Michael Collins

Background

England becomes politically involved in Ireland in the 12th Century, slowly tightening its grip until full control is obtained in the 16th Century during the reign of the Tudor monarchs. The Irish now begin their long struggle to free the island from English, and later British, influence.

In 1858 the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) is formed. The Brotherhood is an armed underground group dedicated to ending British rule. In 1905 the Sinn Féin (Ourselves Alone) political party is established by Dublin journalist Arthur Griffith. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 16 October 1890 on a farm near Clonakilty in West Cork, Ireland. Collins is the youngest of eight children, six of who emigrate. His father, a farmer, dies when Collins is six.

1906 - Collins passes the post office boy clerkship examination and moves to London where he works at the Kensington Post Office Savings Bank. He subsequently works at a firm of stockbrokers, the Board of Trade and the London office of the Guaranty Trust Company of New York.

While in London he lives with his sister Hannie and joins the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association.

Later he becomes a member of the IRB.

1912 - The British Government introduces an Irish Home Rule Bill giving Ireland a separate parliament with limited autonomy. While the mainly Catholic Irish nationalists welcome the move, Protestant unionists in the north see it as a threat.

1914 - The First World War begins at the start of August. The Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) is pitted against the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary).

The IRB sees in the war the long-awaited opportunity to strike at the British while they are vulnerable.

Germany in turn sees an opportunity to destabilise the British by providing support to the Irish independence movement. While the German offer is readily accepted by members of the movement, little of material assistance actually reaches Irish shores.

Meanwhile, the British Parliament passes the Irish Home Rule Act in September. However, implementation of the Act is suspended until the end of the war.

1916 - Collins returns to Ireland in January and joins the Irish Volunteers, the nationalist's paramilitary wing.

On Easter Monday, 24 April, the IRB makes it move. Under the leadership of Padraic Pearse and James Connolly, 1,600 Irish rebels, most of who are members of the Irish Volunteers, rise up in Dublin and seize key points in the city. The rebels proclaim an independent Irish republic but fail to garner popular support.

"We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible," the independence proclamation states.

"Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations."

The rebellion lasts for five days and results in the destruction of large portions of the city before it is crushed by the British military. Fifteen of the rebel leaders are arrested, summarily tried and sentenced to death. All 15 are executed by firing squad.

Widely reviled during and after the failed rebellion, the dead men quickly become martyrs to the Irish, with their executions turning popular sentiment against the British.

Collins participates in the Easter Rising. He is captured and interned at Frongoch Prison Camp, Wales. In December he is released.

Collins later writes of the Easter Rising, "We grew to think of love of our land, and all that it had given us and had still to give us, and what we could make of it when it was our own once more. And we became filled with a patriotic fervour before which, when the time came, force would prove impotent. The expression of this new hope and new courage manifested itself in the Easter Week Rising. ...

"It appeared at the time of the surrender to have failed, but that valiant effort and the martyrdoms which followed it finally awoke the sleeping spirit of Ireland.

"It carried into the hearts of the people the flame which had been burning in those who had the vision to see the pit into which we were sinking deeper and deeper and who believed that a conflagration was necessary to reveal to their countrymen the road to national death upon which we were blindly treading.

"The banner of Ireland's freedom had been raised and was carried forward. During the rising the leaders of Easter Week 'declared a republic'. But not as a fact. We knew it was not a fact. It was a wonderful gesture - throwing down the gauntlet of defiance to the enemy, expressing to ourselves the complete freedom we aimed at, and for that reason was an inspiration to us."

1917 - Working in the role of secretary of the National Aid Association, Collins sets up an underground intelligence network. He becomes a member of the executive of Sinn Féin and a key director of the Irish Volunteers.

Meanwhile, Arthur Griffith steps aside as president of Sinn Féin in favour of Eamon de Valera.

1918 - Sinn Féin receives massive support at a general election for the British Parliament held in December, winning 73 of the 105 seats allocated to Ireland. Sinn Féin rejects home rule and demands complete Irish independence. It's elected members refuse to take their seats in the British Parliament. They pledge instead to form an independent Irish government.

Collins, who has been elected as Sinn Féin MP for Cork South, is one of the 27 elected Sinn Féin members who meet in Dublin and establish the Dáil Éireann (Irish Assembly). Most of the other 73 elected members, including Eamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith, are arrested and jailed before the meeting can take place.

1919 - The Dáil Éireann declares Ireland's independence on 21 January and forms a government with de Valera to be president and Griffith his deputy. It declares itself as the sole law-making authority for the Irish people and demands that the British leave the country.

Collins is briefly appointed as minister for home affairs before taking on the role of minister for finance.

The Dáil Éireann recognises the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as the official army of the Irish Republic. Collins is made its director of intelligence. He will also be made director of organisation and adjutant general.

"The National Government was set up in face of great difficulties," Collins later writes.

"British law was gradually superseded. Sinn Féin courts were set up. Commissions were appointed to investigate and report upon the national resources of the country with a view to industrial revival. Land courts were established which settled long-standing disputes. Volunteer police were enrolled. ... A loan of £400,000 was raised. The local governing bodies of the country were directed, inspected, and controlled by Dáil Éireann. We established a bank to finance societies which wished to acquire land."

The British hand is forced on 21 January (the same day as the Irish declaration of independence) when a group of IRA volunteers makes an unauthorised attack on a Royal Irish Constabulary patrol guarding a shipment of explosives at Soloheadbeg in the south of Ireland. Two constables are killed, a third is badly injured and the explosives are seized by the IRA.

The Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 (also known as the Irish War of Independence) has begun.

"At first the British were content to ridicule the new government," Collins writes. "Then, growing alarmed at its increasing authority, attempts were made to check its activities by wholesale political arrests.

"The final phase of the struggle had begun.

"In the first two years all violence was the work of the British armed forces who in their efforts at suppression murdered 15 Irishmen and wounded nearly 400 men, women, and children. Meetings were broken up everywhere. National newspapers were suppressed. Over 1,000 men and women were arrested for political offences, usually of the most trivial nature. Seventy-seven of the national leaders were deported."

Meanwhile, Collins arranges de Valera's escape from Lincoln Jail.

Later in the year Collins is elected president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

1920 - As director of IRA intelligence, Collins uses his wide network of informers to eliminate British spies, stymie British plans and strike British forces. After his secret service squad executes 19 British agents (the 'Cairo Gang') on November 20 he is placed at the top of Britain's most wanted list, with a £10,000 reward on his head.

"The murders were the legitimate acts of self-defence which had been forced upon the Irish people by English aggression," Collins says of the killings committed by the Irish forces.

"After two years of forbearance, we had begun to defend ourselves and the life of our nation. We did not initiate the war, nor were we allowed to select the battleground. When the British Government, as far as lay in its power, deprived the Irish people of arms, and employed every means to prevent them securing arms, and made it a criminal (in large areas a capital) offence to carry arms, and, at the same time, began and carried out a brutal and murderous campaign against them and against their national government, they deprived themselves of any excuse for their violence and of any cause of complaint against the Irish people for the means they took for their protection."

Militarily constrained by international pressures and a growing domestic peace movement, the British are forced to seek a political solution to the conflict.

At the end of the year the British Parliament passes the Government of Ireland Bill, separating six predominantly Protestant counties in the north (Northern Ireland) from the remaining 26 counties in the Catholic south. While the Bill is welcomed in the north, the south continues to call for full independence.

1921 - The British offer a truce in July and call for negotiations "to discuss terms of peace to ascertain how the association of Ireland with the community of nations known as the British Empire may best be reconciled with Irish national aspirations." The truce takes effect on 11 July and leads to talks between the warring parties.

Collins and Griffith are appointed by the Dáil Éireann as the lead delegates to the peace talks in London. Collins takes a key role in the drafting of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which is signed on 6 December.

The treaty establishes the Irish Free State as a dominion within the British Commonwealth and partitions Northern Ireland from the rest of the country, leaving it as part of the United Kingdom and with limited self-government.

The Free State will be headed by a governor-general representing the British Crown but will control its own police and armed forces. British armed forces are withdrawn.

Defending the treaty, Collins later writes, "The freedom we have secured may unquestionably be incomplete. But it is the nearest approach to an absolutely independent and unified Ireland which we can achieve amongst ourselves at the present moment. It certainly gives us the best foothold for final progress. ...

"Union (with the North) is certain. The only question for Northeast Ulster is - How soon?"

1922 - The treaty is ratified by the Dáil Éireann on 7 January by a vote of 64 for to 57 against. De Valera rejects the treaty and resigns as president. He is replaced by Griffith. Collins is made chairman of a provisional government. He retains his post as minister for finance. The treaty has split the Dáil Éireann and neither side is able or willing to compromise.

Tensions between the pro and anti-treaty factions escalate when anti-treaty forces occupy the Four Courts in Dublin in April. The Irish Civil War begins when Collins orders the Free State Army to start shelling the anti-treaty positions in the Four Courts on 28 June. After about a week of fighting the Free State takes control of Dublin. However, anti-treaty forces remain active throughout the rest of the country.

Collins assumes command of the army in mid-July. William Thomas Cosgrave replaces him as chairman of the government. By mid-August the Free State Army, which is well-armed with weapons provided by the British, has gained the upper hand and holds all the major towns in Ireland. The anti-treaty forces disperse and begin a campaign of guerilla warfare.

Meanwhile, pro-treaty candidates win 92 out of 128 seats in the Free State general elections held in June, indicating that the majority of the population accept the treaty.

Collins leaves Dublin to visit forces in the south of country on 20 August. His convoy is ambushed at Béal na Bláth (Mouth of Flowers) in West Cork on 22 August. Collins is shot dead.

Collins' body is taken back to Dublin, where it lays in state in the Dublin City Hall for three days. His funeral is held at the Pro Cathedral. He is buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin.

Postscript

A new constitution establishing a bicameral (two-chamber) parliament composed of the Dáil and the Seanad (senate) comes into effect in December 1922. Cosgrave becomes the first prime minister of the Irish Free State. The constitution was largely drafted by Collins.

During the final months of 1922 the Civil War becomes increasingly bitter with atrocities being committed by both sides. By the start of 1923 the Free State Army has all but won. The anti-treaty forces disarm at the end of May 1923, bringing the civil war to an end.

De Valera leaves Sinn Féin in 1926 and forms a new party Fianna Fáil (The Warriors of Destiny). The party enters parliament in 1927, winning 44 seats at the general election. Fianna Fáil, with De Valera at its head, will become the dominant party in Irish politics.

In 1931 Britain relinquishes its right to control the laws of its dominions, including Ireland.

De Valera becomes prime minister in 1932. His government moves to sever the remaining ties with the United Kingdom, abolishing the senate and the office of governor-general and removing all references to the British Crown from the Irish constitution.

A new Irish constitution enacted in 1937 establishes the democratic, sovereign and independent state of Éire (Gaelic for Ireland) with an elected president at its head. The constitution includes a territorial claim over Northern Ireland. However, this provision will be removed at the end of 1999.

Ireland formally declares itself a republic on Easter Monday, 18 April 1949, the 33rd anniversary of the Easter Rebellion. The country is once again renamed, from Éire to the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, with the British Parliament declaring that it will remain so until the parliament of the North agrees to reunification.

Comment

There is an ambivalence that surrounds Collins. His actions were pivotal in liberating Ireland from 800 years of British oppression, but they also initiated a bitter civil war and a long-standing divide in Irish politics. Collins realised the Anglo-Irish treaty was compromised and could lead to his assassination. He may not have foreseen the sectarian violence and misery that would come from the annexation of Northern Ireland.