Famous Irish Names: Michael Collins
by findingDulcinea Staff
Irish revolutionary soldier and politician Michael Collins led the fight for Irish independence in the years after the Easter Rising. A national hero during the Anglo-Irish war, Collins soon found himself at the center of a bitter conflict that divided the country and would ultimately lead to his death at the age of 31. Today, the “Big Fella” is remembered as one of Ireland’s greatest heroes.
Michael Collins was born on October 16, 1890, in west Cork, an area with a strong spirit of Irish nationalism. Collins absorbed this spirit from those around him and retained it even after he left for London at the age of 15. In 1909, he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a clandestine organization dedicated to an independent Irish republic.
In 1916, Collins returned to Ireland and joined the Irish Volunteers. On April 24, Easter Monday, Collins joined other Irish nationalists in seizing the General Post Office in Dublin and declaring the creation of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic. The Easter Uprising, as it came to be known, was soon put down by a wave of British troops and Collins was sent to a Welsh prison. During his months in prison, Collins became determined to rebuild the Irish Republican Brotherhood and launch guerilla-style resistance against the British government.
After his release from prison, Collins and his fellow republicans returned to a hero’s welcome in Ireland. Collins became a leader of the Irish Republican Army and helped to form the illegal Irish parliament, the Dáil Eireann. In January 1919, the killing of two British police officers ignited a war that would last a year and a half. During this time, Collins was responsible for the military and the self-declared Sinn Féin government, waging a brutal guerilla war while collecting loans from his countrymen to fund the Republic. In July 1921, a truce was signed, as both sides tried to end the war.
With a £10,000 bounty still on his head, Collins was sent to London in a group of delegates to negotiate a peace treaty. Noticeably absent from the delegation was Irish President Éamon de Valera. On December 6, as the British threatened to resume the war if an agreement wasn’t reached, the Irish delegation signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The provisions of the treaty required the British to withdraw their troops and establish Ireland as a self-governing dominion. It was a significant step toward full independence, but the Irish made several considerable concessions. Most controversial was their agreement that all members of the Dáil would take an Oath of Allegiance to King George. Soon after signing the Treaty, Collins remarked, “I may have signed my actual death-warrant.”
When Collins returned to Ireland, he found that many nationalists, particularly de Valera, were angry with his concessions. They demanded nothing short of an independent republic and felt that Collins had betrayed the Irish cause. For the next month, the treaty was the subject of a bitter and angry debate in the Dáil, the transcripts of which are available from CELT.
On January 7, 1922, the Dáil ratified the Treaty by just seven votes. Two days later, de Valera resigned in protest and joined the IRA as a soldier. The nation soon descended into civil war.
As the conflict escalated, Collins found himself the commander-in-chief of the Irish army, waging war against the same men he fought with in the War of Independence. While traveling through the heavily anti-Treaty County Cork, his motorcade was ambushed at Béal na mBláth and Collins was fatally shot.
Collins’s body was taken to Dublin, where it lay in state for three days as mourners and foreign dignitaries came to pay their respects. Footage of his funeral was shown at the conclusion of the 1996 film, “Michael Collins.”
“The Path to Freedom” is a collection of essays written by Collins in the years before his death. He reflects on Ireland’s progress toward independence, defends his signing of the treaty and looks ahead to what needs to be done to achieve freedom.