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The Big Fellow - Michael Collins
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Michael Collins
Irish patriot Michael Collins who was killed by the British on August 22nd 1922Michael Collins (Irish patriot) (1890-1922), Irish revolutionary, soldier, and politician, born in Clonakilty.

From 1906 to 1916 Collins worked as a clerk in London, where he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a revolutionary group working for Irish independence from British rule. He participated in the Easter Rebellion of 1916 in Dublin and was captured.

After his release he became one of the chief workers for Irish freedom as a leader in Sinn Fein movement.

In 1918 he was again arrested. Later, in spite of persistent attempts to capture him, he eluded the police and helped colleagues to escape.

While still a fugitive, he was elected to the Sinn Fein revolutionary parliament and served as finance minister. From 1919 to 1921 Collins organized the guerrilla warfare that succeeded in forcing Britain to sue for peace.

Collins represented Ireland in London and signed the peace treaty that brought the Irish Free State into existence. Later he was appointed commander in chief of the Irish Free State forces. On August 22, 1922, he was assassinated by members of Sinn Fein who were opposed to the peace treaty.

The early years
On 16 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.

Michael's father, Michael John Collins was sixty years old when he married a local girl, Marianne O'Brien. Marianne was only twenty-three, but they were apparently happy and went on to have eight children. Michael, the youngest, was born when his father was seventy-five.

Michael's father was a farmer by trade, not rich, but living comfortably for the times on a holding of ninety acres. The farm was called Woodfield after a hill in the area. When Michael was six, his father died.

Michael attended national school at Lisavaird, and the schoolmaster there was to have a large influence on Michael's life. For this schoolmaster, Denis Lyons, was an active member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret organisation dedicated to ousting the British from Ireland, by force if necessary. Lyons and the local blacksmith, James Santry, another Fenian, 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.

Big for his age, Michael had a keen mind as well as a fit, athletic body. He loved to read. His sister, Mary Ann, heightened his interest in the struggle for nationalism, and because of her, he devoured the writings of men such as poet and Nationalist, Thomas Davis. Worried that he might fall in with a bad sort, his mother sent him to Clonakilty to study for the Post Office examinations and to live with his sister Margaret. Here he worked briefly for his brother-in-law who owned the West Cork People, a newspaper of the area. Michael learned typesetting and wrote articles of local sporting events. After a year and a half, he went to London where he lived with his sister Hannie, in West Kensington and worked for the Postal Savings Bank in West Kensington. He was fifteen. Michael would spend the next nine years in London.

Michael's years in London
He was active in the Gaelic Athletic League and in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Later, Michael Collins was to become first the secretary and then the president of the IRB.

The rising
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 organizer became recognized. 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. By 1920, Michael Collins was wanted by the British and had a price of #10,000 stg. on his head.

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. Michael had a life-long love for older people and for children.

In January 1919, the Anglo-Irish War began with the first shots being fired at Soloheadbeg. Over the next year, the Royal Irish Constabulary became the target of a Sinn Fein terror campaign. Michael Collins orchestrated this campaign. He felt there would be much to gain by provoking England to war.

By mid-1919, the IRB had infiltrated the leadership of the Volunteers and were directing its pace on the violence. Michael Collins had been made President of the IRB Supreme Council. At the same time, he was Minister for Finance in the Dail government and the commander of the IRA. In June of that year, de Valera left for America and Michael Collins became acting President after Arthur Griffith's arrest in December 1920.

Although Collins and de Valera co-operated, there were differences between them. After the Easter Rising, de Valera had not rejoined the IRB. Cathal Brugha, de Valera's Minister for Defence in the Dail, resented Collins' popularity and his influence over the Volunteers. In an effort to assert control, Brugha had the Volunteers declared the Army of the Irish Republic (IRA).

A new menace
Britain responded with violence. Special forces were sent over to impose curfews and martial law on the Irish. These forces became known as the Black and Tans after a popular Limerick hunt group, and because of their dark green and khaki uniforms. Another force of veterans from the Great War, called the Auxiliaries, joined them. Thus began a pattern of assassination and reprisal. The IRA employed guerilla tactics, using 'flying columns' to attack British troops. Their knowledge of the countryside made up for their lack of arms. The initial distaste for the killing of RIC men by the IRA gave way to outrage at the savageness of the Crown forces. The reprisals had the effect of identifying the British as the oppressors of the Irish people.

On 21 November 1920 Michael Collins' squad assassinated 14 British officers, effectively destroying the British Secret Service in Ireland. In reprisal, the Black and Tans fired on a crowd watching a football match at Croke Park. Twelve people were killed, including one of the team players. The day became known as Bloody Sunday. News of this and other horrors became known throughout the world.

Love triangle
During this period, Michael, who in the 1918 general election had been elected to Parliament representing South Cork, and Harry Boland, the MP for Roscommon, each vied for the affections of a Longford girl, Catherine Brigid, or more commonly, Kitty Kiernan. From the latter half of 1921 until his death, Michael and Kitty exchanged more than 300 letters. By year's end, Michael had succeeded in winning the fair Kitty and they became engaged.

In May of 1921, the IRA set ablaze the Dublin Custom House, but Crown forces arrived in time to capture nearly the entire Dublin IRA Brigade. After this action, the IRA were desperately short of men and weapons, but at the same time, the British were completely demoralised with public opinion increasingly against continued repression. The commander of His Majesty's Crown forces in Ireland advised David Lloyd George to 'go all out or get out.' This began the treaty talks.

The treaty talks
On 12 July 1921, the day after a truce was signed, de Valera led a delegation to London for exploratory talks with the British Prime Minister. These talks broke down after irreconcilable differences developed over the issue of an Irish Republic--a concession Lloyd George was not about to give.

In September of that year, de Valera was elected President of the Irish Republic and he offered to negotiate as representative of a sovereign state. Lloyd George refused. He would allow peace talks only with a view of how Ireland might reconcile their national aspirations within a framework of the community of nations known as the British Empire.

Knowing that neither a Republic nor a united Ireland could be won at such a conference, de Valera refused to attend. Instead, he sent Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins to head the Irish delegation. Neither Griffith nor Collins wanted to go. Michael Collins declared that he was a soldier, not a politician, but the issue went to the Cabinet and was decided by de Valera's casting vote.

De Valera was the most experienced negotiator, but he chose instead, to send others to parley against the far more experienced British team. They were no match for the cunning Lloyd George, who was called the "Welsh Wizard." One historian called it the worst single decision of de Valera's life.

Still, under tremendous pressure, the Irish delegation, with Collins and Griffith as chief negotiators, pressed for a united Ireland. Differences within the Irish delegation added to the difficulty, but Britain's refusal to consider anything less than dominion status, excluding Ulster created additional conflict. Michael Collins knew that a Republic that included Ulster was not possible under the present conditions, but he hoped for a boundary commission that would redraw the border to include much of Catholic Fermanagh and Tyrone in the newly created Free State. This left the problem of the Oath of Allegiance.

A reworded oath might pass a Dail vote, Collins concluded, and though opposed by de Valera, would pave the way for future concessions once a British troop withdrawal was effected. Reluctantly, the delegation signed. Michael Collins knew it would be received badly in Dublin, but he decided that a step toward Irish independence was preferable to an all-out war that would ensure more bloodshed. Michael Collins spoke prophetically when, after signing the treaty he said, "...I tell you, I have signed my death warrant."

The vote in favor of accepting the treaty was 64 to 57. Two days later, de Valera resigned his presidency and Arthur Griffith was elected in his place. A provisional government was formed in January 1922. Michael Collins was elected Chairman. Dublin Castle was surrendered to Michael Collins.

Civil war!
Across the country, the IRA split into pro-Treaty or anti-Treaty forces. Many followed Collins, accepting that the Treaty gave the country the freedom to win freedom. Richard Mulcahy, the Minister of Defence, transformed these loyal troops into the Free State Army, while the anti-Treaty forces became known as the Irregulars.

Collins made every effort to avoid a civil war. He drafted a new constitution which he hoped would be acceptable to the Republicans. The rebels had been Collins' comrades-in-arms and he desperately wanted to avoid such a tragedy, but his efforts failed. In a move to dislodge Republican troops who had taken over the building, on June 28th, Collins ordered the shelling of the Four Courts.

In a controversial move, he armed both pro- and anti-Treaty IRA members in the North to defend the Catholic population, but by resorting to violence against the Treaty terms in the North, he legitimised armed resistance in the South. On 6 July 1922, the Provisional Government appointed a Council of War and Collins became Commander-in-Chief of the national Army.

Opponents of the Treaty rallied to the cause. Fighting broke out in Dublin and Cathal Brugha was killed. The ten-month civil war had begun. The first phase was bloody and brief. By August, the better-equipped government forces had driven the Irregulars out of the main cities and towns, but the Republicans controlled much of the country area to the south and west.

On 12 August 1922, Arthur Griffith died of a massive hemorrhage. He had never recovered from the strain of the Treaty negotiations.

Béal na mBláth
A memorial marks the spot were Michael Collins was killed in a British AmbushEight days later, though ill with the stomach trouble that had plagued him for several months and suffering from a bad cold, Michael Collins left on a mission to visit troops in his home county of Cork. Warned not to go, he told his companion, "They wouldn't shoot me in my own county." As before, the words proved prophetic. Depressed and ill, he set out, some say, to try to end the fighting. At any rate, he visited several anti-Treaty men as well as inspecting various barracks. On the last day of his life, 22 August 1922, he set out from Cork in a convoy that passed through Bandon, Clonakilty, and Rosscarbery on its way to Skibbereen. He stopped at Woodfield, and there in the Four Alls, the pub situated across the road from the house where his mother had been born, he stood his family and escort to the local brew--Clonakilty Wrastler. On the return trip they again passed through Bandon. Michael Collins had only twenty minutes more to live. Around eight o'clock, his convoy was ambushed at a place known as Beal na mBlath--the mouth of flowers. Only one man was killed--Michael Collins. It is thought that Irregulars did the shooting, but some say that it might have been his own men. To this day, there is controversy about what actually happened.

Stunned that anything could have happened to 'the Big Fellow' whose fame was, by now, legendary, Collins' men brought his body back to Cork where it was shipped to Dublin. His body lay in state for three days in the rotunda. The Belfast-born painter, Sir John Lavery, painted Collins in death, as he had in life. Tens of thousands filed past his casket to pay their respects, and even more lined the Dublin streets as the cortege made its way to Glasnevin for the burial.

There have been many famous Irish patriots before him, and a few since, but none conjures up as much emotion and mystery as the man who, in a span of six short years, brought a country from bondage to a position where she could win her freedom. There are few left alive who remember Michael Collins, but his shape looms large on the Irish horizon

Béal na mBláth (English: mouth of the flowers), often incorrectly spelled Béal na Bláth is a tiny village in West Cork, Province of Munster, Ireland which is best known for being the location of the shooting of Michael Collins on 22 August 1922 during the Irish Civil War.

Commemorations are held on the nearest Sunday to the anniversary of the death of Collins. Fine Gael's leader always attends as do Collins' descendants. In 1997 Collins' nephew delivered the oration. The Irish Army also attends.

The monument is on the R585 road which is known in West Cork as "the Bantry Line" which was originally built as a famine road. It was a dirt road when the Collins was shot. A small white cross marks the spot where he fell which lies 5 m further west from the grey podium. Before the white cross there was a wooden cross which was erected within months of Collins' death.


The Big Fellow - Michael Collins
James Conroy, September 1996

 The wanted man strode fearlessly by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) police officer, nodding a brusque greeting which was grudgingly returned. Although he had a price on his head and had served time in both Irish and English jails, Michael Collins, Minister of Finance for the Sinn Fein Cabinet and Director of Intelligence for the IRA-- the Big Fellow, went boldly about the business of revolution on the streets of Dublin in 1920.

The Big Fellow was not a giant of a man, but was possessed of gargantuan qualities: charisma; the ability to bring order out of chaos; a superb memory; a genuine interest in people. Born when his father was seventy-five and his mother thirty-eight, Collins, like so many Irishmen, had to go to England in 1906 to earn a living. Ironically, it was in London when he was working for the British Post Office and the Guaranty Trust Company of New York that Collins took to nationalistic Irish movements like the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Ten years of Irish nationalism on British soil under the influence of men such as Arthur Griffith and Roger Casement culminated in Collins’ return to Ireland in 1916 to participate in the Easter Rising. Not one of the major leaders of the Rising, the Big Fellow was interned at Frongoch Camp in North Wales for his part in the rebellion.

It was in the years after the 1916 revolt that Michael Collins rose to prominence as an Irish leader who would bring the Irish the independence so many had died for. One of his main goals was to disable the informant network which the British had used successfully to thwart Irish nationalistic movements. The RIC, working out of Dublin Castle, were the eyes and oars of the Crown. Police reports, paid and unpaid informers, and a dedicated band of spies known as the Cairo Gang had a crippling effect on nationalistic activities. Collins counterattacked by convincing Irish employees in British offices to act as counterspies. Such a counterspy was Detective David Neligan who - came to Collins to join the IRA as an open member but who was turned into a valuable source of information for the IRA.

One of Collins’ boldest moves against the informer network was the assassination of the Cairo Gang. In the early hours of November 21, 1920, Michael Collins’ death squad struck at the Cairo Gang as they slept in their beds, killing twelve members. In reprisal, on the same afternoon Black and Tan troops fired on the crowd in the stands at Croke Park in Dublin. Thirty one spectators were killed on this Bloody Sunday with hundreds of others wounded. The Big Fellow, still a wanted man, felt free enough to serve as pall bearer for one of the IRA men killed on Bloody Sunday.

Michael Collins is given credit for the tactics, which today we would call guerrilla warfare, which led to the Free State agreement in 1921. While he was in the Frongoch Camp, Collins realized that an irregular army like the Volunteers could never win in a stand up fight against a well trained army. A war of ambush with flying columns of lightly armed troops who disappeared into the countryside before the smoke of battle had settled was Collins’ plan. This was the era of the Black and Tans, noted for their aggressiveness against the native population. Collins’ tactics and ruthlessness were a countervailing force against the RIC and the Black and Tans. Sadly and ironically, when Collins turned from being a warrior to being a negotiator for peace, he stepped on the path which was to lead to his death at age thirty-two.

One of the great tragedies of the Big Fellow’s life and of Irish history was that the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland which created the Irish Free State, but which excluded the six counties, generated a civil war which pitted Michael Collins against one of his personal heroes and one of Ireland’s enduring heroes, Eamon de Valera. Against his own wishes, Collins was part of the negotiating committee which inevitably had to reach a compromise on the division of Ireland. De Valera did not want to be associated with a compromise settlement, so he stayed home in Ireland while Collins was seen to represent the hard-line IRA view. His part in the agreement would give the Treaty validity in the activist ranks, it was thought.

The joy of the Treaty of December 1921 became the pain of civil war by January 1922. As soon as the Dail undertook debate on the Treaty, anti-Treaty forces grouped around de Valera and pro-Treaty forces around Collins, the person who had undertaken the care of de Valera’s family during his exile in America. conflict. Pro-Treaty candidates were elected to a clear majority in the Dail in the June 1922 elections with Collins the Chairman of the Provisional Government. Within days of the election, Collins had to call on the new Army to shell, with a borrowed English cannon, the Four Courts to expel anti-Treaty forces, Irishmen, of course. The Big Fellow was now in command of the regular army in a war against insurgents.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Free State Army, Michael Collins had the Republicans on the run. The Republicans, well trained in Collins’ tactics, used guerrilla warfare in the brief but bloody struggle which is the Irish Civil War. Tragedy followed tragedy: Harry Boland, Collins’ idol, ordered by Collins to be arrested, was killed in the apprehension; five hundred Irishmen were killed in July and August 1922 on both sides; Arthur Griffith, just appointed Prime Minister, died on August 12, 1922; and ten days later the Big Fellow was killed in an ambush at Bael na mBlath in Cork, the county of his birth. Not long after, the fighting came to an end. Enough Irish blood had been shed.

To find out more about Michael Collins read the biography by Tim Pat Coogan and see the film opening in October. Read about the Civil War in the novels Irish Gold by Andrew Greely and The End of the Hunt by Thomas Flanagan.


Michael Collins (1890 - 1922)
BBC History

Michael Collins - Irish PatriotA soldier and politician who was prominent in the struggle for Irish independence in the early 20th century. He agreed to the partition of Ireland and the creation of the Irish Free State, becoming leader of its provisional government.

Michael Collins was born on 16 October 1890 near Clonakilty in County Cork, the son of a farmer. After leaving school he worked for the Post Office, spending nine years in London where he became involved in radical Irish nationalist politics.

By 1908 he was a member of Sinn Féin, and a year later he joined the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He then returned to Dublin in January 1916 and took part in the Easter Rising, but after its failure he was imprisoned, although he was later released in December of that year.

In 1918, the British government attempted to introduce conscription in Ireland and Collins went on the run to avoid the call-up. He became the IRB's organiser-in-chief and assembled a network of spies within government institutions.

In the 1918 December general election, Sinn Féin took 73 of 105 Irish seats, with Collins winning his seat for South Cork. In Dublin, January 1919, they declared themselves a sovereign parliament - Dáil Éireann - and then declared independence. Éamon de Valera was elected president of the Dáil and Collins was appointed minister of home affairs and later minister of finance. In this role he organised the hugely successful Dail loan which financed the republican government.

Collins is most famous for his leadership of the republican military campaign against Britain (the War of Independence) through the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He directed a group of gunmen tasked with assassinating British agents whose campaign culminated on 21 November 1920 with the killing of 14 British officers in Dublin. In the day of violence that followed, British forces opened fire at a Gaelic football game, killing 12.

When a truce was agreed with Britain in July 1921, Collins and de Valera were the two most powerful men in republican Ireland. Collins led the Irish delegation at the peace conference in London which resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921. This brought the Irish Free State into existence and partitioned the island, with six predominantly Unionist counties in the north remaining outside the Free State. The Treaty was passed by the cabinet in Dublin by one vote, with de Valera opposed, and was accepted by the Dáil by a very small majority. Collins became chairman and finance minister of the provisional government.

The republican movement was now split into those who opposed and those who supported the treaty. In April 1922, a group of anti-Treaty IRA men took control of the Four Courts Building in Dublin. With support from London, Collins ordered it to be attacked, marking the beginning of civil war in Ireland. Collins took charge as commander-in-chief of the pro-treaty, Free State army. His campaign was successful but before its conclusion, on 22 August 1922, he was assassinated by anti-treaty forces in an ambush in County Cork

See also:
Easter Rising
On the Irish Republican Army
The Republic of Ireland
Hunger Strike
Settlement of Great Britain and Ireland

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