09 March 2006


The New Republic

The Organizer
by Fintan O'Toole
Post date: 03.09.06
Issue date: 03.13.06

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

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On an Internet site dedicated solely to merchandise bearing the image of the early twentieth-century Irish revolutionary Michael Collins, you can buy a T-shirt imprinted with the hero's face and the slogan "Rebel With a Cause." Michael Collins is the James Dean of the Irish nationalist revolt against Britain. Peter Hart, in his new biography, describes Collins as "the first example of that twentieth century phenomenon: the guerrilla celebrity." Young, good-looking, moody, and sexy, he also had the wit to die in 1922 at the age of thirty-one, before the banalities of peacetime government or the disappointments of middle age could turn him into a bore. Killed by some of his old comrades, who rejected the deal that he struck with the British, he could be admired for apparently contradictory reasons: as a ruthless terrorist leader and as a heroic compromiser.

On the one hand, Collins can be remembered as the father of twentieth-century asymmetric warfare, in which a small guerrilla gang takes on a lumbering imperial giant and wins. In an interview with the London Daily Telegraph in 1998, Yitzhak Shamir revealed that one of the great inspirations in his life was Michael Collins. Shamir said he admired Collins's personal courage, and had studied his tactics. He chose the name "Michael" as his nom de guerre while leading the Lehi group (the so-called Stern Gang, a Jewish band of anti-British terrorists in Mandatory Palestine) as a tribute to Collins. As Shamir wrote in his memoirs, "The spirit and circumstances of [Collins's] struggle against the British came to life for me in faraway Poland and remained with me." The Collins who inspired Shamir was the hard, cold, clear-eyed leader of the Irish Republican Army, who was prepared to use violence as a political tool.

On the other hand, Collins can be remembered as a brave peacemaker. Shortly after the peace deal in 1998, which brought an end to thirty years of violence in Northern Ireland, David Trimble, the leader of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party, was asked about the man who had been his greatest enemy--Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the present-day IRA. He confessed that he thought it "possible that Gerry Adams could be a Michael Collins." What he meant was not that Adams was a cold-blooded mastermind of terror, but that he, like Collins, could lead the IRA into democratic politics by making a pragmatic deal, as Collins had done in 1921 when he negotiated an Anglo-Irish treaty that left Britain in control of Northern Ireland and created a state on the rest of the island whose independence fell short of the republican ideal for which he had fought.

Collins's double image gives his memory a peculiar pliability. The original publicity poster for Neil Jordan's film Michael Collins, which came out in 1996, showed Liam Neeson as Collins leaping over a barricade with a rifle in his hand. It was scrapped in favor of a poster showing him making a speech from an election platform. The transformation of radical gunman into democratic politician was designed, of course, to resonate with the peace process in Northern Ireland, and the film broke Irish box-office records. As a result, Collins's image was commodified through posters, t-shirts, phone cards, and kitschy bronze statuettes. In the village of Granard, home to Collins's girlfriend Kitty Kiernan, the new Michael Collins Bar and Kitty Kiernan Restaurant did a roaring trade. Politicians made speeches about what Collins, had he lived, "would have" done and thought. All of it, remarkably enough, happened to coincide precisely with their own deeds and ideals. In his Michael Collins: A Life, published in 1996, James Mackay, typically of the Collins biographers, wrote that had he lived Collins "would have" peacefully re-united the island and created a thriving economy. The young revolutionary had become the patron saint of lost opportunities.

The malleability of Collins's memory owes much to the facts of his astonishing life, but much, too, to the way his early death made his future a matter of pure possibility. The men who shot Collins in an ambush during the civil war between rival nationalist factions that followed British withdrawal from most of Ireland were partisans of the more hard-line Eamon de Valera, who went on to dominate the Irish state in the coming decades. De Valera still held the ceremonial office of president of the Irish Republic fifty years after Collins's death, and is remembered now as ancient, decrepit, and half-blind. Collins stayed fresh in the imagination as the country boy who had humbled the greatest empire the world had ever known. Revelations that he had a foul tongue and an eye for women only made him seem more attractively contemporary. In the wars of memory, Collins has routed those who killed him.

The process of shaping an official memory began early. As Anne Dolan has shown in her brilliant book Commemorating the Irish Civil War, Collins was scarcely cold before the process of myth-making was under way. Less than a month after Collins's death in August 1922, the embattled government of the new Irish state commissioned an official biography. A few weeks later, it agreed to purchase his death mask and a bronze bust. On the second anniversary of the killing, the Irish army unveiled a large stone cross, with an image of the crucified Christ, at the alleged site of the fatal ambush on a rural road in Collins's native County Cork: a place now declared to be holy ground, "made sacred by the blood of General Collins."

The identification of the hero's blood sacrifice with that of Jesus was by no means accidental. Collins's closest military acolytes had been known as "the Apostles," and his own dying words were even reported as "Forgive them"--an echo of Christ's words on the cross. And like the memory of all dead saints, the memory of the real Collins was being made to measure. The site of the monument, chosen for its capacity to accommodate large crowds of pilgrims, was in fact forty yards away from the real site. A cement cone that had marked the actual place of his death was moved so as to stand, as it still does, next to the cross. The tendency to shift the facts to shape a usable memory goes back a long way.

The subtitle of the new biography by Peter Hart, with its claim to reveal the "real Michael Collins," is thus an open declaration of skepticism in the face of a deliberately constructed image. Collins, Hart notes in his introduction, has virtually disappeared into "the realm of the incredible, of Monte Cristo, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Sherlock Holmes" through "innumerable tales of his miraculous feats, subterfuges and evasions of near-certain capture and death." Hart's aim, he writes, is not to debunk Collins, but simply to "start from scratch and from a new, forensic perspective," one that is "analytical and systematic rather than heroic." Hart is well fitted for the task. His great book The IRA and Its Enemies is a micro-study of the guerrilla campaign in Collins's native Cork, and his collection of historical essays, The IRA at War 1916-1923, includes a groundbreaking study of the Irish nationalist underground in London, where Collins forged his political persona.

The delicious irony that emerges from Hart's sober analysis of the available documentation is that Collins, the arch-enemy of British imperialism, was in fact the perfect product of Victorian Britain. He was upwardly mobile: born in 1890 as the third son of obscure farmers in rural Cork, by the age of thirty he had become chairman of, and minister for finance in, the government of a new state and commander-in-chief of its army, negotiating as an equal with Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. He achieved his ambitions, moreover, by embracing the very values that his imperial masters preached to their subjects: hard work, organization, relentless discipline. If the British ruling class developed a perverse regard for the young man who directed a dirty war against them, it was surely because they recognized him as their own creature.

Collins was not a born genius. When, at fifteen, he took the examinations for a job as clerk in the Post Office Savings Bank in London, he failed two of the four subjects and did not achieve the required grade of sixty-six. He got the job only because so many successful candidates did not accept their offers. Yet it was the Post Office Savings Bank that made him such a successful revolutionary. Irish nationalism had always had a surplus of dreamers, poets, visionaries, rhetoricians, and idealists. What it lacked was bureaucrats. Collins became the indispensable man of the Irish revolution because he knew how to run things.

The guerrilla chief who demanded that his subordinates supply reports "done in tabular form and furnished in duplicate" was simply a grown-up version of the boy in the Post Office Savings Bank, where hundreds of thousands of transactions had to be recorded accurately every day and clerical errors were not tolerated. The earnest, punctual Collins who earned a reputation as "the speediest young clerk in the Savings Bank" was, in embryo, the leader whose favorite terms of castigation were "lazy," "inefficient," and "unbusinesslike." Obscured by the legend of the trickster-terrorist is the real Collins story: the literal treason of the clerk.

Collins's pragmatism and aptitude for micro-management made him a perfect revolutionary bureaucrat. Very few guerrilla leaders can have devoted mental space to the question of dog licenses, as Collins did at the height of the IRA's campaign in 1920, when he suggested that the issuing of licenses for dogs and illegal whiskey might be a good way to make up revenue lost to nationalist-controlled local councils by the withdrawal of British grants. This appetite for detail combined with an ability to survive without much sleep might seem merely the makings of a good middle manager. But the context of Irish revolutionary culture gave a special potency to Collins's ethic of efficiency.

That culture was one of heroic failure. Its cardinal virtues were courage, self-sacrifice, and a noble death. After a decade in London, where he divided his time between respectable day jobs in banking and a burgeoning career in both open and conspiratorial Irish nationalist organizations, Collins returned to Dublin to take part in the most glorious failure of them all, the Easter Rising of 1916. He was in the revolutionary headquarters (appropriately enough, the General Post Office in Dublin) for most of the five days during which a few hundred armed rebels held out before their inevitable defeat by vastly superior British forces. The grand gesture reached its culmination with the cold-blooded (and, from the point of view of public opinion, catastrophically misjudged) execution of the leaders by the British. Collins emerged from a prison camp at the end of 1916 with all the élan of a man who had taken part in the bloody national sacrifice, but also with a contempt for heroic gestures. The revolution he would run would not be a grand opera; it would be a corporation.

In September 1917, when the prominent nationalist Thomas Ashe died as a result of being force-fed by British authorities attempting to end a hunger strike, Collins was given the job of making the funeral oration at his graveside in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. The funeral was staged as a grand exercise in political theater, and as a self-conscious reprise of the obsequies in 1915 for Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, a veteran of the militantly nationalist Fenian movement. On that occasion, Patrick Pearse, who went on to lead the Easter Rising, had made a famous speech whose rhetoric was powered by the romantic glamour of blood sacrifice: "The fools! They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace." Pearse's oration was the high point of a super-charged, ecstatic rhetoric that fused political militancy and religious mysticism into a deathly incantation. It captured, in the words of William Irwin Thompson, "the romance of the monumental grave, the mysticism of martyrdom, the desire for apotheosis in a tragic death."

Thomas Ashe was buried a few yards from O'Donovan's grave, and the crowds who gathered to hear Collins would undoubtedly have expected a rhetorical display along similar lines. What happened instead was that twelve men fired three volleys over the grave and, as the Irish Times reported the next day, "Mr. Michael Collins, after the firing, stepped forward and said there would be no oration. Nothing remained to be said, for the volley which had been fired was the only speech which it would be proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian." The silence was more dazzlingly eloquent than anything Collins might have said. It delivered an unmistakable message. Romantic rhetoric might sanitize or even substitute for violence, but Collins intended to get on with the dirty business itself. This time there would be no heroic and dramatic failures, just cold instrumental killing.

Late in 1921, when Collins's celebrity had made him a great catch for society soirées, he attended a party at the house of the writer and surgeon Oliver St. John Gogarty (best known as the model for Buck Mulligan in Joyce's Ulysses) along with W.B. Yeats and the artist and mystic George Russell. The latter launched into a spiritual lecture on good, evil, and the soul. Collins listened intently for a while, then interrupted with the blunt question: "But what is your point, Mr. Russell?" It was a question that previous Irish nationalist leaders had tended not to ask. The struggle was its own point--merely to have fought was, in some mystical sense, to have won. For Collins, the point was simple enough: to force the British to negotiate their withdrawal from Ireland by any means necessary.

Violence was one of those means. Collins's reputation as the father of modern guerrilla warfare is undeserved. As Hart convincingly argues, the IRA's strength was that its attacks on the police, the army, and the irregular British force (known, from its uniform, as the Black and Tans) were locally directed and opportunistic. There was no central mastermind. Collins's importance lay rather in his ability to maintain the supply of money and arms, to keep his eye simultaneously on the political and military dimensions of the struggle, and, above all, to coordinate intelligence. His success in the latter department was not just militarily useful, but also crucial to the morale of the fighters. In the long and woeful tale of Irish uprisings, every chapter had ended with a bitter acknowledgment that all the plans had been betrayed by enemy spies. By turning the tables, Collins helped to convince his own side that this time the ending could be different.

Again, as Hart shows, Collins was not the awesome spymaster of legend. At least two British agents managed to win his trust before they betrayed themselves by their own amateurism and were shot. Ned Broy, Collins's most important agent, a senior clerk in the plainclothes section at police headquarters in Dublin Castle, contacted the IRA on his own initiative. But Collins's efficiency was nonetheless crucial. He knew how to act quickly on the information that he was given, and his effective networks of communication carried the warnings of police and army raids in time for their intended targets to take evasive action.

Perhaps more importantly, Collins understood the psychological impact not so much of the intelligence itself as of the idea that he had it. The story, widely rumored but nonetheless true, that Collins had been able to sneak into Dublin Castle and examine his own file, gave his supporters a sense of almost magical invincibility. The operation in November 1920 in which twelve British agents were killed in their homes during eight separate but almost simultaneous IRA raids conveyed the same impression to the general public. It also provoked a vicious British backlash in which several civilian spectators at a football match were shot dead, further undermining the legitimacy of the British presence.

How could a man who used violence so ruthlessly become the pragmatic compromiser who negotiated with the British and settled for less than the sacred Republic for which the 1916 leaders had died? The contradiction is more apparent than real. The Collins who preferred gunshots to high-flown rhetoric was precisely the same utilitarian who preferred an acceptable deal to an interminable war. Unusual among his comrades, Collins was immune to Catholic mysticism and to the sectarian religious passions that infected so much of Irish nationalist ideology. Toward the end of the Easter Rising, when many of the rebels were resorting to their rosary beads, an angry Collins saw one of his comrades with his head in his hands and asked, "Are you fucking praying too?" He was strongly anti-clerical, and owned many of the works of the American freethinker Robert Ingersoll (known to contemporaries as "the Great Agnostic").

Cut off from the hinterland of visceral faith, his nationalism was as pragmatic as it was passionate. The experience of running a guerrilla war, moreover, taught him not just about the uses of violence, but also about its limits. Those limits were the same for the IRA in the 1920s as they were for a later version of the IRA in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. The IRA could make Ireland ungovernable by Britain, but it could not actually defeat a vastly greater military power or force the large Protestant and pro-British population in the northeast of the island into an Irish state.

Still, Collins had built his reputation in the nationalist movement by always being on the more militant side of its various splits. It was a surprise to his fellow members of the team that negotiated with the British in London in 1921 when Collins abruptly announced that he would accept the draft treaty creating a Free State in twenty-six of Ireland's thirty-two counties, with the British king remaining as nominal head of state. As Hart puts it, "His personal history of siding with the militants in splits, his power base among conspirators and gunmen, and his fear of being blamed for compromise or failure should have predisposed him to say no." His pragmatism, though, trumped everything else. As he explained to his revolutionary colleagues back home, "In a contest between a great Empire and a small nation this was as far as the small nation could get. Until the British Empire was destroyed, Ireland could get no more." In this Collins was undoubtedly right, and we should recognize the moral courage that it took for a heavily mythologized figure to confront an unpalatable reality.

In the civil war that followed the Anglo-Irish treaty, Collins virtually embodied the new state, dominating its government and commanding its army against his former comrades. He operated again as organizer and manager, galvanizing his forces with his energy, efficiency, and intolerance of failure. Ironically, his death in the fateful ambush ought to have further demythologized him, for it showed the reputed gunman's inexperience in combat. Collins needlessly exposed himself under fire in a way that reminded his colleagues that he had always been essentially a back-room boy. Emmet Dalton, who was beside Collins when he died, recalled that "Mick wouldn't keep his head down. If he'd ever been in a scrap he'd have learned to stay down." Such was Collins's importance for the fragile new state, however, that he was immediately transfigured into a warrior-hero.

Peter Hart has done a remarkable job in recovering the ambitious, workaholic bureaucrat behind the legend of Michael Collins. His argument is always lucid and forceful, if sometimes disfigured by an unfortunate attempt at populist language whose lack of real conviction is conveyed by a plague of exclamation marks. By sticking rigorously to documentary sources, many of them not previously exploited, he has constructed an image of Collins that is more mundane than those that have gone before but still acknowledges his exceptional achievements. This is the book that will unquestionably be the starting point for all future reflections on Collins. But it should not be the last word.

There remains, after all, a sense in which a demythologized Collins is not quite as "real" as Hart would have it. For even before his death and apotheosis, "Michael Collins" meant far more to both his admirers and his enemies than the six feet of blood and bone who plotted his own advancement alongside his country's freedom. When a university student in Dublin confided to her diary in 1921, after a skirmish between the IRA and British forces, the rumor that "Michael Collins was killed in the battle ... while leading his men on a white charger," she was imagining a fantasy figure who could not be further from the reality of Hart's revolutionary bureaucrat. The ability to evoke such fantasies, however, was itself a part of Collins's historical presence.

Collins's mysterious glamour dazzled even his enemies at Dublin Castle. They came to regard him as at once maddeningly elusive and yet so intimately known that they habitually referred to him simply as "Michael." The Irish historian Michael Laffan has noted such comments on the British files as that of the commander in chief Nevil Macready after a prison break allegedly masterminded by Collins: "It was cleverly done, and I rather admire Michael." Other remarks on British intelligence files have the star-struck quality of fans gossiping about a movie actor or a pop singer: "M.C. has, I hear, grown a beard: he is the idol of the young men"; "Michael slept with a girl, address known, once a week"; "Michael is often disguised as a priest with a remarkably high collar."

Even among the lower ranks of the British army, Collins acquired the status of a Houdini. In January 1921, a newly arrived English soldier named J.P. Swindlehurst noted in his diary (published recently in William Sheehan's fascinating British Voices From the Irish War of Independence 1918-1921) that "We have two extremely fast cars with Rolls Royce engines, we had a talk to the drivers this morning, and were told they are kept in readiness to catch the elusive Michael Collins when news of his whereabouts comes to hand. He must be famous, £500 is being offered dead or alive for his capture, but all the Black and Tans ... and CID [Criminal Investigation Department] men from Scotland Yard can't get hold of him." Six weeks later, he was still complaining that "night after night we have been ordered out, 'Michael Collins had been located, he was imprisoned in such and such a house, the CID had him surrounded,' and all sorts of rumours. At the time of writing, he is still at large."

So Peter Hart's forensic examination of the documents captures one part of Collins with a rigorous historian's skill. But the elusive figure compounded of rumor and imagination was perhaps just as effective in convincing the British that they could not hold Ireland in their grasp. That Michael Collins is still at large.

Fintan O'Toole is a columnist for The Irish Times.

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