Controversy and the Cult of Collins

Published in Issue 4 (Winter 1998), News, News, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 6

The cult of Michael Collins reached new heights last summer when the monument at Béal na mBláth developed into a colourful religious type shrine. Apparently believing that they could establish a spiritual link with the ‘Big Fella’ in the sky, people began to leave personal items and religious paraphernalia at the place where he breathed his last.
A clutter of candles, rosary beads, religious medals and holy water from Knock began to accumulate around the memorial. It soon resembled the scene at a holy well as people left rags and other votive offerings in the traditional fashion. One person apparently asked Collins to intercede for her with the Most High! She left a note: ‘Dear Michael, we remember you, pray for us’. The offerings did not seem totally incongruous however because looking down on all of this was Christ on the cross. The religious ethos that had always been central to this Celtic cross memorial was now, in one sense, merely being given a new dimension.
Other notes, left in wallets or cigarette boxes, were often of a more predictable nature: ‘Michael, you freed most of Ireland, now we must free the rest of it’; ‘We love you Mick, we appreciate what you did for the country’. Many seemed genuinely affected by Collins’s life and death as in this note: ‘Such a great tragedy for Ireland, Michael’. Many left personal belongings—an inscribed address book with a gold case cover, notebooks, key rings, coins and children’s dolls. With the annual Béal na mBláth commemoration ceremony just weeks away, locals wondered what would guest speaker, Mary Banotti, and the Fine Gael faithful make of this scene?
This was the problem which faced the organising committee in early August. The shrine to Collins could not remain, they decided, and so the collection of religious and personal items was removed and incinerated before Sunday 23 August. ‘We didn’t want to have it as a shrine’, explained treasurer of the committee, Tommy O’Connell, ‘we just don’t think that is appropriate…people are falling away from the church, why don’t these people go to Mass instead’.
A local publican compared the phenomenon to the shrines that have developed in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales. Since many people evidently feel a kind of personal attachment to Collins and his story, it may well be that despite the views of an embarrassed Béal na mBláth committee, the shrine will resurrect itself once again. Fr. Patrick Twohig, the Mallow-based author of a book on Collins, The Dark Secret of Béal na mBlath, observed that ‘Collins was quite a religious man’. Nevertheless, he does admit that it is quite strange in what he calls ‘these enlightened times’ for Collins to be invested with such otherworldly significance.
Last May before there was any sign of the shrine to Collins, Fr. Twohig provoked a controversy which thrust Béal na mBláth into the news and has not been resolved since. Central to the quarrel is his long held view that the area around the memorial should be developed into a ‘people’s park’ or ‘garden of remembrance’ similar to the American Civil War sites like Gettysburg. The historian-priest resented the fact that as he saw it, Béal na mBláth had become ‘holy shrine to Fine Gael’. Fr. Twohig’s plan was to commemorate not just Collins but the dead of both sides in the Civil War. Transforming Béal na mBláth in this way would help to heal Civil War wounds, he claimed.
The crusading cleric faced opposition from the Béal na mBláth Commemoration Committee, led by Fine Gael’s Councillor Frank Medcalfe. Nevertheless, having secured permission from a local farmer, Fr. Twohig and his team of workers began a preliminary clearing of the bushes on the ambush site across the road from the memorial. The scene was set for a ‘battle’ to rival that famous struggle of August 1922.
Councillor Medcalfe was furious when he heard of Fr. Twohig’s move: ‘It’s an absolute disgrace. I would question what right Fr. Twohig has to take it upon himself to desecrate this part of West Cork which is renowned world-wide, without consultation with the Béal na mBláth Commemoration Committee, the Irish Army or the Collins families. The only way I can describe what has been done is vandalism in a hallowed place’. The committee struck back by calling in the gardaí. Councillor Medcalfe made a complaint to Macroom Garda Station, indicating that Fr. Twohig was in breach of the Wildlife Act which prohibits anyone from disturbing the wildlife of an area between 15 April and 15 September. Gardaí arrived at the scene and Fr. Twohig had to lead his volunteers in a reluctant retreat. The site has not been touched since and the priest cannot see any reason why: ‘The only wildlife at the scene were two magpies and the magpies are believed to have come to Ireland with Cromwell!’
Why is the Béal na mBláth committee opposed to the development plan? Fr. Twohig thinks it may have something to do with his republican background, an allegation strenuously denied by treasurer, Tommy O’Connell. He insists that they merely want the site to be preserved as near as possible to what it was in 1922. Fr. Twohig retorts that the ambush site is now so overgrown that in fact one can see nothing of what Collins saw. The committee is reluctant to let Béal na mBláth become commercialised. Who wants to see ice cream vans along this country road, asks Mr. O’Connell? In reply, Fr. Twohig claims that the local community are his most enthusiastic supporters. Their support manifested itself again, he says, at a recent meeting in favour of his proposals held at a local public house. Councillor Medcalfe and his committee seem to be most aggrieved by the fact that Fr. Twohig ‘came from nowhere’ and began his project without consulting them. Nevertheless, they do agree with the priest that more information should be made available to visitors on the exact position of Collins and those around him during his final moments.
As to Fr. Twohig’s stated intention of healing Civil War wounds, O’Connell suggests that his proposals would in fact reopen them. Reluctant to countenance the transformation of Béal na mBláth into a memorial to both factions of the civil war, he thinks wounds will continue to heal better if the commemorations of both sides are left to operate as they always have done.
Mr. O’Connell says that the committee would be prepared to meet with Fr. Twohig if he so wished, an offer which the historian-priest is unwilling to consider. Citing their ‘tenuous mandate’ which, he claims, operates for only one event each year in August, Fr. Twohig is more interested in pushing forward with his plans which he was finalising at the time of writing. The US military have a record of assisting restoration projects around the world and the priest has enlisted the support of Captain Bill Noonan of the US National Guard. Armed also with his engineer’s blueprints, Fr. Twohig seems to be ready for round two of his battle with the committee: ‘I still can’t see Fine Gael giving up its holy shrine as easy as that. The big shots in Dublin would let out a yell if they did!’ The priest says that his aim is to heal Civil War wounds but the indications are that this could develop into an unseemly and emotive row.
Even if they settle this argument, it seems that Fr. Twohig has another controversy primed and ready to spring on the world. He claims that the date of Collins’s death as inscribed on the Béal na mBlath monument contains a spelling error! Instead of the proper spelling, ‘Lugnasa’, the word ‘Luguasa’ is actually inscribed on the statue. It seems amazing that this anomaly has never been noticed before but Collins’s new religious significance may shed some light on the subject. Moving, crying and blood-spilling statues are commonplace. Perhaps Michael Collins has given us the first statue that can change its own inscription!

Frank Foley is a student of history at NUI, Cork.

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