Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Michael Collins: Father of Modern Ireland

Michael Collins was born on October 12, 1890 near Clonakilty, County Cork, Ireland as the third son and youngest child of eight children.[1] Michael’s father, Michael John Collins died in 1896, when Michael was just six years old. This void in Michael’s life left “an impressionable boy without fatherly control and susceptible to outside influences” such as the forces of Irish nationalism according to Collins’s biographer, Tim Pat Coogan.[2] As a child, Michael became a voracious reader. He read Shakespeare, English classics, and “sentimental historical Irish novels and ballads.”[3] He was also a born leader according to family and friends.[4] Collins was also taught many other things as well, one of which was Irish nationalism.

Irish nationalism had been going strong since 1169, when the English invaded the Emerald Isle. Each generation was taught to hate the English and to fight for Ireland’s freedom. Michael Collins was exposed to Irish nationalism from his parents, but his main teachers in revolutionary thought were the local blacksmith, James Santry and by the local schoolmaster, Denis Lyons. Both Santry and Lyons were active members in the various Irish revolutionary movements.[5] As an adult, Collins went on to state that:
In Denis Lyons and James Santry I had my first capable of-because of
their personalities alone- infusing into me a pride of the Irish as a race.
Other men may have helped me along the searching path to a political
goal. I may have worked hard myself in the long search, nevertheless
Denis Lyons and James Santry remain to me my first stalwarts. In
Denis Lyons especially his manner, although seemingly hiding what
meant most to him, had this pride of Irishness that has always meant
most to me.[6]

Besides Santry and Lyons, Collins’s parents “passed on to their children were a strongly held Catholic faith and a love of Nationalist literature and songs.”[7] In addition to being taught Irish nationalism, Collins was trained in other areas as well.

At the age of fourteen, Collins was trained in the newspaper business while studying for the British civil service exams.[8] In 1906 he moved to London to live with his older sister Johanna. It was here where he worked for the various government and financial institutions while becoming heavily involved in the world of the London Irish. Through his various employment opportunities, Michael was able to “…build up a knowledge of financial dealings and of organisation that blossomed when he needed it, in a way that suggests that he may have deliberately set out to acquire such skills.”[9]

Besides acquiring the necessary skills for his future endeavors, Collins became a member of the Irish revolutionary organization, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in November 1909. He then went back to Ireland on January 15, 1916 in order to prepare for the Easter Rising. Collins was well respected in the IRB circles and he was made financial advisor to Count Plunkett, the father of Joseph Plunkett, who was helping to organize the rebellion. The rebellion began on April 24, 1916 when the IRB, the Irish Volunteers, and other nationalist groups took key buildings in Dublin’s city centre. Collins was in the thick of it at the General Post Office. Unfortunately the rising was a disaster and the leaders of the rising were executed, while others, such as Collins were sent to prison camps in Britain.

The prison camp that Collins was sent was Frongoch in Wales. It was here where he first began to think of new ways of taking on the British. The first thing that had to be tackled was an analysis of what went wrong during the Easter Rising. In a letter to his friend, Kevin O’Brien, Collins concludes that the rising:
was bungled terribly, costing many a good life. It seemed at first to
be well-organised, but afterwards became subjected to panic decisions
and a great lack of very essential organisation and co-operation.[10]

Collins began to reorganize the IRB while imprisoned. He restructured the IRB along the cell system where only the leader of the cell knew of the other members and how to contact them.[11] The next area of concern for Collins was to develop a new kind of warfare in order to defeat the British.

This new kind of warfare technique that Collins developed was “flying columns” also known as urban guerilla warfare. According to journalist Tim Pat Coogan it was “Collins [who became] the supreme architect of the ‘hit and run’ technique.”[12] Flying columns would consist of small groups of men who attacked the British with hit and run, which helped to “minimize losses and maximize effectiveness.”[13] During this time, the British were catching a lot of flack were executing the leaders of the rising and for imprisoning the rest. Collins was released from prison in December of 1916.

Upon his release from prison, Collins immediately returned to Ireland and based his operations in the capital city of Dublin. He was appointed as the Secretary to the Irish National Aid Fund. The fund assisted the family members of those who had been executed or imprisoned after the Rising. During this time, Collins “took an active part in the reorganization of the Volunteers, the IRB, and Sinn Fein, and established strong links with Clan na Gael through John Devoy in New York.”[14] The next thing that Michael tackled was to set up a network of spies within the British system in Ireland. He made contact with key detectives within the Dublin Metropolitan Police and Royal Irish Constabulary such as Eamonn Broy. [15]Finally, Collins made trips to London, Liverpool, and Manchester to set up an arms-smuggling network to bring arms into Ireland for the flying columns. Many people in the movement noted that Collins “was most methodical in everything; had an extraordinary aptitude for detail; always knew exactly what he wanted to do, and disposed of each particular task without a moment’s hesitation.”[16] The ability to balance all of these interests helped Collins rise to become members of both the executive council of Sinn Fein and the Director of Organization for the Irish Volunteers.
During this time that Collins was setting up his vast organization for future warfare against the British, rivals in the movement emerged, mainly Eamon de Valera and Cathal Brugha. Eamon de Valera was president of both Sinn Fein and the Irish Volunteers while Cathal Brugha was a member of the IRB and Sinn Fein. All were elected as Irish MPs to the British House of Commons in London in the 1918 general election. However, none of them took their seats at Westminster. Instead, they set up their own parliament in Dublin called Dail Eireann (Assembly of Ireland).

The Dail began meeting in January of 1919, despite the fact that key leaders such as Eamon de Valera were imprisoned. Collins had learned of the arrests beforehand, through his intelligence network and had warned de Valera to no avail. Eamon de Valera was freed by Collins shortly after and went to the United States in order to drum up financial and political support for the Irish Republic. During this time, Collins was elected president of the IRB and was made the Director of Intelligence for the Irish Republican Army (IRA).[17] He was later appointed as the Minister of Finance where he organized the National Loan in order to finance the Irish Republic.
While the Dail was meeting in Dublin, the Irish War of Independence began on January 21, 1921 in Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary when two members of the RIC were shot dead. Collins organized an elite squad of assassins known as the Twelve Apostles to take out British secret agents in Ireland. While directing the IRA in their “hit and runs” on British military targets, Collins ran the loan program, the government while de Valera was in America, and smuggled arms into Ireland. The fighting continued throughout the rest of 1921.[18]
By the end of 1921, the IRA was running out of ammunition and the British called for peace talks since they were being defeated at every turn by Michael Collins’s IRA. This was the time that de Valera had returned to Ireland from his tour in America. Although de Valera was the President of the Irish Republic at the tie, it was Collins and his flying columns who brought the British to an impasse. Valera knew that the chance of a thirty-two county republic were slim since the Protestants in the Northeast part of Ireland had formed their own militias during World War I and vowed to fight to remain a part of the British empire. So, he sent Collins, Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, and Cathal Brugha to London in order to negotiate the peace treaty. Collins fought hard for Ireland at the negotiations but Britain would not give up Northeastern Ireland. The British threatened Collins with all out warfare which would include aerial bombing of the Irish cities, but he knew that it was time to stop fighting and to rebuild Ireland into a strong nation that it was destined to be. Collins stated that the treaty “gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it.”[19] He viewed the treaty as a stepping-stone for a united thirty-two county republic, but for now Ireland would have to make do with a twenty-six county republic. Unfortunately, De Valera and his supporters did not see the treaty that way. After signing the treaty, Collins stated, “I may have just signed my actual death-warrant.”[20] A civil war was looming on the horizon that would pit de Valera and the anti-treaty group against Michael Collins and the pro-treaty group, which was backed by the British.[21]

The Irish Civil War broke out in 1922 with the Irish taking either Collins or de Valera’s side in the war. Collins knew that the war had to end in order to keep the country on the right path, the path to ultimate freedom for all Ireland. He knew that a civil war would tear the country apart and delay any rebuilding the nation into a modern one. Collins traveled to his home county of Cork in an attempt to negotiate with the anti-treaty members to lay down their arms. As he was enroute to the meeting place, Collins’s convoy was ambushed at Beal na mBlath (Irish for Mouth of Flowers) on August 22, 1922. Forty-five minutes into the fighting, Collins was struck by a bullet and was killed. He was only thirty one years of age. His loss proved to be a disaster for the Irish state as it navigated its way to complete independence through many dark times. Michael Collins was the man who freed Ireland from over seven hundred years of British tyranny

[1] Michael Collins’s parents were Michael John Collins (1815-1896) and Marianne O’Brien (1852-1907). Their eight children were: Margaret, John, Johanna, Mary, Helena, Patrick, Kate, & Michael. Taken from the following source: Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins, 6.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 9.
[4] Ibid.
[5] James Santry’s grandfather had fought in the 1798 rebellion and also helped arm the rebellion leaders in the 1848 and 1867 rebellions. Denis Lyons was an active member in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), an Irish revolutionary organization which Collins would later become a member of.
[6] Tim Pat Coogan, 10.
[7] Ibid., 12.
[8] Ibid., 15.
[9] Ibid., 17.
[10] Ibid., 54.
[11] Tim Pat Coogan, Ireland in the Twentieth Century, 63.
[12] Coogan, Michael Collins, 54.
[14] Coogan, Michael Collins, 64. The Volunteers was an Irish paramilitary organization that took part in the Easter Rising. Sinn Fein was the Irish nationalist political party. Clan na Gael was an Irish-American organization which was dedicated to freedom for all Ireland.
[15] Ibid., 75.
[16] Ibid., 64.
[17] The IRA was formed from the remnants of the Irish Volunteers.
[18] Michael Hopkinson, The Irish War of Independence
[19] Coogan, Michael Collins, 300.
[20] Ibid., 276.
[21] Information contained in the paragraph was taken from the following: Nicole Creech, The Ancient Order of Hibernians and Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians in Ohio: A Comparative Analysis, 51-52.