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Michael Collins - Part 3



On December 5th 1921 the British Prime Minister, reminding Griffith and his colleagues that the Dail made them plenipotentiaries, issued an ultimatum: sign the treaty document or face immediate and terrible war. Collins knew that many of his colleagues at home would be outraged at any oath to the English monarch which clearly reneged on their promise of fealty to an Irish Republic.

Just how difficult he found signing his name on the document can be gauged from Churchill’s assessment: “Michael Collins rose as if he was going to shoot someone, preferably himself. In all my life I have never seen such pain and suffering in restraint.”

 In the last letter he wrote to a friend from London, he unburdened about the depth of his painful misgivings. “When you have sweated, toiled, had mad dreams, hopeless nightmares, cold and dank in the night air. Think – what have I got for Ireland? Something she has wanted these past 700 years. Will anyone be satisfied with the bargain? Will anyone? I tell you this – early this morning I signed my death warrant. I thought at the time how odd, how ridiculous – a bullet may just as well have done the job five years ago.”

The harsh reaction he anticipated at home was evident from many of his former colleagues. He pointed out to them that compromise was inevitable in reaching an agreement. He pleaded that the Treaty, which gave the new government the same powers as were enjoyed by Canada, was not a final agreement, but the basis for pushing for more as time went on. He argued in the Dail that he did not consider it an unchanging solution “but a first step, more than this could not be expected.”

 Emotion ran high and he expected that the document would be rejected by the Dail where de Valera led the emotional opposition. If the vote was taken before the Christmas break, it would have probably been defeated.

However, the elected representatives, all Sinn Fein Republicans, heard from the people in their constituencies over the holidays that the Treaty should be welcomed. Many proclaimed: If it is good enough for Michael Collins, it is good enough for us.

The historic Dail vote took place on January 6th, 1922, with 64 yeas for acceptance and 57 nays. And on Monday January 16th, Michael Collins as head of the Provisional Government accepted the handover of the seat of power, Dublin Castle, from British leaders. He recalled later that the only other time he got near that building was as a driver of a coal-cart with a price on his head.

He wrote to Kitty Kiernan of his elation that Dublin Castle was in the hands of the Irish nation: “I am as happy a man as there is in Ireland today.”

Many Republicans led by de Valera saw the Treaty as a sell-out of their oath to the imagined Republic. For them the vote in the Dail was superseded by their patriotic duty to reject the British monarchy’s claim over Ireland. No doubt about their sincerity and idealism, but, surely, they should have stayed in the Dail and continued to argue their case. Defying the legitimate vote of the members in their own parliament could only lead to disaster.

Neither de Valera or Collins wanted a civil war as lines were drawn for and against the agreement with Britain. A majority of the active Volunteers and nearly all the leadership of Cumann na mBan lined up against it. Dev didn’t help matters with a series of belligerent speeches in southern counties. In Dungarvan in County Waterford he preached that “it was only by civil war after this they could get their independence.” In Killarney he spoke about true Republicans marching over “the dead bodies of their own brothers” to achieve their goal of full independence.

Collins condemned this inflammatory rhetoric asking “can he not strive to create a good atmosphere at this time?” Before the June elections the two leaders agreed a pact that they would present a united front to the electorate resulting in a government of national unity. Everybody knew that the election was driven by pro and anti-Treaty arguments, but Collins, speaking in Cork City on the day before the election, in clear breach of the pact with Dev, he urged people to support only Pro-Treaty candidates.

The overwhelmingly positive response to the Treaty by the Irish people  left no doubt about the popular will, but it did not lessen the emotional accusations of treachery against Collins and supporters of the new state.

On April 14th of that year a group of about 200 Irregulars (IRA men opposed to the treaty) took over the Four Courts Building in Dublin. Their aim was to somehow re-start the war with the British and cause a repudiation of the London document. Their defiant actions were in complete disregard of the powers of the new government. Still, Collins didn’t want to force the issue militarily because of the certainty that any action to disperse them would light the match for an internecine war.

On June 22nd Field Marshal Henry Wilson was shot dead outside his home in London by two IRA men. The British were convinced that the instructions for this assassination came from the contingent in the Four Courts and informed Michael Collins that if he wouldn’t act against them they would do so with the residual forces they maintained in Dublin.

Ironically, most historians believe that the order to take out Wilson, a hate figure among Irish nationalists, came not from anyone in the Four Courts but from the Irish leader himself. In any case, Collins ordered the attack by his Irish army on the Four Courts on June 28th and the defenders surrendered two days later. This episode started the Irish Civil War which lasted for eleven months until May 24th 1923.

All the records show it was a ferocious conflict with unconscionable actions on both sides. In the middle of August, Michael Collins was shot dead in an ambush by thirty-seven Irregulars in Beal na mBlath, near Bandon in his home county of Cork. He dismissed advice to stay away from West Cork where the opponents of the Treaty were particularly strong. There is some controversy about who pulled the trigger, but the consensus suggests it was a local gunman, Sonny O’Neill.

The massive crowds at his funeral testified that people understood that they lost the man who led the revolution against the British and negotiated a deal that ended British occupation of most of the island.

No less than sixty full biographies have been written about Michael Collins and an acclaimed movie, produced 26 years ago, with Liam Neeson in the main role is still popular.









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