Mick: the real Michael Collins

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2005), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 13

Mick the real Michael Collins 1Mick: the real Michael Collins
Peter Hart
(Macmillan, E36.99)
ISBN 1405052635Peter Hart writes well, and is obviously a man of ability, but the impression conveyed by this book is that he felt the time was opportune for a revisionist work on Collins. To attract readers he has adopted the technique not of the historian but of the contrarian journalist who secures attention by advancing bizarre opinions. The book does not contain any significant new material that would force us to look at Collins in a new way. It is, in Hart’s words, ‘an attempt to move beyond fandom, the story of Collins’ life as he and his claque wanted it told’. ‘Mine’, he writes, ‘will be the first book to really establish a base from which future historians can work. Nor does this require losing anything in the way of detail or colour—quite the opposite.’ Hart claims that he can do this because he has written ‘extensively about Cork, the Irish in London in Collins’ time’ and therefore can ‘place Collins in his appropriate context’. He claims that he has ‘found things that [other] biographers wouldn’t’. This unwary statement risks being regarded as an own goal by someone who has already achieved notoriety, in the eyes of some critics, allegedly finding ‘witnesses’ to the Kilmichael ambush to communicate with him from beyond the grave—particularly as he also states that, before his biography, Collins researchers had created a ‘creaky edifice of unsubstantiated “fact”’.
Hart, however, claims to give ‘a proper account at last’ of Collins’s pre-1916 days in Dublin and his subsequent time in prison. His ‘proper account’ morphs into such an extraordinary, ill-founded, assault on what he terms ‘The Story (the legend, the myth) of Michael Collins’ that I found myself wondering whether he saw himself not as Peter Hart, a history professor in Newfoundland, but as the British military historian Liddell Hart.
Lloyd George rated Collins so highly as a soldier that he said he would have been worth ‘a dozen brass hats’ during World War I. The sage of Newfoundland, however, judges that ‘In reality, Michael Collins did not plan, start, direct or control the war’:

‘Collins and his comrades were not facing a formidable secret police. On the contrary; their enemies were demoralised, underpaid, underfunded, undermanned and now out-numbered and outgunned.’

Hart argues that the wiping out of the British undercover agents on the morning of Bloody Sunday was not so much due to an intelligence coup on Collins’s part as to the fact that the British had taken no precautions because ‘no “G”-man or spy had ever been killed at home’. Yet he had earlier noted that the first ‘G’-man to die, Detective Sergeant Smith, had been shot at his home sixteen months earlier, and that so many spies and detectives had been shot subsequently that the British had been forced to ‘repair the losses in the G division’. And then he later admits that in the intelligence war Collins and his agents defeated the opposing team by a ‘hat-trick’.
Hart says that whereas previous writers have seen the Revolution through Collins, he has approached him through the Revolution, whatever that means. He doesn’t seem to understand the revolutionary context in which Collins operated, and the contradictory judgements involved in his assault on ‘The Story’ give a very misleading impression of de Valera’s attitude to Collins. Hart judges Collins to be the most gifted Irish politician of the twentieth century, a title, one would have thought, de Valera could fairly have contested. But when discussing the Treaty he finds that ‘Collins was a mediocre negotiator’. He finds that ‘De Valera was more of a soldier’ than Collins. De Valera, says Hart, ‘at least had held a command and had led men in battle’.
In advancing de Valera’s soldierly claims Hart omits the fact that Dev advocated that the hard-pressed IRA abandon guerrilla warfare in favour of one good battle every month involving formations of some 500 combatants. This theory, implemented against Collins’s wishes, resulted in the débâcle of the burning of the Customs House and such damaging losses to the Dublin Brigade that they were a factor in Collins’s acceptance of the Treaty. Yet Hart doesn’t even mention the Customs House. However, he does concede that Collins, the first commander-in-chief of the Irish Army, did, ‘it seems’, direct the successful prosecution of the Civil War, albeit ‘in partnership with Mulcahy’.
Hart’s failure, or reluctance, to understand the conditions under which Collins operated is exemplified by his treatment of the American loan and the departure of de Valera for the US:

‘De Valera left for the United States . . . in pursuit of both money and recognition for his regime. James O’Mara, a former Irish Party MP and now a Sinn Féin TD, went with him to act as the finance ministry’s representative and to take direct charge of the fund-raising, while Harry Boland tagged along as a general fixer and the representative of the IRB Supreme Council—thus ending his year-long partnership with Collins.’

What regime? The Dáil and Sinn Féin were banned not long after de Valera left—taking no one with him. He couldn’t. Far from being in charge of a ‘regime’, British influence was so all-pervasive that de Valera had to be smuggled across the Atlantic, as a stowaway, forced to survive in awful conditions. Harry Boland had been landed in the States some months earlier and O’Mara followed several months afterwards, almost dying because of the conditions he too had to endure as a stowaway.
The IRA was so short of the sinews of war, at the time of the Customs House burning, that one volunteer went into the building with only four rounds of ammunition. Yet while Hart adverts to some unworthy rumours that the Boland/de Valera expenses had a bearing on the dissipation of a million and a half of American monies, he fails to mention the substantiated (and more important) fact that de Valera contrived subsequently to manipulate part of the $3 million that he had left behind him in American banks to found the Irish Press, one of the most controversial transactions in twentieth-century Irish politics.
Hart suggests that de Valera merely tried to get Collins to go to America, after he had returned himself, at Christmas 1920, in order to settle the row between Brugha and Collins. By January 1921, at the height of the Tan war, Hart’s considered opinion is that de Valera was ‘right in thinking’ that Collins could be replaced. Yet de Valera defended his refusal to take him on his visit to Lloyd George, six months later, on the grounds that he was so invaluable in Dublin that his safety could not be jeopardised by allowing the British opportunities of taking pictures of him in London—as if they had no cameras in America.
Hart also gives a misleading picture of de Valera’s ‘new army’ proposals, made at the height of the Treaty negotiations. Again Hart makes it seem that de Valera was acting as a peace-maker, this time trying to hold a balance between Mulcahy and Brugha. In fact de Valera became almost hysterical with rage when Ginger O’Connell pointed out that he and his colleagues were like ‘a band of brothers’ and didn’t need a reorganisation that would have given de Valera and Brugha an ascendancy over Collins.
Hart’s appraisal of Collins’s northern policy and his final assessment of Collins’s place in Irish history constitute two of the deepest pits into which ‘The Story’ gimmick leads him. Despite the evidence of his own narrative, he denies that Collins was a hero because he did not confront evil, as did Roosevelt and Churchill with Nazism, ‘or Paul Kagame with Hutu power in Rwanda’. Okay, the British were not Nazis or Hutus, but Collins did perform heroically against a foe whose bullets were just as hard as either, as the Black and Tans convincingly demonstrated at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday.
He says that Collins left a ‘triple legacy of independence, partition and the IRA’. If (as I believe he did) Collins left a legacy of independence, then why did Hart make the earlier, contradictory, claim that Collins did not start, plan, direct or control the war that led to it? ‘Legacy two’, partition, existed before Collins ever signed the Treaty. The truce that facilitated it only came about after King George V had delivered a conciliatory speech at the opening of the Belfast parliament. It was the fact that this parliament had already been given jurisdiction over six Ulster counties by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 that enabled Lloyd George to invite de Valera to London in 1921. And as for bequeathing us the IRA…! It is a demonstrable fact that Collins was so far from being regarded as a founding father by traditionalist-minded Provisionals that when Gerry Adams brought about the 1994 ceasefire his Belfast headquarters were sneeringly dubbed (and daubed) ‘Michael Collins House’. I have researched the IRA for over 40 years and I have never met a Provo who looked to Collins as a mentor. Physical-force republicanism’s roots lay dormant, entwined in the Norman coming, ’98, the Famine and the Fenians, until they were watered into life again during the 1960s, not by the teachings of Michael Collins but by the actions of Unionism.
Hart’s assessment of Collins’s northern policy is permeated by the familiar argument of the Unionist apologist that there is a basic lack of understanding amongst nationalists of the unionists’ position and sensibilities. Some deeper truth has been missed. Obviously, as Hart points out, Collins did not have much first-hand experience of Northern Ireland. Yet in a small, but telling, example of an overall lack of logic, Hart attributes Collins’s lack of sectarianism to his father’s influence. Certainly Michael senior was not sectarian, but he died when Collins was six years old. Surely Marianne, his mother, who lived for some ten years afterwards and was nursed by Protestant neighbours in her last illness, deserves some credit for Collins’s formation? In any event, there was not, as Hart alleges, an ‘unconscious bias’ in Collins’s use of the term ‘our people’ to describe Northern Catholics. He had first-hand, eye-witness, accounts of what Unionism—which is far from being the same thing as Protestantism—was doing to Catholics. Elements in the RUC and the Specials were murdering them at will. Collins was driven to launching a secret cross-border campaign, and having his IRA opponents smuggle guns into the Six Counties, during the Civil War. One of these was Charlie Haughey’s father, Seán Haughey.
To-day Unionism is but a shadow of what it was in Collins’s time. Nevertheless, as I write this, television screens are filled with images of Orangemen throwing petrol bombs and shooting at police, while they wave Union Jacks and prepare for the next election at which they can vote for Ian Paisley. Those pictures form a telling contrast to Hart’s use of loaded, dismissive language to describe Collins’s (and his colleagues’) analysis of the Northern problem. This ‘boiled down to a rotten elite and a gang of Orange gutties armed first by the Conservative Party and then by the British Government’. Apparently the Conservatives had nothing to do with playing the Orange card, the officering and drilling of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Larne gun-running or the abortion of Home Rule. By this logic the following, like Topsy, just growed: the formation of the Irish Volunteers, the 1916 Rising, the Anglo-Irish war, civil war, partition and today’s problems in the peace process.
Hart writes that Collins’s view of the north’s economy was that it was weaker than that of the south, ‘despite the presence of Belfast’s great industries’. A little later, however, he airily explains the Unionists’ failure to restore the jobs of Catholic workers, who had been driven from their work by boot and bullet, in the following, sanitised, terms: ‘Craig would find it impossible (and politically uncomfortable) to return workers to shrinking industries’. In an immortal phrase Brendan Bradshaw described such revisionist logic as seeking to ‘filter out the trauma’ of Irish history. Peter Hart has gone further. He has attempted to filter out the logic.
Tim Pat Coogan

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