The first article of this series (available here) opened a re-examination of several popular misconceptions about Irish independence hero Michael Collins. Here S.M. Sigerson looks at just one of the most notorious myths – that Collins died because he was inexperienced in live combat.
Ireland’s Revolutionary Era (1900 – 1923) was a time when controversy pervaded practically every aspect of life on that island. As a prominent leader in the conflict, Michael Collins lived and breathed controversy.
Some of the critical national questions at issue then have yet to be agreed, to this day. It is hardly surprising, then, that debate likewise continues, concerning points of Collins’ own character.
This is especially true in what may be the single most controversial event of his storied life: his suspicious death. In the complete absence of the sort of official inquest which one would expect to have taken place, and utterly without the kind of authoritative records such an inquest would have bequeathed to us, folklore and gossip have rushed in to fill the gaps.
Remarkable assertions, plausible and otherwise, have tried to explain away unanswered questions around the killing of Ireland’s Commander-in-Chief. Some of these propositions have acquired a currency and repetition, tossed off in the heat of political debate, in the press, in interviews, in biographies through the years. But where did these “facts” come from? Who said that?
The contention that Collins was inexperienced in live combat had its origins among Collins’ avowed opponents, at the time of Dáil debates on the Treaty. They formed part of general efforts to discredit Collins; in the hope of dislodging his dominant position as head of the independence movement, in public perception.
This, in itself, places the question in the context of precisely the political conflict that culminated in his assassination. It thus cannot be separated from a campaign of character assassination that immediately preceded, and then later, attempted to excuse his death.
The promoter of the false charge simply expresses his gratification at finding that he had been misled (by erroneous information). It is not customary for him to express gratification… that, out of all the mud which he has thrown, some will probably stick!
– A Trollope
This misstatement about the Commander-in-Chief’s battle experience is in no way improved by its association with Emmet Dalton. The ranking officer under Collins that day, Dalton was the one most personally responsible for the Commander-in-Chief’s safety there.
When asked to explain the death of the one man he was there to protect, Dalton blamed the victim, claiming that Collins didn’t know enough to keep his head down under fire. This is the origin of the charge that Collins’ death was caused by extraordinary incompetence on his own part.
But there are problems with Dalton’s statements. At a glance they are consistently and suspiciously self-exonerating. Nor are they well corroborated by others who were present.
On the other hand, there is abundant testimony regarding the Commander-in-Chief’s career of astounding survival, through bullets and cannon, through countless ambushes and daring escapes, between 1916 and 1922. Even those who later bore arms against him during the Irish Civil War have left vivid accounts of Collins’ hands-on leadership under fire, in many now-forgotten raids.
Collins was apt to come up suddenly behind someone in the street and invite him to join him immediately in blowing up a barracks… they never knew when he might be serious.
Collins got word that Lord French would be passing through College Street a little later and he got himself a gun, rounded up anyone who happened to be nearby, and set off to lead an ambush.
The balance of evidence reduces Dalton’s claim to absurdity. Common sense likewise belies his “expert opinion” on the military prowess of “the man who won the war“. In his early twenties at the time, Dalton’s insinuation is that his own military judgment was vastly superior to that of this famous general who had just defeated the world’s most sophisticated Empire. If so, it is remarkable that Ireland did not seem to make much progress under Dalton’s leadership, once that supposedly less-competent superior was removed.
Although strategic command was Collins’ foremost role after 1919, evidence is overwhelming that he not only oversaw, but personally commanded, carried out, and survived more such actions than can ever be known: due to the clandestine nature of the war, and other factors which made public statements or written records far less available to historians than under normal conditions.
Many of those concerned in these events took oaths of secrecy, sworn never to discuss the actions, nor to name comrades who took part. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, parent body of the IRA) was a secret organization throughout Collins’ life. Armed conflict against the British, although officially ended in the 26 southern counties, was still alive and well in the northeast of Ireland, and frequently spilled over the as-yet-undefined border between. The IRB in general, and Collins in particular, were highly active in arming and directing Irish military measures there. These were secret operations, which the Commander-in-Chief showed no qualms about carrying on without much regard for the nascent Free State government’s official policy. Indeed, up until a short time before, the IRB had recognized no government outside their own Supreme Council; their own president being, according to their by-laws, President of Ireland.
Consider the volatility, at this writing, of similar details regarding armed conflict in Northern Ireland (1970s – 1990s). Any publication of details about the underground forces’ personnel, numbers, operations, precise past whereabouts etc., have been a highly sensitive issue, involving risk of reprisals. The more active and responsible, the greater the danger inherent to those concerned.
Michael Collins’ ultimate fate, shortly after shared by many of his best and brightest, proves that such a threat to those “who won the war” was certainly very real and present in 1922.
It is Collins’ long career of continual escape from enemy ambush and survival under fire, which casts his ultimate end in such a curious light. As an explanation of his death, “inexperienced in combat” is a square peg in a round hole: a paralogism that does not fit the big picture.
Portions of this article are excerpted from “The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened At Béal na mBláth?” S M Sigerson. It is available here: (Amazon US | Amazon UK)or ask at your local bookshop.
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