28 February 2006

Born of chaos

Boston Glob

'Mick' casts Irish leader Michael Collins as a man shaped by the time's violent forces

By Anna Mundow - February 26, 2006

Mick: The Real Michael Collins
By Peter Hart
Viking, 485 pp., illustrated, $27.95

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usMichael Collins was born in 1890, the youngest of eight children, on a farm in West Cork. He was killed 32 years later in an ambush during Ireland's Civil War. At the time he was commander in chief of the Irish Free State Army, which was fighting those opposed to the 1921 Treaty that Collins and other representatives had negotiated with the British government.

Death made the famous revolutionary a legend: ''The Big Fellow" became the fallen hero, the lost leader. Slum dwellers and aristocrats alike filed past his body in Dublin; the hat through which the fatal bullet passed became an object of forensic obsession, and a country road became Ireland's ''grassy knoll" as subsequent generations continued to ask ''Who really killed Michael Collins?" and ''What if he had lived?"

In his absorbing new biography ''Mick," Peter Hart pledges to view Collins in the context of the Irish revolution and not the other way around, an inversion of which he finds previous biographers guilty. ''This conflation of Michael Collins's life with the Irish revolution . . . makes the Story a fairy tale. . . . His only purpose is patriotism. His life embodies the revolution of which he was both creator and creature."

This is unfair to writers such as Margery Forester (''Michael Collins: The Lost Leader," 1971) and Tim Pat Coogan (''Michael Collins: A Biography," 1990), but Hart does have a point. Instead of venerating Collins, he situates him in an extraordinary time when events were shaped not solely by individuals but by disparate, chaotic forces, not the least of which was violence itself. The author previously of ''The IRA and Its Enemies," Hart has a lively, confident style and demonstrates clear mastery of his facts while maintaining a refreshingly dispassionate tone.

Employing a variety of primary sources, including newspapers and government archives, Hart first reconstructs Collins's upbringing and education, then his early life in London, where he initially worked for the British postal service. There are fine descriptions of the massive colonial bureaucracy that unwittingly trained revolutionaries like Collins and of the Irish athletic and cultural societies that Collins joined and often dominated. Here we catch glimpses of ''the Collins touch: the direct, acerbic and morally superior critique of those who didn't live up to his standards"; of the man's energy, impatience, discipline, charm, and, critically, his ability to exploit divisions within a group to his advantage.

Collins became a radical revolutionary, Hart observes, ''when Irish self-government seemed on the verge of realization," the Home Rule bill having passed in ''September 1914, amid the widespread expectation that self-government would come into being at the end of a short war."

The war, however, was not short, and in the meantime the 1916 Rising in Dublin, the execution of its leaders, and the threat of conscription being extended to Ireland in 1918 stoked nationalist fires.
The year 1916 may be when Collins and history intersected, but rebellion was underway when he returned to Ireland, avoiding conscription into the British Army and eager to prove his worth as a soldier in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers. He played a minor part in the failed Rising but gained status and political experience from his subsequent imprisonment. In 1918 he became secretary of the National Aid Association and Volunteer Dependants Fund in Dublin, which ostensibly assisted those affected by the Rising but which Hart describes as ''in reality a vast American subsidy to the separatist movement."

Hart's clear vision penetrates the murk of the War of Independence (1919-21), the Treaty negotiations of 1921, and the Civil War (1922-23), clashes that Collins was seen to embody but that are portrayed here as having their own momentum. By the time that Collins created the Volunteers' intelligence section in 1919, Hart observes, ''the [IRA] gunmen were starting their own war." His observation that ''in the second half of 1919, and especially in early 1920, it was the IRA that was doing most of the shooting and [Irish] policemen who were doing most of the dying" challenges the familiar image of Collins's elite squad executing meticulous reprisals against the crown's lethal agents: In 1922, Collins wrote that ''we did not initiate the war nor did we choose the battleground." But Hart insists that ''declaring a secret war on the police was a very political decision." Collins was, in his view, ''above all, a rationalist" who cunningly juggled the forces of violence and moderation.

Numerous volumes have been devoted to the treaty that created the Irish Free State excluding Northern Ireland, but here again Hart compresses tortuous events to great effect. Descriptions of the Irish delegation haggling with old hands like Lloyd George, Winston Churchill et al. over sovereignty, allegiance, the use of ports, and, of course, the thorny northern province convey a growing sense of exhaustion and despair. Meanwhile Eamonn de Valera, the president of a nation that did not yet exist and who rejected the treaty with which his plenipotentiaries returned, materializes here as more enigma than villain and his relationship with Collins as something other than crude rivalry.

''What drove Collins into these conflicts was his desire to acquire or exercise power, or else his fear that someone was going to take it away," Hart writes of him in 1919. That description no longer seemed to fit the man who returned from the London negotiations in 1921. In his most statesmanlike speech he declared that rejection of the treaty would mean war ''until you have beaten the British empire. . . . I would not be one of those to commit the Irish people to war without the Irish people committing themselves to war." Once again, however, events overtook politics: ''The creature was loose" in the form of the IRA ''that Collins had done so much to create, to arm and to protect from civilian interference" and that would kill him on Aug. 22, 1922.

Hart's cool description of that fateful ambush is a fitting conclusion to a book that succeeds in desmystifying a legend and portraying a formidable revolutionary whose influence outlived him. A postscript would have accommodated that point and some useful speculation. How would Ireland have developed, for instance, with Collins -- portrayed here as secularist, even anti-clerical -- as head of state?

And what would that have meant for Northern Ireland, the most enduring legacy of the Collins era?

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at ama1668@hotmail.com.

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