“General Michael Collins”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1965 (OLochlainn-More)
Keywords: Civilwar rebellion homicide England Ireland memorial patriotic political
Found in: Ireland


A memorial to Michael Collins. His part in the Easter rising is recalled as well as other activities before the Treaty. "De Valera and his Die-hards they forced Civil War And Mick Collins was ambushed ... brother on brother they never should turn"


The song mentions Eamon de Valera. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6, 1921 established the Irish Free State. The Civil War that followed was between the pro-treaty and anti-treaty factions. De Valera led the ant-treaty faction. (source: _Irish Civil War_ at the Wikipedia site) - BS

Michael Collins (1890-1922) and Eamon de Valera (1882-1975) were indeed probably the two most important figures of the Irish Civil War. De Valera came to prominence first; the highest-ranking officer to have been spared the executions following the Easter Rising of 1916, he was regarded as the head of the Irish rebel government. But in the struggle that followed, Collins, the "Big Fellow," had done more to make Irish indepenence real than the slight de Valera, who looked like (and was) a mathematics teacher -- and not even Irish by birth; he was born in the United States (a fact which saved his life in 1916). When it came time to form an actual Irish state, Collins became its de facto leader; de Valera, by his opposition to the Treaty with England which allows the formation of the Irish Free State, was for a time pushed out of government.

Collins was the son of a surprisingly well-educated farmer, Michael John Collins, who died when Collins was six (Collins senior was about sixty when he married Marianne O'Brien, then aged about 23, and Michael junior was the youngest child. His mother too died when he was fairly young).

Collins, ironically, worked in London from 1906 to 1915, when he returned to Ireland to take part in the struggle for independence. He was involved in the Easter Rising, being imprisoned for his part in the attack on the General Post Office, but he was not at that time a leader. Eventually released, he became an important Irish Republican Army organizer. Elected to parliament in 1918, he joined the other members of Sinn Fein in withdrawing and forming the separatist Dail Eireann.

In the provisional government that the Dail formed, he became first the Minister of Home Affairs, then took the desperately difficult job of Minister of Finance. All the while he was continuing the battle against the British, becoming probably the most renowned fighter in Ireland.

Eventually, he was appointed, against his will, to the committee appointed to negotiate with England.

There were five Irish commissioners, plus a secretary: Collins, Arthur Griffith (the founder of Sinn Fein), and secretary Erskine Childers were the most prominent. De Valera carefully stayed home -- and even from there, did his best not to become involved. After difficult negotiations, Collins, Griffith, and two other commissioners agreed to a treaty which gave Ireland home rule (in effect, dominion status) in return for continued paper allegiance to the King; it also separated Ulster from the rest of Ireland, with a boundary supposedly to be adjusted based on a religious census; this of course never happened; indeed, Kee, p. 160, says that Lloyd George had offered irreconcileable boundary promises to the Irish delegation and to Ulster leader James Craig, and adds on p. 172 that when the time came to appoint the commissioners, Ulster simply refused to take part. (For notes on sources, see the Bibliography at the end of this article.) A vague attempt was finally made at a survey, but no changes came about; in effect, the decision was that the boundary would remain unchanged and Britain would forgive a bunch of financial claims against Ireland; Kee, p. 173.

Collins apparently felt that Ireland had to have peace; the IRA was too close to exhaustion (Fry/Fry, p. 313). Coogan, p. 274, quotes Robert Barton, one of Collins's fellow commissioners. Collins was in anguish: "Collins rose looking as though he were going to shoot himself...." But "[Collins] knew that physical resistance, if resumed, would collapse, and he was not going to be the leader of a forlorn hope."

There were other reasons for signing. Collins had earned most of his successes by having a better intelligence system than the British, and there was evidence that the British were catching up; see Coogan, p. 76, 83, etc. where instances are listed of the British firing the informers in their midst.

In addition, the Irish commissioners had been pressured and bluffed by the much more politically astute Lloyd George (Dangerfield, pp. 334-339). To say they were tricked would be a little strong, but they were certainly manipulated.

On the other hand, rationally speaking, it was a good deal for Ireland; see the notes to "The Irish Free State."

When he signed the agreement in December of 1921, Collins is reported to have said "I have signed my own death warrant" (Wallace, p. 131; Fry/Fry, p. 317; Dangerfield, p. 339; Coogan, p. 276, notes that Lord Birkenhead had commented that in approving the Treaty that he might have signed his political death warrant; to which Collins replied "I may have signed my actual death-warrant").

Collins did not consider the Treaty final; he described it as "not the ultimate freedom that all nations aspire... to, but the freedom to achieve it" (Fry/Fry p. 314; Coogan, p. 301).

Ireland still wasn't satisfied; the Dail barely approved the treaty by a vote of 64-57.

It is ironic to note that when Collins cast his vote in favor of the treaty -- the first vote of the roll call to favor it -- he cast it as member from Armagh, which would not be part of Ireland under the treaty.

De Valera, who had authorized the commission to England without outlining clear terms, proceeded to denounce the treaty and quit his own government. *This* was what ultimately doomed Collins. What followed was civil war.

A provisional government was formed early in 1922, and after de Valera failed to earn re-appointment as head of the Dail, the office went to Griffith. But Collins was the heart and soul of the provisional government, and its provisional president. An election in that year overwhelmingly supported treaty candidates (Golway, p. 276; Fry/Fry, pp. 315-316; Younger, pp. 313-314, states that "pro-Treaty panel candidates gained 239,193 votes of a total of 620,283 votes cast [39%]; anti-treaty panel candidates... polled 133,864 [22%]; and Labour, Independents and Farmers [most of whom would have accepted the Treaty] won between them 247,226 votes [40%]").

De Valera and the hardliners were so dissatisfied that they went to war against their own allies. (This was rather typical of de Valera, whose grip on reality was sometimes rather weak; even Younger, who is sufficiently pro-Irish that he consistently calls terrorists "freedom fighters," says on p. 90 that "odd decisions" "were... almost habitual with de Valera".)

(To be fair, there are many historians who, instead of seeing de Valera as too hardline and inconsistent, see him as brilliant and subtle -- perhaps too subtle for the opposition to understand. E.g, Kee, p. 149, says, "It was indeed because de Valera knew there must be compromise that he remained in Ireland, but not in his own self-interest"; it is Kee's view that he was *allowing* compromise while keeping the hard-liners on his side. The problem with this theory, of course, is that he kept the hard-liners, but didn't support the compromise, and the result was the Civil War.)

In the struggle that followed, Collins ironically had the backing of Britain. But an exhausted Griffith died in early August 1922, and Collins was slain from ambush within a fortnight (Fry/Fry, p. 317; Dangerfield, p. 294). There was already war, of course, but that pretty well guaranteed that the war would continue for generations, at least in Ulster. Collins seemingly hoped for peace with "the North-East corner" (Coogan, p. 301), but few others went along.

The assassination of Collins was in some ways interesting. He travelled with an armed and armored party, but the party had difficulty finding its way in the area of the "Mouth of Flowers." Several ambushes were set up; one managed to catch him despite being outgunned. Collins, hothead that he was, actually left his car to fight the assassins -- and was killed.

Collins was the only member of his party to die, though others were injured.

Other details are fuzzy. According to Coogan (p. 420), Sonny O'Neill, who probably fired the fatal shot, died without telling his side of the story. And De Valera would eventually cause the government to destroy -- not seal, *destroy* -- its records (p. 418).

It will tell you how horrid the situation was at the time of the Civil War that even Younger, who approved of Irish terrorism, admits that the anti-Treaty faction of de Valera "made no effort to rule in any positive way. What they were setting out to do was to prevent the Dail government and its interwoven Provisional Government from ruling either." (p. 268). Nor did they seek to learn the will of the people: "The plain fact was that de Valera and his adherents did not want an election which they knew they could not win'" (p. 269).

"To many of his compatriots, Collins was the real architect of Ireland's freedom, and some said he was the greatest Irish hero since Brian Boru" (Fry/Fry, p. 317). That statement is surely too strong, but it obviously explains such songs as this one.

A good analogy might be to Abraham Lincoln: Both Lincoln and Collins had fought great wars that defined their nations, and with the war ending, were responsible for reconstruction and healing. Both were assassinated before reconstruction really began. Many historians think that Lincoln would have moderated reconstruction had he lived, as they think Collins might have held down the Irish Civil War had he lived. In neither case can we know, and Collins, since he died earlier in the process, probably had even less chance than Lincoln. But he was surely the only man who had any chance.

Apparently there was eventually a movie about Collins, entitled "Michael Collins" (how original), by Neil Jordan, starring Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts. All I know about this is what I read in Michael Padden and Robert Sullivan, _May the Road Rise to Meet You_, pp. 157-161, which is anything but a scholarly account. Apparently this tried to lay the blame for Collins's death at the feet of de Valera -- which caused Coogan, who had been hired as a consultant to the film, to blow up, noting that, if such a thing had been shown to be true, it would have signed de Valera's own death warrant. Whatever the film was like, it proved to be rather a flop.


In writing this summary, in addition to the standard references such as the _Oxford Companion to Irish History_, I have consulted the following works, some obviously more relevant than others:

Coogan: Tim Pat Coogan _Michael Collins_ (1992, 1996; I used the Roberts Rinehart edition), one of several biographies of the subject of this song. Coogan is mildly pro-Collins, but without slipping into hagiography, and the amount of detail he supplies is most useful.

Dangerfield: George Dangerfield, _The Damnable Question: One Hundred and Twenty Years of Anglo-Irish Conflict_ (Atlantic Little Brown, 1976). Despite its title, the book is devoted primarily to the problems of Ireland's Protestant/Catholic relations and the unsolved Ulster question, but this of course means it devotes significant space to the issue of Partition.

Fry/Fry: Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, _A History of Ireland_ (1988; I used the 1993 Barnes & Noble edition). A general history, not overly long, but it seems fairly reliable and is quite easy to read.

Golway: Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty: A Thousand Years of Ireland's Heroes_. (Simon & Schuster, 2000) This has a strange tendency to skip around, missing some incidents and devoting much ink to character details, but as such it contains some information not in the standard histories.

Kee: Robert Kee, _Ourselves Alone_, being volume III of _The Green Flag_ (combined edition published 1972; I used the 1987 Quartet edition of volume III), is probably the most balanced work on Irish history I have read, and it concentrates heavily on the period leading up to final Irish independence.

Wallace: Martin Wallace, _A Short History of Ireland_ (1973, 1986; I used the 1996 Barnes & Noble edition). The name is accurate: It's very short. But it likes to throw in the occasional detail not found elsewhere.

Younger: Calton Younger, _Ireland's Civil War_ (1968, 1979; I used the 1988 Fontana edition). This is a very difficult book, at least for me, because it considers terrorism justifiable. It is a very detailed reference if you can stomach a guy who thinks murder counts as political leadership. - RBW

Historical references

Cross references


  1. OLochlainn-More, pp. 264-265, "General Michael Collins" (1 text, tune referenced)
  2. BI, OLcM264