Birkenhead [Lord Chancellor], Winston Churchill [Secretary of State for the Colonies], Sir Laming Worthingworth-Evans [Secretary of State for War], Sir Gordon Hewart [Attorney General], Sir Hamar Grennwood [Chief Secretary for Ireland].
After these prolonged negotiations, with authorities in Northern Ireland already having agreed they wanted to remain under British sovereignty, what the Irish contingent took back to Ireland was the independence of the 26 counties that would be called the Irish Free State, with the British retaining six counties comprising the Northern Ireland state and what would become known as the "treaty ports" on the southern coast of Ireland, for use by the Royal Navy. Whatever de Valera’s rationale for not traveling to Westminster for these vital negotiations, historians generally now agree that it was a grievous mistake on his part not to have participated.
Collins is on record as saying at this time, “I have signed my own political death warrant, and indeed, maybe my actual death warrant,“ while acknowledging that “we have the freedom to achieve freedom.“ De Valera did not see it that way, and opposed the Treaty, because it did create an Independent republic. The Treaty was passed by a narrow margin in the Dáil and de Valera resigned as president. In the aftermath of de Valera's resignation, he went on to lead the anti-Treaty side in a bitter civil war against the government of the Free State.
The newly formed Free State was in turmoil once again. The anti–Treaty and the pro-Treaty sides waged war against one another. When J.J. 'Ginger' O'Connell, a Free State general, was kidnapped by the anti-Treaty movement, this fueled an already heated country in conflict at war and led to an all-out civil war on the streets of Dublin. The Four Courts garrison was served notice to quit or face military action ‘at once.' The question still remains ‘by whom’ as there was no definite record as to who gave the order -- historians only presume that it was Collins. The war continued to rage around the country, particularly in Dublin, with O'Connell Street suffering very heavy damage.
At this point, Collins had profoundly mixed feelings about this whole situation of the Treaty, and these are recorded in his private and official diaries. By August 1922, the Free State army had gained control of most of the country. Collins was at this time making frequent trips to inspect areas of the country most affected. He decided to make a trip to his native Cork, against the advice of all of his known and most trusted and loyal associates. A dangerous and perilously risky journey it may have been, but he was determined to do it, saying words to the effect of "They won’t shoot me in my own county," having fended off a number of attacks already in the preceding weeks.
Despite all the warnings by his closest and trusted associates, Collins died in an ambush in the village of Béal na Bláth on August 22th, 1922. Some of the details most disputed are "How did the shooting start?". "Was Collins the only casualty?", “Who moved Collins' body immediately after death?”, “The inordinately long time it took to take the convoy to cover the 20 miles to Cork City Hospital, “medical evidence -- which doctor had examined him?“, ”Was an autopsy performed and how many bullets holes were found?”, “who searched his clothes?”, “What became of all his documents, which he carried everywhere with him?“ -- his field diary only turned up several decades later. The list of errors committed at the crime scene of one of the most high profile figures in Irish History, and the most notorious incident of any of the Civil War, in which an high profile figure was assassinated, dominate the story of this much admired leader, and are astounding to say the least.
Collins remains were transported by sea from Cork to Dublin, where he lay in state for three days in Dublin City Hall. Tens of thousands of mourners paid their respects as they filed past his remains. Some of these were British soldiers departing Ireland who had fought against him. His funeral Mass took place at Dublin's Pro-Cathedral where as many as 500,000 attended, which was approximately one fifth of the population of this era. Many foreign dignities attended also.
Mystery still surrounds Collins' death as all the witnesses gave conflicting statements, and, supposedly, there were only anti-Treaty and pro-Treaty Army personnel present. The lack of objectivity among those present, on its own, presents a unique historical discussion, and the whole scenario reads like a “who done it“ drama. Most shockingly of all is the fact that the authorities did not investigate this crime properly, as it should have been.
Some additional points of interest about Michael Collins' life and death:
More on the Irish War of Independence
The Forgotten Ten: