Few political and military leaders span the spectrum like Michael Collins did. He was a brilliant strategist, and went from an IRA guerrilla leader who could pretty much do anything to a reluctant politician and a commander in the National Army.
Mick was used as a pawn and a scapegoat by Eamon De Valera in the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations that resulted in the partition of Ireland in 1921. He wanted no part in the political process but was sent anyway despite his fervent objections. He knew this agreement would bring chaos and anger to the Isle and was personally against it. Still, his name was signed and when another signatory mentioned that by signing it, he may have ended his own political career, Collins replied with “I may have signed my actual death warrant.” He was right.
When they returned after the signing, the Machiavellian De Valera led the Nationalists against the agreement, despite his complicit hand in the creation of it. It is widely thought that if he had transparently participated and agreed with the treaty, the Irish Civil War may never have happened. The conjecture is moot at this point, and what resulted was the demonizing of Michael Collins by the very people he used to command and call friends. They now considered him a traitor, including the man who forced him into the situation.
The assassination of Michael Collins is largely mysterious. No two statements are the same and all witnesses were involved somehow, therefore rendering their stories potentially skewed. Even more importantly, no one was ever approached by police and the stories, rumors and firsthand accounts that were given were told to friends, family, and to the occasional reporter. None were given to police. There is no official record detailing the killing in existence and no investigation was ever started by the authorities.
All that is known for sure is that he was ambushed during a trip he insisted on taking, despite the adamant protests of his advisers and friends. They warned him of the danger and the lack of security – and Mick was no fool – he had to know they were right and often privately remarked that the Civil War would cost him his life. He went anyway over their objections. He was reportedly killed by Anti-Treaty Republican forces as his car neared Béal na Bláth on August 22, 1922. Shots were exchanged and Collins was the only fatality recorded. Everything else, from witness statements to forensic records and who was involved is up for dispute. Though there is a generally accepted, pieced together theory of what happened on that fateful day, it is technically hearsay and will forever be a mystery.
His body was brought back to Dublin where it laid in state for three days. Approximately 1/5th of all the people in Ireland (over 500,000) came to pay their respects or to attend his funeral mass. Some of his former British enemies even joined the procession before they left Ireland, honoring him as a fierce opponent and those he once led prayed for his soul, despite his perceived betrayal. De Valera mourned like the rest, suddenly “shocked” by the loss of his “friend”, though there are those who believe he ordered the assassination himself. Countless books, ballads and films have been written about Michael Collins, but very few have been about his actual death, since studying it is nearly impossible. We will likely never know the real circumstances of the legend’s demise, just that he died on this day, 92 years ago.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh tú, Big Fella.