Big Fellows 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 Neesons 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.
Ive never heard Michael Collins and I dont believe
any recording of him exists. But the image we have of him
is of Liam Neesons 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
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
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.
Its 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
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 Limericks 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
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 Brotherhoods
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
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 IRBs 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 Neesons 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) OConnell, was in command
of Collinss escort on that day.
After Collins was shot, OConnell, 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. OConnell was rewarded
when he felt a grip indicating that his words of comfort
and prayers were heard.
Amidst rapid bursts of fire, OConnell dragged the
badly injured Collins across the road towards the protection
of the armoured car. Their return to Cork was tortuous.
Commandant OConnell 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
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 Breens 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
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,
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
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 Collinss 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
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