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THE BIG FELLOW

By Patrick Van Roy On August 14th, 2020

Guest post by Paul

I’ve no doubt that everyone here will have heard the name Michael Collins but some may not know the history of the man.

There are different theories of Collins and he is revered and to a much lesser extent reviled in Irish history. Collins was first and foremost a military man and when he was selected by Eamonn De Valera to take Dev’s place in treaty negotiations with the British in 1921 he resisted the appointment allegedly telling Dev that he was sending a soldier to do a politician’s job. After two months of negotiations the Anglo Irish Treaty which partitioned Ireland was established which upon signing Collins stated ‘I may have just signed my actual death warrant’ 

The AIT established the Irish Free State and provoked the Irish Civil War with former IRA comrades fighting against each other in pro / anti Treaty camps and Collins occupying the position of Commander –In-Chief of the then Free State Army, ultimately being assassinated by an anti treaty IRA unit at Béal na Bláth in West Cork in August 1922. I have a friend from Kinsale in West Cork who tells me that even today, almost one hundred years after the Irish Civil War, there are still family members in West Cork who are estranged from each other as a legacy of the Civil War.

There are theories that Dev manipulated Collins into signing the treaty as he was actually in favour of it and needed a patsy to pin it on. After partition Collins is also said to have kept Northern Divisions of The IRA stocked by running arms to them telling them privately that the Irish Free State Government planned to make partition absolutely impossible. 

Collins was 1916 Easter Proclamation signatory Joseph Plunkett’s aide-de-camp at the rebel’s headquarters at Dublin’s GPO and after the rising was quelled was sent to Frongoch internment camp in Wales but it was his role as the IRA’s chief of Intelligence and spymaster during the Irish War of Independence that Collins was best known. Collins ran a network of spies at the British Headquarters in Ireland, Dublin Castle, including Sergeant Ned Broy, a clerk in the detective office of the  Dublin Metropolitian Police, DMP Sergeant Joe Kavanagh & Dublin Castle clerical typist Lily Merin. Collins also had agents in the Irish and English postal, telephone and telegraph systems and had also infiltrated the Royal Irish Constabulary and a clerk in RIC headquarters in Dublin and fed information and codes to Collins from there. An RIC Sergeant in Belfast did the same in Ireland’s second city and there are claims that one of Collins’ agents was able to join the British Secret Service. It was Collins’ network of spies which led to the uncovering of the Cairo Gang, a group of British intelligence operatives sent to Dublin to conduct intelligence operations against the IRA and Collins formation of ‘The Squad’ or ‘The Twelve Apostles’ who wiped the entire British intelligence unit out in one morning in November 1920: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cairo_Gang

The Cairo Gang was a group of British intelligence agents who were sent to Dublin during the Irish War of Independence to conduct intelligence operations against prominent members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – according to Irish intelligence with the intention of assassinating them. Twelve men including British Army officers, Royal Irish Constabulary officers and a civilian informant were killed on the morning of 21 November 1920 by the Irish Republican Army in a planned series of simultaneous early-morning strikes engineered by Michael Collins. The events were the first killings of Bloody Sunday.

Some Irish historians (such as Tim Pat Coogan and Conor Cruise O’Brien) dispute assertions of a common history of service in the Middle East as the reason for the unit’s nom de guerre. It has been suggested that they received the name because they often held meetings at Cafe Cairo at 59 Grafton Street in Dublin. Earlier books on the 1919–1923 period do not refer to the Cairo Gang by that name.

Say what you will about Collins, have whichever opinion of him as hero or villain that you wish but there can be no doubt in terms of intelligence and spying he played the long, long, long game 😂

26 Responses to “THE BIG FELLOW”

  1. Don’t understand why the usual mis-informed Yanks have neglected to comment on this…

  2. As always, thanks Pat.

  3. Ever been to the Michael Collins bar in Granard? His sweetheart Kitty Kiernan’s family owned the hotel there and the bar is named after him (and has some good photos).
    He was quite a figure, and of course a part of the sadness relating to the civil war.

  4. No Mahons. I’ve only been to West Cork once many many years ago.

    Djayn, the post was meant to be tongue in light hearted & cheek although in terms of misinformation I thought I’d leave that to Brexis like yourself.

  5. I stayed in the Eldon Hotel, in Skibereen, many years ago. This is where Collins ate his last meal, before his fateful journey through Béal na Bláth. The hotel closed a while back, but I remember the bar was decorated with photos of himself and his friends, and exerpts from the letters he exchanged with Kitty Kiernan.
    It amazes me still, the hatred people around west Cork have for DeValera. Some will still literally spit when his name is mentioned, whereas Collins is regarded as a god.
    There is a statue to him in Clonakilty, unveiled by Liam Neeson. I thought my friend from Skib was going to kill me, when I told her it looked like a drunk, counting his change 🙂

  6. That was an entertaining piece Paul, cheers.
    Coincidentally enough, I watched a fascinating YouTube video about Michael Collins a few weeks ago.

    Seimi, you’re right about that statue.

  7. good find there paul , who’d have think it indeed.
    worked on a ward with a lass from cork the other today
    popping up everywhere these days ..

  8. You know what the difference between Cairk bais and other people is Kurt?

    Other people don’t think everyone wants to be from Cork.

  9. Collins – with his charm and boyish good looks and secret love affaire – has inevitably become the darling of today and historical celeb culture.

    Usually to the detriment of the dull and dour DeValera. However, I believe in time when people learn more about history and take a more sober view of how a free Ireland emerged, there will be a major reappraisal of Dev and his role.

    The whole point of the freedom struggle from 1916 on was the question of sovereignty – did the Irish nation have an intrinsic right to determine their political identity themselves or did they have to wait on British generosity to grant them the level of independence that Britain deemed they were mature enough to handle.

    The 1916 leaders believed the former, the HomeRule movement the latter. When Collins and Co signed the Treaty they were essentially accepting the position of the HomeRule movement and the IPP, the very concept against which the men of 1916 and later Collins’ IRA died fighting. The English king remained king of Ireland, England reserved the right to determine Irish foreign policy and in general the Irish were not deemed a free or sovereign people and would be dragged into any future war Britain decided to wage.

    This is what Collins borrowed artillery from Britain to enforce. It took the cute hoor Dev to undo all the injustices of the Treaty and clean up the mess from the Civil War, an English inspired conflict over an English dictated document.

  10. My Da met Dev around 1963.

  11. I knew someone who once sat on Michael Collins knee – true story !

  12. Seimi – I don’t know if I told this story before but my parents had a meeting with Dev in 1963 at the “Irish White House”. My Dad had written his Master’s thesis on him. When they arrived at the Presidential residence there was an old woman out picking weeds in the garden. Turned out to be his wife.

  13. wow that image is as earthy and delightful as a seamus heaney poem ..

  14. Mahons, I understand your wife is Irish or comes from an Irish background. Do you also come from an Irsh background yourself?

  15. Paul – yes, my great grandparents on both sides came to the United States around the same time in the late 19th Century.

  16. //My Dad had written his Master’s thesis on him.//

    Wow! Do you know what it was about? Have you ever read it?

    What Sinead was out plucking probably wasn’t weeds but nettles for the soup before dinner, which no doubt helped them both live well into their nineties.

  17. Interesting also that both Dev’s and Sinead’s parents lived in NY at the same time.

    What part of Ireland do your people originally come from, mahons? I keep forgetting if it’s you or Phantom who has some Cavan connection.

  18. …my parents had a meeting with Dev in 1963 at the “Irish White House”.

    I don’t think you’ve ever mentioned that before, Mahons. That’s incredible! What are your parents’ memories of the meeting?

  19. Seimi – They were on their honeymoon and had met up by chance with a doctor and his wife in Dublin. The doctor was from Dublin. When he heard my father had done his thesis on Dev he set up an audience with Dev. I suspect like most politicians Dev was willing to meet with someone who wrote about him academically, especially a Yank with Irish roots (my father was a college history professor). JFK was in office and of course Dev had come from the US himself. I have a photo he took with them that day (Mrs. Dev apparently continued to tend to the garden) and a brief article from an Irish paper which carried the photo and a blurb of the meeting at the time. 50 years later I dropped a copy of it into the Dev museum in Brulee (sic?) Ireland.

  20. Noel – my wife’s family was from Galway (her Dad) and Cavan/Westmeath/Longford (her mom). My family was from Kerry on my father’s side with some from Louth on my mother’s side.

  21. All four provinces!
    In fact all five of the older provinces – the Irish word for province is ‘Cúige,’ which means Fifth 😊

  22. I never realized. Funny.

  23. // I suspect like most politicians Dev was willing to meet with someone who wrote about him academically//

    Yes, Dev had a keen interest in all academic activity all his life.

    A lesser known fact about Dev perhaps is that it was he who personally invited the physicist and intellectual Erwin Schrödinger to Ireland, when the latter was in trouble with the Nazis in Austria, to set up the Institute of Advanced Studies in Dublin. Schrödinger came and stayed in Ireland for almost 20 years and became an Irish citizen. He was living with two women and he wrote personally to his friend Dev to obtain a visa for his 2nd lady so they could continue their ménage-a-trois in Ireland, which they duly did and both women had several children by the physics. Which I suppose proves that it was not only Schrödinger’s Cat that could be in two places at the same time.

    Another wrong assumption about the early days is that Dev was the ruthless die-hard and Collins the amiable peacemaker. In fact, Dev had far more moral scruples, and was against assassination and guerrilla war in principle (he had even been against the Easter Rising as it was contrary to the rules of the IRB, but finally went along with the majority of the Military Council). Collins was by temperament infinitely more ruthless. Had Collins lived, he was far more likely to become another European dictator in the 1930s than the moral and middle-class logician that was De Valera.

  24. The movie Michael Collins was a good movie if not exactly 100% historical. I thought the wonderful actor Alan Richman was poorly served by the way they portrayed Dev however.

  25. I think the myths of Collins the Soldier, de Valera the Politician, undermine important facts about both men. Firstly de Valera was a soldier. He was a commander during the Easter Rising, and while there are conflicting reports of Dev’s actions during the Rising (including accusatiosn – which only surfaced after the split – that he had suffered a nervous breakdown) it is well worth saying that Boland’s Mill was one of the best defended of all Irish positions, and exacted some of the highest numbers of British casualties during the Rising.

    Secondly Collins was a politician. While the histories tend to focus on his military accomplishments as head of the IRB, and Director of IRA Intelligence, his role as Minister for Finance has tended to be highly overlooked. Before becoming a key IRB/IRA figure Collins was a civil servant, worked for a stokebroker and was an accountant. As Minister for Finance he was very, very effective. At the time, due to the British occupying large swathes of the country, and what areas were not under direct British control were at least contested, meant that raising direct taxation was almost impossible. The bond issue raised £400,000. To put things into consideration the entire government income of the Free State immediately after the Civil War was £25M. So about 1.6% of the entire budget. It would be the equivalent of someone raising €1B today. Collins’ economic writings are also very, very interesting. The development of natural resources, infrastructure, agriculture and industry for export. His entire economic viewpoint was about marketing Ireland to the world, and Ireland on the world stage. The politician who, economically, Michael Collins is closest to is Seán Lemass, the father of the Celtic Tiger.

    Had Collins survived the Civil War it is highly possible that the Celtic Tiger takes off in the 1920s, not the 1960s and 70s.

  26. //Secondly Collins was a politician.//

    Collins was no doubt an incredibly good and energetic organiser. You provide several examples; Collins also organised the republican courts and police service, and later the Gardai/Civic Guards – famously from bits of notes and slips of paper in his pocket, even when he was on the run and one of the most wanted men in Ireland.

    But an organiser is not a politician. There are many things about Collins to suggest he was too impatient for the dreary world of politics or for office work.

    GB Shaw wrote after C’s death that he was lucky, as he had avoided a life of frustration and disappointments in trying to make politics work. Shaw was probably right, and maybe Ireland was lucky too. Collins was volatile and restless and physical, and such people don’t age well. Ireland was much safer steered through the dangerous 30’s and 40’s with the sober and patient Dev at the helm.