The Big Fellow’s Clare connections

Michael Collins may be dead 80 years but as historian Meda Ryan explains, his memory burns bright in the Banner county.

On August 22 last, when I heard Liam Neeson’s powerful voice and saw his accompanying gestures prior to the unveiling of a statue of Michael Collins in Clonakilty, I though it was Michael Collins himself.

I’ve never heard Michael Collins and I don’t believe any recording of him exists. But the image we have of him is of Liam Neeson’s authoritative portrayal in the Neil Jordan film.

The Hollywood actor told us that, as he lay in a New York hospital bed after a near fatal motorbike accident, he thought of his hero and asked himself, “What would Mick do?”

Then in Mick Collins style and voice, with head and right hand jerk, he declared, “You were told to do one hour physical therapy. You will do two hours and be thankful for it”.

There was a rousing response from the thousands assembled in Emmet Square on the eightieth anniversary of the death of the man who has been affectionately called “The Big Fellow. “Forgive me, I am just an actor. I have to do something.” The cheering could only have been equalled eighty years previously when an assembled crowd responded to the man himself as he stood on a platform in that square a few months before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Later that night, I felt honoured to be a special guest at a function where I met Liam Neeson. He was generous with his time to the queues seeking his autograph. For me, it was a memorable event. When I produced a copy of my book, The Day Michael Collins Was Shot, for his autograph he declared, “I read that”. Instantly, oblivious to the queue, he began to discuss it and what happened to Michael Collins at Béal na mBláth.

He told me he had visited the site and he autographed an autograph book that I have for years.
It contains the signatures of many of the men, both pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty, whom I interviewed and who had participated in that ambush. His response to a copy of my book was warm. “Michael Collins is my hero.” he said.

It’s 80 years since Michael Collins, Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Army, was shot dead in an ambush at Béal na mBláth. Irish people everywhere recall August 22, 1922, as a landmark day in Irish history. Ireland was embroiled in a bitter civil war but, as far as Collins was concerned, the anti-Treatyites” were beaten as an open force”.

Previous to the outbreak, he had done as much as any man to avoid a civil war. In February of that year, he had called in Clareman, Michael Brennan of the First Western Division to occupy Limerick’s British evacuated posts so that an easy transition could be achieved and when trouble flared up a few months later in that military post, he again backed Brennan, Tom Barry and Liam Lynch in their efforts to avert a conflict.

Michael Collins had worked with his colleagues in negotiating a treaty that he described as “a stepping stone” to give us “the freedom to achieve freedom.”

Born on October 16,1890, at Woodfield, Clonakilty, into a farming family with strong Irish traditions, Michael Collins became an avid reader and, by the age of twelve, was studying the writings of Arthur Griffith, Sinn Féin founder and talented journalist. Having passed the British Civil Service examination at the age of fifteen and headed for a position in a London post office.

His spare time activities within the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League and the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s secret society, were to dictate the pattern of his life.

His active part in the 1916 Rising and his detention in Stafford Barracks and Frongach internment camp had a strong influence in his decision to devote his life to the national cause.

His steady rise to power came when he began to build a highly successful intelligence network that would eventually crack the British espionage system in Ireland. His daring decision to check out Sinn Féin and IRA files within the portals of Dublin Castle, his coaching of influential people on spying methods, followed by his organisation of an assassination squad, dubbed “The Twelve Apostles”, made him the larger than life figure we now know.

From early on, his life was a mass of contradictions. As President of the IRB’s Supreme Council, he was a sworn member devoted to obtain freedom through military means.

Yet, after his election as Sinn Féin candidate, his appointment as Minister of Home Affairs and Minister of Finance found him responsible for working on a political level in a parliament which sought independence from Britain. He worked both in tandem.

There is no doubt but that Michael Collins was a dynamic man and was tall, dark and handsome to match. Becoming a legend in his own lifetime as ‘the wanted man’ with a price on his head, he had his finger on the pulse of the guerrilla movement during the War of Independence.

Since Liam Neeson’s powerful portrayal of Michael Collins as an action man, our image of the historical figure is carved in that mode. Yet, he was as much a brilliant administrator with a sharp intellect, organisational abilities and capacity to delegate. Though reluctant to fight his former comrades when the Civil War broke out, he decided to adhere to the agreement made when he signed the treaty.

Having worked tirelessly to reconcile the divergent views, he moved swiftly and took control as Commander-in-Chief of the national army on July 12, 1922, just two weeks after the outbreak of the civil war.

It was a move that would lead to his death.

When he was shot on the Béal na mBláth roadside, it was a Clareman who was first to go to his aid. A Doora man, Commandant Sean (Paddy) O’Connell, was in command of Collins’s escort on that day.

After Collins was shot, O’Connell, realising that “the end was near”, knelt beside his still conscious chief and whispered into the ear of ‘the fast sinking man’ the words of the Act of Contrition. O’Connell was rewarded when he felt a grip indicating that his words of comfort and prayers were heard.

Amidst rapid bursts of fire, O’Connell dragged the badly injured Collins across the road towards the protection of the armoured car. Their return to Cork was tortuous.

Commandant O’Connell had been a member of Collins’ convoy since he left Dublin on Sunday 20 August, on an army barracks’ inspection tour as they visited Limerick and Cork.

Throughout the War of Independence when Clare played an active part in the fight for freedom, Michael Collins, in his pivotal role, was in constant touch with Bishop Michael Fogarty, the Barretts, Brennans and other volunteer families. Bishop Fogarty worked in close liaison with Collins during preliminary discussions between Archbishop Clune and Lloyd George in the late 1920 while de Valera was in America on a fundraising and awareness mission.

These talks led to the truce and later led to treaty agreement discussions. Frank Barrett on many occasions sent dispatches to Michael Collins regarding activities in Clare while sisters Dell, Peg and Josephine, played a very active part in securing arms for the Brigade.

With the Daly sisters of Limerick, they travelled up and down to Collins in Dublin and returned from their secret trips with guns and messages discreetly hidden. Susan Killeen, Collins’ first girlfriend, became one of the principal figures in his espionage system. She was to remain a lifetime friend and helper of The Big Fellow.

When Michael Brennan reported to GHQ on July 12 and 13, 1921, just as the truce started, he spoke with Michael Collins. At this time, he got the impression that the truce would not last long. Brennan accepted an invitation to a party in celebration of Dan Breen’s wedding. Breen had been married prior to the truce but had postponed celebrations because of the war.

Brennan travelled with Paddy Kelly and Tom Keogh and ASU members towards Howth for the celebrations. Kelly, driving without car headlights, ran into a pile of stones. The car overturned and Brennan was injured.

A constant visitor to his bedside was Cathal Brugha who gave Brennan £1,000 to secure arms when he recovered. The two men Brennan asked to secure arms were arrested when their plans miscarried and thus they created an embarrassment for Collins who, at the time, was in the middle of treaty negotiations.

Collins rushed back to Dublin and met with Brennan in an effort to obtain the facts. When he discovered that neither Brennan nor Cathal Brugha were directly involved, his anxiety about the British propaganda lessened. The treaty signed in December found a reluctant Brennan deciding to back Collins.

On August 16, when Michael Collins turned to walk away from the graveside after the burial of Arthur Griffith, his Clare friend and colleague, Bishop Fogarty, said ominously, “Michael, be careful, you could be next”. He calmly responded, “I know.”

Had he lived, it is most likely events in the Civil War would have taken a different turn. It is unlikely he would have allowed the execution of prisoners, some of them his close friends.

While de Valera was in Béal na mBláth when the ambush was set up, he had little control over the militant element of the Republican forces at the time.

The dramatised version of Michael Collins’s death in the film bears little resemblance to the reality. The short eventful life of this historic man and the controversy that has surrounded his death has kept him in sharp focus throughout the decades.

Regardless of viewpoint, there is no doubt but that Irish people everywhere will forever harbour a bright spark of affection for the man Liam Neeson calls his hero.

Courtesy of the Clare Champion
September 2002