John Arnold: My pilgrimage to Collins’ grave to mark 100 years since Treaty

John Arnold walked in the footsteps of those who made history last Monday - 100 years ago since the 'foundation stone' of this country was laid.
John Arnold: My pilgrimage to Collins’ grave to mark 100 years since Treaty

Louise and Marita Cosgrave with Noel Scannell and Senator Michael McDowell. 

OVER the years, I’ve often sat down to write a few lines for The Echo, or Evening Echo as it was all those years back. God knows, I’ve often struggled to fill even half a page, in my weekly column.

The head might be empty, devoid of all ideas, and that mysterious ingredient called ‘the creative juices’ simply non-existent. I’d struggle on and somehow I’d compose some formula of words.

Other times the opposite can be the case, when my mind would be in overdrive with enthusiasm and the finger of the left hand would hit the letters on the keyboard with relish and vigour. 

It might be a person I’d met, or a new place I’d been, a story I’d heard, or a match I’d seen. Sometimes, it can be an occasion such as last Monday.

December 6, the first Monday in December, two days before the ‘8th’, which always marked the start of the real Christmas season for us growing up in rural Ireland in the 1960s.

All relevant facts, I ‘spose, but last Monday also marked exactly 100 years since the ‘foundation stone’ of this country was laid. An exact century since the signing of an agreement between England and Ireland - commonly known simply as The Treaty.

To any reader that thinks ‘Yerra, feck this for a story, Arnold donning the Blue-shirt and rehashing history, I’m outta here,’ I say sure read it anyway. You can agree or disagree – lads, isn’t that the beauty of a democracy?

It was in Wynn’s Hotel on Abbey Street in central Dublin that we gathered on Monday last. I was there about 10am and even in the lounge the sense of history abounds.

The hotel was opened by Miss Phoebe Wynn in 1845 and though she remained owner only ’til 1852, her name lives on in one of Dublin’s historic sites.

In 1913, the Irish Volunteers were founded in the hotel, as was Cumann na mBan the following year. Damaged in a fire during the Easter Rising in 1916, the building was demolished. Rebuilding commenced in 1921 and it was reopened in 1926.

The hotel is aware of its links with the foundation of the State. Commemorative plaques on the walls tell a truly amazing narrative.

John Magner and John Arnold in Glasnevin.
John Magner and John Arnold in Glasnevin.

I sat beneath the pictures of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith last Monday morning, two brave and idealistic men. Of course, I was saddened, reflecting that before nine months had elapsed from signing the Treaty, both were dead. Griffith was just 51 and Cork’s most famous son hadn’t reached his 32nd birthday.

All the sadness I felt on Monday was soon replaced with a feeling of pride and of walking in the footsteps of those who made history. 

The gathering in Wynn’s was organised by The Collins 22 Society and in particular by one of its main activists, Noel Scannell of Kilworth. Like so many spread right across this land, Noel has a deep appreciation of the primary and magnificent role played by the ‘Big Fella’ in gaining our freedom.

We assembled at noon in the dining room at Wynn’s. Neil Collins Powell and Aengus O Malley, two great grandnephews of Collins, were in attendance for this very special event.

I have been a life-long admirer of WT Cosgrave and the manner in which he ran the Irish Free State from 1922 for a decade. He ‘picked up the pieces’ after the Civil War. It was Cosgrove took the mantle of Collins and ensured the Treaty gave us a State and a democracy, despite opposition from many sides, and he endured much bitterness and jealousy from small-minded people. The manner in which he left office after the 1932 General Election ensured Ireland as a democratic country was here to stay.

On Monday, I was humbled and delighted to meet Louise and Marita Cosgrave, granddaughters of WT, the nan I regard as ‘the Guardian of the Ballot Box’ in Ireland.

It was Michael ‘The’ O Rahilly and Eoin MacNeill who summoned the meeting in Wynns in 1913 at which the Irish Volunteers were founded, and on Monday Mac Neill’s grandson, Senator Michael McDowell, was guest speaker. He gave us a stirring address, not a rabble rousing’ crowd- pleaser but a matter-of-fact account of the Treaty and the negotiations leading up to it. He dispelled several myths in regards the Treaty - that it caused Partition, that Griffith and Collins ‘caved in’ before Lloyd Georges ‘war’ threat, that other negotiators would have done better and gained a Republic.

“The men who signed the Treaty got far more than what was initially offered in the preliminary talks earlier in the summer -our own army, police force, diplomatic service and local government. There was nothing inevitable about Irish freedom.

“Collins understood how to take on the British Forces during the War of Independence - not with hand to hand street fighting, not with big urban’ spectaculars’, but on the ground with guerilla warfare.

“Michael Collins masterminded those tactics and also infiltrated the much-lauded British Intelligence System. He felt he should not have been sent as part of the delegation to negotiate the Treaty, but obeyed orders. Griffith and Collins and the other plenipotentiaries took on their shoulders what others shirked.

“In signing the Treaty on December 6, Collins knew it was not a Republican Utopia but it was as good a deal as could be got.”

We had a great question and answer session and discussion. Several contributors made the point that the Cabinet, the Dáil and the Irish people could have voted down the Treaty. You can’t be a ‘bit democratic’ and on three occasions it was voted upon and three times accepted. That’s what democracy is all about - like it or not.

Senator McDowell suggested we all should read the Free State Irish Constitution of 1922, in his opinion “a far more Republican document” than the 1937 Bunreacht na hEireann’. In conclusion, he said December 6, 1921, should forever be remembered as the date when the Foundation Stone of Irish Freedom was laid down.

Aengus O Malley then spoke on behalf of the Collins family and stated the legacy and heritage of Michael Collins should never be forgotten.

I felt so honoured to be part of such a historic gathering on such a momentous anniversary. The talk, chat and discussion was just so positive and uplifting, it was great to be there.

After lunch, we visited the grave of Michael Collins in Glasnevin. I’d not been there since we honoured the GAA founders in 2009 - the year of the 125th anniversary of the Association – both Michael Cusack and John Wyse Power are interred in Glasnevin.

The new Interpretive Centre/Museum building is really magnificent. I was in the company of John Magner from Castletownroche. We stood, silently at first, at the grave of Collins, covered as always with fresh flowers which are replaced every single week of the year. As we reflected on Collins’ short life and times, a young woman walking a little dog came by. Hearing our Cork accents she stopped to talk.

We said we were from East and North Cork. She said her ancestors were O’Neills from Ballymacoda, a family I know. Her line of the clan moved to Meath where their neighbours are Hunters originally from Castletownroche -well known to John Magner.

Imagine, a million people live in Dublin yet on this particular day a lady with Cork connections should meet two other Corkonians by the graveside of the greatest ever Corkman!

She took our picture and showed us an email with a reference to the Treaty from a relation of her own that she received on Monday morning. We chatted for ages by the grave before going our separate ways.

We went back to Wynns for a coffee before getting the train from Heuston to Mallow. It was an unforgettable day where history came alive, the past and present were one.

The Treaty was less than the ultimate, but more than was reasonable 100 years ago.

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