Michael Collins' view of life in Achill Gaeltacht

This year's annual commemoration of Michael Collins saw Mayo MEP Jim Higgins give the oration. It was appropriate, as Collin's own writings reveal an interest in Mayo, particularly the Achill Gaeltacht.

It is that time of year again when various members of the Fine Gael political party look back on Beal na mBlath in West Cork and to the memory of General Michael Collins, founder of the Irish Free State Army and indeed one of those most prominently involved in the various efforts that were made to win Irish Freedom in the Black and Tan War of 1920-1921. It is an amazingly consistent event in the Irish political calendar if only because (quite usually) the main even takes place on the road-side in Beal na mBlath where Collins was shot in an ambush situation on August 22, 1922. Only a few miles from his native place at Sam's Cross, Clonakilty, in the heart of Republican Munster and Rebel Cork where his fellow republicans had fought most of the harsh battles that led to the Treaty negotiations in the first place.

The fact that this pitch-battle was the first engagement in which Collins had ever apparently fought is frequently over looked, except by those who suggests that any military man who knew the basics of guerrilla combat would not have chosen to pick a fight in such circumstances. Here the overwhelming advantages lay with the attackers who had selected the cover of the surrounding terrain, thus making the Free State convoy a ‘sitting duck'. Some more experienced soldiers, apparently, wanted to make a run for it, and leave the valley or at least proceed to a more ‘open' position before confrontation. It was Collins, apparently, who gave the instructions to halt and suggested ‘we'll fight them'!
This is only one of the various scenarios about Beal na mBlath that is rarely discussed in spite of what the late Professor John Kelly, once described as ‘blather at Beal na mBlath', because the late outspoken Fine Gael Minister who was first to suggest that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael should have done a merger years ago resented the narrow party political monopoly which Cumann na nGaedhael and the Blueshirts once retained over honouring Collins. Things have changed somewhat in recent years, but we must never allow political correctness to lead to deliberate distortion of the facts where such characters and such huge historical issues are concerned.

The 2005 Beal na mBlath commemoration was further complicated this year, not by the laudable decision to invite Mayo Senator and Western Christian Democratic MEP, Jim Higgins, to deliver the oration, but by the fact that Mercier Press have just published the latest book by T Ryle Dwyer on The Squad - the personal ‘inner circle' of assassins which Collins controlled during the War of Independence. This is a blood-curdling, nasty read with all the gory details of the less pleasant ways in which Irish Independence was won or only partially won, depending on what you think of the 1921 Treaty Settlement. But at least we must, as always, credit Ryle Dwyer and Mercier with sticking to the blunt facts of the situation. It is a debate that should and will continue, though in the light of recent ‘peace process' fudges and double thinks, it is understandable why most mainstream and media people prefer to stick with the Hollywood version of Collins, as seen in the movie, with emotional romantic interest and all! The blood and guts may come later, but if it does I am prepared to venture a guess that it will be a real ‘Bang Bang' US movie that will have no hope of getting the type of tax concessions approved film-makers get from the Irish authorities at our expense at present!

It would, however, be a pity if we allowed such Hollywood debates about Collins and his Squad to divert us from other aspects of his life and legacy. It says, that as a member of Conradh na Gaeilge, who attends the Beal na mBlath ceremonies as often as I can, if only to stress the huge influence Collins had on the Irish revival movement, even though he never mastered his command of the language to the degree that others in the old London Gaelic League classes did before 1914.
And, as an historian, I believe it is incumbent on those who speak about Collins to stress what he said and did himself - not what they think he might have done had he lived longer.

In particular, his articles and speeches in The Path to Freedom need to be studied, because these were written in the first half of 1922, after the Treaty had been signed before his death in August 1922, when he was Chairman of the Provisional Government charged with getting the Free State government off the ground at a time when he had to lay out some policy options and targets for the future. Let us quote, therefore, just one relevant item, given my suggestion that Collin's commitment to an Irish Ireland has frequently been overlooked. He wrote: “The biggest task will be the restoration of the language. How can we express our most subtle thoughts and finest feelings in a foreign tongue? Irish will scarcely be our language in this generation, or even perhaps in the next. But until we have it again on our tongues and in our minds we are not free, and we will produce no important literature.”

This statement obviously needs to be studied in context. But it contains the elements of an argument about what the Irish revolution was all about that needs to be taken up again. It needs to be discussed in particular in terms of the dismal failure to impart a knowledge of Irish to many of our children through the educational system in spite of considerable state efforts to do so, especially in the early years of the Free State. But the single greatest failure of the Irish state experiment in this area, obviously, was the inability to halt the decline of the Gaeltacht areas in the first two generations after Collins and others set out what was an absolute priority, not just in terms of the language itself but also in terms of developing vibrant growing communities . There are several aspects of this complex national aim that need on-going debate, all the more so now that we have finally secured recogition for our national language as an official working language throughout the enlarged European Community - in contrast to the miserable and demeaning compromise accepted by Jack Lynch's Fianna Fail government in 1972.
At a time when no pressure was put on us in Europe itself, it will be to the eternal credit of Bertie Ahern that he finally changed Fianna Fail policy on this matter. All we have to do was to ask Europe to treat us like equals. The only outstanding issue now is if the Irish authorities at home will give the same recognition to our language and the same rights for Gaeltacht students at home that the Germans, the Poles, the French, even Tony Blair are prepared to grant in Europe.

In that context it is necessary to note the rather romantic notions of the Irish language issue which Michael Collins held in the months before his untimely death in August 1922. He seemed to suffer from the “Comely Maidens' illusion which certain people in RTE keep attributing, wrongly, to Eamon de Valera only without ever adding that exactly the same type of ‘noble peasant' nonsense can be attribute to Collins, Hyde and even General Richard Mulcahy in the same generation.

I have no idea if Collins ever visited the main Mayo Gaeltacht areas before his death. But given that he specifically mentions Achill in his discourse it may be worth quoting a passage from when he wrote at the time: “In the island of Achill, impoverished as the people are, hard as their lives are, difficult as the struggle for existence is, the outward aspect is a pageant. One may see processions of young women riding down on the island ponies to collect sand from the seashore, or gathering in the turf, dressed in their shawls and in their brilliantly coloured skirts made of material spun, woven and dyed by themselves, as it has been spun, woven and dyed for over a thousand years. The cottages also are little changed. They remain simple and picturesque. It is only in such places that one gets a glimpse of what Ireland may become again when the beauty may be something more than a pageant and will be an outward sign of a prosperous and happy Gaelic life.”

Achill people will, no doubt, have their own views about this Collins perception of life in their community, given the neglect of the area ever since 1922 by the native government! The romantic nonsense about a simple, happy Gaelic way of life is something which haunts us all, in particular those political leaders of the Irish Independence/Sinn Fein revolution who based their efforts (including their bloody revolutionary efforts) on this ideal. It was an illusion, of course, but not entirely so. And if life in Achill has improved somewhat in this generation, the real question is to what extent this is due to the efforts of the Irish political revolutionaries or merely a general improvement in living standards in Western Europe that would have taken place in any case. Then there is also the issue of to what extent much of the material advance and improved technology we have seen in recent years is in fact ‘progress' or has added to our personal happiness, fulfilment or self-development.

In the case of the Gaeltacht island of Achill, a further question needs to be asked as to what extent it was or is possible to join the Celtic Tiger rat race and retain the use of the Irish language in community and family affairs, including the major community pre-occupations which spring from the legacy of the past? Clearly, the modern almost Boston-life lifestyle of South Connemara today, where the Irish language thrives and is growing in the white heat of modern developments like radio and television, film making, internet and adult education, clearly suggest that it is possible to produce a modern Gaeltacht way of life that is, if anything more ‘advanced' than what most communities in traditional rual Ireland experience or even aspire to.

But those of us who have studied the decline in the use of Irish in Co Mayo would suggest that even as early as 1922 there had been considerable decline in the use of Irish in Achill, certainly in the ‘Colony' and strangely enough- in the western half of the island in particular. The eastern half of Achill held on more tenaciously to its heritage, influenced no doubt by an equal tenacity in the Curraun peninsula, just before entering the Sound which, we must not forget did not have a permanent bridge until about a score of years before Collins became familiar with the area, if he was familiar with the area? Does anybody have specific information about any visits which Michael Collins paid not just to Westport or Newport but to Achill itself? Would he have known about the state of Irish in the different communities at the time and , if not, who might have informed him, or indeed ‘set up' those “young women riding down to the island ponies to collect sand from the seashore? Getting it right on the day, to impress tourists, or other distinguished visitors, is not a new phenomenon in Mayo or indeed in many other areas. But the issue is, did Collins visit Achill or was he familiar with the realities of life in Achill in 1922 and it not, who informed him or gave him or give him the impressions or the ‘images' he obviously processed in the months before his death? I do not know but it were to guess I would suspect that some of the ‘romantic' ideas recorded by Ernie O'Malley in his account on the ‘state of the country' in his classic ‘On Another Man's Wound' might have helped form Collin's ideas. Even though O'Malley, of course, (a native of Castlebar but essentially a Dub who did not re-visit Mayo in the course of his organisational work, as far as we can established) never fathomed the realities of Gaeltacht life, certainly in West Mayo in the early months of 1922 on the Treaty issue, going on to fight a brave and honourable fight in the Civil War, against Collin's ‘new' Army in the ranks of the anti-Treaty IRA.

The other close Mayo friend Collins had after the split was probably Michael Stains, from near Newport, who became first Commissioner of Garda Siochanna, but lasted only six months before handing on to Monaghan tough man, General Eoin O'Duffy who is better known for his Blueshirt activities in the 1930s, but whose record in IRA GHQ under General Mulcahy as Chief of Staff in the Black and Tan War of 1920-21 is rarely mentioned.

All sad reminders of just how rapidly things changed utterly as soon as the treaty was signed at the end of 1921, and railroaded through the Second (non-elected) Dail, fo 26 counties only in January 1922. It is all part of a legacy that we ignore at our peril. I am sure Mr Higgins did the best this year to set a tone of realistic commemoration that could and should include all those who value the legacy of Michael Collins for whatever reason.

The Achill connection is only one of the sideshows, given what T Ryle Dwyer had unfolded and set out in plain and blunt and brutal detail in his latest valuable contribution to honest and factually realistic history.

Courtesy of The Mayo News and Nollaig O Gadhra
September 21 2005