Michael Collins and the making of a new Ireland (2 vols)

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2010), Reviews, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 18

Michael Collins and the making of a new Ireland (2 vols)
Piaras Béaslaí
(Éamonn de Búrca for Edmund Burke Publisher, Ä95)
ISBN 9780946130436

 

77_small_1268936129First of all, congratulations are in order to the publisher and 162 subscribers who made possible the reprinting of this book (originally published in 1926). The price may seem steep but these are very handsome volumes, and much cheaper than buying original copies on the used book market. There are a lot of Michael Collins biographies out there, most still in print, but this was the first and the closest to his life both emotionally and chronologically. It’s not just a history of a man and a revolution, it’s a historical document in itself, and invaluable because of it.
The story of how the book came to be written is outlined by Brian P. Murphy in his useful foreword, based on the pioneering research of Deirdre McMahon and Gerard O’Brien (although the definitive work on the author is undoubtedly Pádraig Ó Siadhail’s An Béaslaíoch (2007)). Essentially, Béaslaí nominated himself as Michael Collins’s Boswell soon after the great man’s death in August 1922, convinced the Collins family to back him, and fought off all attempts to oppose or control his authorship (Gearóid O’Sullivan, for one, declared that he ‘would not do at all’). He also launched attacks on rival authors, the first being US journalist Hayden Talbot, who published Michael Collins’ own story (which also deserves reprinting) in 1922. Talbot’s book was much more of a pro-Treaty manifesto than an actual biography, however, so the coast was clear for him to establish his version of Collins’s life.
In many ways, Béaslaí was an excellent choice for this task. Born Percy Frederick Beazley (in Liverpool of Irish parents), he became an important figure in the Gaelic League and in Irish-language literature. He was a member of the League’s influential Keating branch, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and the Irish Volunteers, all of which put him at ground zero for the Easter Rising and for Collins’s debut in Dublin republican society. In 1918 he was put in charge of An tÓglach, the in-house journal of the Volunteers, and he later became a Sinn Féin MP/TD. So he knew the Big Fella, had an insider’s knowledge of most branches of the republican movement and he knew how to write. Moreover, while he may have been overly possessive of his subject (an occupational hazard for Collins biographers), he was also deeply committed to the project and to getting the story—as he saw it—straight.
The result was the now very familiar heroic narrative of a patriotic man of action and organisational genius who came out of nowhere to lead the Irish nation to freedom. It’s familiar because it’s the same story told in almost every subsequent biography, and in the Neil Jordan movie, but it’s easy to forget just how revelatory the book was upon first publication. Béaslaí was the first to reconstruct the secret history of the underground movement, replete with secret societies and bank accounts, spies and assassins, murder mysteries and great escapes. It’s gripping stuff and also good solid history, based not only on first-hand experiences and interviews but also on numerous documents to which Béaslaí was given access either by the family or by the government.
Unfortunately, a great many of these records have never been seen since. Béaslaí took them away but they were never returned to official archives—and some that were came back in rough shape. Certainly there is disappointingly little Collins correspondence and IRA/IRB files in Béaslaí’s own papers, now available in the National Library of Ireland. Other revolutionaries-turned-historians, such as Richard Mulcahy, Florence O’Donoghue and Ernie O’Malley, did a far better job of preserving their collections for posterity. Mind you, this too is part of the Collins biographical tradition, as Rex Taylor’s 1958 study also quotes from mysterious letters that only he seems to have seen.
There is some reason to doubt the author’s intimacy with his subject. He is often described as a close friend of Collins, but I’m not sure that this was the case. Whatever may have been lost, thousands of his letters do survive, and Béaslaí’s name is almost never mentioned in them. Béaslaí doesn’t just claim Collins’s friendship, though. In an extraordinary move for a biographer, he also writes himself into the story. This mostly occurs when he moves from Collins to the broader history of the republican movement, which forms a large and important part of the book. He is with Seán MacDermott at the founding of the Volunteers, imprisoned with Tom Clarke after the Rising is over, asks Éamon de Valera to assume leadership of the Lewes prisoners and so on. In some cases he is telling the story from personal knowledge and, more generally, he may just be establishing his authority to speak about previously secret matters. As a historian, I’m also glad to have his experiences and impressions of other actors in the great drama. Still, it’s a bit odd.
The book’s structure also deserves some comment. First of all, Collins’s upbringing and ‘early years’ in Cork and London get pretty short shrift: seventeen out of over 600 pages. Lots of biographies move quickly to the point where the subject starts doing whatever made them notable, but in this case we’re talking about most of his life: 25 of 31 years. This set an unfortunate precedent for later books on Collins—Frank O’Connor pretty much left the years before 1916 out altogether—but it also represents a huge missed opportunity. Unlike later writers, Béaslaí could have talked to brothers and sisters, neighbours, childhood friends, teachers and co-workers. We might have had a full picture of Michael as a boy and a young man rather than just a sketch.
The other gap in the story is harder to understand. The outcome of the Collins story—and his legacy to Ireland—surely depends above all on his negotiation and defence of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, but Béaslaí deals with the 1921 talks in only ten pages. Why? Embarrassment? He gave an impressive speech in favour of the Treaty during the Dáil debates, so I wouldn’t have thought so. Lack of material? Key players such as Arthur Griffith and Erskine Childers were dead, but there were others he could have talked to, and plenty of documents made public even if he didn’t have access to the confidential stuff (as he apparently did not). Here is one area where later biographies have diverged, as those months in London now loom much larger (except in the Neil Jordan movie, which leaves them out altogether).
In his Introduction, Béaslaí declares that writing ‘party propaganda’ would be ‘abhorrent’ to him, and he certainly didn’t produce anything as meagre as that. Nevertheless, it is inevitably a highly political book. This begins right in the second paragraph, when we are told that ‘the tribe to which he [Collins] belonged was one that had been rooted in the soil for countless generations, which cannot be said of any other chosen leader of the nation . . .’. Take that, Dev!
He does have some kind words to say about Cathal Brugha as well as other safely dead republicans like Harry Boland, but the book takes direct aim at de Valera. When Béaslaí asked him to be commandant of the Lewes prisoners in 1916, ‘I could perceive at once that the proposed authority appealed to him’. Ominous indeed. At the pivotal Sinn Féin convention in October 1917, de Valera’s key role in unifying the various factions goes unmentioned but a paragraph is devoted to what a bad job he did as chairman. And so on and so forth, right up the ambush at Béal na Blath, where ‘it is a remarkable coincidence that Mr de Valera, on the same day, is known to have been on the road taken by Collins’s party, and not far from the scene . . .’.
Béaslaí was hardly alone in giving his work a political spin, of course. W. Alison Phillips read Dublin Castle’s intelligence records before writing The revolution in Ireland (1923) from an essentially unionist perspective. P. S. O’Hegarty’s The victory of Sinn Féin (1924) is filled with endlessly quotable pro-Treaty rage. Frank Pakenham/Lord Longford aroused similar feelings in Béaslaí himself when he published his pro-Dev account of the Treaty negotiations, Peace by ordeal, in 1934, and he was also bemused by Dorothy Macardle’s anti-Treaty magnum opus, The Irish Republic (1937).
What Béaslaí did, though, was to personalise revolutionary politics around the hero-and-villain pairing of Collins and de Valera in a way that would prove enormously and perniciously influential: see, for example, Tim Pat Coogan’s tumescent twin biographies. The ‘Collinsocentric’ narrative of ‘the war’ also pushed other people to the edges of the picture, distorting the collective and often decentralised nature of the movement. One person thus marginalised was Richard Mulcahy, the IRA chief-of-staff. Concerned to correct the record, he wrote a detailed commentary on Béaslaí, which has now been incorporated by his son, Risteárd, into two important books: Richard Mulcahy: a family memoir (1999) and My father, the general (2009). These stand on their own as contributions to the history of the period but they also offer a useful corrective to the cult of Collins.
Finally, interested readers should take a look at the second edition of the book: Michael Collins: soldier and statesman, published in 1937. This compressed the two original volumes into one, but it also contained many significant revisions. The damning scene where de Valera is handed a copy of the Treaty for the first time is considerably altered, and there is a fuller account of Collins’s death, complete with the first refutations of conspiracy theories (the ones that blame his own side, that is, not the ones that blame de Valera). Béaslaí also took the opportunity to attack Pakenham’s republican revisionism at considerable length: well worth reading for Treaty wonks—or if you enjoy a good Irish history ‘debate’. It may seem awfully familiar, though: ‘I have searched for his informants in vain . . . He explains that he obtained his account “from sources that seemed to me worthy of complete confidence” . . . his studied depreciation of two great Irishmen . . .’.* Now where have I heard that before?  HI

*Pakenham/Longford did reveal many of his sources in the introduction to the 1972 edition of the book.

Peter Hart is the Canada Research Chair in Irish Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the author of Mick: the real Michael Collins.

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