Michael Collins (1890–1922)
Michael Collins, revolutionary leader, chairman of the Provisional Government and Commander-in-Chief of its army, was born at Woodfield, Sam’s Cross, near Clonakilty, Co. Cork, the youngest child of tenant farmer Michael and his wife Mary Ann (née O’Brien). Educated locally, he emigrated aged fifteen to London where he lived with his older sister, and sometime mentor, Hannah. Here he worked for a decade in various offices as a clerk, initially in the Post Office Savings Bank, followed by Horne & Co., stockbrokers, and the Guaranty Trust Company. He took an active part in London-Irish life, joining the GAA, as player and administrator, and the Gaelic League. He was sworn into the IRB in 1909, subsequently elected as treasurer for southern England, and joined the Volunteers in 1913. London had brought Collins invaluable experience at many levels, the key, as his elder brother Johnny recalled, to his later organising abilities and his ease and confidence in engaging with friend and foe alike. His outstanding ability to grasp complex systems would be noted by a member of the British delegation in 1921.
Collins returned to Ireland in January 1916, playing only a subordinate role in the Rising in the General Post Office (GPO) as aide-de-camp to Joseph Plunkett. His internment, until Christmas 1916, in ‘the university of revolution’ at Frongoch developed his leadership qualities and his characteristic ability, as a powerful orator and political communicator, to dominate men and to engender loyalty to his person, despite his lack of official rank. In February 1917 he was appointed Secretary of the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependents’ Fund. Although only narrowly elected to the Sinn Féin Executive in 1917, he was already building up his formidable intelligence network begun in London, placing key people in Dublin Castle and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). By 1919, not yet thirty, Collins was Finance Minister, Director of Irish Republican Army (IRA) Intelligence, probably president of the IRB’s Supreme Council, while also managing to raise the Dáil loan to fund government and to run its publicity.
He was a reluctant participant of the Irish delegation in 1921, angered at de Valera for his absence, with long-term consequences for their relationship. In London, he tended to keep himself apart from the other delegates, preferring to associate with his close comrades. The British, however, soon marked Collins as someone they could do business with. Increasingly from November, Lloyd George and Churchill held private meetings with Griffith and Collins and on occasion, when Griffith was absent in Ireland or through illness, with Collins alone, notably in the crucial session of 5 December when just the Prime Minister and Collins met. He is credited as having played a key role in securing the Treaty as the best possible outcome to be achieved, and in managing its subsequent passage through the Dáil. He was less successful, despite his tireless efforts, at winning majority acceptance among supporters of the Republic.
Collins was a pragmatist, quick-witted and clear-sighted, power being for him, unlike for the visionary (and equally ruthless) de Valera, largely just the means to an end. Tall, athletic and warm-hearted, Collins was a popular figure, but he was intolerant of the doctrinaire and brusque to the point of rudeness with those less competent than himself. Above all, he was a people person, gregarious, boisterous, with a marked sense of humour and a predilection for rough-and-tumble. Yet, as his proxy for Northern Ireland Kevin O’Shiel recalled, Collins’ appearance and dress seemed atypical of the revolutionary leader. He was ‘always spick and span’, his hair ‘always neatly parted. He turned out in a well-cut suit of dark clerical grey, a white shirt, soft collar, a grey tie kept in place by a gold safety pin.’ This was in contrast with Griffith, whom he first underestimated, even disparaged, but who became a close friend, ‘who could never make the usual tie knot’.
Collins was killed in an ambush at Béal na mBláth on 22 August 1922, near where he was born, probably while on a tour of Cork to reconcile anti-Treaty and former colleagues. Few Irishmen, apart from de Valera, have exercised the minds of their fellow Irish people so exhaustively, from academic historians to film makers, poets to politicians and others, not least, the mythmakers.
Authors: Eda Sagarra / Michael O’Mahony (grandnephew)
Sources: DIB: M.A. Hopkinson; BMH WS 1770 (Kevin O’Shiel); Coogan (1990); Dwyer (2006 ).
Funeral Of Michael Collins (1922)
14th August 2022
At a special commemoration for Collins held in Trim on the 14th of August where Julitta Clancy presented 3 copies of our Treaty delegation book to the chairman of Meath co council, Cllr Nick Killian, and to Sean Boylan and MEP Colm Markey.
Files coming soon.