Michael Collins Paper

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Our Hero, Our Legend:
Dublin Newsprint Propaganda and the Founding of
the Cult of Michael Collins

Joseph N. Anderson, AS, BA

Senior Thesis, Utah State University History Department, 2007
Revised and presented at the
Phi Alpha Theta Utah Regional Conference, 2008

Throughout the eighty-five years since his death, Michael Collins has been given an almost flawless reputation by historians, poets, painters, musicians and the like. He has been lauded by his biographers as “the man who made Ireland possible,”[1] “one of the truly great figures of [the 20th] century,”[2] and as one of the “great heroes of all time.”[3] He is the subject of a 1996 Hollywood-style epic film directed by Neil Jordan and starring Liam Neeson in the title role. He is the main subject of at least forty non-fiction books and yet the first book overtly attempting to be critical of Collins was only released in 2006.[4] In an Irish poll from the year 2000, he was named the greatest man of the last thousand years.[5]

Whether or not Collins really was as incredible as was reported will not be examined here, but, instead, this work will focus on his notoriety and the beginnings of its perpetuation. It will show that a major source of the heroic image and sterling reputation of Michael Collins was the propagandized reporting in Ireland’s two largest newspapers, the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, in the days following his assassination. This reporting was obviously an attempt to promote Collins, the cause he was fighting for at the time, and his sacred memory as a martyr for Ireland and almost Christ-like figure.

Michael Collins’ formative years were spent in rural Ireland, big city England, and in battle in Dublin. He was born in 1890 on a farm in Woodfield, County Cork, Ireland, to 75-year-old Michael Collins Sr. and 39-year–old Marianne and their seven previous children.[6] At the time of his birth, all Ireland was under British control, although this dominion was hotly contested in many places. It is reported that just before Michael Sr. passed away only six years after Michael Jr.’s birth, he announced to the family that “one day [Michael will] be a great man. He’ll do great work for Ireland.”[7] During his years at school as a young man, the younger Collins was also informally taught by local Irish nationalists.[8] Despite this training, he soon joined the administrative center of the British Empire when he went to work in London at the Postal Savings Bank at age fifteen. Collins returned home in early 1916 at age twenty-five to participate in the “Easter Rising,” an attempt by a couple hundred Irish men (and a few women) to initiate a country-wide rebellion against British authority in Ireland. After a week, the British were successful in crushing the rebels’ uprising and after an official surrender many participants were arrested and charged with treason. Sixteen Irish rebel leaders were executed and many more were sent to internment camps.[9] Collins himself was sent to the temporary holding facility at Frongoch in Wales.[10]

Released from prison after only a few months, Collins returned to Ireland and almost immediately began placing himself in the middle of everything important that was going on in Irish politics and the new popular effort to separate Ireland from Great Britain. He began organizing election rallies and, in fact, was himself elected in December of 1918 as an MP from South Cork and joined the new Irish rebel parliament, Dáil Éireann.[11] Over the next few years, Collins was made Minister for Finance and also took on the role of Director of Intelligence in the newly-formed Irish Republican Army.[12] In this capacity he directed the movement against the British in a new and unique way: by intercepting information and ordering that spies be shot. British authorities desperately wanted to capture Collins but they were unsuccessful and it was during this time that he became known as “the man they couldn’t catch.” His reputation increased, rumors began to run wild, and the façade grew with stories regarding escapades such as when Collins organized Dáil President Éamon De Valera’s escape from Lincoln Jail in England in January, 1919.[13]

In July 1921, after a renewed intense fight with the British, a turning point came in the form of a truce.[14] Later that year, Collins was chosen along with Arthur Griffith, an influential fellow politician, to lead the Irish team in negotiations concerning the future of British control of Ireland. After months in and out of #10 Downing Street and London high society, the two sides worked out the Anglo-Irish Treaty wherein Ireland would be given some degree of freedom but the six northernmost counties would remain part of Great Britain. After votes by the Dáil and the Irish people in which the Treaty was accepted,[15] Collins spent the next several months defending it against De Valera and his “Republicans” or “Irregulars”– those who rejected the Treaty and believed that anything less than full sovereignty was unacceptable. At the time of the Treaty signing, Collins is reported to have said that when he signed it, he was also signing his own death warrant.[16]

On Tuesday, August 22, 1922, Collins was in his home county of Cork inspecting his Free State forces and gauging the situation there. He was traveling with several constant companions and a varying group of soldiers who were all moving in a small convoy of vehicles from town to town and village to village. In the late morning, the group visited Lee's Hotel in Bandon where a famous photograph was taken as Collins' touring car started away.[17] This would turn out to be the last photograph of Collins while he lived.

The final hour of Collins’ life is extremely controversial and confusing.[18] It was around 8.00 pm when his convoy made its way into the small valley of Beal na mBlath, halted at a makeshift roadblock, and came under fire from above.[19] Instead of clearing the debris and pushing on through, Collins commanded the driver of his vehicle to stop and announced that they would confront whoever was shooting at them. For about thirty minutes in the half-light of the late summer evening, the two sides fired back and forth. Collins’ group consisted of at least twenty armed men and a mounted turret machine gun while the attacking Republicans numbered between ten and fifteen and were armed with pistols, rifles and at least two Thompson sub-machine guns. At some point during the action, several people noticed that Collins was lying prone on the road. When his aides rushed to his side, they found him shot in the head with a massive gaping wound behind his right ear.[20] Collins must have died almost instantly. After this, the attackers fired several more volleys and then fled, leaving the Free State forces to travel back to Cork in the dark carrying their dead Commander-in-Chief in their laps over bumpy roads and through muddy fields. Collins was the only person killed in the intense fighting that night. While his body was officially now deceased, Collins’ fame in the hearts of the Irish was only beginning.

In the days following the assassination, both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent presented pro-Collins propaganda in two ways: first, by reporting so-called facts about the events at Beal na mBlath which make the assassination seem like a larger-than-life event. Some of these have since been proven to be totally false while others seemed ridiculous from the beginning. Second, the papers played up the heroic image of Collins’ life by printing anecdotes, hearsay stories, word-of-mouth legends, and even poetry– all of which involved careful word choice and were designed to make the man look flawless.

In their initial reporting of Collins’ death (which first appeared on Wednesday, August 23; he had been killed only hours before), both newspapers were short on facts about the actual events. They announced the assassination in their headlines and then included biographical articles that reviewed his entire life and career. These served to present Collins as a true Irishman of humble beginnings who had risen to the top through hard work, intelligence, and, above all, a disdain for the British control of Ireland.

Under the large headline: GENERAL COLLINS SHOT DEAD NEAR BANDON, the Independent’s biography called him a patriot and asserted that “his crowded and romantic career, now cruelly ended in the moment of his country’s greatest need, was yet short. He was only just past 35 years of age.”[21] Collins was actually just 31 years old at the time of his death. This small error might be forgiven but calling his career “romantic” hinted at the style of reporting that was to come.

In the Times for Wednesday, a profile of Collins from April 1 of the same year was reprinted. It included this examination of the rise of his reputation: “Up to [1918] his name was unheard outside the circle of his immediate colleagues, and it was not until the height of the ‘trouble’ that one began to hear whispers of a mysterious Collins, on whose head was laid a pretty price.... Thereafter, the Collins legend grew, and everything that happened in Ireland was attributed to his elusive genius.”[22] This idea of Collins’ quick rise to popularity was echoed by a recent biographer who observed that Collins was unknown in 1917, and irreplaceable in 1922, just five years later.[23] The Times continued by using phrases like “the greatest,” “the most popular leader,” and “most powerful son.” Also included was a “personal” story (although no author is given), which had Collins being searched and compared to a photograph by British soldiers on one occasion. When Collins asked who the soldiers were looking for, he was told “Collins, of course!” Collins then laughed with (or possibly at) the soldiers as they finished their duties and sent their target on his way again.[24] Maybe this is what was meant by elusive genius?

By Thursday, August 24, the long-awaited information on Collins’ death was beginning to roll in from County Cork and roll out to the rest of the country through the newspapers (Collins’ body, too, arrived in Dublin on Thursday morning). Unfortunately, a lot of the initial “facts” reported in the papers were incorrect and there began a combination of the two propaganda styles. TheIndependent’s headline pronounced THE GREATEST AND BRAVEST DEAD, which was a quote lifted from a statement released by Collins’ fellow ministers in the government. The Independent’s correspondent in Cork exclaimed: “Michael Collins Shot dead! He whom the people of Ireland admired, loved, nay, almost worshipped!”[25] A full-page spread of photographs chronicled Collins’ career, and tributes were published in the form of a poem and a large drawing which depicted a mythological Irish maiden who had set down her lyre with one string broken and was praying over Collins’ tomb.

Also prominent was the first account in the papers of the fight in which Collins perished (this might be usefully compared to the account given above). According to the anonymous Independent writer, Collins’ convoy arrived in Beal na mBlath at around 6.30 pm and his attackers were “estimated to number 200. Overwhelmed by force of numbers, that gallant little band put up awonderful fight.”[26] While there is no evidence that it was created on purpose, this grossly incorrect figure for Collins’ adversaries fit nicely into the image being portrayed of him. The article then related that Collins’ company was just beginning to defeat the Republicans when- “Gently Collins collapses with a thud– a bullet through his brain. Dauntless to the end, he continues firing, even after he has fallen.”[27] The incredible feats continued: Collins called out for his bodyguard, Major Emmet Dalton, who whispered the Act of Contrition into his ear. Collins next announced that he wanted to be buried by the Dublin Brigade. “After a short lapse once more he speaks, only two words and yet they draw away the veil, and, as perhaps nothing else in all his life, manifest the greatness and nobility of that passing soul: ‘Forgive them,’ he cried, and with that prayer of forgiveness on his lips, he breathed his last, and his great big soul passed on its way to the All-Just Judge.”[28]

The Thursday edition of the Times included much of the same information as the Independent but added a few new aspects such as an official statement from Army Publicity upon which the version of facts in the Independent’s story may have been based. The Times also included much more on Collins’ life, his legacy, and even physical descriptions of him. One article reminisced: “His name became a legend in the land and the stories of his daring exploits were told at every cottage fire in Ireland. No man tried so hard as Michael Collins to save Ireland from civil war.”[29] Another described Collins as he appeared a week before his death with “his broad shoulders and fine, athletic figure.” Once again, a newspaper confused his age, calling him 30 years old. The Times also included a remembrance of how Collins helped President De Valera escape from jail by baking a key into a cake (and that story was factual!). Various statements on Collins from around the world were reported, including language such as: an inspiration, an example of patriotism, great, noble, and chivalrous. The Deputy-Mayor of Limerick lamented that “the bravest and best is lost forever.”[30]

The Independent for Friday, August 25, was full of information about Collins. It included another large spread of pictures, several of which depicted Collins’ coffin being removed from St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin to the City Hall the night before. Another showed the famous painter Sir John Lavery on his way to make a portrait of the deceased Collins as he lay-in-state. Advertisements for Lavery’s painting and for photographs of Collins for sale begin running in the papers even before Collins’ funeral, which was announced to take place on Monday, August 28 in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin.[31] Consequently, Monday was designated a day of mourning and all businesses were to be closed and all sporting events were to be cancelled. Messages continued to pour into Ireland from all corners of the world including America and the Vatican, and even from British leaders like Sir Winston Churchill who publicly reassured the Irish that the terms of the recently signed Treaty would be upheld even in their hour of crisis. Churchill was apparently so moved by Collins’ death that he even helped Collins’ sister Hannah find travel accommodations from England to Ireland during the first few days after the assassination.[32]

Friday’s edition of the Independent also published a brief account that bears repeating in full to demonstrate the unbelievable hearsay printed by the papers at the time:
“A Belfast business gentlemen, says the ‘Belfast Telegraph,’ has been informed by a friend who was in conversation with General Collins in Dublin after the funeral of Mr. Arthur Griffith that the Commander-in-Chief of the Army [Collins], on taking his leave, said, ‘Good-bye. I will say good-bye, because I do not expect I shall see you again.’”[33]
This story is indicative of the eagerness of the papers to print anything related to Collins, even if, through this story, he was four generations away from the Independent– hardly a dependable first-hand source.

Collins was portrayed by the papers as several different figures in the week after his death. The preceding story made him to be a sort of prophet who foretold his own doom to a random man on the street. The allusions to Jesus Christ are perhaps the most common with the admission on Wednesday that Collins was almost worshiped, his final words of forgiveness related on Thursday, and his prediction of his own demise printed on Friday. Also beginning on Friday, Collins was made out to be a clan leader from times past or an Irish mythological hero. He was called Chief, celtic[34], and in Monday’s edition, Lion-Hearted Chieftain. A man called “Mr. O’Lynch” referred to him as “the Cúchulainn of his time.”[35]

After examining several days worth of pro-Collins propaganda the question must be asked: why promote Collins at all? It would have been in the best interests of profit-seeking newspaper companies to provide a view of Collins that the buying public would approve of. Additionally, the sensational fact that Collins was a national figure killed in his prime by his own countrymen cannot be ignored. Despite these truths, it’s highly unlikely that they were the main reasons for presenting such a universally slanted view.

The real reasons for the adoration of Collins must be seen in light of how he was viewed by the Irish public at the time. First, his life represented everything that the people of Ireland believed in: he epitomized the ideal of independence by fighting the British with a fierce ruthlessness rarely seen, but afterwards threw himself behind the movements for peace with complete conviction when the opportunity came. Second, no matter which side of the Treaty debate one came down on, almost everyone liked “The Big Fella.” Collins was just common enough and just elevated enough; just religious enough and yet just worldly enough; just military enough and just civilian enough; just country enough and just metropolitan enough that he impressed and endeared the loyalty and respect of almost every person he came in contact with. The third reason might seem like a cliché, but it’s true: Collins was low-born and yet made it to the top of his world. The youngest son of a poor farmer really did negotiate on equal terms with the likes of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. To the Irish people, Collins had become the symbol of a kindly neighbor, the volunteer spirit, the movement against Britain, the support of the Treaty, the new Free State Government, and the future of Ireland all rolled into one. Therefore, if journalistic ethics were bent a little at the time, it was easy and natural for the newspapers to present Collins as they did; to the Irish, the real Michael Collins lay just below the surface of what was reported.

In the end, the newspaper reporting in the Irish Times and Irish Independent acted less as an originator of the Collins myth and more as a machine for the dissemination of his story- widely proclaiming his life and deeds and cementing his reputation in the public record, the culture, and the hearts of the people of Ireland.

One week after the death of Michael Collins, the Independent reported on Richard Mulcahy’s speech at Collins’ funeral (Mulcahy was a close acquaintance of Collins and had taken over his position as Commander-in-Chief of the Army). His words summed up the feelings of many who knew Collins personally, and many who felt like they knew him just as well through reputation. “[Collins] made himself a hero and a legend that will stand in the pages of our history with any bright page that was ever written there.”[36]

[1] Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland (Boulder: Roberts Rinehart, 1992), xiv.
[2] James Mackay, Michael Collins: A Life (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1996), 8.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Personal knowledge from a list of Collins books compiled by the author.
[5] Peter Hart, Mick: The Real Michael Collins (New York: Viking, 2006), xiv.
[6] Mackay, A Life, 17.
[7] Coogan, Man Who Made Ireland, 9.
[8] Ibid., 6.
[9] Max Caulfield, The Easter Rebellion: Dublin 1916 (Boulder: Roberts Rinehart, 1963), 283-88. Caulfield doesn’t count Thomas Kent, I assume, because Kent wasn’t active in Dublin during the Rising. He was nevertheless executed for his activities elsewhere during Easter week.
[10] Hart, Mick, 98-99
[11] Ibid., 185.
[12] Gabriel Doherty and Dermot Keogh, eds., Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State (Dublin: Mercier, 1998), 69.
[13] Margery Forester, Michael Collins: The Lost Leader (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1971), 98.
[14] Coogan, Man Who Made Ireland, 216.
[15] Mackay, A Life, 259-60.
[16] Coogan, Man Who Made Ireland, 276.
[17] Meda Ryan, The Day Michael Collins Was Shot (Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 1989), 69.
[18] For various reasons, nearly all the facts about Collins’ death are disputed. I have attempted to present a short overview; for more information, see the works of Feehan and Ryan in this list.
[19] John M. Feehan, The Shooting of Michael Collins: Murder or Accident? (Cork: Royal Carbery, 1981), 58.
[20] Ryan, Day Collins Was Shot, 139-40.
[21] Irish Independent (Dublin), 23 August 1922.
[22] Irish Times (Dublin), 23 August 1922.
[23] Hart, Mick, xiii.
[24] Times, 23 August 1922.
[25] Irish Independent (Dublin), 24 August 1922.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Irish Times (Dublin), 24 August 1922.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Irish Independent (Dublin), 25 August 1922.
[32] Mackay, A Life, 292.
[33] Independent, 25 August 1922.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Irish Independent (Dublin), 29 August 1922.
[36] Ibid.