From Collins’s biography by Piaras Béaslaí right through to the most recent one (though I say “most recent” with some level of trepidation), Michael Collins, The Man And The Revolution, published in 2018 by The Collins Press and written by Dr Anne Dolan and Dr William Murphy, both academic historians working in universities. Thursday will be the 97th anniversary of Collins’s death.
In any of the other books on him that I have read, the authors almost invariably come down on the side of one or other of theories on who actually shot him. Dolan and Murphy lay out whatever evidence there is — and much of it is slender evidence indeed — and it is up to the reader to take his or her pick.
It is a different book to the usual and while, of course, aspects of Collins’s life are unavoidably included, there is no way that it should be considered a biography. It examines what the authors believe made the man and how the revolution was shaped by him.
Those who know me are aware that my political allegiances have been Fianna Fáil and may, therefore, be somewhat surprised that I should write in as non-judgmental a way as possible about Collins. My friends who are Fine Gael supporters may not be that surprised because I have always referred to Collins as the “hijacked hero”. Even though I have used that phrase as a way to tease my friends, I do actually believe it.
Imagine my surprise a couple of years ago when Leo Varadkar was elected leader of Fine Gael and in his speech he mentioned Michael Collins as one of the “founders” of Fine Gael. Anybody who knows anything at all about Irish politics knows Fine Gael wasn’t founded until 1933, 11 years after the death of Collins, following the amalgamation of a number of groups: the pro-treaty Cumann na nGaedheal of W. T. Cosgrave, the Centre Party under Frank MacDermot, and the National Guard. Even Cumann na nGaedheal, from which Fine Gael grew, didn’t come into existence until 1923, a full year after the Béal na mBlath ambush in which Collins died.
Can you see what I mean by the phrase, “the hijacked hero”?
I have always refused to allow Fine Gael, or any other party, to take ownership of Collins. He belongs to every political grouping in this country and, indeed, to every citizen. He has always been held in high esteem by me.
Indeed, if Collins can be said to be part of any grouping, he belongs to Sinn Féin (or, at least, the Sinn Féin of the first Dáil and the War of Independence), The Irish Volunteers and more particularly the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.) of which he remained, as far as I’m aware, President of the Supreme Council right up to his demise. Among the various posts that he filled were:
1) Aide-de-Camp to Joseph Plunkett during the Easter Rising;
2) Treasurer of the IRB before he became its President of the Supreme Council;
3) Director of Organisation of the Irish Volunteers (Patrick Pearse’s old job);
4) In March, 1918, he moved on to be Adjutant General of the Volunteers;
5) By mid-1919 he was Director of Intelligence;
6. Acting President of Dáil Éireann in de Valera’s absence (after the death of Arthur Griffith).
The big debate, whenever Michael Collins is discussed, for the last 97 years, is “who shot Michael Collins” and why?
I have, up to now, always accepted that the fatal shot was fired by Denis (Sonny) O’Neill and that he did not at the time know who he had shot. I did have a conversation with an author of one of the books about the ambush and was told that in a conversation with that author, Sonny O’Neill, in the later years of his life, accepted that he fired the fatal shot.
That he was shot “by one of his own” never impressed me. After reading the Dolan/Murphy book, however, I think it is quite possible that the fatal shot was indeed fired by one of the people who accompanied him on his tour of West Cork. I must emphasise that I am NOT saying definitively that it is so, but merely that I can understand why the accusation is made.
1. In 1975, a man named Flynn swore an oath and said he was part of the Collins party and that he saw Emmet Dalton shoot Collins in the touring car.
2. Another member of the convoy claimed that he heard Oliver St John Gogarty, Surgeon, say Collins had been shot at very close range and that he was not shot by an I.R.A. bullet.
3. A man named Ryan claimed that Desmond Fitzgerald told him Dalton had shot Collins and that Collins actually suspected that Dalton was a British spy.
4. A Fr Redmond claimed his aunt had been a nurse in Shanakill Hospital where Collins was brought on the night of the shooting, and she told him there was a singed bullet hole on the back of Collins’s uniform as well as the head injury.
5. It appears that in 1987 a nephew of Emmett Dalton’s signed an affidavit to the effect that his uncle told him before the uncle died that he had shot Collins with a Lugar pistol. He also claimed Dalton’s part in the death of his Commander-in-Chief is outlined in Dalton’s diary.
6. Some members of the Collins family, it appears, are said to believe that Dalton had a part in the killing.
7. It also appears that the notes of the post-mortem cannot be traced, thus leading to the conspiracy theory that there are unanswered questions. It has been suggested a number of times that an exhumation of the body could help to answer some of the questions, but this has always been objected to.
It goes on and on. Attention is often turned to the part armoured-car gunner, McPeak, played in the event. Many people suggest that, arising from his later defection to the Republicans, McPeak was already a sympathiser of the rebels and as such he may have fired the fatal shot.
One writer claims the shot that killed Collins was a transverse shot fired by a Jimmy Ormond of Lismore, Co. Waterford but nobody seems to know anything about Ormond or who he was. I certainly have never heard that name mentioned as part of the ambush party.
There is never a mention of another possibility as to why Collins had been shot “by one of his own”. Had he become, in modern parlance, “too big for his boots”?
There were suggestions Collins’s visit to West Cork on the day of his death may have been intended to include efforts to broker some form of attempted peace moves. Comments he made to some of his family and close supporters indicate that possibility. The fact de Valera was in the same area must raise some suspicions that need to be clarified. Dev was aware from early morning that the ambush of the convoy that included Collins himself was planned. He is reported to have tried to persuade the local republicans, including their leader, Tom Hales, to call it off and failed, and from all reports he then got out of the area as quickly as he could.
In early 1922, Collins is said to have sanctioned activities by the Free State troops, including incursions, along the border. This was not acceptable to some of his cabinet colleagues who made moves to countermand the Commander-in-Chief’s intentions. A difference was opening up. Then the Republicans started to do the same. Was that more than a coincidence or were the Rebels falling in with Collins?
According to Dolan and Murphy, “Collins’s relationship with his cabinet colleagues, as well as his status and actions... raise the subject of his commitment to democracy”.
There is a suggestion that in July and August the possibility arose that the new state was experiencing ‘a military dictatorship’ under Collins. In the first half of 1922 it seems the Dáil met only once and that was for just an hour. A new parliament was elected on June 16,1922, and before that Dáil had even met the civil war was declared on June 28. By whose authority? Certainly not that of the Dáil or any cabinet. In fact, it didn’t meet at all up to the death of Collins.
Again, Dolan and Murphy claim that as long as the new Dáil did not sit, the Provisional Government was not accountable to a democratic body. It is suggested that in a couple of weeks after the start of the Civil War, Collins became ‘General Commander-in-Chief’ and headed up a ‘War Council of Three “ with his close IRB allies, Mulcahy & O’Duffy.
Could it be possible that the time had come to get rid of an emerging dictator?
I’m not a historian, I’m only raising the question. I’m not coming down on any of the possible answers.
The fact remains that Collins was an essential part of the struggle that won us our independence; that he belongs to no one political side, and at the end of the day, in the words of Liam Collins, his nephew, whom I knew and respected, as quoted by Dolan and Murphy: “It is of no real consequence whose bullet ended my uncle’s life. I would naturally prefer it had not been ‘one of his own’.”
Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org