At approximately 8 PM, August 22, 1922, the president of the Free State of Ireland Michael Collins was gunned down in the nondescript town of Bael na mBlath, County Cork, Ireland. Not only was this Irish legend killed by his own countrymen, he was killed by men who, not five years before, were singing his praises; convinced that the Emerald Isle had found its Cuchulainn— the man who would at last establish Ireland as the free and independent Republic.
This is where Tim Pat Coogan’s brilliant account of Michael Collins leaves readers after approximately 400 pages of dense history, politics, and two of the greatest tragedies which ever befell the country.
Meticulously researched, brilliantly drawn, and encompassing, Coogan’s account of Michael Collins is not, however, for your casual reader. Less here is a portrait of Collins than the tragedies, frustrations, and endless politicking of the man’s life. While Coogan indeed delivers “the man who made Ireland” what we get are the details of the six years in which that man was made.
“Dublin, May 1916,” the Prologue reads. Collins and his ragtag group of IRA soldiers, having blasted the country’s capital halfway to hell in the sparks of a failed revolution, are now the prisoners of the English and set to be transported to “some jail in England.” The Easter Rising had failed. The IRA, who had heretofore fought and bled and died for its country, was now one of the most despised organizations in the country.
Collins, then 26, would learn from his mistakes. Feisty, rough, compassionate, and brave, he was a man who could gain friends and followers with ease, as he demonstrated while in prison, where he was able to do anything from stealing tobacco pipes to avoiding conscription in the British army. Collins was released a short time following his imprisonment (one of the English’s biggest blunders, Coogan highlights) and then, “drunk as a lord” exploded into the world of revolutionary politics.
Here, readers need be cautioned. Coogan does not indulge in the visceral accounts of the Black and Tan Ireland occupation, nor is he concerned with IRA sympathizing or provoking a political message. His account is admirably objective; his perspective weighed carefully by the bulk of every available fact before any conclusion is drawn.
Readers unfamiliar with the Irish history of the early 20th century will have to brush up on the facts and some of the details of this bloody period. Following his release for his part in the 1916 Rising, Collins began a torturously exhausting campaign against the British Government. Unlike Eamon de Valera, who earns an appropriately bitter treatment from Coogan, Collins, one feels, was not interested in being a politician. In every sense he was a soldier following his intuitive orders from Mother Ireland. He needed politics for his vision to be realized although he detested dealing with people, often storming out of meetings or provoking them to anger. Liken him to a caged and wild animal, or, borrowing Coogan’s description, “Cuchulainn fighting the waves,” when his rage found its outlet.
Even so, a reluctant politician, Collins was also a damned good one, with the ability of not only fine tactician and economic skills, but the support of his people: he was, in every sense, the hero that they both needed and wanted. Contented with his fiery leadership, they let him lead the their country against the British, from 1916 until the treaty offered in 1921.
The famous “Anglo-Irish Treaty” has long been depicted as a double-edged sword; one end serving as the foundation of the Irish Free State and inevitable war with Britain, while the other serving as an Irish State with a dominion (Ulster) under control by the British.
Coogan’s book gains and holds its highest momentum here. Under the surge of endless meetings and the pressure of the nation that he serves, Collins and his delegates made the decision to sign the treaty against the wishes of Eamon de Valera, who balked and refused to participate in the negotiations. The book’s most memorable quote comes here, from the mouth of Winston Churchill who presided along negotiations with Lloyd George: “Michael Collins rose looking as though he were going to shoot someone, preferably himself. In all my life I have never seen so much pain and suffering in restraint.”
This, Coogan argues, was a much more difficult course of action for the “Big Fellow” Michael Collins than the senseless balking and refusal of de Velera. What’s more is that the evidence Coogan provides for the rightness of Collins’ thinking is overwhelmingly in his favor. What is more of a betrayal? The treaty, which Collins regarded as a ‘stepping stone’ to full Irish independence, or a full-fledged war with Great Britain, which could only guarantee more Irish casualties?
We still may not know, but Coogan is not out to defend the treaty, but to defend the man who sacrificed his all for his Kathleen ni Houlihan and was gunned down by the brothers for whom he fought.
Go dtugaid Dia suaimneas Siorraide da anam. His controversial monument reads:
May God give him eternal happiness.