Michael Collins: One of the ‘what-ifs’ of Irish politics

Michael Collins: One of the ‘what-ifs’ of Irish politics
Michael Collins attends the funeral of the Irish Free Stater and founder of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith. 

ONE of the great 'what-ifs' of Irish politics concerns the assassination of Michael Collins, 97 years ago this week.

Had he survived the Civil War, what might his legacy have been? What kind of country might Ireland have become?

Unlike contemporaries like Cosgrave, Lemass, and de Valera, Collins died before he could really prove himself as a governor, but his short life still had an immense impact on the country. 

In 1890, Collins was born into a deeply republican household in a deeply republican community, which set him on a path that would change Ireland as a whole.

After leaving secondary school at age 16, he entered the British civil service and then later the private sector where he learned much about financial governance and economics - something that would stand to him after the revolution.

But while his location changed, his loyalties didn't, and he was drawn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood like his father before him.

By the time of the Easter Rising, he had established himself as a key lieutenant to the leaders of the revolution and served under Joseph Plunkett at the GPO.

In the vacuum created by the execution of those leaders, he emerged as one the new wave who took on their mantle and continued the revolution.

As a member of the First Dáil and the provisional government, he excelled as both a military tactician and a financial administrator.

Despite the precariousness of de Valera's largely paper government, Finance Minister Collins raised funds for the new republic through loans and bonds.

1921: Sinn Fein leader and Commander-In-Chief of the Irish Free State Army Michael Collins (1890 - 1922) throwing in the ball to start a hurling match at Croke Park, Dublin.
1921: Sinn Fein leader and Commander-In-Chief of the Irish Free State Army Michael Collins (1890 - 1922) throwing in the ball to start a hurling match at Croke Park, Dublin.

Meanwhile, as Director of Intelligence for the IRA, he was arming units and organising raids of British barracks and hits on British agents in Ireland.

His efforts played no small part in forcing Westminster to the negotiating table, and, much to his own surprise, he was sent there himself, with de Valera appointing him as one of the plenipotentiaries to negotiate a truce and the terms of Ireland's independence.

And this is where his legacy gets complicated. 

As a charismatic and pragmatic politician, Collins was someone the British could do business with and they did.

Compromise was necessary. Ireland was to govern it's own affairs, though it would remain under nominal British rule, host a number of British naval bases and, crucially, leave six counties behind. 

To Collins and his side, this was a stepping stone towards freedom - a means to formally take control of most of Ireland while peacefully working towards expansion to the rest.

To others, it was a sellout - a partial free state still subservient to the crown was not the republic that they had fought for.

Collins, steadfast in his decision but conscious of the political reality, summed it up best himself:

"I may have signed my actual death warrant."

And he had.

Within months, Collins was leading the efforts to suppress a civil war while trying to negotiate a truce. 

That effort brought him to Cork in August 1921, where he was ambushed at Béal na Bláth.

Choosing to fight back instead of driving on, Collins was struck by a bullet to the head and died at the scene - the only casualty of the engagement.

His death and that of Arthur Griffith left a vacuum of power and led to a cycle of reciprocal violence that extended the war. 

As time goes on and the civil war cleavage fades away, Collins complicated legacy becomes easier to assess. 

Collins was right- Ireland was able to pivot away from the treaty and become a fully-fledged independent republic. 

Funeral of General Michael Collins proceeds along Patrick's Quay, Cork in August 28, 1922. 
Funeral of General Michael Collins proceeds along Patrick's Quay, Cork in August 28, 1922. 

But he was wrong too - a century on, that republic still only consists of 26 counties and the fate of their six is still a source of political contention. 

His life and writings would inspire many, including his contemporary and later Taoiseach Seán Lemass who credited him for the economic expansion of the 1960s.

Though he died before he could ever truly wield power himself, through his ideas, his successes, and his failures, the modern Irish state owes much to Michael Collins. For better and for worse. 

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