Contributed by Justin Dolan Stover
You have seen him around. His portraits line the walls of the Military Archives at Cathal Brugha Barracks; his imposing civilian bust barks at you from Archbishop Ryan Park; his disciplined torso overlooks your pint at The Bank on College Green. He is remembered and celebrated (and commercialised) to an extent unequivocal of modern Irish historical figures. His death mask resides within the Museum Barracks which bares his name; fresh flowers line his grave at Glasnevin year-round, accompanied occasionally by elderly women praying the rosary; idols bearing his likeness are peddled at nearly every heraldic shop in town; and the annual pilgrimage to the place of his death that will take place this Saturday to Béal na mBláth in Cork, draws thousands. He has transcended the traditional form of historical conveyance to grace both screen and stage. The musical portrayal of his life c.1916-1922, initiated in 2005 by the Cork Opera House, has launched in Cork, Waterford and Dublin. The film, in which Liam Neeson portrays him as the tragic hero opposite Alan Rickman’s sinister interpretation of Eamon de Valera, is currently on the four for €22 shelf at HMV.
On the anniversary of this death it seems like a good time to ask why are we as historians, and to a larger extent as a nation, so interested in Michael Collins? Even if you have only a slight interest in modern Irish history you will have observed that nearly every aspect of his life has been investigated – from his childhood, to his nationalist activities, friendships, personality, love life and pre-mature death. Even his critics acknowledge his importance both as a financial organiser, national leader, military chief and midwife to the troubled birth of the Irish Free State.
Perhaps the question should be aimed at the consumer rather than the advocate.
Why is the public so eager to remember and commemorate Michael Collins? Why, for the past eighty-plus years since his death, has the subject of Collins commanded an audience? The answer lies perhaps not in the historian’s appreciation for Collins or the presentation of his life, but in the general public’s popular memory of a man who was many things to many people.
The witness statements collected by the Bureau of Military History reveal that a great many people had, at the very least, come into contact with Collins between 1913 and 1921. Even those quite loosely involved in the Irish movement recall meeting the ‘big fella’ at a meeting, in a back room, or while ‘on the run’. The impressions left were indelible. Each described their interaction with ‘Mick’ as forming an enduring impression on their lives. Each believed they were an integral part of Collins’s machine and irreplaceable in the Irish struggle. There is little doubt as to why this was: Collins made each individual feel as if they were. Ordinary conversation regarding family, sport, and the mundane occurrences of everyday life helped attach to Collins an aura of approachability difficult to establish with other leaders.
It is little wonder therefore that Collins death in August 1922 left such an impression on a population who professed to know him intimately – either directly or vicariously. Though early efforts to properly and publicly honour the late Commander-in-Chief were stalled by civil war, restricted public spending, and a Government cautious of antagonising its Republican opposition, a reverent collection of family, friends, colleagues – as well as those who weren’t but claimed to be – established the commemoration tradition we observe each late August. But you don’t have to head to Cork or Glasnevin; simply have a walk through town – Michael Collins is bound to pop up somewhere.
Check out generalmichaelcollins.com for links, updates, books, commemorations and all things Michael Collins.