‘The commander-in-chief’s cap badge’?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2011), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 19

Michael Collins in the grounds of Portobello Barracks, Dublin, just before his fateful trip to West Cork in August 1922. But is his cap badge the same one (right) put up for auction at Mealy’s? The pencilled note of authentication signed by ‘Seán’ [Gen. Seán Mac Eoin] reads: ‘Cap badge removed from General Michael Collins vehicle at Cork Union Hospital August 23 1922’. (Emmet Dalton and Mealy Auctioneers)

Michael Collins in the grounds of Portobello Barracks, Dublin, just before his fateful trip to West Cork in August 1922. But is his cap badge the same one (right) put up for auction at Mealy’s? The pencilled note of authentication signed by ‘Seán’ [Gen. Seán Mac Eoin] reads: ‘Cap badge removed from General Michael Collins vehicle at Cork Union Hospital August 23 1922’. (Emmet Dalton and Mealy Auctioneers)

On Tuesday 20 April 2010 at Mealy’s Auctioneer’s rooms, Kilkenny, lot 604 was sold for €21,000 (plus fees). This item is described in the catalogue as:

‘THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF’S CAP BADGE

Collins (Michael) An original Irish Army bronze Cap Badge with inscription Óglagh na hÉireann/FF reputed to have been removed from General Michael Collins’ vehicle at Cork Union Hospital on 23 August 1922, following the ambush at Beal na mBlath in which Collins died from gunshot wounds to the head.(With a pencilled note of authentication signed by ‘Seán’ (Gen. Seán Mac Eoin, the ‘Blacksmith of Ballinalee’, later Chief of Staff of the Irish Army, and a close associate of Collins.) Displayed in a glazed box.Provenance: The Kathleen Napoli Mc Kenna Archive. (1)
€2000–€3000’I was puzzled by this sale. I was aware that on his West Cork military inspection trip, culminating in his death on Tuesday 22 August 1922, Michael Collins wore his new uniform, obtained for Arthur Griffith’s funeral the previous week, and that the cap he wore on this journey was buried at Béal na Bláth.

The ambush

When Michael Collins was fatally shot during the ambush, the bullet that ended his life cut through the right-hand side of his cap and the poll of his head. Collins fell awkwardly and slumped to the ground. Emmet Dalton, who was close, rushed to Collins, who lay motionless. During a lull, Commandant Seán O’Connell crouched beside Dalton. Seeing that his commander-in-chief was dying, he held his hand and whispered the Act of Contrition into his ear.

 

But is his cap badge the same one put up for auction at Mealy’s? The pencilled note of authentication signed by ‘Seán’ [Gen. Seán Mac Eoin] reads: ‘Cap badge removed from General Michael Collins vehicle at Cork Union Hospital August 23 1922’. (Emmet Dalton and Mealy Auctioneers)

But is his cap badge the same one put up for auction at Mealy’s? The pencilled note of authentication signed by ‘Seán’ [Gen. Seán Mac Eoin] reads: ‘Cap badge removed from General Michael Collins vehicle at Cork Union Hospital August 23 1922’. (Emmet Dalton and Mealy Auctioneers)

Dalton kept up bursts of rapid fire. He called on his men to do likewise. Lieutenant Smith, the motorcycle scout-rider, realising that somebody had been hit, rushed to the place of commotion and shouted, ‘Get him into the armoured car’. Shielded by the doors, Dalton tried to bandage the head as bullets whistled and ripped the ground beside him.O’Connell caught Collins’s legs and, along with Dalton and Smith, shifted him towards the armoured car. The blood-covered cap, through which the fatal bullet had penetrated, had by now fallen off. It remained unnoticed by any of Dalton’s men. With the tilting upwards of his legs, Michael Collins’s revolver slipped from its holster; it landed where it was to remain overnight—on the grass margin, with his cap. For Republicans this location would mentally mark the spot where Michael Collins was shot.Next morning at 6am, west of Béal na Bláth, three Republicans, Jim Kearney, Timmy Sullivan and Tom Hales, were in Jim Murray’s field beyond the dwelling house and farmyard. Kearney, on Hales’s instructions, dug a hole beside a tree to bury the officer’s cap that they had found late the previous night. Ithad a large bullet hole to the right of the back stitching. It was blood-stained and contained human matter, hence Hales’s decision to bury it. Word had reached them that a fatal bullet had hit Michael Collins. As the men stood close to the oak tree, Hales with a penknife carefully levered off the front brass badge and yellow diamond. ‘A souvenir of a friend,’ he said sadly, then put it in his pocket. He handed the cap to Kearney. Kearney asked Hales for the penknife. He severed the front strap from the officer’s cap and put it in his pocket. Having completed the burial, Hales blessed himself; his two companions did likewise. The three men, who paused beside the spot where Collins’s cap was now buried, were unaware that their action would contribute to the mystery that would not be solved for over 60 years; nor could they have anticipated that the cap would be one evidential fact in establishing how Michael Collins was shot. Kearney handed Collins’s revolver, found on the ambush site, to Hales, and informed him of the outrider’s abandoned motorbike. (Both Hales and Kearney kept their souvenirs.)

Collins’s body was brought to Cork’s Shanakiel Hospital, not to the Union Hospital as claimed in the note of authentication. (Cork Public Museum)

Collins’s body was brought to Cork’s Shanakiel Hospital, not to the Union Hospital as claimed in the note of authentication. (Cork Public Museum)

‘This is the cap we buried’

On 30 July 1973, I accompanied Jim Kearney on his first visit to the National Museum, Dublin. Assistant Keeper Oliver Snoddy had given permission for both of us to view at close quarters the mud-stained coat and cap in the Museum’s mahogany case. Kearney, a tall athletic man, though advanced in years was extremely sharp. As we approached the steps, he stopped and said, ‘If this cap has a large jagged tear at the back right-hand side and if the badge, the diamond and the strap are missing, then that is the cap we buried’. Later Kearney, in amazement, took the cap that Oliver Snoddy held; he examined it carefully and said, ‘This is the cap we buried’. He was certain.Dalton (when I interviewed him) was certain that Michael Collins’s cap and gun were left in Béal na Bláth, as was his own gun. (Both guns are now in private hands.)The question, then, is how could Collins’s cap badge have been sold on 20 April 2010? The auctioneer, George F. Mealy, believed that the cap badge sold with the ‘pencilled note of authentication signed by “Seán” . . . in a glazed box’ was ‘removed’ from Collins’s vehicle on 23 August 1922, as the accompanying note stated. (The catalogue used the caveat ‘reputed’ in relation to the badge.) The writing on the note compared favourably with General Seán MacEoin’s, but MacEoin, GOC, Western Command, was not in the convoy. We accept the bona fides of the ‘Seán’ note, yet for historians and archivists it creates a problem. The note states: ‘Cap badge removed from General Michael Collins vehicle at Cork Union Hospital August 23, 1922’. But Collins’s body was brought to Shanakiel Hospital, not the Union Hospital, located in a different part of Cork city.  From my research I found that the ‘bronze cap badge’ that was auctioned on 20 April 2010 belonged to the mint of larger bronze cap badges which ‘were not introduced until 1924’, when the National Army became the National Defence Forces. According to Glenn Thompson, National Museum, Collins Barracks, ‘the officers’ brass cap badges and in some cases bronze, worn in 1922, were smaller than the bronze badges introduced in 1924’. This smaller brass badge conforms with the type of ‘brass badge and diamond’ that Tom Hales removed from Collins’s cap prior to its burial on 23 August 1922. Even if Collins had a second cap in his touring car on his West Cork trip, the cap badge would have been similar.Thus the (slightly larger) bronze cap badge offered for sale at Mealy’s could not be genuine. This story should prove a salutary lesson to those wishing to acquire historical memorabilia. The old adage caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) still applies!  HI

[Since I began my research on Michael Collins’s cap and badge, I have learned that the sale has been cancelled and the money refunded. The vendor has taken back both the ‘Seán’ note and the cap badge sold at Mealy’s auction on 20 April 2010.]

Meda Ryan’s The day Michael Collins was shot was published by Poolbeg Press in 1989.

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