TE GREAT COVER UP: the truth about the death of Michael Collins

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2019), Reviews, Volume 27

GERARD MURPHY
The Collins Press
€19.99
ISBN 9781848893375

Reviewed by: Nigel Jones

Nigel Jones is a former editor of History Today and BBC History Magazine.

The fatal shooting of Michael Collins in his own Cork countryside not only deprived Ireland of its most dynamic, gifted and charismatic leader but also left an enduring mystery. Was it a chance and random shot—almost an accident—in the confused chaos of civil war, or a deliberate, targeted and carefully planned assassination? And, if the latter, who was the assassin?
This carefully researched book purports to answer the question, and in doing so to solve the century-old mystery. Its author, Gerard Murphy, a Corkman himself, is well qualified for the role of historical detective, being professionally versed in forensic science as well as the local politics surrounding Collins’s demise.

Previous books on Collins’s death have advanced a host of conflicting theories, many of them patently absurd. Some suggest that he was killed by his political rivals in the Free State government, or even have de Valera himself (who was indeed in the area at the time) as an unlikely myopic sniper! Others have blamed the British, taking revenge on their old enemy via Collins’s lieutenant, Gen. Emmet Dalton, who was driving with him when his convoy was ambushed, or the driver of the armoured car in the convoy, John McPeak, who later defected with the vehicle to the anti-Treaty side.

The general consensus of historians, however, has settled on what might be called the ‘stray shot theory’: that Collins, needlessly exposing himself to danger, was killed by a ricochet, or by one of the last shots fired in the ambush, and that the gunman—Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill is the usual name in the frame—had no idea of the identity of the man he had hit.
Dr Murphy explodes all such suggestions. His explanation, based on a minute examination of the available evidence, is that Collins was indeed deliberately targeted, after being lured into an ambush on the pretext of taking part in peace talks to end the Civil War. Moreover, Murphy fearlessly names the man he believes was responsible for organising the killing, although he did not pull the trigger himself—Florence ‘Florrie’ O’Donoghue. Like Collins, O’Donoghue was a hero of both the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. He had played a role as commander of the IRA’s No. 1 Cork Brigade in the city analogous to that of Collins in Dublin: organising and actively participating in the killing of British soldiers and their Irish collaborators and suspected spies. Like Collins, he was also a member of the IRB.

O’Donoghue, who died in 1968, later became a historian and biographer of Liam Lynch, leader of the anti-Treaty IRA in the Civil War. Working on O’Donoghue’s papers, Murphy noticed two curious facts: he had fired a constant barrage of letters to newspapers insisting on his own version of events in 1916–22, particularly the ‘stray shot’ thesis on Collins’s death, yet—like the dog that didn’t bark in the night—his published writings dismiss the killing in a single, slightly contemptuous sentence. For someone apparently uninterested in Collins, ‘It was almost’, writes Murphy, ‘as if he was trying too hard’.

Intrigued, Murphy dug deeper. He concentrated on evidence that has recently emerged—such as the Military Service Pensions applications of IRA volunteers, which had to include an account of their activities—and on what was available immediately after the event. He claims that previous books have relied too heavily on the self-serving, contradictory and unreliable memories of those on both sides at Beal na Blath that day, which emerged years later.

The book begins with a forensic examination of the ambush itself. Murphy demonstrates conclusively that the bullet that killed Collins was of a soft-nosed ‘dum-dum’ type fired from a high-powered rifle from a distance. Like the shot that killed JFK, it blew away the back of Collins’s head, killing him instantly. It could not, therefore, have been fired accidentally or deliberately by a member of his own party at close range. Dalton and McPeak are in the clear.

The gunman may have been O’Neill or any other of the ten or so IRA men still at the scene. Murphy honestly admits that the evidence to identify the shooter is lacking, but he is clear that O’Donoghue was the main organiser of the affair. Behind the pretence of leading a ‘neutral’ faction in Cork seeking a compromise peace to end the Civil War, O’Donoghue was bent on carrying out the traditional sentence on traitors passed at an IRB conclave over which he had presided after Collins signed the Treaty. Collins, said O’Donoghue, had ‘to be done away with’.

To that end, he enticed Collins to come to Cork, determined that he would not leave alive. A meeting was set up at Macroom for peace talks, and Collins—over-confident that he was safe in his native county—drove straight into the trap. The roads of West Cork were littered with roadblocks, not just at Beal na Blath, and the countryside was alive with IRA volunteers—some brought in from neighbouring Kerry—to accomplish the assassination.

The outbreak of national mass mourning for the lost leader cut down in his prime was so overwhelming that those who had done the deed kept their heads down and their mouths shut. This allowed the construction of what Murphy calls ‘the great cover-up’ of the grim truth. It suited both sides to deny that Collins had been killed deliberately. The Free Staters could evade responsibility for having let their leader go casually to his death with a criminal lack of security, while the Republicans could escape the odium of having consciously destroyed the hero who in death had attained a near-saintly status.

Murphy concedes that his book is unlikely to be the last word on Beal na Blath. It is, however, the account that best fits the brutal facts. A man who lived violently, and who dealt death to many, himself died that way at the hands of former comrades-in-arms.

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