Eunan O’Halpin
17 August 2012

Michael Collins

It might be nice to think that he would solve everything by having a few bankers shot and wresting back our sovereignty from the IMF; but remember that as Dail Minister for Finance, and by training and aptitude, he was an economic, fiscal and social conservative.

He was antagonistic towards any form of public agitation not controlled by the independence movement, and his civil war record up to August 22, 1922, demonstrates that he had no time at all for the grievances of landless men or underpaid workers.

Nor was he a proto-feminist, nor an early eco-warrior.

Historians also debate the extent of Collins’ attachment to democratic politics, given his use of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood and his inclination to involve himself in matters outside his ministerial and military remits.


Collins was a man of extraordinary talents. Anyone looking at the records can see this from what he himself said and wrote. He was a prodigious issuer of concise, clear instructions.

His Post Office training was reflected in his insistence, even in the midst of civil war, that every penny must be counted and receipts secured.

He was an organisational genius, he was someone who commanded great loyalty and admiration, he was an able public speaker and he was a ruthless director of violence — not only against British agents in the War of Independence, but against his civil war opponents.

Once battle was joined, he deployed tools such as assassination and arbitrary execution without compunction.

Yet in death he became the darling of Winston Churchill, himself a forthright proponent of State terror in Ireland and Iraq between 1920 and 1923.

More recently, the Belfast Telegraph, on June 27, 2012, declared that through shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth, Martin McGuinness would become ‘the Michael Collins of our times’. This is a truly amnesiac accolade, given Collins’ involvement months after signing the Treaty in the preparations for the IRA’s abortive northern campaign, not to mention the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson in June 1922.

We must hope that Mr McGuinness does not let the compliment go to his head.

Diverse political parties now lay claim to Collins and his legacy. You can buy a Michael Collins hurley for €24.99 online from the Sinn Fein shop, if you are not distracted by the whiff of Zapatista Coffee (€7.50) or the practicality of a Loughgall Martyrs Hoodie Top (€24.99).

Fine Gael, unfortunately, do not have an online shop through which to sell Collins golf clubs or blue hoodies, but they still claim Collins as their founding father.

Two years ago, a cardboard cut-out of Collins in military uniform loomed over the Fine Gael stand during the Trinity College Freshers Week. I wondered why not WT Cosgrave, the first leader of Cumann na nGaedheal in 1922 and the maker of Irish democratic government?

Or why not Fine Gael’s first President, General Eoin O’Duffy, over whose memory there would be no unseemly custody battle with Sinn Fein or any other party other than, perhaps, Greece’s Golden Dawn?

We should remember that Collins was not universally popular either with his cabinet colleagues before and after the Treaty split, or amongst the fighting men. It was not just Dev versus Mick.

Even in Cork, the steely Sean O’Hegarty, O/C of the Cork No. 1 Brigade, did not get on with Collins in 1920-21 despite their shared belief in killing without hesitation or compunction.

When the Treaty terms were announced in December 1921, O’Hegarty suggested killing Collins and the other delegates “as soon as they got off the boat in Dublin”.

Mick Murphy, also of the Cork IRA, recalled laughing when he heard that Collins had been shot at Beal na mBlath. He was reproved by de Valera: “It’s nothing to laugh at when an Irishman is killed by another.”

Collins’ greatest military achievement was not the War of Independence, where his role is overstated, but the civil war.

As Commander in Chief, he deserves much of the credit for the fact that, by the time of his death, the conflict was all but done in strategic terms, although the planning and execution of the operations which secured the Provisional Government’s victory was the work of his military staff.

Neil Jordan’s 1996 film Michael Collins has had a lasting impact on the iconography of its hero. The film was brilliantly cast, because it simplified the plot for anyone who might not appreciate the nuances of Irish politics.

Collins was played by Liam Neeson, fresh from his humanitarian heroics in Schindler’s List. The role of Eamon de Valera went to Alan Rickman, already feared and loathed by audiences across the world as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.


Collins’ death 90 years ago is still shrouded in controversy. A range of theories have been offered to explain how and why he died. The most persuasive account I have read remains Meda Ryan’s The Day Michael Collins Was Shot.

I think it was a fluke shot that killed him, as he and his drink-addled party processed through West Cork. His companion Emmet Dalton, a First World War veteran, remarked to one republican years later that “Mick wouldn’t keep down. If he had ever been in a scrap he’d have learned to stay down for I was flat down and so Mick was killed standing up”.

Great leaders do not have to be great fighters — in fact the two roles may be incompatible, as suggested by the anti-Treatyites’ civil war campaign.

Michael Collins never made the mistake of unduly ruminating on what previous generations of Irish revolutionaries have done in the circumstances in which Ireland found herself between 1919 and 1922.

He judged war, politics and government in the present tense, looking to prospects for the future. Our political class should put their rhetorical ouija boards aside and follow his example. Ireland’s future is their responsibility, not his.

• Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from the Ernie O’Malley notebooks in the UCD Archives.

Eunan O’Halpin is Professor of Contemporary Irish History at Trinity College Dublin