TODAY in Irish History - 1890
Michael Collins is born.
On 16th October 1890 Michael Collins was born near Sam's Cross, a tiny hamlet in West Cork, named after Sam Wallace, a local highwayman. Sam's Cross lies between Rosscarbery and Clonakilty. Here, in a picturesque valley between river and sea, the young Michael grew up. As a lad, he spear fished for salmon in the river and played among the cliffs above Black beach and at Cliodhna's Rock. But, as was typical of the times, Michael never learned to swim.
His father, also named Michael, was a member of the republican Fenian movement but had left and settled down to farming. He was 60 years old when he married Marianne O'Brien, then 23. They brought up 8 children. Michael, the youngest, was born when his father was 75. Michael was 6 years old when his father died. On his death bed, his father (who was the seventh son of a seventh son) predicted that his daughter Helena (one of Michael's elder sisters) would become a nun (which she did, known as Sister Mary Celestine, based in Whitby). He then turned to the family and told them to take care of Michael, because "One day he'll be a great man. He'll do great work for Ireland."
Collins was a bright and precocious child, with a fiery temper and a passionate feeling of nationalism. This was spurred on by a local blacksmith James Santry and later at the Lisavaird National School by a local school headmaster, Denis Lyons, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Lyons and the blacksmith Santry were Michael's first tutors in giving him a sense of pride of the Irish as a race. Throughout Michael Collins brief life, Irishness was the thing that held the greatest meaning for him.
After leaving school aged 15, Collins took the Civil Service examination in Cork in February 1906, and was then employed by the Royal Mail from July 1906. In 1910, he moved to London to live with his sister Hannie. He got a job as a messenger at a London firm of stockbrokers. He joined the London GAA and, through this, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret, oath-bound society dedicated to achieving Irish independence. Sam Maguire,(of Sam Maguire Cup fame) a republican from Dunmanway, County Cork, introduced the 19 year old Collins into the IRB.
In 1916, Michael returned to Dublin to take part in the planned insurrection. He received a Volunteer's uniform and as Captain Michael Collins he was second in command to Joseph Mary Plunkett in the General Post Office during Easter Week. Collins made no secret that he admired the realism of men like Sean Mac Diarmada more than the aesthetic Padraig Pearse. And though he played a minor part in the Rising, his sense of duty and clear headedness were remembered.
Following the Rising, Michael, as a prisoner of war, was sent to Richmond Barracks and later to Frongoch internment camp in Wales. He returned home to Ireland in December 1916. But it was at Frongoch where Michael Collins ability as an organiser became recognised. And immediately following his release, he rebuilt the IRB.
In 1917, he was elected to the Sinn Fein executive. During 1917 and 1918, his activities included: creating an intelligence network, organising a national loan to fund a rebellion, creating an assassination squad ("The Twelve Apostles") and an arms smuggling operation. In 1919, Michael Collins personally, with the help of his friend Harry Boland, another IRB man, went to Lincoln gaol in England to help Eamon de Valera escape. And, during the time de Valera was in America trying to raise money for Sinn Fein, Michael risked his life to regularly visit de Valera's wife Sinead and their children. At this time the British had a price of £10,000 on his head.
By 1920, Collins men had wiped out much of British intelligence in Dublin. His ability to ambush, harass and execute British forces is of legend. The British Intelligence "Cairo gang" sent to Dublin to gather information on the IRA were targeted and executed. The IRA guerilla activity eventually forced British Prime Minister Lloyd George to agree to peace talks in London. Eamon de Valera was widely acknowledged as the most skillful negotiator in the Dáil government and traveled to London for the first official contact with Lloyd George. The two met one-on-one in a private meeting, the proceedings of which have never been revealed. During this Truce period, de Valera was appointed as President of the Irish Republic. Not long after, the Cabinet was obliged to select the delegation that would travel to the London peace conference and negotiate a treaty. In an extraordinary departure from his usual role, de Valera adamantly declined to attend, insisting instead that Collins should take his place there, along with Arthur Griffith. Collins strenuously resisted this appointment, protesting that he was "a soldier, not a politician" and that his exposure to the London authorities would reduce his effectiveness as a guerrilla leader should hostilities resume. (He had kept his public visibility to a minimum during the conduct of the war; up to this time the British still had very few reliable photographs of him.)
The Cabinet of seven split on the issue, with de Valera casting the deciding vote. Many of Collins's associates warned him not to go, that he was being set up as a political scapegoat. Following intense soul searching and all night consultations with his most trusted advisors, he resolved to attend "in the spirit of a soldier obeying orders." In private correspondence he foresaw the catastrophe ahead: "Let them make a scapegoat or whatever they like of me. Someone must go."
Michael Collins and a team of delegates went to London to negotiate. After signing the Anglo Irish treaty on December 6, 1921, he wrote a friend “I have signed my death warrant.”
Although the Treaty was democratically elected in the Dail, De Valera rejected the treaty, an action which prompted the tragic Irish Civil War. Collins was killed in an action in his native Co. Cork, August 22nd 1922.
His adversary Winston Churchill wrote of Collins in later years, “Michael Collins was a man of dauntless courage. He was an Irish patriot, true and fearless......We hunted him for his life, and he slipped half a dozen times through steel claws, fierce conditions and moving through ferocious times, he supplied those qualities of action and personality with out which the foundations of Irish nationhood would not have been re established."
On the last occasion the two men met (recounted in ‘The World Crisis' by Churchill) he quotes Collins as saying "I shall not last long; my life is forfeit, but I shall do my best. After I am gone it will be easier for others."
Michael Collins is pictured here with his mother Marianne, Grandmother O'Brien, sister Mary & brother Johnny aged 9.