Sunday, August 22, 2010

In Memory of "The Big Fella", Michael Collins (d. 22 August 1922) [UPDATED]

The Laughing Boy
by Brendan Behan

T'was on an August morning, all in the dawning hours,
I went to take the warming air, all in the Mouth of Flowers,
And there I saw a maiden, and mournful was her cry,
'Ah what will mend my broken heart, I've lost my Laughing Boy.

So strong, so wild and brave he was, I'll mourn his loss too sore,
When thinking that I'll hear the laugh or springing step no more.
Ah, cure the times and sad the loss my heart to crucify,
That an Irish son with a rebel gun shot down my Laughing Boy.

Oh had he died by Pearse's side or in the GPO,
Killed by an English bullet from the rifle of the foe,
Or forcibly fed with Ashe lay dead in the dungeons of Mountjoy,
I'd have cried with pride for the way he died, my own dear Laughing Boy.

My princely love, can ageless love do more than tell to you,
Go raibh maith agat for all you tried to do,
For all you did, and would have done, my enemies to destroy,
I'll mourn your name and praise your fame, forever, my Laughing Boy.

Michael Collins assassination scene from the movie "Michael Collins"

The death of Michael Collins from "Shadow of Béal na mBláth"
(music by Sinead O'Connor from the "Michael Collins" soundtrack)

The bark of a dog breaks the silence like a bitter last hurrah
And a raven spreads it's wings for flight over fields near Beál Na mBláth
With a rifle still clasped to his breast, but hanging low his head
A black August day in the County Cork, Michael Collins is dead

Hang out your brightest colours, his memory now recall
Each one wants a part of him but no-one wants it all

~ "The Ballad of Michael Collins" by Brendan O'Reilly

Tom Barry describes the scene in Kilmainham Jail
where he witnessed hundreds of Republican prisoners
on their knees praying for Michael Collins
after hearing the news he had been killed during the Civil War.

Historical footage of the funeral of Michael Collins
set to "Wrap the Green Flag 'Round Me" by The Wolfe Tones

Oh long will old Ireland be seeking in vain
Ere we find a new leader to match the man slain
A true son of Grainne his name long will shine
O gallant Mick Collins cut off in his prime

~ "Michael Collins" by The Wolfe Tones

“We bend today over the grave of a man not more than thirty years of age, who took to himself the gospel of toil for Ireland, and of sacrifice for their good, and who has 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. Pages have been written by him in the hearts of our people that will never find a place in print. But we lived, some of us with these intimate pages; and those pages that will reach history, meagre though they be, will do good to our country and will inspire us through many a dark hour. Our weaknesses cry out to us, 'Michael Collins was too brave.' Michael Collins was not too brave. Every day and every hour he lived he lived it to the full extent of that bravery which God gave to him, and it is for us to be brave as he was—brave before danger, brave before those who lie, brave even to that very great bravery that our weaknesses complained of in him.”

~ Richard Mulcahy, IRA Chief of Staff (and Collins' superior) during the War of Independence, who succeeded Collins as commander-in-chief of the Free State Irish Army, in his oration at Collins' funeral.

“. . . So tear up your mourning and hang up your brightest colours in his honour; and let us all praise God that he had not to die weakened by age and saddened by the disappointments that would have attended his work had he lived.”

~ Dublin-born playwright George Bernard Shaw in a letter of condolence to Collins' sister

‘‘He was the man whose matchless energy, whose indomitable will, carried Ireland through the terrible crisis; and though I have not now, and never had, an ambition about either political affairs or history, if my name is to go down in history I want it to be associated with the name of Michael Collins.’’

~ Arthur Griffith
Founder and leader of the original Sinn Féin (not its modern Marxist namesake) and President of Dáil Éireann (the Irish parliament), whose work with Collins on negotiating the Treaty to end the Irish War of Independence, and whose untimely death at the age of 50 from either a heart attack or stroke just 10 days prior to Collins' assassination (thus depriving Ireland of yet another key leader in its political infancy) ensured that his name would, indeed, go down in history associated with that of Michael Collins

Michael Collins' brother, Johnny, at the rededication
of the Collins gravesite at Glasnevin Cemetery in 1939.
According to Collins and De Valera biographer, Tim Pat Coogan:
"It is a matter of record that for years Johnny Collins,
a civil servant, and thus very much at de Valera's mercy,
strove unsuccessfully to have a fitting memorial erected
over his brother, who, as the first Commander-in-Chief of
the Irish Army, lay in a military grave... Finally,
de Valera called Johnny in and stipulated that the cost
of the memorial should not exceed £300, and it should be
in limestone, not marble. He prescribed a formula of words
he wanted used on the cross and ordered that there be no
English on the front of it. The cemetery records show, that,
on July 31st, 1939, a few weeks before the world went to war,
Taoiseach de Valera took time out to sign personally the
certificate of authorisation for the design and erection of
the memorial cross over his old adversary... What the
certification does not show is the fact that de Valera forbade
Johnny to allow attendance at the dedication ceremony, either
by the press, the public, or by any member of the Collins family
apart from Johnny himself. Only the officiating priest and an
altar boy were permitted to be present. Had an outraged off-duty
gravedigger, who tended Collins's grave, not accidentally come
across the melancholy little ceremony and hailed a passing tourist
with a camera, there would have been no pictorial record of Johnny
standing alone, apart from the gravedigger, at his famous brother's graveside."

‘‘It is my considered opinion that, in the fullness of time, history will record the greatness of Michael Collins, and it will be recorded at my expense.’’

~ Eamon de Valera

See G. Thomas Fitzpatrick's tribute to Michael Collins at Recta Ratio, which includes a reflection on a personal connection between The Big Fella and his grandfather.

For more on Michael Collins, see
  • General Michael Collins (website of the Collins 22 Society, of which I am a member)

  • Michael Collins - The Lost Leader

  • The Michael Collins Centre

  • The Michael Collins Web Page

  • An excellent and very comprehensive Michael Collins Site

  • A Man Against An Empire - History Net

  • Michael Collins Irish Leader - Economic Expert

  • Michael Collins - Military History Online

  • Michael Collins - University College Cork

  • The "Michael Collins" Official Movie Site

  • MICHAEL COLLINS - A Musical Drama

  • Michael Collins Irish Whiskey

  • Recommended Reading:
  • The Path to Freedom by Michael Collins

  • Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland by Tim Pat Coogan

  • Michael Collins: A Life by James MacKay

  • The Big Fellow: Michael Collins & the Irish Revolution by Frank O'Connor

  • Michael Collins : The Lost Leader by Margery Forester

  • Illustrated Life of Michael Collins by Colm Connolly

  • Michael Collins - A Life in Pictures by Chrissy Osborne

  • Michael Collins and the Troubles: The Struggle for Irish Freedom 1912-1922 by Ulick O'Connor

  • Michael Collins's Intelligence War: The Struggle Between the British and the IRA 1919-1921 by Michael T. Foy

  • The Squad: and the intelligence operations of Michael Collins by T. Ryle Dwyer

  • Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State by Gabriel Doherty (Author), Dermot Keogh (Editor)

  • "Michael Collins' Ireland: Following In The Footsteps Of The Big Fellow From Dublin To County Cork", Chicago Tribune, March 7, 1999

  • Recommended Viewing:
  • "Michael Collins"
    (1996 Neil Jordan film starring Liam Neeson in the title role - can be purchased via

  • "The Treaty"
    (1991 RTE/BBC production starring Brendan Gleeson as Michael Collins, in a much better portrayal of The Big Fella than that of Neeson - difficult to find, but a DVD copy can be purchased

  • "The Shadow of Béalnabláth"
    (1991 documentary on the life and death of Collins by Colm Connolly - used VHS copies available on

  • "Hang Up Your Brightest Colours"
    (1973 documentary on the life and death of Collins by Kenneth Griffith; banned for many years in both England and Ireland - a DVD copy can be purchased

  • "The Wind That Shakes the Barley"
    (2006 Ken Loach film is a fictionalized drama focusing on the War of Independence and the ensuing Irish Civil War in Collins' native Cork - can be purchased via

  • Shake Hands with the Devil
    (1959 film is a fictionalized drama starring James Cagney, Michael Redgrave, and Don Murray as members of the IRA battling the "Black and Tans" in 1921 during the War of Independence - can be purchased via

  • Previous Pro Ecclesia posts on this subject:
    85th Anniversary of the Death of "The Big Fella", Michael Collins

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    At 8/20/2010 9:11 AM, Blogger DP said...

    Eamon de Valera was a complete s--t.

    May Collins' reputation and memory continue to wax at his expense.

    At 8/20/2010 9:43 AM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

    Completely agree, Dale.

    History owes Tim Pat Coogan a debt of gratitude for doing more than anyone (besides De Valera himself) to expose De Valera as the small-minded, petty hypocrite that he was.

    Michael Collins' life serves as a beacon shining the light on De Valera's shortcomings, and De Valera knew that, which is why he worked to undermine Collins during Collins' life, and worked to airbrush Collins' memory (and Arthur Griffiths' memory, as well) from Irish history.

    In addition, let us recall that De Valera was the ONLY world leader to offer his condolences for the death of Hitler. Even Hitler's own allies in the Japanese leadership didn't do that. I doubt Michael Collins, were he in De Valera's position, would have, either.

    It is a discredit to the Irish people that they kept returning that “morally withered descendent of Armada boat trash” (as you once referred to him) to public office for 50 years.

    At 8/20/2010 10:45 AM, Blogger DP said...

    I forgot I had called de Valera that--I'm glad I did!

    Not so by the way, great post. As I recall, even Churchill, who was doggedly against Irish independence, had a great deal of admiration for Collins.

    At 8/22/2010 12:57 AM, Blogger Christopher said...

    Great post, Jay.

    At 8/22/2010 9:00 PM, Blogger shane said...

    Coogan is not a serious historian and his thesis was demolished by Professor Diarmaid Ferriter in Judging Dev.

    DeValara did not 'airbrush' Collins from memory. He could not have done so even if he had wanted to.

    This blog would do best to stay within its expertise. It's seriously embarrassing when discussions on Irish history crop up here.The ignorance is so palpable it would be derided with indignant ridicule by anybody even remotely acquainted with this subject.

    At 8/22/2010 10:05 PM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

    Thanks for stopping by, Shane. And sorry to rain on the Fianna Fáil creation myth, but I suppose we all have our own perspectives on things.

    By the way, please enlighten me as to these other "discussions on Irish history" that "crop up here" on which I've embarassed myself. Usually, the only time Irish history "crop[s] up" at all on this blog is when I post an article without any commentary or discussion at all. Believe me, I know the limits of my own knowledge and expertise on particular subjects.

    And have you ever even visited this blog before today? Or are you just talking out of your ass about witnessing these other times when Irish history has "crop[ped] up" on this blog? If the former, I wonder that you didn't speak up prior to now to set the record straight.

    At 8/22/2010 10:09 PM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

    And, by the way, I didn't say Dev airbrushed Collins from history. You are quite correct that he couldn't have done so. But it is my own belief that he tried, as the story behind his begrudging actions involving the Collins gravesite rededication indicates.

    At 8/22/2010 10:15 PM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

    This comes from the above-linked account by the "non-serious" historian, Coogan, so I doubt this will meet up to Shane's exacting standards:

    "Dr Mansergh avers that de Valera freely recognised Collins's qualities. He most emphatically did not. Behind de Valera's refusal to support the [Michael Collins Foundation] there also lie several other examples of mean-spiritedness, such as the squabbling for years over the attendance of the Army at Bealnablath, or the air-brushing of mention of Collins out of the official Department of foreign Affairs publication, Facts About Ireland. In particular, there is the sorry saga of the Collins memorial in Glasnevin cemetery."

    At 8/23/2010 9:55 AM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

    I'm really rather sorry that this has turned into a bash of Dev. Although he is, admittedly, NOT my favorite historical personage, such recriminations seem out of place in light of Mr. Lenihan's appearance yesterday at Beal na mBlath, and the excellent oration that he delivered:

    "The Spirit of Michael Collins"


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