On this day in 1890: Revolutionary leader Michael Collins was born

On this day in 1890: Revolutionary leader Michael Collins was born

MICHAEL COLLINS is perhaps the most revered Irishman of 20th century.

Born near to Clonakilty, County Cork, on 16 October 1890, Collins, or “the big fellow” as he was nicknamed, had what by most accounts was a happy childhood.

Young Michael was precocious and intelligent, and while there were some early influences that piqued his interest in Irish nationalism, it was, ironically, his move to London, “the world’s biggest city”, and the metropole of its largest empire, when he was sixteen, that lit the flame of Irish republicanism within him.

He found work as a clerk in a post office, a position that gave the young and energetic Collins the organisational skills he would eventually draw upon to change the course of history.

Like many Irish in London to this day, he played Gaelic football – a hobby that led him to rub shoulders with figures from the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Upon hearing of the planned Easter Rising, Collins returned to Dublin to take part in the first and most significant armed conflict of the revolutionary period.

He fought alongside other household names, including Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, and other members of the Rising top brass.

While the insurrection was put down after only six days, the insurgents held their positions for the minimum time required to justify a claim to independence under international criteria, and so viewed it as a strategic win.

Like the other ring leaders, Collins was arrested by plain clothes officers, or “G-men” from the Dublin Metropolitan Police and incarcerated.

The bulk of the leadership, and ninety men in total, were sentenced to death – a fate Collins managed to narrowly avoid.

The executions turned the tide of Irish public opinion greatly against the British state, and Collins, knowing an historical opportunity when he saw it, stepped into the void left behind by his fallen comrades.

During the years that followed he would wear many hats, including that of the revolutionary guerrilla, fundraiser, finance minister, and diplomat.

Through donations and other fundraising his Finance Ministry organised a large bond issue in the form of a "National Loan", which, according to Batt O'Connor, raised almost £400,000 for the fledgling Irish Republic.

Having an astute appreciation for the power of symbolism, Collins used the stump where Robert Emmet was beheaded as a desk to collect bond subscriptions for the new – and illegal – Irish Republic.

More controversially, he established “The Squad”, a group of assassins that would seek out and kill British agents and informers.

Her Majesty’s Government responded in kind in 1920 by offering £10,000 for information leading to Collins’ capture or death.

Following two years of bloodshed, the Anglo-Irish war came to an end in 1921, when a truce was declared.

So dire was the situation on the Irish side, Collins told Hamar Greenwood after signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty, "You had us dead beat. We could not have lasted another three weeks. When we were told of the offer of a truce we were astonished. We thought you must have gone mad”, according to British diplomat Leo Amery.

When the treaty was negotiated, Collins showed, at a time when revolutionary fervour had reached new heights, what was perhaps his defining character trait: pragmatism.

He supported the adoption of the Treaty, a compromise which put a stop to the violence and gave Ireland Dominion status modelled off of Canada – thus bringing the "Irish Free State" into existence.

Republican purists saw the treaty as a sell-out.

Éamon de Valera, the President of the Dáil said the Treaty had been signed without cabinet consent and failed to fulfil the twin Republican goals of full independence and Irish unity.

This split the nationalist movement down the middle, and created the basis for the modern political parties of Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael, the latter being the conservative, pro-treaty successors to Collins.

On 22 August, 1922, Collins was ambushed by anti-Treaty forces while travelling to his native Cork.

While his driver wanted to escape, Collins reportedly wanted to stand and fight his attackers.

Following a short skirmish, Collins came out from taking cover behind an armoured vehicle and was shot in the head by Denis "Sonny" O'Neill, a former British Army sniper.

The many reported talents, rugged good looks, rural simplicity and approachability of Michael Collins have all contributed to the myth left in the wake of the man.

The problem with such myths is they demand simplicity, and so instead of depicting a 3 dimensional – which is to say flawed – human being, we are often left with a saint or simply, a genius.

Genius, he may have been, but as the English poet John Donne put it, “no man is an island”, and despite his formidable talents and prodigious output, neither was Michael Collins.

Like all great leaders of men, Collins was good at spotting talent, enlisting it, and delegating responsibility.

As author Patrick O’Sullivan Greene points out in the Irish Times, Collins did this to great effect with Daithi O’Donoghuehe, a former civil servant who made the day-to-day banking arrangements that made the National Loan project possible.

It would be unusual for a man of his significance to escape controversy, even beyond the grave, and Collins is no exception.

Like his violent methods as an insurgent, Collins' political goals have come under scrutiny.

Writing for the Independent.ie, Journalist Kevin Myers said:

“How could Ireland possibly impose its will on Lloyd George's government, when over 99.02pc of the Free State's exports of £205m went to Britain?

“Or consider it this way: had the two sides in 1919 drawn up their wish-lists for the coming Anglo-Irish conflict, which ones -- Britain's imperialists or Ireland's republicans -- by 1923 would have felt that they'd got most of what they wanted? So who actually won the Anglo-Irish war?”

What Myers glosses over however is the flexibility shown by Collins during the negotiations.

Where others were happy to continue spilling blood for a cause that, as Myers rightly points out, even if successful, would have eventually had to grapple with the insurmountable economic realities of the vast Anglo-Irish trade imbalance, Collins showed courage in taking the path of compromise – one he knew would be deeply unpopular with his comrades.

Addressing a conference marking the centenary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty at University College Cork (UCC) earlier this month, The Irish Times reported that Taoiseach Michael Martin said of Collins and ally and later political rival de Valera:

“I can’t but reflect on the fact that neither would be comfortable with the popular view which has often neglected to tell us how long and how successfully they worked together before the final Treaty negotiations,” he said.

The Civil War was not inevitable and “the sheer number of times that stopped the drift to conflict was remarkable”, according to Mr Martin, who was a historian before becoming a politician.

In the aftermath of his death, Mary Frances McHugh wrote that Collins loved Ireland “not in theory but in practice”.

Perhaps this terse but fitting obituary is how he will be remembered 131 years on.