Tall, handsome, utterly without fear, and a natural leader with a brilliant mind, Michael Collins died this day, eighty-six years ago, at the hands of his own countrymen in a rural ambush outside the tiny hamlet of Bealnablath ("the mouth of flowers") in County Cork, the county of his birth.
Born Mícheál Seán Ó Coileáin in 1890, he was only 31 when he was shot down on the tiny West Cork road during a brief gun-battle with I.R.A. (the old one) fighters who had been waiting for his small column to return from an inspection trip through the countryside.
It was the ruthless and brilliant tactics of Collins which had brought the occupying British to the negotiating table that created the Irish Free State, the same fateful agreement that drove a wedge between Irishmen who had fought together in 1916 but separated over the issue of compromise with England in the matter of Ireland's freedom. Collins was for taking what they could get and going on from there, while those who would become the I.R.A. were against any compromise with the hated English. It was the beginning of the Irish Civil War.
I've often thought that there are many similarities between the "JFK complex" and the many controversies about Michael Collins' life and death. Conspiracy theories abound, of every stripe, about how and why he died and who actually killed him. The truth is probably pretty prosaic: instead of driving quickly through a poorly set-up ambush of only a few men, he ordered his tiny motorized column of Free State troops to stop and engage them.
Very soon in the fight a young man, bracing his rifle on a concrete gate-post, fired the shot that struck Collins in the head and killed him. The shooter didn't even know whom he had shot. "I dropped one man," he was later quoted as having said. Both sides grieved for the death of the man who was surely destined to be head of state of the newly born country.
His death and its circumstances fit neatly into the natural rhythms of Irish myth and legend. "O, Michael, why have ye gone from us so soon?"
And what a fateful, impetuous decision it was, for himself as well as his country, in the waning evening light of that day in August when the first shots rang out from the brush and he said to his driver, "Stop! We'll fight them!"