Remember Michael Collins on the day he died

Excerpt from my book CELTIC LIGHTNING: Remembering Aug. 22, 1922. . . 100 years on.

We got lost in the dirt roads north of Clonakilty. We were looking, Sheena and I, for the spot where Michael Collins got killed in an ambush. According to historian Tim Pat Coogan, Collins was “the man who made Ireland.” For my purposes, he was the man who most clearly embodies Celtic independence in a Canadian mode. Collins represents one of the five bedrock values the Irish and the Scots brought to Canada. Culturally, politically, he is one of Canada’s ancestors. I wanted to know more about him. I wanted detail and texture. But first I needed context. . .

In February 1919, Collins contrived to free Eamon de Valera, the leader of the Sinn Fein political party, from England’s Lincoln Prison. Soon afterwards, de Valera set out for the United States to raise funds, leaving Collins, officially his minister of finance, to lead the war effort. By 1920, the British were offering ten thousand pounds—worth roughly half a million dollars today—for information leading to the capture of “the big fellow,” as Collins was now being called.

That November, the British Parliament passed an act partitioning the country, dividing it into Northern and Southern Ireland: six majority-Protestant counties and twenty-six majority-Catholic. The following July, they offered a truce to the rebels and the Irish accepted. More than 2,000 people had died—550 on the Irish side, 714 on the British, and 750 non-aligned civilians.

The time had come to negotiate terms. Eamon de Valera, recently returned from the U.S., would logically lead the Irish delegation. But as Tim Pat Coogan observes, alluding to unruly British recruits called the Black and Tans: “The man who had felt his place was in America during most of the Tan war felt he must stay in Dublin during the coming diplomatic offensive in London.” De Valera insisted on sending his leading soldier and military strategist.

Aware that his legend as a warrior would be undermined, Collins resisted furiously. But de Valera mustered just enough support to get his way. Early in October of 1921, at age twenty-nine, Michael Collins went to London to negotiate with a formidable British team that included Lord Birkenhead, Austen Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill. For two months, through seven plenary sessions, nine meetings of subcommittees, and twenty-four subconferences, Collins fought and argued to achieve an independent Irish republic that would encompass both north and south.

By December, he understood that Ireland could have the same status as Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, but nothing more, and that Northern Ireland would have to join the south of its own free will or not at all. He understood that the British would go no further, but that, as he wrote during negotiations, “The advantages of Dominion status to us as a stepping stone to independence are immeasurable.” Collins suspected that de Valera and his allies had sent him here “to do their dirty work for them,” and that they would repudiate any agreement. When Lord Birkenhead remarked, after signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty, “I may have signed my political death-warrant tonight,” Collins replied, “I may have signed my actual death warrant.”

Back home in Dublin, as Collins had anticipated, the treaty sparked a firestorm. Most of the public was ready to accept it. But de Valera was outraged that Collins had signed the deal without consulting him. In the Dáil, he denounced the treaty as a betrayal. He found support among the more extreme politicians, who rejected any settlement that left Ireland linked with the British Empire. Collins argued that the treaty ended a bloody, revolutionary war and offered, as he put it, “not freedom but the promise of freedom.”

This long, legalistic document began by establishing Canada as a model. “Ireland shall have the same constitutional status in the Community of Nations known as the British Empire as the Dominion of Canada,” it said, “with a Parliament having powers to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Ireland.” As well, the relationship of the Irish Free State to the British Imperial Government “shall be that of the Dominion of Canada, and the law, practice and constitutional usage governing the relationship . . . to the Dominion of Canada shall govern their relationship to the Irish Free State.” Third, “the representative of the Crown in Ireland shall be appointed in like manner as the Governor-General of Canada.”

For Michael Collins and a majority of the Irish, the Dominion of Canada provided a workable model. The authoritative Coogan argues that Collins “did not like the Treaty he signed with England, but he and most of his closest friends and advisors regarded it as a stepping stone to full independence and a united Ireland.” The emergence in the twentieth century of an independent Canada—the patriation of the Constitution, the nation’s refusal to join wars against Vietnam and Iraq—would appear to vindicate his position. And Coogan observes that nobody who followed Collins “has been able to improve on the territory he won for a native Irish government in Dublin.”

In 1921, while de Valera raged, Northern Ireland opted out of the Irish Free State, as expected. Michael Collins, having become leader of the Provisional Government, received the handover of Dublin Castle from the British, who had based their government at that site since 1171. The historic transfer happened on January 16, 1922. As Collins arrived for the ceremony, a British official observed tartly, “You’re seven minutes late, Mr. Collins.” Collins responded: “We’ve been waiting 700 years, you can have the seven minutes.”

Back in the Dáil, after weeks of debate, Collins carried the day. But the vote was close, 64 to 57, and de Valera refused to recognize this democratic result. He stormed out of the Dáil and took his allies with him—many of them old friends of Michael Collins. This walkout spawned the Irish Civil War, which would prove more destructive than the just-ended War of Independence. In Dublin, where the anti-Treaty forces occupied the Four Courts, a majestic domed building on the banks of the River Liffey, an accidental explosion destroyed irreplaceable public records, including centuries’ worth of genealogical information.

Eventually, after eleven months and the loss of several thousand lives, the pro-Treaty forces won the Civil War. Tragically, Michael Collins himself did not get to enjoy the victory. On the evening of August 22, 1922, in a hilly area not far from Clonakilty, he drove into an ambush. He refused to flee and insisted on returning fire. A sniper who had served with the British Army during the First World War, a man just about to retreat over the hills, paused to take one final shot. He hit Collins in the head and killed him instantly. . .



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