Local Hero: Michael Collins
Among the heroes of Ireland’s struggle for independence, Michael Collins seems to be Cork’s favorite native son. Affectionately referred to as “the Big Fella,” Collins was the commander in chief of the army of the Irish Free State, which finally won the Republic’s independence from Britain in 1921.
Collins was born in 1890 and, along with seven brothers and sisters, he was raised on a farm in Sam’s Cross, just outside the little town of Clonakilty. He immigrated to England at 15, like many other young Irish men seeking work in London. In his 20s, he joined the Irish revolutionary group, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (I.R.B.) and first came to fame in 1916 as one of the planners and leaders of the Easter Rising. Although it aroused passions among the population, the Rising was in fact a military disaster, and Collins—young but clever—railed against its amateurism. He was furious about the seizure of prominent buildings—such as Dublin’s General Post Office—that were impossible to defend, impossible to escape from, and difficult to get supplies into.
After the battle, Collins was arrested and sent to an internment camp in Britain, along with hundreds of other rebels. There his stature within the I.R.B. grew, and by the time he was released, he had become one of the leaders of the Republican movement. In 1918, he was elected a member of the British Parliament, but like many other Irish members, he refused to go to London, instead announcing that he would sit only in an Irish parliament in Dublin. Most of the rebel Irish MPs (including Eamon de Valera) were arrested by British troops for their actions, but Collins avoided arrest, and later helped de Valera escape from prison. Over the subsequent years, de Valera and Collins worked together to create an Irish state.
After lengthy political wrangling and much bloodshed (Collins orchestrated an assassination that essentially wiped out the British secret service in Ireland), Collins was sent by de Valera in 1921 to negotiate a treaty with the British government. In the meeting, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George agreed to allow Ireland to become a free republic, as long as that republic did not include the largely Protestant counties of Ulster, which would stay part of the United Kingdom. Knowing he could not get more at the time and determined to end the violence, Collins reluctantly agreed to sign the treaty, hoping to renegotiate later. After signing the document Collins said, “I have just signed my death warrant.”
As he’d expected, the plan tore the new Republic apart, dividing the group now known as the IRA into two factions—those who wanted to continue fighting for all of Ireland, and those who favored the treaty. Fighting soon broke out in Dublin, and the civil war was underway.
Collins had learned many lessons from the Easter debacle, and now his strategy was completely different. His soldiers operated as “flying columns,” waging a guerrilla war against the enemy—suddenly attacking, and then just as suddenly withdrawing, thus minimizing their losses and leaving the opposition baffled.
The battles stretched on for 10 months. In August 1922, Collins, weary of the war, was on a peace mission in his home county. Stopping at a pub near his mother’s birthplace, he and his escort were on the road near Béal na Bláth when Collins was shot and killed. Precisely who killed him—his own men or the opposition—was never known. On his rapid rise to the top, he’d made too many enemies. He was 31 years old.
The Michael Collins Centre (www.michaelcollinscentre.com; 023/884-6107), located on the farm where he grew up, is a good place to learn more about the man. In addition to an hour-long tour, featuring a film and a visit to the actual ambush site, the center runs in-depth guided trips around the local area. (These last 3 1/2 hours and are probably for Collins devotees only.) The center is signposted off N71, 5.6km (3 1/2 miles) west of Clonakilty. It’s open mid-June to mid-September, Mondays to Fridays from 10:30am to 5pm, and Saturdays from 11am to 2pm. Admission is free.