Michael Collins Michael Collins, March 1922. Photo: Public Domain

On the centenary of Michael Collins’ assassination, Chris Bambery sifts through the mythology of a man who played a part in the Irish struggle for independence and then turned against it

On 22 August 1922 Michael Collins was shot dead at Béal na Bláth, an isolated crossroads, as his military convoy returned through West Cork. The men who killed him were volunteers of the Irish Republican Army, which Collins himself had led only a year before against the forces of the British crown.

Almost instantly a battle would emerge over what Collins stood for, what he represented and what he was trying to achieve.

For many he was the “man who won the war,” effective head of the IRA during the independence fight. For others he had betrayed their hopes of creating an all-Ireland Irish Republic.

For Marxists he was one of the first in a chain of leaders of national liberation struggles who fought colonialism but when they achieved their own state made peace with imperialism and imposed “order”, suppressing many former comrades who believed they had been fighting for far greater freedom.

In course of time Collins would become the symbolic figure of Fine Gael, the party which would emerge from those who championed the July 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty which created today’s Irish Republic. But Collins died 11 years before the party was founded. He is a useful figurehead, since his potent image obscures the small fact that Fine Gael was created in 1933 by a merger of the pro-Treaty Cumann na nGaedheal party and the National Guard or Blueshirts, the Irish fascist organisation who three years later would sail in a Nazi ship to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

Neil Jordan’s 1996 film biopic, with Liam Neeson playing Collins and Alan Rickman (as usual the villain) as arch-rival and President of the self-declared Republic Eamon de Valera, set a tone. It represents the settled portrayal of events: Collins as the man of action directing the Irish Republican Army’s 1919-21 war for independence, beset in the end by jealous dogmatists.

There can be no denying Collins’s importance in the Irish War of Independence and not simply as a military leader. He was Minister of Finance in the illegal Republican government, raising a National Loan of £500,000 from Irish people at home and abroad to finance the political and military parallel structures at the heart of the Irish revolution.

He also became IRA director of intelligence in 1919.  As in any guerrilla conflict the intelligence war was crucial and Collins personally operated agents at the heart of the British administration in Ireland as well as eliminating British intelligence operatives.

He was the author of some of the war’s most audacious action, including the shooting of 15 British agents in Dublin in November 1920 by his ‘Squad’ of handpicked IRA volunteers. That afternoon the British forces entered the Croke Park stadium in the city where a Gaelic football final was taking place and opened fire on the large crowd in revenge, killing 14 (two of whom were children) and wounding 60. That evening two captured Republicans were shot as they “attempted to escape.” Collins’ military efficiency, and the international scandal of British reprisals, evened the odds against the world’s most powerful empire – a feat that stunned the world.

But it is a gross simplification to claim Collins was the man who won the war. Firstly, British rule was broken not just by the IRA’s military campaign, as important as that was.

Across Ireland ordinary people recognised illegal local authorities made up of elected Republicans, refused to pay taxes and boycotted British courts, organising Republican courts in their place. The Irish working class played a key role with a successful general strike in April 1918 when Britain was attempting to extend conscription to Ireland; in April 1919 the Limerick working class took control of the city and declared a Soviet – an experiment in working class self-rule – in order to defeat British military rule; railworkers waged a prolonged boycott refusing to carry armed British soldiers on trains. Mass demonstrations occurred in support of jailed Republicans on hunger strike and at the funerals of fallen Republicans.

Rural unrest flourished in 1917-19 with small farmers seizing land from the big cattle farmers to grow crops and workers taking over creameries. A Belfast engineering strike at the start of 1919 saw tens of thousands of workers, overwhelmingly Protestant, on strike for shorter hours to the great alarm of the Unionist leaders, scared as much by Bolshevism as Irish Republicanism.

But the leadership of the Irish Labour Party and the Irish Trade Union Congress accepted the argument of Sinn Féin that “Labour must wait” until independence.

Collins and the Dublin HQ of the IRA had little control of affairs across the country. The military campaign began independently of them, at Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary when Seamus Robinson, Dan Breen and six other Volunteers ambushed two policemen guarding a cartload of gelignite.

The most effective IRA unit was that led by Tom Barry in West Cork which again received little help or direction from Dublin. Collins did, however, send out organisers to encourage military action, men like Ernie O’Malley, helping create a solid cadre. And though Collins helped win physical force Republicanism to the tactics of guerrilla warfare and targeted, limited assaults (taking and holding urban centres having proved a military failure in 1916), these tactics also reflected older traditions and widespread debates in Republican circles.

The war reached its bloody climax during the first six months of 1921 when the British went all out with repression to defeat the IRA, which responded by forming more flying columns in rural areas and intensifying urban guerrilla war in Dublin city. Between January 1921 and the eventual truce in July, 1,000 people were killed while 4500 Republicans were interned without trial.

Between November 1920 and June 1921, 24 IRA Volunteers were executed, beginning with the shooting of 18 year old Kevin Barry in Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail on 1 November.

By the summer of 1921 both sides were ready to negotiate. The British government recognised it could not defeat the IRA and was also suffering imperial overstretch dealing with unrest in Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and India at a time when its economy was depressed. The Republicans were aware of war weariness among many in their own support.

A truce was declared on 11 July and a negotiating team led by Collins and Arthur Griffiths dispatched to London. De Valera as President chose not to go, claiming he wanted to stand back until he could examine any deal. The negotiating team were under strict instructions not to sign anything until they brought any deal back to Dublin for approval.

But in December 1922 Collins and the others signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in London. Why? The questions of the hasty signing of the treaty would become the subject of confusion, myth and insult in the ensuing civil war.

British Prime Minister Lloyd George was threatening the resumption of war on an even more savage scale should the treaty fail – he dangled this sword over the negotiations. But the Irish team knew the British had entered talks because their campaign of repression had failed, and they were struggling to manage the rise of nationalist movements.

This mood of revolutionary nationalism brought together an eccentric mix of political actors. Many were always uneasy with the methods they felt they needed to use to gain concessions from the imperial administrations, and even more disconcerted by the social forces unleashed by militant action.

This was true in Ireland (among leading figures on both sides of the split that would emerge in Republicanism). Collins came from a milieu of middling proprietors and farmers in rural Cork. Though he admired working class socialists like the martyred James Connolly, he did not share his expansive political vision.

Among the provincial middle classes “half a loaf was better than none.” Or as he himself put it, the treaty could be a stepping stone, offering Ireland: “…not the freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it.” That this pragmatic attitude involved an allegiance with the British Empire was not of cardinal importance.

While the British knew they could not militarily hold down the bulk of Ireland, they were very confident they could hold onto the new six county state of Northern Ireland which had come into existence prior to the truce, in June 1921. Besides the loss of northern parts of the country (and large numbers of mainly Catholic Irish nationalists) to the sectarian statelet, the treaty exacted many controls on the new Irish Free State. It would be a dominion within the British Empire, lose control over many port facilities and maintain Sterling as its currency, with control exercised from the Bank of England in London. The new state would not be a republic – its government would swear an oath of allegiance to the crown.

Pending elections to a new 26 county parliament and its vote to establish the Free State, the British government refused to recognise Dáil Éireann in any form and demanded Collins and his supporters create a Provisional Government.

The new state which would eventually emerge would be a counter-revolutionary one, as Kevin Whelan explains:

“The Free State then terminated revolutionary legal experiments like the Dáil Courts, closed down the debate over the ending of English Common Law, killed off social experiments like the Soviets, stifled the emerging feminist movement, introduced a prohibition on divorce in 1925, and espoused censorship in 1929. It re-instated anglicized, middle class, Catholic values.”

All this still lay in the future. The period between the treaty vote in January 1922 and the June general election saw both sides trying to recreate unity. But the aspirations of millions for national and social rights, dignity and democracy were heading for collision with the more conservative impulses of a half-made revolution, under siege from a powerful empire. Collins was at the centre of the controversy as the storm clouds crowded in.

Tragic hero of the counter-revolution

Within months of signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, Michael Collins would be shot dead. He died both Chair of the Provisional Government of what would become the Irish Free State, and commander-in-chief of the Irish National Army.

The Irish Free State formally came into being after Collins’s death, in December 1922, by vote of the new 26 county parliament, but in reality its creation can be dated to January of that year when the Treaty was narrowly approved by a vote of its republican predecessor, Dáil Éireann.

The body which approved the Anglo-Irish Treaty represented all 32 counties of Ireland and claimed to represent an Irish Republic declared in arms by the 1916 Easter Rising. That Republic was twice re-affirmed by the votes of the Irish people in two all-Ireland elections, one in December 1918 and the other in May 1921 when they voted overwhelmingly for Sinn Féin.

In contrast, the Irish Free State would represent just 26 counties, with six counties separated off into a new Northern Ireland statelet which remained part of the United Kingdom. It was also a dominion within the British Empire and thus not a republic. It recognised the British crown’s authority.

At first Eamon de Valera – President of the Republic proclaimed in 1916 – argued for a renegotiation of the Treaty to secure a more Republican state, particularly to remove the oath of allegiance to the British Crown, but it was clear Britain would not tolerate that, while many IRA leaders rejected such an approach as implicitly settling for less than an all-Ireland Republic.

On the Treatyite side Arthur Griffith, Kevin O’Higgins and William Cosgrave were content with what the Treaty as signed, and their focus had shifted to a restoration of bourgeois order and the free market economy.

Collins was more ambiguous, holding that the creation of a new state meant the Republican struggle could continue using constitutional reform, negotiation. diplomatic pressure and military means with the creation of an Irish army. Whether he would have remained true to this strategy or succumbed to the institutional pressures of the evolving Free State is a matter for speculation.

In March 1922 the IRA split, with the majority pledging to defend the 32 county Irish Republic and a minority around Collins forming the core of the new Free State army.

Nevertheless, within Sinn Féin peace negotiations continued, resulting by May in a ‘pact’ between Collins and de Valera whereby voters in the upcoming 26 county election were urged to support a panel of candidates formed by both sides, each of whom would have as many TD’s as they currently had in the Dail. A coalition government uniting both sides would then be formed.

Collins’s colleagues were kept in the dark about the unity agreement and were furious. So was the British government. Churchill told Collins the British would intervene militarily against such a government. On the eve of the June election Collins repudiated this pact urging people to vote for Treatyite candidates against anti-Treatyite ones. Yet many would vote according to the agreed pact.

The Treatyites took 45.3 percent of the vote, the anti-Treatyites 28.1 percent. This was heralded as proof that the Irish people democratically endorsed the Treaty. But because of confusion around the Pact it was not so clear cut. Of 124 candidates elected on the Sinn Féin ticket, both Treatyites and anti-Treatyites, 118 were re-elected, reflecting Collins and de Valera’s aim to essentially preserve the old Dail.

Within a matter of days the Free State army, using artillery given them by the British, bombarded the Four Courts in Dublin where hardline IRA forces had established themselves. The decision to launch the Civil War was taken before the new Irish Parliament met and it was subsequently prorogued until late summer, meeting only after Collins’s death.

The Provisional Government claimed it was reacting to the Four Court’s garrison kidnapping a senior officer in the new Irish army, retaliation for the arrest of an IRA officer trying to enforce a boycott of Belfast goods in response to the pogroms there. Both were escalations in the growing crisis but do not explain Collins and Griffiths’s decision to begin the Civil War.

A more important incident was that of 22 June 1922, the former Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson was shot dead in London. Wilson had become military adviser to the northern state government and Collins held him responsible for the anti-nationalist terror.

The British blamed the killing on the IRA units in the Four Courts, although papers found on one of his two assassins suggested they were acting on Collins’s orders. It was too good an opportunity to miss, and the British used it to spur civil war and finally deal with anti-Treaty forces. The British government demanded Collins attack the Four Courts or they would rip up the Treaty and take control of the 26 counties. The Four Courts was attacked by the Free State Army on 30 June, before the new parliament could meet to debate the way forward. As it happened the scheduled 1 July opening never took place. This is how the civil war was launched and the Free State settlement secured – without civilian governance and under threat of violence from the British Empire.

One reason that Collins chose to strike was that the Four Courts IRA were preparing for an offensive along the border with Northern Ireland. They believed by doing this they could claim the high ground of Republicanism and rally majority Republican opinion behind them. Collins had followed a deeply ambiguous policy towards Northern Ireland, arming the IRA there, and encouraging earlier military action, but also negotiating with the Unionist prime minister, Sir James Craig. Collins was frightened the anti-Treaty forces could exploit these contradictions and rob him of the anti-partition mantle.

Though at first the symbolic humiliations of the Treaty, such as the oath of allegiance to the British Crown, had excited most controversy, it was increasingly the plight of the northern Catholic minority that focused minds.

The Unionists government created their sectarian state by violence, shielded and facilitated by British power.

Jonathan Burdon summarises this bloodbath:

“The price in blood had been heavy: between July 1920 and July 1922 the death toll in the six counties was 557—303 Catholics, 172 Protestants and 82 members of the security forces. In Belfast, 236 people had been killed in the first months of 1922, more than in the widespread troubles in Germany in the same period. In Belfast there had been a vicious sectarian war…the statistics speak for themselves: Catholics formed only a quarter of the city’s population but had suffered 257 civilian deaths out of 416 in a two-year period. Catholic relief organizations estimated that in Belfast between 8,700 and 11,000 Catholics had been driven out of their jobs, that 23,000 Catholics had been forced out of their homes, and that about 500 Catholic-owned businesses had been destroyed.”

The new Royal Ulster Constabulary was heavily armed and overwhelmingly Protestant. It was backed up by an armed militia, the B Specials, recruited largely from the pre-war Ulster Volunteer Force, formed to stop Irish Home Rule. As nationalists fled south, Republican anger intensified. Demands for pragmatism and an ‘end to violence’ meant little to those still living under occupation and subject to terror.

This is not to say Treatyite fears of British intervention were unfounded. Certainly the Provisional government took British threats to rip up the Treaty very seriously. Kevin O’Higgins would later tell the Free State parliament:

“We had very good reasons to believe that we anticipated by a couple of hours the creation of conditions under which this Parliament never would have met – conditions that would have brought back the British power – horse, foot, artillery and Navy – in hostile relations to this country.”

Under British compulsion, leading Treatyites further divested their new state of democratic trappings. Collins appointed himself commander of the Free State army and that evening announced the creation of a War Council consisting of just himself, Richard Mulcahy, Army chief-of-staff, and Eoin O’Duffy, assistant chief-of-staff.

Censorship was imposed, despite the press being overwhelmingly pro-Treaty, and the courts (both those inherited from the British and those set up by the Dail) and habeas corpus, were suspended. When Diarmuid Crowley, the Supreme Justice of the Dail Courts ruled that anti-Treaty prisoners who had not been charged must be freed and that the Dail must convene, Collins’ government abolished the Court.

John M. Regan points out:

“The absence of any legislative body meant that the Provisional Government was not accountable to any other institution and in the circumstances granted Collins in theory, if  not in practice, dictatorial powers.”

After several postponements, Collins proposed on 5 August that they should “postpone parliament until we clean this matter up definitely.” In other words, Collins’ intention was that the parliament was not to meet until after the end of the Civil War and in the meantime martial law would be exercised by a military council of three men.

The Free State Dail would only meet in late August 1922 because the Labour Party, which had polled well in June, threatened to resign its seats unless it was convened. If the major opposition party (the anti-Treatyites were boycotting this assembly because to enter required an oath to the Crown, but also because in the atmosphere of repression they feared being taken prisoner or worse) withdrew, the new parliament would lose much of its legitimacy.

Republican military action in Northern Ireland had been officially called off on 3 June, with Collins issuing a statement that “no troops from the 26 counties, either those under official control [pro-treaty] or those attached to the [IRA] Executive [anti-treaty] should be permitted to invade the six county area.”

Repression out-lasted Collins and became even bloodier after his assassination by anti-Treaty fighters. Eighty-three executions were carried out by the Irish Army, including four prisoners not tried or convicted of any charge. Many others were simply killed with no pretence at justice. As in any civil war terrible things were done on both sides, but on the government side the implementation of reprisal killings posed major questions about the nature of the new state, about its leaders, about the role of the military, and about the rule of law.

The new Irish Army was formed from those in the IRA who backed its charismatic leader, Collins. They included the Dublin ‘Squad’, which had carried out an effective policy of assassination of key figures in the British military and administration.

But there were not sufficient numbers of them, and men were recruited from the demobbed British Army – which was being run down after the Great War – and even from the prisons. Collins described his new army as “an armed mob” shortly after the civil war began. Many recruits sold weapons and ammunition to the other side, carried out robberies, or deserted.

The first stage of the war was a battle of set-pieces with the IRA (the rebels had claimed that title) first trying to hold positions in central Dublin, and then in Munster, the south-west province where they had been most effective during the war with Britain. But the new Irish Army had artillery and armoured cars – provided by the British – and the rebels could not hold fixed positions against this sort of firepower.

The second stage of the war was a guerrilla campaign in which the IRA tried to make the new state ungovernable; but the IRA lacked the popular support it had had in the fight against the British. In particular, it was denounced by the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, the Irish Army grew frustrated in a difficult insurgency, and atrocities were the consequence. County Kerry saw some of the bitterest fighting. March 1923 saw a series of notorious incidents in Kerry, where 23 Republican prisoners were killed and another five judicially executed in a period of just four weeks.

An infamous massacre took place at Ballymullen Barracks in Tralee. In retaliation for five National Army men being killed by a booby-trap bomb, nine Republican prisoners were tortured, then taken to Ballyseedy crossroads, and there tied to a landmine. The mine was detonated. The survivors were machine-gunned.

Over the next 24 hours, five Republican prisoners were blown up by a mine at Countess Bridge near Killarney and four at Cahersiveen. Another Republican prisoner was taken out into the woods and summarily shot. That March, 27 Republicans were officially or unofficially executed.

Earlier, in December 1922, the IRA had shot dead a member of the Irish Parliament and seriously wounded another. The Irish Government had ordered the execution of four senior IRA leaders who had been in jail since the summer. The reprisal killings shocked many across Ireland, regardless to their view of the Treaty.

Eventually, civilian governance would re-assert itself, and check military rule at the end of the civil war. After a period in jail, de Valera re-organised many anti-Treatyites into an effective political force – Fianna Fáil, which accepted the new Irish state and its parliamentary democracy. Before they came to office in 1932, the outgoing pro-Treaty government burned records relating to the repression during the civil war.

But the dirty work of counter-revolution had been done. The Free State was a successful containment of the energies unleashed after 1916.

During the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s a strong revisionist school of Irish history blossomed which challenged the notion that Irish Republicanism had any popular mandate in 1919-1921 and emphasised the democratic credentials of the subsequent Free State, representing democracy or constitutionalism in contrast to the authoritarianism of its opponents. Part of this was an attempt to divorce the creation of the Irish state from anything which might compare to the activities of the IRA during the Northern Ireland Troubles.

So, Tom Garvin wrote:

“Irish democracy had to be forcibly imposed . . . the conquest of Leinster, Munster, and Connacht by the Free State army in 1922–23 resembled a liberation rather than the invasion by fascistic ‘Green and Tans’ it was claimed to be by so many noisy republican and leftist propagandists in Ireland, Britain and America.”

This “liberation” thesis ignores the real forces behind the counter-revolution: an alliance between British imperialism and elements of the domestic elite who wanted to stabilise the Irish class structure. Collins, as a key organiser of the military and intelligence operations in the revolution, was ideally positioned to discipline the revolution on behalf of those forces.

He belonged to a distinctive type of nationalist revolutionary in the first half of the 20th century, with contemporaries like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey or Jozef Pilsudski in Poland. Both were military leaders who freed their countries from foreign occupation. Both claimed to champion democracy and the rule of law, but citing the need for ‘stability’ and ‘national unity’ both ended up as semi-dictators. Whether Collins would, or could have gone down a similar road, we will never know – but the parallels are striking.

All that remains for us is an honest reckoning with the contribution he did make to killing the revolution he helped create. One hundred years since his death, the Republic proclaimed in 1916 remains unrealised. The future, thankfully, remains unwritten.

This article was first published in two parts on Conter: Part One, Part Two

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

Tagged under: