General Michael Collins, Commander-in-Chief Irish Free State forces pictured in military uniform circa 1922
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General Michael Collins, Commander-in-Chief, Irish Free State Army
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Michael Collins (Irish name Micheál Ó Coileáin; October 16, 1890 – August 22, 1922), an Irish revolutionary leader, served as Minister for Finance in the Irish Republic, as Director of Intelligence for the republican movement, as a member of the Irish delegation during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations, as Chairman of the Provisional Government and as Commander-in-Chief of the National Army. He was assassinated in August 1922, during the Irish Civil War. Members and supporters of the political party Fine Gael hold in particular respect his memory.
Michael Collins was born in Sam's Cross, near Clonakilty, in County Cork, Ireland in 1890. Although most biographies list his date of birth as October 16, 1890, his tombstone lists his date of birth as October 12, 1890. His family, muintir Uí Choileáin, had once been the lords of Uí Chonaill, near Limerick, but like many Irish gentry, had become dispossessed and reduced to the level of ordinary farmers. Yet their farm of 145 acres (0.9 km²) made them wealthier and more comfortable than most Irish farmers of late nineteenth century Ireland. It was into that relatively well-to-do farming existence that Michael Collins, the third son and youngest of eight children was born. Michael's father, also called Michael Collins, had become a member of the republican Fenian movement when younger, but had left the movement and settled down to farming.
Collins was recorded as being a bright and precocious child, with a fiery temper and a passionate nationalism, spurred on by a local blacksmith, James Santry, and later by a local school headmaster, Denis Lyons, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (an organization Collins would eventually become the leader of). Collins was tall, strapping and loved sports, which did not detract from his cerebral development or uncanny instincts. On February 1906 Collins took the British Civil Service examination in which (to pass it) he praised the 'greatest empire'. After leaving school, the fifteen-year-old Michael, like many Irish, moved abroad: he worked in the British Post Office in London from July 1906. He joined the IRB through Sam Maguire, a Protestant republican from Cork, in November 1909. He came to play a central role in the IRB, ending up as its president within little more than a decade.Early Life Michael Collins first became well-known during the Easter Rising in 1916. A skilled organiser of considerable intelligence, he was highly respected in the IRB, so much so that he was made 'financial adviser' to Count Plunkett, father of one of the Rising's organisers, Joseph Mary Plunkett. When the Rising itself took place, he fought alongside Patrick Pearse and others in the General Post Office in Dublin. The Rising became (as expected by many) a military disaster. While many celebrated the fact that a Rising had happened at all, believing in the theory of blood sacrifice (namely that the deaths of the Rising's leaders would inspire others), Collins railed against what he perceived as its ham-fisted amateurism, notably the seizure of prominent buildings such as the GPO that were impossible to defend, impossible to escape from and difficult to supply. (During the War of Independence he ensured the avoidance of such tactics of 'becoming sitting targets', with his soldiers operating as flying columns who waged a guerrilla war against the British, suddenly attacking then just as quickly suddenly withdrawing, minimising losses and maximising effectiveness.
Collins, like many of the Rising's participants, was arrested and sent to Frongoch internment camp in Wales. There, as his contemporaries expected, his leadership skills showed. By the time of the general release, Collins had already become one of the leading figures in the post-Rising Sinn Féin, a small nationalist party which the British government and the Irish media wrongly blamed for the Rising. It was quickly infiltrated by survivors of the Rising, so as to capitalise on the 'notoriety' the innocent movement had gained through British attacks. By October 1917, through skill and ability, Collins had risen to become a member of the Executive of Sinn Féin and Director of Organization of the Irish Volunteers; Eamon de Valera was president of both organisations.
The First Dáil
Like all senior Sinn Féin members, Michael Collins was nominated to seek a seat in the 1918 general election to elect Irish MPs to the British House of Commons in London. And like the overwhelming majority (many without contests), Collins was elected, becoming MP for South Cork. However, unlike their rivals in the Irish Parliamentary Party, Sinn Féin MPs had announced that they would not take their seats in Westminster, but instead would set up an Irish parliament in Dublin. That new parliament, called Dáil Éireann (meaning Assembly of Ireland, see First Dáil) met in the Mansion House, Dublin in January 1919. De Valera and leading Sinn Féin MPs had been arrested. Collins, typically, had been tipped off by his network of spies about the plan and had warned leading figures. De Valera, equally typically, had talked many into ignoring the warnings, believing if the arrests happened they would constitute a propaganda coup, only to find that with the leadership now arrested, there were few people left to do the necessary 'spinning' in the media. In de Valera's absence, Cathal Brugha was elected Príomh Aire (literally prime minister, but often translated as 'President of Dáil Éireann'), to be replaced by de Valera, who Collins helped escape from Lincoln prison, in April 1919.
Collins in 1919 had a number of roles: in the summer he was elected president of the IRB, and in September he was made Director of Intelligence of the Irish Republican Army, as the Volunteers had become (the name symbolising the organisation's claim to be the army of the Irish Republic ratified in January 1919). The Irish War of Independence in effect began on the same day that the First Dáil met in January 1919, when two policemen guarding a consignment of gelignite were shot dead byrepublican volunteers acting without orders, in Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary.
Minister for Finance
In 1919, the already busy Collins received yet another responsibility when de Valera appointed him to the Aireacht (ministry) as Minister for Finance. Understandably, in the circumstances of a brutal war, in which ministers were liable to be arrested or killed by the Royal Irish Constabulary, the British Army, the Black and Tans or the Auxiliaries at a moment's notice, most of the ministries only existed on paper, or as one or two people working in a room of a private house. Not with Collins, however, who produced a Finance Ministry that was able to organise a large bond issue in the form of a National Loan to fund the new Irish Republic. Such was Collins' reputation that even Lenin heard about Collins' spectacular national loan, and sent a representative to Dublin to borrow some money from the Irish Republic to help fund the Russian Republic, offering some of the Russian Crown Jewels as collateral. (The jewels remained in a Dublin safe, forgotten by all sides, until the 1930s, when they were found by chance.)
In retrospect, the sheer scale of Collins' workload and his achievements are impressive. From creating a special assassination squad called The Twelve Apostles to kill British agents and assassins to the arrangement of an internationally famous 'National Loan'; from running therepublican movementto effectively running the government when de Valera traveled to and remained in the United States for an extended period of time; and managing an arms-smuggling operation; Collins nearly became a one-man revolution. By 1920, when he was thirty years old, the British offered a bounty of £10,000 (a vast sum in the 1920s) for information leading to the capture or death of Michael Collins.
Among national leaders, he made enemies with two particular people: Cathal Brugha, the earnest but mediocre Minister for Defence who was completely overshadowed by his cabinet colleague in military matters (despite Collins being only nominally Minister for Finance with Brugha in Defence supposedly being the big player), and Éamon de Valera, the President of Dáil Éireann. De Valera bitterly resented his much younger colleague and more so when Collins' reputation reached new heights while he, against Collins' advice, devoted a year to an ultimately fruitless search for American recognition of the Irish Republic. Their rivalry was even represented in their nicknames: the extremely tall de Valera earned the nickname the 'Long Fellow' while to de Valera's fury while abroad, Collins won the nickname 'Big Fellow' from his colleagues. Upon his return, De Valera attempted to get Collins to go to the States himself, on the pretext that only he could achieve certain tasks there. Collins and most of the Sinn Féin leadership (except Brugha and Austin Stack) opposed this, and he stayed in Ireland.
Following a truce, arrangements were made for a conference between the British government and the leaders of the as yet unrecognized Irish Republic. Other than the Soviet Union, which needed money and so gave diplomatic recognition to the Irish Republic, not a single other state did so, despite sustained lobbying in Washington by de Valera and prominent Irish-Americans, as well as at the Versailles Peace Conference by Sean T. O'Kelly. In a move that astonished observers, de Valera--who had in August 1921 had the Dáil upgrade his office from prime minister to President of the Republic to make him the equivalent of King George V in the negotiations--then announced that as the King would not attend neither should the President of the Republic. Instead with the reluctant agreement of his cabinet, de Valera nominated a team of 'plenipotentiaries'--delegates with the power to sign a treaty without seeking approval from the government at home--headed by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins as his deputy. With heavy misgivings, believing de Valera should head the delegation, Collins agreed to go to London.
The negotiations ultimately resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which provided for a new Irish state, named the 'Irish Free State' (a literal translation from the Irish language term Saorstát Éireann, which appeared on the letter-head de Valera had used, though de Valera had translated it less literally as the Irish Republic). It provided for a possible all-Ireland state, subject to the right of a six-county region in the northeast to opt out of the Free State (which it immediately did). If this happened, an Irish Boundary Commission was to be established to redraw the Irish border, which Collins expected would so reduce the size of Northern Ireland as to make it economically unviable, thus enabling unity, as most of the unionist population was concentrated in a relatively small area in eastern Ulster.
The new Irish Free State was to be a Dominion, with a bicameral parliament, executive authority vested in the king but exercised by an Irish government elected by a lower house called Dáil Éireann (translated this time as Chamber of Deputies), an independent courts system, and a form of independence that far exceeded anything sought by Charles Stewart Parnell or the subsequent Irish Parliamentary Party. Republican purists saw it as a sell-out, with the replacement of the republic by dominion status within the British Empire, and an Oath of Allegiance made (it was then claimed) directly to the King. (The actual wording shows that the oath was made to the Irish Free State, with a subsidiary oath of fidelity to the king as part of the Treaty settlement, not to the king unilaterally. See Oath of Allegiance (Ireland).)
Sinn Féin split over the treaty, with de Valera joining the anti-treatyites to oppose the 'sell-out'. His opponents charged that he knew that the crown would have to feature in whatever form of settlement was agreed. His bitterest opponents even accused 'Dev' of in effect 'chickening out' of leading the delegation, in the knowledge that a republic could not possibly result from the negotiations in the short-term. De Valera denied the charge, though most historians now accept the allegation as explaining his absence. Collins argued that while the treaty did not deliver the freedom that Irishmen had fought and died for, it gave 'the freedom to achieve that freedom'. De Valera was eventually to prove him right.
The Triple Approval
Under the terms of the treaty, three separate parliaments had to approve the document. The British parliament did so. So too did Dáil Éireann, although its approval was required for political rather than legal reasons: Dáil Éireann, though it had no status in international law and was not accepted as the parliament of Ireland by the international community (as it was regarded by the British as an illegal assembly), nevertheless had a crucial de-facto position as the voice of Sinn Féin members and (as they represented the majority of Irish people) of Irish public opinion. In addition the treaty required the approval of a third body, the House of Commons of Southern Ireland, which constituted the 'lawful' parliament of the twenty-six county state called Southern Ireland created