Friday, August 22, 2008

Michael Collins

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!"


Patricia said...

If you haven't seen it, there's a good movie about Michael Collins called Michael Collins, natch. Stars Liam Neeson. The girl in the movie didn't exist in real life, but other than that, it seems fairly close to the historical record of Collin's life and achievements. He was brilliant.

Rio Arriba said...


Yes, I saw that film several years ago. I thought they did a good job of picking Neeson for the part. I should see it again and see what I think now.

I agree: Collins was a remarkable man. I wonder what a different Ireland would have evolved if it had been him and not DeValera at the helm.

Thanks for commenting.

tjbbpgob said...

My family comes from Cork and although I don't know any particulars my Grandfather was involved in the troubles of that time and had to immigrate. I was never sure which side he was on but he joined the US Calvary in the states and was with a trooper with Pershing in Mexico and later a fireman and retired as Lt. in Dept.

Rio Arriba said...

Hi, TJB--

Your grandfather's story is not unusual. There would have been several "opportunities" for him to choose emigration over less pleasant options. One would have been during the Troubles with the Brits around 1916 or a bit earlier. Since he was with Pershing chasing Pancho Villa this is probably the case. The aftermath of the Civil War (when IRA men were hunted by the Free State forces) would have been too late.

BTW, about a fifth of the 7th Cavalry at the time of the Little Big Horn were born in Ireland. Coming here and joining the army was an oft-used survival mode for Irishmen, although it didn't turn out too well for some of those with Custer.

Thanks for your comment and welcome.

tjbbpgob said...

I had several typo in that last post, need to preview more. I know about the Irish in Custers outfit but did you know that most of them had no training whatsoever, just OTJ type which wasn't near enough for that unlucky bunch. Unlucky to be placed in that mainiacs battalion. I also have a picture of my grandfather astride 2 horses in a
Roman race that he won at the Kentucky Derby (Church Hill Downs) but I don't know what year it was.

Geraldine said...

i am a decendant of michael he was my grandmothers uncle and i am proud to be related to this fine man