Michael Collins: Big Man or just a Man?

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Naivasha Moore                                                                                                 3435472


The history of Ireland’s struggle for independence is a history littered with heroes and big names. All history has a tendency to do this, to manufacture for its self great men, people who seemingly, single-handedly change the path of history. Michael Collins repeatedly appears in Irish history as one of these men. In reality, however, he was merely one of many people in the Irish struggle for Independence, and was by no means essential to the eventual outcome. His role, as are the roles of many other individual actors in the struggle, has been exaggerated by historians.

Michael Collins was born in West Cork On October 16, 1890. As a young boy Collins school master was Denis Lyons, an active member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. It appears that the Influence of Lyons and the local blacksmith, James Santry (also a Fenian), were important influences in helping Collins develop his sense of pride of the Irish as a race. After a number of years in London, Collins returned to Dublin in 1916 to take part in the planned insurrection of Easter Week. His involvement in the rising was minor, however, as a consequence he spent seven months in Frongoch internment camp in Wales. The British unwittingly strengthened the IRB through the placement of the Easter rebels in such camps, where they were able to devise strategies against the British and recruit men to their nationalist cause. Following his release Collins came to be increasingly involved in the Irish struggle. In 1917 he was elected to the Sinn Fein executive. He helped rebuild the IRB and in 1919 became President of the IRB Supreme Council. The idea of small bands of men named ‘flying columns’ fighting in guerrilla style warfare, attacking specific targets was proposed by Collins.  The effectiveness of the ‘flying columns’ is not doubted. They were able to ‘choose their own battle-site, remain mobile and avoid encirclement, and strike swiftly and retire secretly’. In traditional style warfare the Irish would not have stood a fleeting chance, but by using guerrilla tactics the Irish made up for their lack of numbers through surprise, and there lack of arms was compensated for by their knowledge of the countryside. Intelligence during the two and half years of the ‘troubles’ (Anglo-Irish war 1919-1921) was critically important. Collins was the director of intelligence during this period. He penetrated different aspects of castle government as well as ruthlessly targeting spies and informants. This contribution, as well as Collins development of military tactics, can be seen as his most important contribution to the struggle. It is important to realise that Collins was not the only person capable of carrying out the coordination of these tasks, admittedly he did it with irrepressible energy and ingenuity, nevertheless the fact remains that someone else could have filled his shoes just as they did upon his death. Furthermore, to give undue emphasis to the leader of an organisation is to marginalise all those partaking in it. Had there been no one willing to carry out Collins strategies, they would have been useless. It is arguable that the targeted assassination of 14 British Secret Service officers is what led the British to agree to treaty negotiations in July 1921. While a contributing factor, the importance of these assassinations should not be overstated. Ireland had continuously been a thorn in the British side that they were trying to settle. Further, in the wake of a costly international war (the ‘Great War’ 1914-1918) from which the British were still trying to rebuild themselves, and further troublesome international affairs (the communist revolution in Russia for example), there was a strong desire for the British to settle the matter without a full scale war, despite the fact that it was a war they most certainly could have won.   Further claims which suggest that Collins was essential to the treaty negotiations are also exaggerated. Collins did not want to be involved in the negotiations, knowing that there were many (such as de Valera) who would be capable of doing a far more proficient job than him, declaring that he was a soldier, not a politician. While Collins was among the group of people who managed to negotiate a treaty, he was certainly not responsible for its conception. In all likely-hood the outcome of the treaty talks would have been the same regardless of who had ventured to London. Neither Collins nor any other negotiator could have secured a treaty that provided a United Republic for Ireland; the British simply were not willing to concede so much. Similarly, it is unlikely that the Irish would have got any less.

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Many historians choose to highlight Collins importance by suggesting that had he live, Collins may have acted as a uniting force during the civil war, possibly making for a less protracted and bloody conflict between the pro and anti treaty forces. Yet, Collins had up until his death been trying to reconcile the two factions and had so far been unsuccessful. There is no evidence to suggest that he would have had anymore success than his successors, had he lived. Further, although the circumstances around his death remain clouded, it is most likely that he was killed by members of ...

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