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“Remembering Michael Collins in 2016” - Oration at Béal na mBláth commemoration

Béal na mBláth, 21 August 2016



When the time comes, very soon, to commemorate those events of the early 1920s, we will need to display courage and honesty as we seek to speak the truth of the period, and in recognising that, during the War of Independence, and particularly during the Civil War, no single side had the monopoly of either atrocity or virtue.

Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le mhuintir Uí Choileáin agus le Choiste Cuimhneacháin Bhéal na mBláth as a gcuireadh caoin dom óráid ómóis Mhichíl Uí Choileáin a thabhairt ar an bhliain stairiúil seo.

Is mór an pléisiúir dom é, mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, seasamh in bhur dteannta san áit saintréitheach seo i stair na tíre chun aitheantas a thabhairt don méid a rinne an Coileánach ar son neamhspleáchais na hÉireann. Tá áthas ar leith orm an deis seo a fháil le linn na bliana seo, agus muid ag comóradh céad bliain ó Éirí Amach na Cásca 1916, an t-eachtra mór bunúsach sin i stair na tíre, agus muid ag smaoineamh ar an méid atá bainte amach againn mar náisiún.

[May I thank the Collins family and the Béal na mBláth Commemoration Committee for their generous invitation, in this special year, to deliver the annual tribute to Michael Collins.

It is my great pleasure, as President of Ireland, to stand with you all at this emblematic site of our national memory in recognition of    Michael Collins' great contribution to Irish independence. I am particularly delighted to be able to do so in a year when we are commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916, that foundational event in Ireland's journey to Freedom – and at a time when we are recollecting, too, a sense of where we come from as a nation.]

In preparing what I have to say today, it has been an advantage to read the collection of past orations published by the Committee in 2012, on the occasion of the Ninetieth Anniversary of Michael Collins’ death. This publication indicates so well the generosity of the Collins family and the Commemoration Committee in inviting, over the years, so wide a range of Irish opinion to give the oration at this special event. Professor John A. Murphy was quite right, when he suggested in 1982 that what takes place every year at Béal na mBláth is of national significance and that the person being commemorated belongs to all of the Irish people.

Michael Collins, as highlighted by all those who have spoken at this event, was a person of extraordinary talent. He was energetic, committed, pragmatic, with a zest for life and companionship, and the robust rural version of that companionship. His background was endowed with what I would call 'the native richness of rural Ireland'. His mother and father were equipped with robust practical skills, yet the two of them combined that with an interest in literature, in languages, in both the oral history of their own people, and the written accounts of the history of our nation, and all its people. 

It is important to recognise the significance of Michael Collins’ early life, his experience as a young man seeking a future through education, his sense of place, of roots, the connection to which after all brought him here on that fateful day, all of that is important for our understanding of the outstanding, richly talented, deeply committed republican that Michael Collins was. We must also take into account in the formative influences of his early life, the experiences of being a migrant, and of leaving home to prepare for examination to join the imperial service, and of his working as a junior civil servant in London. A London where the atmosphere of the privileged was one that regarded his people as inferior, his Irish culture as worthless, and his language a symbol of backwardness as an object for replacement by erosion or coercion.   It was not as an equal citizen he stood and worked in London.

Preceding such influences, as a young man was all that he learned as a child from his father and neighbours, people who had a direct memory of The Great Famine, and from his mother, who, as a young widow, managed both her farm and family with extraordinary energy, skill and good humour. As a child, Michael Collins was thus as familiar with the tasks and intimacies of farm life as he was with the stories of previous unsuccessful Irish rebellions.

And the lore of neighbours was important to him- Michael Collins would later acknowledge the role of both Denis Lyons, the schoolmaster, and James Santry, the blacksmith, as he put it his "first stalwarts" "along the searching path to a political goal." Indeed James Santry's old forge at Lisavaird was one of the places where, "in a very literal sense, the sparks of revolution were fanned into life for Michael Collins."[1] 

An ardent republican, the local blacksmith James Santry captured the imagination of the boy with his vivid accounts of Ireland's struggle for Freedom and the part that the people of West Cork had played in it. Santry’s grandfather had fought with Tadg-an-Asna at the Battle of Ballinascarthy in 1798, and his father had forged pikes for subsequent rebellions those inspired by the teachings of Wolfe Tone, in 1848 and 1867.

Upon his return from London, just before the Rising, Michael Collins’ natural abilities, combined with the practical experience of office organisation and accountancy that he had gained in London drew him to the attention of the Plunkett family and into the Plunkett household, initially as an assistant to Count Plunkett. Countess Plunkett might have somewhat unkindly spoken of his swagger, his strut, his braggadocio, but her husband, and particularly her son Joseph, quickly saw the value of his organisational genius. He had in addition, a deepened political and strategic vision from his experience in England.    He had become a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and had got involved in Irish national cultural projects.  He was by now quite convinced of the necessity of seizing the weak moment of the British Empire as an opportunity for a physical force movement to strike for freedom. 

Michael Collins would go on to spend Easter Week fighting in the GPO as Aide-de-Camp to Joseph Mary Plunkett. Of those in the GPO he singled out James Connolly, whose realism he admired, and of whom he said that he would “follow him through hell.” He spoke with admiration for Connolly’s practical sense.  He would later, while acknowledging the bravery and sacrifice of that Easter Rising, come to question the looseness of its planning and the cost of its delivery, and in particular the absence of sufficient calculation for a follow-through that would have led to a national insurrection.

Collins was held in Frongoch, an internment camp in North Wales, alongside 1,800 other Irishmen arrested in the wake of the Rising of 1916.  It was in this “University of the Revolution” that he started to envisage the framework for a guerrilla campaign against British rule, a campaign in which he would play such a significant role. 

He recognised early the importance of intelligence as a tool of oppression but also one that would be of strategic importance in a liberation struggle.  Indeed, many historians regard his destruction of the imperial intelligence system in Ireland as his greatest contribution, but his contributions, however, were manifold.  

In considering these contributions, one might speculate on what his role would have been, had he been given the opportunities of a space of peace, had the results of the 1918 election been recognised by the British Government. Then too, there is in his chairing of the Committee on the 1922 Constitution -  an attempt to resolve the issues that the Treaty had created. The amendments for which he secured agreement from some of his fellow republicans were, however, rejected by London – all the necessary pieces of State building.

As to why these rejections were so, there is perhaps an answer in Erskine Childers’ memorandum, “Notes on the British Memo”:  the British side were absolutely clear that they were not ready to compromise on Ireland's link to the Empire and Ireland’s  formal allegiance to the Crown.  That link, as one of its leading minds in jurisprudence put it, was the "keystone of the arch in law as well as in sentiment."  The British leaders knew that the Empire was, in the words of Lloyd George, at a "critical phase" in its history. Alarming reports had been received from India of the growing strength of Gandhi’s passive-resistance movement, and they were wary of making any concession that might eventually ripple throughout the Commonwealth. 

In this year of 2016 it is important to recognise that while a great deal had been achieved in Ireland before 1916, particularly in relation to land tenure, through the parliamentary process driven by the Irish Parliamentary Party, the independence we have today was achieved through a War of Independence that was conducted across Ireland.

It is also important to acknowledge that the fact that recognition that had been given to the views of those Unionists seeking a separate status in the north-east corner of the island meant that some form of accommodation, of partition had been regarded as inevitable. 

This was a conclusion that was accepted by both Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins. The proximate, urgent issue remained, of course, as to the security of the minority population in the province of Ulster, many of whom had been driven from their houses and their employment, and their future in the event of a boundary being established.

With the benefit of hindsight, it has become easier, perhaps, to appreciate the merits of the path of compromise which Michael Collins, however reluctantly and heavy-heartedly, (one has only to read his Path to Freedom) chose to follow. Few today would challenge the wisdom of his conscious decision "not to coerce the North-East".

Yet, a century later historians differ as to the motivation of Michael Collins in relation to the assistance he sought to provide to forces in Northern Ireland in this period. Historians will also continue to debate the accuracy of his assessment of the British ultimatum for resuming war, and his judgement on the potentialities of the Treaty as a stepping stone to full sovereignty, one that would give Ireland, as he famously said:

"not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it."

Beyond any scholarly debates, it is important that we today, do not underestimate the challenge that was presented of exiting  empire, or managing the transition from military struggle to building a functioning administration as a nation, we must recognise the challenge that it was for the men and women of the revolutionary generation to assume the full weight of Ireland's status as a country within the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland, attempting to assert its independence from the British Empire.  It was an immense task.  As to the second challenge, as Kevin O'Higgins vividly put it:

"In Ireland in 1922, there was no state and no organised force. The Provisional Government were simply eight young men in the City Hall standing amidst the ruins of one administration, with the foundations of another not yet laid, and with wild men screaming through the keyhole."

This quotation of course reveals the greatest challenge, which was perhaps in the flux of building order, left aside, how Gaelic, how Irish, how diverse would the administrative system in the new independent State be?  Could it ever be appropriate for an alternative form of society? Could it be the administration of a people aspiring to be a Republic?

It appeared best to build from the inherited pieces.  This was not without consequence for later decades, even to our contemporary lives together.

Michael Collins and others in the leadership of the War of Independence were very conscious of international opinion and its importance.  Retrospectively, we realise, too, that both pro and anti-Treatyites agreed in their distinctive, but essentially common, conviction that the Irish revolution had significance far beyond the shores of Ireland.

Mary MacSwiney, for example, who virulently rejected the Treaty (as did so many of  the other women elected to the First Dáil) did so on the grounds that Ireland's War of Independence had attracted global sympathy because it had been, as they put it -

"essentially a spiritual fight ... of right against wrong ... a small people against a mighty rapacious and material Empire."[2]

 

Indeed in India, in Africa, in the Middle East, Ireland won admiration as a "beacon" for other struggling peoples. In the guerrilla campaign he led in the early 1940s against the administration of the British Mandate of Palestine, for example, Yitzhak Shamir took the nom de guerre "Michael" in homage to Michael Collins.

On visits to Africa and Latin America as President of Ireland, I have received countless expressions of admiration for the Irish people, conveying the memory, not just of Ireland’s independence struggle, but also of its later role, as a source of independent thought in foreign policy, supporting independence and disarmament as a member of the League of Nations and then the United Nations, in defending decolonisation and the freedom of oppressed nations. This is, perhaps one of the finest parts of our foreign policy tradition – one that should be cherished and carefully nurtured today.

 

A Chairde Gael, Dear Friends,

The memory of Michael Collins will forever be enmeshed with that of the tragic and bloody Civil War which raged on this island throughout the years 1922-1923. This was a dreadful human tragedy for so many Irish families. And while we should never underestimate the challenge that it was to build the foundations of a stable democratic state in the midst of turmoil and in the shadow of a great power, we must never forget what a terrible price was paid in divided families and divided communities, leaving a legacy that was felt for generations. 

When the time comes, very soon, to commemorate those events of the early 1920s, we will need to display courage and honesty as we seek to speak the truth of the period, and in recognising that, during the War of Independence, and particularly during the Civil War, no single side had the monopoly of either atrocity or virtue.

We will remember from the earlier War of Independence and the response to it, the devastation spread throughout the land by the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans. The arbitrary killings, the ruthless raids on civilians' homes, the torturing of prisoners, the looting of shops, the burning down of creameries and farmhouses to destroy the local economy: all this has marked consciences even beyond Ireland, so much so that George Orwell, in his account of the Spanish Civil War - the outbreak of which we are also commemorating this year - thought fit to compare the barbarity of the Guarda Civil with that of the Black and Tans.

We will remember, too, how the Catholic minority in the north-east of the country fell into the grip of embittered sectarian violence. But we will also be required to recall the initial bewilderment of members of the RIC when they were taken as targets at the outset of the War of Independence, and the dismay of those men as they experienced the swift corrosion of the shared understanding they had enjoyed with the people among whom they lived, worked, and to whom they were often related.

We will be required to face, too, the ruthlessness of many executions performed by the IRA, the mistakes that inevitably happened in killings of purported informers, the executions of Republican prisoners during the Civil War, and the outrages perpetrated during both wars against Protestant people, some of whom were attacked regardless of their actual attitude towards the struggles underway. It is also important to recognise that the cover of the civil war was used by some for the settling of vendettas, some local, some ancient, some based on land hunger and greed.

Our concern for the truth should not, however, collapse into shallow point-scoring. It will need to be made meaningful by both a real sense of history and a generous willingness to go past old wrongs so as to build a new shared understanding of who we are as a nation and as a republic.

While avoiding the re-opening of old wounds, we have to recognise the visibility and reality of the scars that make the rough skin of our history.

Indeed our process of remembering would be truncated, quite senseless even, should we fail to recognise how, at the root of many an outrage committed in that period, was a reignited sense of historic grievance. This was notably the case around the issue of land, which, once again in those years, set rural Ireland ablaze. For small farmers, particularly in the West, the coming of the Republic heralded new opportunities for what they saw as the fulfilment of their entitlement to ownership of plots of land from which they felt they had been unjustly evicted in previous centuries. A consensus or communal agreement on how land should be divided was also lacking.

Such raw memory of past injustices existed in the Collins family. Michael Collins' father, who was 75-years-old at the time of Michael's birth, did, as I have already mentioned, live through the Great Famine which devastated the West Cork area, and which saw Skibbereen, for example, become iconic as the centre of some of the most harrowing suffering caused not simply by the failure of the potato crop, but of the policies initiated to respond to it.

Another important family memory was the year which two of Michael Collins' uncles had spent in Cork Jail for whipping out of their crops members of the landlord class on a hunting party. And even with the distance of time, we cannot but be stricken by the symbolism of the brutal burning down of the Collins Woodfield family home by a detachment of soldiers from the Essex Regiment, in April 1921. To witness the house where he had spent his childhood, filled with hay, with neighbours forced to assist at bayonet point, the hay sprayed with petrol, and burned to the ground on the orders of an officer in an imperial army, must have had an incredible impact on Michael Collins. 

 

Despite all this, Helen Collins tells us [3] that she was raised "in a home of forgiveness and understanding", dispositions that are shared by all the other members of the Collins family who have made of the commemorations of Béal na mBláth a powerful symbol of memorial hospitality.

The man who died at Béal na mBláth on the 22nd August 1922 was, too, a man of compassion in that terrible Civil War. He wept upon learning of Cathal Brugha’s death after the attack on the Four Courts. And he asked those who fought under him to treat men from the other side as irregulars, as colleagues who had misconstrued the situation, had judged wrongly, but whom it should be always remembered were fellow Irishmen, never enemies.

Sadly, such a spirit did not prevail and the atrocities of the Civil War were ones that we must recognise for what they were, on both sides: cruel, vicious, uncontrolled, and at times informed by vengeance rather than any compassion. The participants were divided, but also confused, at what were the consequences of the Treaty, its acceptance or rejection.  We should also recognise the fact that there were elements within the different forces who were simply out of control.

Some of the civilian losses were inflicted in a way that had little to do with republicanism or any emancipatory version of nationalism. They revealed the jagged ends of land hunger, envy, and indeed it should not any longer be denied, the opportunity was taken for a sectarian identification of targets.                     

I believe that Michael Collins’ contribution in the flux of a set of crises – military, political, social, and cultural – was of an immense kind, yet it proved to be beyond even his capacities to bring a resolution to what were genuinely held, deeply divided views on what would constitute true Irish independence and a true republic.  Yet he tried and, in his own papers there is evidence of seeking to take the possibilities afforded by a space created in opposition to an imperial foe, to build and expand the space of independence.

I have often been struck by the distance between the background of Michael Collins and those who would later go on to fill the major offices of the new state, and in so many cases to do so with distinction. There is a rural earthiness in Michael Collins’ life that runs through his experience, even in Frongoch, where he seized the opportunity to read, study, and realise the importance of strategy and intelligence work.

He recognised the physical energy of those who were incarcerated with him, and the value of organising leagues for Gaelic games to consume that energy, and he also used the time to improve his efforts with foreign languages, in particular the French language, which he thought would be useful in the future.  I take from his own writings an unusually vivid emphasis on an authentic Irishness, one that was romantic and indeed utopian in the best sense.  He fulminates against imitation, and strikingly against materialism.

I have been struck, too, by a gap which remains in the historical memory of Irish people and in Irish historiography and that is - the class dimension - to both the War of Independence and indeed the Civil War. Future historians might, with value, consider, for example, how significant is the order in the family of those who joined the IRA – Did the heir to the land risk his position to the same extent as his younger brothers? What was to happen to the women who would not possess a dowry and who would later be described in the Irish Census as "relatives assisting", whose only entitlement was a room in the house and a seat in the car to Mass? Too often omitted also from accounts of these early decades of our independence is the role of what were called ‘the trades’ and the agricultural labourers, a group estimated at 50,000 during this period.

Maurice Walsh, in his excellent Bitter Freedom, has written of the position of those agricultural labourers and of the deeply rooted social hierarchy which saw servants housed and fed separately, and referred to generically by farmers who employed them as “the boy” or the “the girl”.[4]  As, reworking James Joyce, one might put it, "the cracked mirror was always put in the maid's room".

It is important to recognise that such attitudes of perceived class distinction, such gradations in the ‘respectability’ that property conferred, prevailed among many of those who were anxious to describe themselves as both Nationalist and Catholic in the south, or Unionist and Protestant, in the north. We need to find a space in our new approach to historiography for the lives of those in the cottages, and the treatment of class in Irish history cannot be dismissed as just another spurious form of revisionism. It is simply a good and necessary inclusive approach to history. 

It is surely important that we also remember those who sought to end the Civil War. In the very week in which Michael Collins was killed, the Labour Party had issued an ultimatum that it would withdraw its 17 deputies from the Dáil unless the Dáil was called into being by 26 August 1922 to discuss the ending of the Civil War.  That would have collapsed the Dáil where Labour provided an opposition.  Among some of the colleagues with whom Michael Collins was conducting affairs there existed a view that such a request would deflect from what was insisted was a necessary military victory. If I may quote from a letter Michael Collins received from Eoin O’Duffy, on 12th August 1922:

“I believe the Labour element and the Red Flaggers are at the back of all the moves towards ‘Peace’, not for the sake of the country, but in their own interests. They realise that, if the Government can break the back of this revolt, any attempts at revolt, by labour, in future will be futile. When the National [treatyite] Army have entered this conflict with such vigour, Labour realises that they would be much more vigorous to crush any Red Flag or Bolshevik troubles. Naturally Labour does not desire a Military decision in the present conflict, but it is absolutely necessary that the Government should have such a decision.”   

 

There is no evidence that Michael Collins shared such a view.  Rather it reveals the forces he sought to balance.  Michael Collins was dead before he could reply to this letter. My personal view is that, based on his admiration for James Connolly, his respect for Pearse’s changed views after the Lockout, and his familiarity with the world of work, he would have seen a vital place for workers and their families in the new State. I also believe that he would have had a flexible approach towards the decommissioning of arms, that was markedly different from some of his colleagues. This is evidenced, I think, in his instruction to his own troops to treat their opponents with respect.

Many have speculated, too, on what Michael Collins would have thought of present circumstances. Previous orators here have often dwelt upon this theme. If I may instance just one of Michael Collins’ frequent references – his emphasis on the development of resources to satisfy a native frugality rather than any insatiable hunger for accumulation or ostentatious waste. Michael Collins would, I am sure, have wanted our people to have reached sufficiency in all of the essentials: health, housing, education, childcare, culture, and above all in the ability to live together. He saw the importance of using our resources well and he was very interested in not being dependent on a single market. He was also concerned at the consequences of emerging tendencies to monopoly in international trade.

Our future commemorations will also need to address frankly, how, and with what values the administration of independence was handled.   I believe, for example, the exclusive and partisan way in which the pension applications for participants in the War of Independence were handled, in particular the exclusion of women, and the failure to recognise the poverty of those unemployed due to the struggle for independence or the Civil War, or to examine the reasons for the emigration of so many who had participated in the armed struggle for Irish Freedom. Indeed, it is the case that from some parts of Kerry, for example, over 90% of the members of some companies of volunteers emigrated to the United States before the end of the 20's.

It is important to acknowledge, today, all those who played a part in the establishment of the Irish State but who were denied acknowledgement in its early years. Isn’t it appropriate, also, to trace the difference between the republican values invoked through many generations in the struggle for independence, and the authoritarian ethos which influenced much of the legislation that emerged in the  decades following the establishment of the new State? To recognise such circumstances is not to seek a new currency for old and tragic divisions, to open any old wounds. It is, rather, to lay the ground for such an act of memory as will rob the grievances of the past of any capacity for disabling the achievement of new possibilities and opportunities in the future both at home and in our new global responsibilities.  The hand we share with the future is a warm hand, carrying the scars and not lesser for that.

The ability to hold together a forgiving consciousness of the past and an openness to the potentialities of the future – forging the alliance of pardon and promise: this is the essential imperative for our living together in harmony and cohesion on this island. As Hannah Arendt has suggested to us, the faculty to forgive guarantees our freedom from the harsh rule of the past, but without an ability to promise, the present would be dominated by uncertainties and fears, the future unforeseeable.[5]  Forgiveness is a cornerstone in our construction of hope, but it must be a forgiveness informed by understanding of the importance of accepting difference.

In imeacht na mblianta tá sé tábhachtach go nglacaimid le léamhanna éagsúla ar stair na tíre seo agus go n-aithnímid a thit amach san am atá caite. Má dhéanaimid é seo, beidh todhchaí lán le féidearthachtaí romhainn.

[With the passing of years, surely we can find a new generosity towards the different strands of historical memory held by the people of this island and go forward in a new way, acknowledging that the past has happened, that we must face, not evade, its darkest corners, but that the future remains alive with great possibilities.]

 

Go raibh míle maith agaibh is beir beannacht don todhchaí

 

 

[1] Tim Pat Coogan. 1991. Michael Collins. Arrow Books, p. 9

[2] Quoted in Maurice Walsh. 2015. Bitter Freedom. Ireland in a Revolutionary World 1918-1923. Faber & Faber, p. 329.

[3] In her preface to the booklet celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Béal na mBláth commemoration.

[4] Maurice Walsh, Op.cit., p. 173.

[5] See Marie Luise Knott. 2014. Unlearning with Hannah Arendt. Other Press.