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Michael Collins - Part Two

 Michael Collins – Part Two            Gerry OShea

Michael Collins’ leadership was at the heart of the Irish War of Independence. He oversaw the revolutionary plans with Richard Mulcahy in Dublin but the decisions about confrontations with the Crown forces in country areas was appropriately left to the local leaders.

Only 18 people were killed during 1919, the first year of the insurrection. No wonder the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, dismissed the sporadic attacks by Irish Republicans as the actions of “murder gangs” that the police were well-equipped to handle. By the time of the truce in July, 1921, he had learned that he was, in fact, dealing with a major national insurgency.

A week after the mayhem of Bloody Sunday, Tom Barry’s famous West Cork brigade killed seventeen Auxiliaries in an ambush at Kilmichael, near Macroom in County Cork. This defeat shocked the military and political establishment. In revenge, the Auxies burned large parts of the city of Cork, and Lloyd George was left to explain why his police force was behaving in this incoherent way.

Michael Collins realized the intense pressure that his approximately 5000 volunteers were under as British army units were added to the police in an effort to intimidate the population into submission. The advice from the leadership in Dublin was “a little action wisely and well done must be our motto at present.”

Meanwhile, Collins himself concentrated in expanding his intelligence gathering beyond his base in the capital. Barmen, shop assistants, hotel porters, post office workers and telephonists were tapped into for information throughout the country, allowing the Cork man to acquire knowledge about troop movements and to build up dossiers on senior policemen and British Secret Service agents. For example, in the biggest IRA engagement in Kerry at Headford, it was a lowly hotel worker who passed on the information about the planned itinerary of the English forces in the area.

Eamon de Valera was the president of the provisional Dail and the accepted leader of the revolution. In 1921, at the height of the war, he wanted a spectacular military event in Dublin that would support his propaganda for Irish freedom in the European capitals as well as in America and Australia. This battle would show the world that an army representing Ireland could deal with the invading force.

Michael Collins opposed the idea because it was outside their successful hit-and-run guerilla strategy used with considerable success throughout the war. On May 25th, 1921, about 120 volunteers from the Dublin command occupied and burnt the Custom House, which was the home of the Department of Local Government during British rule.

 Although the New York Times headlined its report “Priceless Records Lost,” it became an important success for Republican publicity, but, as Collins forewarned, it was a military disaster. Five of the attackers were killed as well as three civilians and over 80 volunteers were captured and jailed. Only four Auxiliaries were injured.

About a thousand people, including civilians, were killed during the apex months of the war in the first half of 1921 – about 70% of the total casualties during the thirty months of the revolution. Michael Collins and his leadership team realized that the people were wearying of the conflict and with close to 5000 IRA volunteers in jail they began a plan to change their strategy and to bring the fight instead to English cities.

The British forces were also suffering some heavy losses and with the war in a kind of standoff Lloyd George agreed to an unconditional ceasefire with Eamon de Valera which took effect on July 12th, 1921.

The two sides agreed to meet in formal conference to find a resolution to the age-old conflict. In a bewildering decision that still baffles historians de Valera decided not to lead the Irish negotiators. Instead, he asked Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith to head the delegation as plenipotentiaries. Collins reluctantly accepted and went to London  with an Irish entourage of about thirty people.

They arrived in London on October 10th to engage in momentous discussions with a British team led by the Prime Minister, Lloyd George. Collins was the cynosure of all eyes because of his reputation as a charismatic revolutionary. He was just thirty years old and recently engaged to Kitty Kiernan, the love of his life from County Longford. He attended mass every morning and was very much at home in London having previously lived there for nearly ten years.

While Arthur Griffith was the official leader of the Irish delegation, Collins emerged as the dominant personality. He had little regard for his British counterparts with the exception of Lord Birkenhead, a staunch Unionist, whom he came to admire as “a good man.” He defined Lloyd George as an obnoxious individual, Winston Churchill as bereft of any principles and Austin Chamberlain as a snob.

He recoiled from the niceties of diplomacy, which he saw as so much beating around the bush. At the end of the first day of negotiations, he wrote to de Valera, his boss in Dublin: “I never felt more relieved at the end of any day - - - such a crowd I never met.”

The negotiators faced two really knotty problems. The Irish were committed to a unitary state, encompassing the whole island. However, the Government of Ireland Act, passed in Westminster the year before, set up a parliament in Belfast with jurisdiction over six counties in Ulster. Lloyd George offered to set up a Boundary Commission with representatives from both parts of Ireland and a British chairman. The Irish delegation, with approval from the leaders in Dublin, believed that this new Commission would move Fermanagh and Tyrone into southern control and eventually render the remaining statelet unviable.

The second issue left little room for compromise. Lloyd George claimed that to get the support needed in parliament the new Irish state would have to be part of the British Empire and include an oath of fealty to the Crown. De Valera’s compromise proposal for External Association with Britain was rejected outright by the English negotiators. The controversial “oath” remained in the final document


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