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Michael Collins (Irish leader)

Michael Collins (October 16, 1890August 22, 1922), an Irish revolutionary leader, served as Minister for Finance in the Irish Republic, as a member of the Irish delegation during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, as Chairman of the Provisional Government and as Commander-in-Chief of the National Army. He was assassinated in August 1922, during the Irish Civil War.

Michael Collins, as Commander-in-Chief at President Griffith's funeral, one week before his own murder.
Michael Collins, as Commander-in-Chief at President Griffith's funeral, one week before his own murder.

Early life

Michael Collins was born in Sam's Cross, near Clonakilty in West Cork in 1890. His family, muintir Uí Choileáin (in the Irish language), had once been the lords of Uí Chonaill, near Limerick, but like many Irish gentry, had become dispossessed (known in the Irish language as Án Duainaire, the dispossessed) and reduced to the level of ordinary farmers. Yet their farm of 90 acres (0.4 km²) made them wealthier and more comfortably off than most Irish Catholic farmers of late nineteenth century Ireland. It was into that relatively well-to-do farming existence that Michael Collins, the 3rd son and youngest of eight children was born. Michael's father, also called Michael Collins, had become a member of the radical fringe republican Fenian movement when younger, but had left the movement and settled down to farming. One of Michael's sisters, Helena Collins, became a nun, Sister Mary Celestine.

Collins was recorded as being a bright and precocious child, with a fiery temper and a passionate nationalism, spurred on by a local blacksmith, James Santry, and later by a local school headmaster, Denis Lyons, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (an organization Collins would eventually become the leader of). Collins was tall, strapping and loved sports, none of which affected his cerebral development or uncanny instincts. On February 1906 Collins took the British Civil Service examination in which he surprisingly praised the "greatest empire." [1] After leaving school, the fifteen-year-old Michael, like many Irish, moved off-shore: he worked in the British Post Office in London from July 1906. He joined the IRB through Sam Maguire, a Protestant republican from Cork, in November 1909. He came to play a central role in the IRB, ultimately ending up as its president within little more than a decade.

The Easter Rising

Michael Collins first became well-known during the Easter Rising in 1916. A skilled organiser of considerable intelligence, he was highly respected in the IRB, so much so that he was made 'financial adviser' to Count Plunkett, father of one of the Rising's organisers, Joseph Mary Plunkett. When the Rising itself took place, he fought alongside Patrick Pearse and others in the General Post Office. The Rising turned as expected into a military disaster. While many celebrated the fact that a Rising had happened at all, believing in the theory of 'Blood Sacrifice' (namely that the deaths of the Rising's leaders would inspire the populace to rebel), Collins railed against what he perceived as its ham-fisted amateurism, notably the seizure of prominent buildings such as the GPO that were impossible to defend, impossible to escape from and difficult to get supplies to. (During the War of Independence he ensured the avoidance of such tactics of 'becoming sitting targets', with his 'soldiers' operating as flying columns who waged a guerrilla war against the British, suddenly attacking then just as quickly suddenly withdrawing, minimising losses and maximising effectiveness.)

Easter Proclamation, read by Pádraig Pearse outside the GPO at the start of the Easter Rising, 1916.
Easter Proclamation, read by Pádraig Pearse outside the GPO at the start of the Easter Rising, 1916.

Collins, like many of the Rising's participants, was arrested and sent to internment camps in Britain. There, as his contemporaries expected, his leadership skills showed. By the time of the general release, Collins had already become one of the leading figures in the post-Rising Sinn Féin, a small nationalist party which the British government and the Irish media wrongly blamed for the Rising, leading to its infiltration by survivors of the Rising, so as to capitalise on the 'notoriety' the innocent movement had gained through British attacks. By October 1917, through skill and ability, Collins had risen to become a member of the Executive of Sinn Féin and Director of Organisation of the Irish Volunteers; Eamon de Valera was president of both organisations.

The First Dáil

Like all senior Sinn Féin members, Michael Collins was nominated to seek a seat in the 1918 general election to elect Irish MPs to the British House of Commons in London. And like the overwhelming majority (many without contests), Collins was elected, becoming MP for South Cork. However, unlike their rivals in the Irish Parliamentary Party, Sinn Féin MPs had announced that they would not take their seats in Westminster, but instead would set up an Irish parliament in Dublin. That new parliament, called Dáil Éireann (meaning Assembly of Ireland, see First Dáil) met in the Mansion House, Dublin in January 1919. De Valera and leading Sinn Féin MPs had been arrested; Collins, typically, had been tipped off by his network of spies about the plan and had warned leading figures. De Valera, equally typically, had talked everyone into ignoring the warnings, believing if the arrests happened they would constitute a propaganda coup, only to find that with the leadership now arrested, there were few people left to do the necessary 'spinning' in the media! In de Valera's absence, Cathal Brugha was elected Príomh Áire (literally prime minister, but often translated as 'President of Dáil Éireann'), to be replaced by de Valera, who had escaped from prison, in April 1919.

Collins in 1919 had a number of roles: head of the IRB, chief spymaster, one of the key organisers of the Irish Republican Army1, as the Volunteers had become, the naming symbolising the organisation's claim to be the army of the Irish Republic ratified in January 1919. (The Irish War of Independence in effect began on the same day that the First Dáil met in January 1919, when two policemen were shot dead by IRA volunteers in Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary.)

Minister for Finance

In 1919, the already busy Collins received yet another responsibility when de Valera appointed him to the Áireacht (ministry) as Minister for Finance. Understandably, in the circumstances of a brutal war, in which 'ministers' were liable to be arrested by the Royal Irish Constabulary, the British Army, the Black and Tans or the Auxiliaries at a moment's notice, most of the ministries only existed on paper, or as one or two people working in a room of a private house. Not with Collins, however, who produced a Finance Ministry that was able to organise a large bond issue in the form of a 'national loan' to fund the new Irish Republic. Such was Collins' reputation that even Lenin heard about Collins' spectacular national loan, and sent a representative to Dublin to borrow some money from the Irish "Republic" to help fund the Russian Republic, offering some of the Russian Crown Jewels as collateral. (The jewels remained in a Dublin safe, forgotten by all sides, until the 1930s, when they were found by chance!)

First Dáil: Michael Collins (second from left, front row), Arthur Griffith (fourth from left, front row) Eamon de Valera (centre, front row), W.T. Cosgrave (second from right, front row).
First Dáil: Michael Collins (second from left, front row), Arthur Griffith (fourth from left, front row) Eamon de Valera (centre, front row), W.T. Cosgrave (second from right, front row).

In retrospect, the sheer scale of Collins' workload and his achievements are impressive. From creating a special assassination squad called The Twelve Apostles to kill British agents to the arrangement of an internationally famous national loan; from running the IRA to effectively running the government when de Valera traveled to and remained in the United States for an extended period of time; and managing an arms-smuggling operation; Collins nearly became a one-man revolution. By 1920, when he was the age of thirty years, the British offered a bounty of £10,000 (a vast sum in the 1920s) for the capture or death of Michael Collins.

Among national leaders, he made enemies with two particular people: Cathal Brugha, the earnest but mediocre Minister for Defence who was completely overshadowed by his cabinet colleague in military matters despite Collins being only nominally Minister for Finance with Brugha in Defence supposedly being the big player, and Eamon de Valera, the President of Dáil Éireann. De Valera bitterly resented his much younger colleague and more when Collins' reputation reached new heights while he, against Collins' advice, devoted a year to a fruitless search for American recognition of the Irish Republic. Their rivalry was even represented in their nicknames: the extremely tall de Valera earned the nickname the 'Long Fellow' while to de Valera's fury while abroad, Collins won the nickname 'Big Fellow' from his colleagues.

For its undisputed tactical cleverness, the IRA, always outgunned and outnumbered and now running out of ammunition, faced collapse in mid-1921, which is why a British offer of truce astonished Collins who questioned whether Britain realized that the IRA was perhaps less than a week from collapse. Following the truce, arrangements were made for a conference between the British Government and the leaders of the almost universally unrecognized Irish Republic (other than Lenin's Russian Republic, which needed money and so gave diplomatic recognition to the Irish Republic, not a single other state did so, despite heavy lobbying in Washington by de Valera and at the Versailles Peace Conference by Sean T. O'Kelly). In a move that astonished observers, de Valera--who had in August 1921 had the Dáil upgrade his office from prime minister to President of the Republic to make him the equivalent of King George V in the negotiations--then announced that as the King would not attend neither should the President of the Republic. Instead with the reluctant agreement of his cabinet, de Valera nominated a team of 'plenipotentiaries'--delegates with the power to sign a treaty without seeking approval from the government at home--headed by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins as his deputy. With great reluctance, believing de Valera should head the delegation, Collins agreed to go to London.

The Treaty

The negotiations ultimately resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which provided for a new Irish state, named the "Irish Free State" (a literal translation from the Irish language term Saorstát Éireann, which appeared on the letter-head de Valera had used, though de Valera had translated it less literally as the Irish Republic2). It provided for a possible all-Island state, subject to the right of the parliament of Northern Ireland to opt out of the Free State (which it duly did). If this happened, a Boundary Commission was to be established to redraw the Irish border, which Collins expected would so reduce the size of Northern Ireland as to make it economically unviable, so forcing unity.

The new Irish Free State was to be a Dominion, with a bicameral parliament, executive authority vested in the king but exercised by an Irish government elected by a lower house called Dáil Éireann (translated this time as Chamber of Deputies), an independent courts system, and a form of independence that far exceeded anything sought by Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party in the nineteenth century. Republican purists saw it as a sell-out, with the replacement of the republic by a returned crown, and an Oath of Allegiance made (it was claimed) directly to the King. (The actual wording shows that the oath was made to the Irish Free State, with a subsidiary oath of fidelity to the king as part of the Treaty settlement, not to the king unilaterally. See Oath of Allegiance (Ireland).)

Sinn Féin split over the treaty, with de Valera joining the anti-treatyites to oppose the 'sell-out'. His opponents charged that he knew, given the state of near-collapse of the IRA, that a return to war was not an option and that the crown would have to feature in whatever form of settlement agreed. His bitterest opponents even accused "Dev" of in effect 'chickening out' of leading the delegation, in the knowledge that the republic could not possibly result from the negotiations. De Valera denied the charge, though many historians now accept the allegation as explaining his absence.

The Triple Approval

Under the terms of the treaty, three separate parliaments had to approve the document. The British parliament did so. So too did Dáil Éireann, although its approval was required for political rather than legal reasons: Dáil Éireann, though it had no status in international law and was not accepted as the parliament of Ireland by the international community (being universally regarded as an illegal assembly), nevertheless had a crucial de-facto position as the voice of Sinn Féin members and (as they represented the majority of Irish people) of Irish public opinion. In addition the treaty required the approval of a third body, the House of Commons of Southern Ireland, which constituted the lawful parliament of the twenty-six county state called Southern Ireland created under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (of its 128 members, 124, having been elected, had formed the Second Dáil in 1921, the body with had approved the new Treaty in December 1921). Though few Irish people recognised it as their valid parliament, as the legal parliament it too needed to give approval, which it did overwhelmingly (anti-treaty members stayed away, meaning only pro-treaty members — and the four unionists elected who had never sat in Dáil Éireann — attended its meeting in January 1922).

The Provisional Government

Under the Dáil Constitution adopted in 1919, Dáil Éireann continued to exist. De Valera resigned the presidency and sought re-election (in an effort to destroy the newly approved Treaty), but Arthur Griffith defeated him in the vote and assumed the presidency. (Griffith called himself President of Dáil Éireann rather than de Valera's more exalted President of the Republic.) However this government or Áireacht had no legal status in British constitutional law, so another co-existent government emerged, answerable to the House of Commons of Southern Ireland. The new Provisional Government formed under Michael Collins, who became President of the Provisional Government (i.e., Prime Minister). He also remained Minister for Finance of Griffith's republican administration. An example of the complexities involved can be seen even in the manner of his installation. In theory he was a Crown-appointed prime minister, installed under the Royal Prerogative. To be so installed, he had to formally meet the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Viscount Fitzalan (the head of the British administration in Ireland). According to republican history, Collins met Fitzalan to accept the surrender of Dublin Castle, the seat of British government in Ireland. According to British constitutional theory, he met Fitzalan to 'kiss hands' (the formal name for the installation of a minister of the Crown), the fact of their meeting rather than the signing of any documents, duly installing him in office. Alledgedly, Collins was late to this ceremony by seven minutes and was rebuked for this by Fitzalan. Collins replied "You had to wait seven minutes but we had to wait seven hundred years!".

Anti-treatyites, having opposed the Treaty in the Dáil, withdrew from the assembly and, having formed an opposition 'republican government' under Eamon de Valera, began a campaign that led to the Irish Civil War. By mid-1922, Collins in effect laid down his responsibilities as Chairman of the Provisional Government to become Commander-in-Chief of the National Army, a formal structured uniformed army that formed from the remnants of the Old IRA. As part of those duties, he travelled to his native Cork. En route home through County Cork on 22 August, 1922, at Beal na mBlath (an Irish language term that means 'the Mouth of Flowers'), he was killed in an ambush, probably by a ricocheting bullet. He was not yet 32 years old.

Collins' legacy

The funeral of Michael Collins in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin (A contemporary newspaper drawing of Collins' state funeral.)
The funeral of Michael Collins in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin (A contemporary newspaper drawing of Collins' state funeral.)

Michael Collins has gone down in Irish history as one of the great 'what might have beens'. A man of extra-ordinary intelligence, incredible passion but most of all a monumental work rate, his loss was a disaster to an Ireland just setting up an independent, internationally-recognised system of government. His loss was made all the more tragic by the death of President Griffith only a week before due to stress. One of Collins' last public appearances was marching behind the body of his friend and cabinet colleague. Within one week, Collins joined Griffith in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

But most striking of all were his prophetic words on the day the treaty was signed. When Lord Birkenhead, aware of how unpopular the Treaty would be in Britain, commented that he may have signed his political death warrant, Michael Collins said 'I may have signed my actual death warrant.'

Whereas his colleagues, whether Eamon de Valera, W.T. Cosgrave, Richard Mulcahy or Eoin O'Duffy were judged by how they handled the difficult task of building a state, Collins by his early death, is simply remembered as a radical young man who faced none of their peace-time problems. If people remember de Valera as a blind old man in semi-retirement in the presidency of Ireland in the 1960s and early 1970s, Cosgrave as the prime minister who had to balance the books financially after the Wall Street Crash, Mulcahy as the man who authorized executions of prisoners during the Civil War, O'Duffy as the policeman turned politician who dabbled in fascism; Collins remains in the public memory as the young man, barely aged thirty, who delivered a republic, then a treaty, who inspired a generation, and who died before his time as his country stood on the threshold of independent self-government.

The film

In 1996 Michael Collins became the subject of a semi-fictional film called Michael Collins with Liam Neeson playing the title role, as well as Julia Roberts playing Collins' bride-to-be, directed by Neil Jordan. Although the film received praise for bringing the story of Michael Collins to a wide international audience, some historians criticized it for alleged liberties with historical facts, not least the suggestion that Eamon de Valera was directly responsible for Collin's death. The assassins were part of the faction headed by De Valera, but it has never been established that they acted under his explicit orders. These controversies were explored in an episode of the TV documentary The South Bank Show which was later included as an extra with the DVD release of the film.


  1. Most agree that the IRA of 1919–1921 had the general sanction of the Irish people via the authority of the Irish politicians elected until 1921. After 1921, there have been no more all-Ireland elections. This splits people into two camps: some call the IRA of the period 1919–21 the Old IRA to distinguish it from the IRA after that period. These people are of the opinion that since there have been no subsequent elections, the IRA after 1921 has no legitimate authority. The other camp believe that the all-Ireland elections until 1921 gave a democratic mandate to the IRA, and the fact that all-Ireland elections, which they want, have been prevented from taking place, means they are still working off the mandate of the second Dail until all-Ireland elections are held once again.
  2. Two Irish Gaelic titles correspond to the term 'Irish Republic': Saorstát Éireann (which literally meant "Free State of Ireland") and Poblacht na hÉireann. Irish language purists preferred the former title, which came from real previously existing Gaelic words, unlike the latter, a specially constructed phrase.
  3. Revolutionary movements across the world have, for better of worse, taken Michael Collins' approach to military operations. The tactic of wearing "the uniform of the common man" as opposed to formal military clothing is now common guerilla movements. Indeed, the conflicts to establish Israel (against the British) and Taiwan (in the face of the Communist revolution in China) were both called 'Operation Michael Collins'.

Last updated: 02-05-2005 23:00:09
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55