I must confess a great crime. I am, indeed, guilty of conduct unbecoming an Irishman. Despite 9 years of marriage, I have failed to require my wife to watch Michael Collins. As she is not Irish, but rather German, this should have been a condition of our engagement. I have but two heroes of the historical variety; General Sam Houston and Michael Collins, Minister for Finance and Mayhem, among other things. Both have quite a bit in common, believe it or not. The Redhead did read a Sam Houston biography whilst we were dating and surprised me on our wedding day by having the inside of my ring inscribed with the word “Honor” so that I could have a ring just like the one wore by Big Sam Himself. Naturally, she knows that I revere Collins as I speak of him often, but I never got around to showing her the movie which, for all its historical faults, and there are many, still manages to be quite good.
To me, the most remarkable thing about The Big Fellah is what all he managed to achieve in such a short period of time. He was 25 when he fought in the GPO during The Rising and died in an ambush, killed by a fellow Irishman, at the age of 31. Journalist and perhaps Ireland’s greatest historian Tim Pat Coogan called him “The Man Who Made Ireland”. This is a fair assessment. From his vast intelligence network to his direction of “The Squad”, Collins helped achieve something that Ireland wanted for centuries. Did he get the Republic he longed for? No, but as he said, the Anglo-Irish treaty gave Ireland the freedom to achieve freedom. Did he sell out the North? Not really. He tried to ensure fair treatment of Catholics in Ulster and, in fact, towards the end of his life sought to ensure the IRA in Ulster could continue to operate if need be.
Was he a terrorist? I guess that depends on your perspective. A stronger country who occupies a weaker nation always refers to those who fight back as terrorists. Consider, however, the conduct of the British Army and the Black and Tans in Ireland. From gunning down innocents in the streets to massacring spectators at a GAA contest at Croke Park, they behaved in much the same way as Collins’ boys, yet somehow they only consider Collins to be the terrorist. The conduct of the British in Ireland from Cromwell through the early 1920s should illuminate who the real terrorists were. Collins understood what doomed all previous Irish attempts to free themselves to abject and bloody failure; traitors and informers within their midst. For this reason, he used his squad to decapitate Dublin Castle’s ability to gather intelligence. It’s a nasty business, war. Especially wars for liberation. In a relatively short period of time, Collins and his boys brought the world’s mightiest empire to its knees and invented modern urban guerilla warfare in the process. “There is no crime in detecting and destroying in wartime the spy and the informer. They have destroyed without trial. I have paid them back in their own coin.” His tactics were severe, but effective. It’s all the British government would understand at the time. It is sad that it had to come to this, but the British were never going to leave unless they were forced to.
Collins probably knew Dev was setting him up as a scapegoat by sending him to negotiate the treaty. The British could not fathom why the Irish did not want to be “British” and there was no way in hell they were going to grant them a Republic. They did, however, give Ireland a remarkable amount of self-determination as a Free State, more so than Canada had at the time. Make no mistake about it. Collins knew the treaty would not be popular at home. He is reported as having said “Think what have I got for Ireland … Something which she has wanted these past 700 years, will anyone be satisfied with this bargain, will anyone? I tell you this, early this morning I have signed my death warrant.” His words turned out to be prophetic. De Valera opposed the treaty and thus Ireland fell into a terrible Civil War where former comrades fought against each other. Mick lost his trusted friend Harry Boland and then his own life.
The Big Fellah’s shadow still looms large over Ireland. He is, perhaps, Ireland’s greatest figure and one of the important figures of the entire 20th Century. Incidentally, whilst his squad popped G-Men on the streets of Dublin, his brother Paddy served as a police officer in Chicago! On his deathbed, Collins’ fathers told the family to take care of 6 year old Michael as he’d be a great man for Ireland one day. Indeed he was. And still is. I shall leave you with one more quote which sums up his feelings for his country:
“Give us the future. We’ve had enough of your past. Give us our country to live in. To grow in. To Love.”
If any of you are interested, I made a Twitter account for him as he lacked one. So you can see his comments on himself and on current events. You can find him here: @thebigfella1916