The Cult of Collins

Contributed by Justin Dolan Stover

JDS and Collins

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 for links, updates, books, commemorations and all things Michael Collins.

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6 Responses to “The Cult of Collins”

  1. Jamie Says:

    Very nice.
    I wish I was currently sipping a pint with Mick at The Bank on College Green.

  2. Patrick Maume Says:

    Fintan O’Toole once wrote an uncharacteristically ingenious column comparing Collins to James Dean and De Valera to Marlon Brando. No matter what Brando achieved, he would always be measured against what Dean MIGHT ave achieved had he lived. I think that’s the key to the fascination with Collins (as with Parnell to a lesser extent).
    BTW as someone who spent part of my childhood in Clonakilty, which has always had a lot of Collins memorabilia around the place, I have no patience for Tim Pat Coogan’s claim that Collins had been “written out of Irish history” at De Valera’s behest until TPC wrote him back in. A brief look at the number of Collins biographies published before Tim Pat’s (let’s see – Hayden Talbot, Beaslai, Frank O’Connor’s THE BIG FELLOW which I think set the interpretative template, Rex Taylor, Marjorie Forester, Leon O Broin, Ryle Dwyer…) suffices to dispel this.

    • Mark Says:

      Any idea where you got that article from? Very interesting, concluding a thesis about the big fella and could come in handy. Thanks

  3. Frank Says:

    Nice post Justin. There are some areas which still need to be explored such as an indepth study of his time as chairman of the provisional government, and a study of his involvement in the national aid association. Perhaps his association with the Irish Volunteers and his later role in the formation of the National Army could also merit further analysis, papers permitting. Interestingly, I met Bryan MacMahon, Listowel’s other great man of letters, a few years before he died and he told me that as a child his mother was talking to a tall good looking man as he scampered through the hall to play and that the man had momentarily halted his advance, placing his hand on the boy’s head and musing about what this fellow would grow up to be. The man, of course, was Collins.

  4. Patrick Maume Says:

    One area that someone should look into is the growing “collins assassination conspiracy” literature growing up around him a la JFK.

  5. sourdough bread Says:

    You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I
    find this topic to be really something which I think I would
    never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me.
    I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try
    to get the hang of it!

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