Aidan Thompson, Sabrina Marks, Ronald Li, Nicole Bosiy
1. A Greatly Condensed Biography
Michael Collins was born as the third of eight children on October 16, 1890 in a cottage on his parents’ farm, Woodfield. The Collins family had a long established connection to Cork County, Ireland as well as a budding passion for Irish nationalism and independence. Collins’ father, mother, and siblings lived on Woodfield with his father’s two unmarried brothers. His father was a member of the Irish Repulican Brotherhood (IRB), and Collins’ older siblings slowly recognized the disastrous effects of English rule on Ireland. Throughout his childhood, Collins was consistently reminded by his father of the news surrounding various Irish nationals, and he was also encouraged by his father to recite poems that promoted the spirit of Irish independence.
Though Woodfield was self-sufficient, it was only a few miles east of Skibbereen, an area of Ireland that was struck particularly hard by the famine. As a result, Collins had a local and constant reminder of the worst effects of Britain’s ineffective rule and economic policy. His adolescence coincided with the beginnings of a wave of Irish nationalism, and talks of revolution began circulating quietly. Collins was intrigued by these notions, but his mother sent him to London to live with his sister where he worked as a clerk and then as a messenger for a firm of stockbrokers. During this time, Collins studied law at King’s College London; he also eventually joined the IRB. Though he was aware that his time in London was more of a preparatory period for him, he seized the opportunity to make friends, on whom he left a mark as a dependable, generous, and loyal peer with a deep love for Ireland. Collins had a sharp, almost extreme personality, and his sense of nationalism reflected this same level of energy.
Collins returned to Ireland in 1916 with a fervor for Irish independence. By this time, he had established himself within the IRB as an intelligent strategist, and he worked closely with many important nationalist leaders. He participated in the insurrection known as the Easter Rising—which sought to end British rule in Ireland so an independent republic could be established—by preparing arms and paramilitary troops. He was captured and placed in an internment camp for his involvement but was released later that same year. Thereafter, Collins became politically involved with Arthur Griffith, and the pair launched Sinn Féin. He became an executive member of Sinn Féin, and the group became a legitimate political entity, sweeping up the majority of Ireland’s parliamentary seats. Though they had a right to be present and vote in England’s House of Commons, they opted to set up a government in Dublin. On January 21, 1919, the Irish War of Independence began, and Collins played a pivotal organizational role. Controversially, he arranged a squadron of assassins to eliminate British informants, becoming infamous for his guerilla war tactics. Despite efforts to have him killed, he survived and was able to attend the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6, 1921.
As a result of the Treaty, Collins became the prime minister of the newly established Commonwealth state of Ireland. A provisional government was instituted, and its first objective was to create a constitution. Tensions sparked between Collins and other Irish revolutionaries who believed that being a Commonwealth state was not extreme enough in terms of Irish independence. The constitution’s wording was modified to prevent the breakout of civil war, but this failed. IRA soldiers assassinated a British Army officer, and Collins’ provisional government called for the IRA to cease opposition or face military action. Moves for peace eventually prevailed, though Cork remained an IRA stronghold. Collins traveled across Ireland to visit damaged areas, and he planned to travel to Cork to engage in peace talks with republican leaders. He was warned by advisors that the trip would be dangerous, especially since he had already been targeted by assassins, but insisted on going anyway. While traveling, he was ambushed. He fought back against his assailants, but he was murdered in the altercation. Collins died on August 22, 1922, from a gunshot to the head, aged thirty-one.
2. Irish Independence Movement/IRA
In response to decades of demand for autonomy by Irish nationalists, Britain introduced the Bill for Home Rule in 1912. Civil unrest began when the predominantly Protestant north opposed the bill, forming the Ulster Unionist militia. Their forces were kept at bay by the formation of a nationalist group, the Irish Volunteers. Later, in 1916, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (a radical group within the Irish Volunteers) proclaimed Ireland its own republic in an insurrection known as the Easter Rising, though this uprising was quickly subdued by British forces. The efforts of the IRB were not largely supported by the Irish public initially, but with the increasing death toll of World War I and the risk of conscription, their nationalist attitude began to gain popularity. The Sinn Féin political party worked closely with the Irish Volunteers, leading riots and engaging in confrontations with the British Army. Sinn Féin won the General Election of 1918, and proceeded to declare an Irish Republic. On the day that the first republican parliament met, Irish Volunteers shot two Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) constables, marking the beginning of the Irish War for Independence.
The Irish Republican Army was formed as a descendant of the Irish Volunteers, led by Michael Collins. In 1920, the IRA became more violent, raiding RIC barracks using guerilla tactics. Sinn Féin continued to grow in popularity, winning local elections across the country and establishing a strong IRA presence. Britain responded by sending special police into Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, causing tensions to grow even more. Conflicts among civilians became increasingly common and dangerous in Northern Ireland, where the predominantly Protestant loyalists killed hundreds and displaced thousands of Catholics. Late 1920 became even more brutal, and on November 1, in response to the assasination of British Intelligence Officers, RIC forces shot and killed fifteen civilians at a soccer game. This day is now referred to as Bloody Sunday.
The British Government refused a truce at the end of 1920 upon insistence that the IRA give up their weapons. In the following six month, approximately one thousand more people were killed. Britain began deploying troops in greater numbers, and after a steady back-and-forth of increasing violence, both sides began executing their prisoners. In summer 1921, the IRA had grown weak, but the use of bombs against the British kept the war alive.
On July 11, 1921, British and Irish forces negotiated a truce. In December, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, establishing the Irish Free State, made up of twenty-six counties and designated dominion status. The other six counties belonged to Northern Ireland, which remained a part of the UK. This treaty led to the split of the IRA, as a minority were dissatisfied with the agreement. The majority became the Irish Free State Army (where Michael Collins sided), who were opposed by the Irregulars. This dispute would cause a short civil war from 1922-23, where the Irregulars were defeated, and after which the Free State government was established.
3. Anglo-Irish Treaty
Under the continued attack of the IRA, the British side had to keep devoting endless money and manpower to the battlefield. Finally, the British government and King George V proposed to form a cease-fire agreement with the IRA. Negotiations began in London in July 1921, with the British side represented by Prime Minister David George and the Irish side represented by Collins and Arthur Griffith.
The best plan for Ireland was to establish a sovereign state with full independence and unity in Ireland, but both Collins and Griffith understood that such a purpose could not be entirely accepted by the British, and they had to compromise. The Anglo-Irish Treaty agreed to create a sovereign state in Ireland. At the time of the treaty signing, Collins said, “I might have signed my real death warrant” (Davis). Three agreements caused huge opposition: Ireland would not be a republic state; it would remain a member of the Commonwealth; and Northern Ireland would have the right to leave the Irish Free State.
Collins and Griffith signed this agreement without the consent of the Irish Parliament. Because Collins believed that guerrilla warfare could not go on indefinitely, the cause of Irish independence would have been entirely over if the war had continued. The opposition had repercussions within Ireland. Opponents argued that the treaty could not establish a truly independent state. In contrast, Collins, who signed the agreement, argued that “it provided Ireland not with the ultimate freedom that all nations desire, but the freedom to achieve it ” (Davis). Collins felt that the treaty could be used as a “stepping stone” on the road to the Republic. He thought he could accept the treaty first and then wait until the right time to tear up the treaty and conquer the six counties of Northern Ireland by force and re-establish the ideal Irish Republic.
Collins accurately predicted his fate, unable to achieve these goals. On August 22, 1922, less than a year after the treaty was signed, he was ambushed by a small group of anti-Treaty IRA on his way to visit his home county of Cork and was killed, ending a controversial life.
4. Collins’ Legacy
Collins maintains a strong legacy to this day, still being a widely recognized and remembered figure in Ireland and Europe. Historically speaking, he was the only military leader from the World War I period to maintain popularity with the people after the end of the war (Regan, 17). It’s a popularity that has continued to stick with him after his death. When he died in 1922, virtually every newspaper in the country was labeling it as the death of the most powerful person in Ireland. The Freeman’s Journal at the time called it “A Terrible Blow to the Irish People,” while the Irish Independent said it was a loss of “the ablest and most dangerous adversary of the British forces operating in this country” (McKean, 24). Even now, his death is regarded as a tragic loss for Ireland, and every year hundreds still gather at Béal na Bláth in Cork on the anniversary of his passing to honor his memory and mourn his loss. For a period of time after he died, however, there was not very much written memory of how the people adored and idolized him. Eamon de Valera, the next major Irish political figure, has been accused of potentially attempting to stifle Collins’s legacy since many regarded him to be a more effective and robust leader. Even so, “reading the press of the time and allowing for hyperbole there is no doubt that Collins was the man of his time” (McKeane, 26). Many people in Ireland will picture his face above all others when thinking of the Irish independence movement.
Collins was very much aware of his image and its association to Irish independence and chose to mostly represent himself in military uniforms. It seems he presented himself in this way in an attempt to construct a romantic quality to his public image. He was not only an Irish soldier but also an Irish warrior (Regan, 22). It was an image that was brought up by the Irish people, and thus he and his uniforms have endured as the main cultural images associated with the independence movement. In modern times, he has been portrayed as an icon in Ireland. His image represents the idea of a classic and free nation, as well as a unified Ireland, which remains unrealized, but that many believe he could have helped happen. Although this persona now may be an exaggeration of who he really was at the time, the image and ideas that he represented seem to have a timeless appeal to the people of Ireland. There is still a striving to make Ireland into what he envisioned.
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