Michael Collins’ assessment – Ireland’s position at the end of the Anglo-Irish War

Characteristically compact, pithy, and to the point, Collins nutshells the national situation with an unsparing overview of its strengths and challenges.


photo closeup of Michael Collins in deep thought 1921

“We took as much of the government of Ireland out of the hands of the enemy as we could, but we could not grasp all of it because he used the whole of his forces to prevent us doing so, and we were unable to beat him out of the country by force of arms. But neither had he beaten us. We had made Ireland too uncomfortable for him. There were too many ambush positions in country areas, and too many gloomy street corners in Cork and Dublin. The British had not surrendered and had no need to agree to humiliating terms any more than we would have done. It was time for a settlement that would secure for us their withdrawal and evacuation. There was duress, of course. On their side, the pressure of world opinion to conform their practice to their professions, to make an honourable peace with us. On our side, the duress the weaker nation suffers against the stronger, the duress to accept really substantial terms.”

Although his comments can hardly be improved upon, we might extrapolate on his last sentence above: meaning, the duress any responsible representatives in his position must/might/should feel, not to come back empty-handed.  Much has been said about what the Treaty negotiators did not win in their first wrangle with London.  Does anyone consider what the sequel must have been, had they brought back nothing at all?  If, in their hands, the talks had failed, and Ireland’s first chance in centuries to win anything like independence had been lost?  If all the bloodshed and suffering had led only to more of the same, with chances of an advantageous settlement out of reach, perhaps for decades to come?

It was an outcome all too possible, continually threatened and discussed, throughout the negotiations.  Certainly this must have been in the forefront of every thoughtful representative’s mind, at that table. 

Yet it’s hardly examined in historical discussions today.

(More full quotes from Collins on this period: 
Threats played no part in signing the Treaty.”)


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“The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”

by S M Sigerson
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Did Michael Collins have to go to West Cork? Diplomacy and provisional governments

photo of Michael Collins with Arthur Griffith outside 10 Downing Street, London negotiations 1921

Michael Collins with Arthur Griffith outside 10 Downing Street, London negotiations 1921

If Commander-in-Chief Collins were negotiating peace when he was shot, that is directly connected with the fact that he didn’t have a nice, quiet 10 Downing Street at which to hold his conference with anti-Treaty leaders in the Irish Civil War. Nor could his conferees have come there: as men on the run, at war with government.

In  The Lost Leader, M Forester intelligently observed that “A Commander-in-Chief does not fling himself on his stomach behind a ditch with a rifle to take pot shots at the enemy. Nor, for that matter, do heads of [state].”

However, she erred in comparing Collins to British leaders: secure in the enjoyment of a firm and wealthy dynasty, backed by centuries of relative stability, with the happiness to be free from armed conflict, on the steps of their own offices. A young provisional government, guerrillas only yesterday, faced very different obligations and challenges. Struggling to emerge from a violent military occupation, their society was turned upside down, their civil institutions in flux or non-existent, fraught by enemies within and without.

In such contexts, a Salvador Allende might find that the Presidential Palace (where certain death awaited) was perhaps precisely the place he had to be. It can likewise be seen that Collins, both in his role as C-in-C, and as erstwhile head of the Provisional Government, was fulfilling his appropriate role: pursuing diplomacy and negotiating peace.

image of Leyland straight 8 touring car 1920

Collins rode in a Leyland straight 8 touring car

Maybe the only way to make that happen, the only way to prevent imminent national disaster, was to take his life in his hands, into the wild back roads of West Cork; now. As it happened, perhaps that very place, at that moment, was where he was obliged to appear: because no one else had the authority, as well as the credibility, in addition to the will, and the power, to negotiate this peace, with these forces.

And, lest we forget, assassination en route to peace parlays, has historically been an occupational hazard for Gaelic leaders, who venture to negotiate with London.

R E A D    M O R E
on Irish History / Irish Civil War:
The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
Cover image - The Assassination of Michael Collins - What Happened at Beal na mBlath

by S M Sigerson
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Was Michael Collins the difference? 1920s Irish Volunteers vis-a-vis 1970s Provisional IRA

photo of Commander-in-Chief Michael Collins

Commander-in-Chief Michael Collins, centre, facing camera

How were latter-day Irish insurgents in Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” (1969 – 1997) connected with the “Old IRA” (aka “Irish Volunteers”) of the Anglo-Irish War 1919-1921? (aka War of Independence / Tan War) Have they lived up to the 1916 Proclamation’s invocation, praying to keep Ireland’s arms free from “inhumanity or rapine”? If some of their actions have earned censure, what, if anything, has that to do with Michael Collins? Is there any basis for laying part of such wrongs at his door?

The perverting impact of the Troubles upon Irish history and historiography since 1969 is but an example of the axiom that truth is the first casualty of war. Thus arch-revisionism at its most extreme insists that nothing must be said or written about the effective use of violence in the Irish past, in case it gives comfort to those who use violence in the Irish present.
– Ronan Fanning

photo of Irish Volunteers - Hogan's Flying Column

Irish Volunteers – Hogan’s Flying Column

In Michael Collins, Ireland had a masterful, humane guerrilla leader who avoided civilian causalities. During the Anglo-Irish War, British authorities who tried to pursue random indiscriminate slaughter of civilians with impunity, swiftly won mutiny from their men, & execution by the Irish Volunteers.  However that is not to say that all Collins’ colleagues agreed on this.

“You’ll get none of my men for that,” said Collins.
“That’s alright Mister Collins, … I’ll get men of my own.

This famous exchange was reportedly occasioned by a plan put forward by Cathal Brugha and DeValera, to machine gun civilians queuing at cinemas in England.

Still, the 26-county Republic of Ireland went on to build a peaceful, democratic state. At the same time, in Northern Ireland’s Stormont apartheid regime (ostensibly created to protect unionist Protestants from deadly anarchy they expected, should the Irish ever be allowed to govern themselves!) random killing of civilians became policy for the next 50 years; while Dublin & London silently sat on their hands.

But the targeting of civilians ran rampant only over Michael Collins’ dead body, and those of other key officers of the Volunteers; only after the Irish Civil War shattered the band of brothers (and sisters) which had forced London to the negotiating table.

1922 McMahon family murders NI Image

McMahon family murders, Belfast, Northern Ireland 1922

By the same token, in 1972, Northern Ireland had a strong, peaceful civil rights movement; (largely inspired by that which had been championed by Martin Luther King in the USA.) But that didn’t suit London; or their loyalist representatives in Stormont. So the British Army shot the peaceful demonstrators off the Derry streets, in January 1972’s “Bloody Sunday” massacre.

Next day people queued up to joined the IRA. But it was an IRA with no Michael Collins

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.
photo of civilians carrying bloody body of victim shot by British soldiers Bloody Sunday Jan 1972 Derry Northern Ireland
President John F Kennedy

The Provisional IRA sprang up under British and loyalist military assaults on civilians in Northern Ireland, in the 1970s. Called “Provisional” because, although an Irish Republican Army executive did exist at the time, it was not active in the North; and did not authorize in advance any re-commencement of armed resistance there. The Provisionals sprang up as a defensive force, among an embattled people, literally fighting for their lives. Self-defense being a universally recognized human right.

photo of Proviisonal IRA checkpoint Northern Ireland 1970sAs to any of their actions which targeted civilians, these should not be considered without reference to the fact that, in this, the Provisional IRA were shooting back. Their actions were retaliatory. British / unionist authorities of the Stormont apartheid regime set the rules of engagement.

However, British brutality there was only a drop in the bucket of that Empire’s global regime of torture, inhumanity, and rapine. Their thousands of victims around the world, over centuries, dwarf the casualties in all Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and in all the IRA’s actions since 1919. Crimes of Britain

photo of famine victims in India under British rule

Ireland was not the only country where the British Empire used famine as a genocidal weapon against colonized peoples.

Yet Britain’s genocidal crimes in the name of Empire are rarely discussed. Few are even aware of their existence. Recent controversial legislation at Westminster aims expressly to prevent such discussion: or any investigation into crimes committed by British forces in Northern Ireland.  Apparently some have much to fear from a full accounting.

The past must be buried quickly and completely.
– Graham Greene “Our Man in Havana”

Is it an inevitable effect of gravity, that the least powerful are most blamed; while the actions of the great often go unquestioned? Or is it the inevitable by-product of any struggle between voiceless colonized people versus sophisticated imperialists and their public relations departments? Are we guilty of any unconscious tendency to excuse crimes commited in the name of government? Or do governments simply have the power to control the narrative, the information, the courts, and historical records?


photo from Mau Mau uprising Kenya 1957

Mau Mau uprising Kenya 1957

“I don’t lead terrorists. I lead Africans who want their self-government and land. God did not intend that one nation be ruled by another for ever.“
Dedan Kimathi
executed leader of Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion

As for the millions once “members” of the British Empire… none ever wanted to stay in it. Every nation has wanted out. After its debacles in Ireland and India, at length London began to realize what time it was. The Empire has since leaned toward a policy of gracefully bowing out, when the signs on the wall become unmistakeable. With the odd bloody exception, such as the Falkland Islands or… Northern Ireland.

How does the IRA compare with other armies?
An army is a problematic possession, for any country. Is there a blameless one anywhere?  Some would go as far as to say that all wars are wars on civilians, on women and children. 

Those who served in, for instance, the US or British armies in World War II are admired, eulogized. No one suggests they’ve anything to be ashamed of. Yet, in a close inquiry into which war was more just, which forces more free from inhumanity or rapine… the IRA would win hands down.

photo Northern Ireland Troubles grafitti

Peace process & truth commissions
It’s to be hoped that, in future, all parties will prefer peaceful revolutions. As has been official IRA policy since decommissionings connected with the 1997 Good Friday Agreement (aka Belfast Agreement.) .

Truth commissions are also an important part of peace processes. They should function freely, with the full cooperation of all parties.

R E A D    M O R E
on Irish History / Irish Civil War:
The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”

Cover Image - The Assassination of Michael Collins - What Happened at Beal na mBlath? by S M Sigersonby S M Sigerson
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Why did Michael Collins travel to rebel-held West Cork at that time?

photo of Michael Collins at Arthur Griffith's funeral, colorized

Collins went to Cork for something which was worth risking his life to get. He went for something which could not wait: which he had to do everything in his power to realize without delay, at all cost. He went to avert the Civil War’s bloodbath; and its legacy of lasting, crippling national division, which he could see was coming, if it were not stopped in time.

This is corroborated by many reliable witnesses from both sides, abundantly documented in related correspondence, recorded in his private conversations; and is thoroughly consistent with his character, behavior and priorities throughout the period.

It is easy to understand the urgency expressed in his many comments, on that journey. Up until the C-in-C’s assassination, the general damage incurred had been relatively minimal. “The [anti-Treaty] moderate wing … even at this stage was anxious to and hopeful of ending the clash with some honour.” 200 Collins felt deeply the death of his intimate friend Harry Boland, and was determined to prevent the loss of more comrades. It must be remembered, that he knew most all of the key military leaders of the independence movement. Many were personal friends, 201 having served together in 1916, in Frongach prison camp, and in the IRB.

photo of Michael Collins in touring car 22 Aug 1922

The Civil War was never strictly black and white. Throughout the fighting, there were profoundly mixed feelings, in some of its leading players. There were both hotter and cooler heads on both sides. Efforts broke out continually to achieve a settlement. There were frequent conferences among prominent anti-Treaty officers, debating the wisdom and/or practicality of continued resistance. “I want no rancor.” Collins was particularly anxious to avoid any lasting animosity. He understood that, to avoid it, his former (and, as he hoped, future) comrades would need terms which they could accept as honorable.

John M Feehan observed that the IRA had no motive nor desire to assassinate Collins; that, on the contrary, they were well aware that he was their “only hope” in the Free State government. If so, in view of the holocaust which ensued after his death, they were right.

It cannot be over-emphasized that the Civil War before Collins’ death and the Civil War after Collins’ death were two entirely different animals. And that it was his pivotal leadership presence which made the difference.

R E A D    M O R E
The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
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Was the Irish Civil War the counter-revolution? Reconciliation and the Irish Civil War – Part III

photo of Dublin during the Irish Civil War - soldiers firing prone behind a shopRevolution – 
Advanced Class
Did either side in the Irish Civil War escape manipulation into the course which most profited the British Empire? Ireland’s struggles, triumphs, and tragedies hold unique, invaluable and particularly vivid lessons for every nation

(Also see linked posts:
“Reconciliation and the Irish Civil War
” Pt I & Pt II )

In the Revolutionary Decade 1913-1923, the Irish Civil War was a few months: one cataclysm, which accomplished what the British were powerless to do, with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men: it stopped the revolution in its tracks, and wiped out much of its top leadership, who’d made it all possible.

For what chance ever have the brave left captainless – what fate
but to be trampled down by the fools and cowards?
– Standish O’Grady “The Gael” 1903

The Treaty talks of 1921 were the first between Ireland and England since the 1690s. Decades of negotiation, thankfully, followed. No one today would be called a traitor for not bringing back a 32-county republic, on their first trip to London. Nor on their tenth. Even in the most radical circles, everyone knows that would be wildly unrealistic.

We have the experience of 1922 to learn from. But the amazing achievements of Ireland’s Revolutionary Decade were won by people who had never seen a functioning democracy (as we think of it.) They wanted a republic; but had never actually done democracy. (Some might argue that the world has yet to see true democracy still.)


photo of Michael Collins

Michael Collins

While it was perfectly justifiable for any body of Irishmen, however small, to rise up
… against [Ireland’s]
enemy… it is not justifiable for a minority to oppose
..the majority of their own countrymen, except by constitutional means.
– Michael Collins

It’s safe to say that no one expected the kind of success that Ireland won, when London sought a Truce in 1921. So no one prepared for it. Or could think out in advance how to handle it.

photo of Cumann na mBan (Irish Volunteers women's organization) cycling

Cumann na mBan (Irish Volunteers women’s organization)

We didn’t think we were going to win,
and we didn’t think we were going to lose.
We just wanted to have a go.
– Vinne Byrne of The Squad
The Squad

These diverse Volunteers, ordinary men and women of all ages and backgrounds, who’d held together so valiantly in the teeth of the enemy, then fell apart at the touch of a bit of success. They let an imperfect success spoil it all. They let the enemy divide them, and were conquered. They fell to squabbling in the presence of the enemy. That dismayed Ireland, but delighted British imperialists.


These men, who nobly and successfully strove against
sea, storm, and disease, all forces beyond their control, were
ultimately overwhelmed by forces they could have,
but failed to control: their [passions].
– Captain Bligh and the Mutiny on the Bounty

Thus, in the wake of their unexpected victory, in forcing the British to the negotiating table, Ireland’s heroic insurgents tragically failed their first test as a democracy. Anti-Treaty partisans, when voted down in the June 1922 Pact Elections, refused to lay down their arms, submit to the will of the majority, and participate in the new Dublin establishment as a minority opposition, as agreed in advance, in the Collins-DeValera Pact agreement.

Would they have done so, if not for the unexpected Assassination of Sir Henry Wilson  and ensuing bombardment of the Four Courts History will never know. By then, too many risks had already been taken with Ireland’s unity. The powder keg and fuse were in place, so that any spark could set it off; even as the two sides were perhaps on their way to defuse it.

Was it entirely their fault? Collins didn’t even blame them. He knew this could happen. It’s a headly atmosphere, with no rule book. Who among us could have done better, with the same tools, knowledge, in the same time and place?

Nothing really worthwhile can be achieved in just one generation. – Thomas Cahill
“How the Irish Saved Civilisation”

It may be said that revolution, like other quixotic ventures, requires immersing oneself in a kind of unreality. For seven hundred years, Ireland had upheld the tradition of a rising in each generation. What did it take: to keep nationhood alive, through hopeless centuries of forced vassalge to a violent foreign occupation force? Through ages of famine and slavery?

Two kinds of courage enabled the nation to struggle out of bondage – the patient, enduring courage that willed survival in the long years of defeat; and the flashing, buoyant courage that struck manfully, challenging fortune.
– Florence O’Donoghue

photo of IRA 1922 Macroom, County Cork

IRA 1922 Macroom, County Cork

Know your Enemy: the far right, far left, and revolutionary failures
For the shopkeepers and farmers and clerks who made up the Irish Volunteers, this was new territory. But British Imperialists learned it all as boys, in their old-school-ties. One need only read “The Twelve Caesers” to get a clue of the arsenal of political chicanery at their command. They were the inheritors of a thousand years practice in putting down popular revolts; and eliminating great popular leaders.

Likewise, the pages of revolutionary history around the world, repeatedly record the downfall of revolution arising from factions furthest to the left. Extremists, mouthing the most violently more-radical-than-thou ideology, have often enough overturned revolution, as the far right tried, but could only dream of doing.

Many in the discussion of this history might be familiar with postures today, leaning furthest to the left, and clinging to the anti-Treaty side. Some to the extent of continued rejection of any Dublin government subsequent to the Second Dail, of a hundred years ago.

Proponents of that outlook may consider themselves (not without some justice) more republican, more incisively sophisticated in their penetrating critique of British imperial policy toward Ireland, than those who accept the “official story” version of Irish history, favored by the FF-FG Dublin establishment.

At the same time, those with practical experience of anything like revolutionary struggle, (the two being not always synonymous,) may realize… that leftists with powerful opponents cannot afford to engage in loud, ugly, public quarrells among themselves. Such altercations create prime opportunities for assailants to shoot them down (figuratively or literally); and set up comrades to take the blame (if not actual bullets.)

A leader must not be unmindful of the implications of his words,
especially when speaking to people just emerging
from a great national struggle, with their outlook
and their emotions not in a normal state.
Michael Collins, 1922 – “Free St or Chaos”
“Free State or Chaos” – Michael Collins on the Treaty

A small nation, which has just victoriously beaten all odds, in an uneven struggle against vastly superior forces of a world-class imperialist war machine… cannot maintain its success by splitting in two, and taking arms against comrades; with the battle for independence only half-won.

Remember that a fluke of politics… may fling the enthusiast Into the bosom
of the opposite party to the one which he has served all his life.
– Stendahl

photo of British cavalry leaving Dublin 1922

British cavalry leaving Dublin 1922

The Treaty was not the disaster. The way comrades treated each other over it was the disaster.

I’d rather have one Tom Hales with me, than twelve other men.  –   Michael Collins
(Praising Hales, who later led the ambush where Collins died.)

It is an injustice to the memory of revolutionary Ireland’s astounding unity, in the teeth of the world’s biggest empire, that any of their descendants should immortalize their worst error: by remaining frozen in it.

The Civil War had only begun when initiatives started to bring it to an end.
– Liam Deasy, Officer Commanding, anti-Treaty Southern Division

Surely they never intended that their most questionable decisions, in their weakest moment, should be extolled as some kind of inviolable gospel, for a hundred years after! What could more break their hearts, than to see future generations rigidly adhere to the single most disastrous error, in all their stunning achievements for Ireland?

Don’t let your past dictate your future.

“A conflict of comrades.. would leave Ireland broken for generations…”
When he fell, Michael Collins was touring the country, engaging in direct, secret talks with IRA units in every region; with the express purpose of pulling the Irish Volunteers back together again. Treaty or no Treaty.

His death ended those efforts. His erstwhile comrades on the anti-Treaty side, who had been persuaded to reject the leadership which had brought them so far; who’d decided that they could do as well without him… found that they were wrong.

In 1919, Ireland’s abstention from Westminster laid the foundation for independence. But anti-Treaty abstention from Irish government, from 1922, deprived their adherents of a voice in Dublin institutions for decades after. In this, had they no part in allowing the country to be dominated, throughout its crucial formative decades, by elements who took no action to recover the partitioned North; won not a single millimeter of Irish soil from British control; sunk Ireland in one hundred years of economic and moral morass and corruption? Becoming, over the dead bodies of Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, and so many others, everything the anti-Treaty side said they were.

In short, proving James Connolly’s prophecy too true, that taking down the Union Jack and raising the Tricolor, in itself, solved none of Ireland’s problems. Dublin’s dominant political establishment has earned characterization as belonging to “those who did well out of the famine, and were determined to do even better out of the Republic.” (- J J Lee) "Collins Says" clipping from Cork Examiner 1922

At the same time, credit where credit is due must be accorded the 26 county Republic of Ireland: for 100 years of massive development in flourishing, unique Irish culture, industry, education, freedoms, which would have been impossible under British rule. Dublin’s role in negotiations that ultimately brought about the Good Friday Agreement, opened the road to a more just society in all Ireland’s 32 counties; including the chance to address the unfinished business of Irish independence.


It seems easier to get the Republic from a government
working in Ireland by Irishmen than from
an Ireland under British rule.
– Jenny Wyse Power, 1922

Neither side is just black or white. It’s time to end the Civil War, as its combattants would surely have wished us to do by now. Praise the accomplishments and critique the wrongs on all sides, past, present, and in future; free from inhibition by any my-side-right-or-wrong mentality of armed camps. So that Ireland can more freely explore who we are, where we are, and where we could go from here.

R E A D    M O R E
on Irish History / Irish Civil War:
The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
Cover Image - The Assassination of Michael Collins - What Happened at Beal na mBlath? by S M Sigersonby S M Sigerson
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Will the Real Revolution Please Stand Up? Reconciliation and the Irish Civil War – Part II

photo - combattants on staircase, 1921 Battle of Dublin

1921 Battle of Dublin

(Also see linked posts:
“Reconciliation and the Irish Civil War
” Pt I & Pt III  on this blog site.)

It’s been seen how even the most seemingly reasonable outlook, (such as “..there were wrongs on both sides,”) can be twisted into travesty, where unjustly applied.  Yet it must be said now that reconciliation over the Irish Civil War requires circumspection, and willingness to admit errors, in the proponents of both Free State (FS) and anti-Treaty (AT, ATI (/ AT IRA) views.

Among those who continue to support AT views, often the most frequent complaint is,They (FS) turned the guns on comrades! Yet the anti-Treaty faction was itself unquestionably the first to “turn guns on comrades“: away from British targets, toward fellow Irish. By the same token, the partition of the North remains a big issue on that table, and justly so. Yet with willful blindness to the fact that the joint pro- & anti-Treaty 1922 Northern Campaign, to reclaim the six counties on all fronts: diplomatic, political, and military, was ended expressly because of Civil War between comrades. Lest we forget, IRA units in the partitioned six counties did not take up arms against the Dublin government. It was crystal clear to them that such a policy, or any split in nationalist forces, would leave them at the mercy of the new, murderous, unionist regime at Stormont. And that’s precisely what happened.

In the Free State’s Civil War campaign “the rate of executions and imprisonment superseded that of the earlier struggle for independence.” (Prof Siobhra Aiken, Queen’s University Belfast) Spiritual Wounds: Trauma, Testimony, and the Irish Civil War   post on this site] That is to say, exceeded British violence in Ireland over a comparable time span. Dublin’s summary executions without trial violated international conventions on war and human rights, then and now. Yet the inheritors of the FS establishment applaud their founders without exception as saviours of the country from bloody anarchy. Or was the FS government itself a form of bloody anarchy?

All of this was avoidable. By June 1922, Ireland, contrary to the conventional wisdom of hindsight, was bidding fair to avoid civil war entirely; much to the displeasure of the London regime, particularly Churchill. (May 1922: Leaders Strive to Prevent Civil War  post this site]

photo 1922 Pact Elections meeting

Pro- and anti-Treaty representatives at 1922 Pact Elections meeting. Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Eamonn DeValera front row

The June 1922 “Pact Elections” proved a majority of the Irish public war-weary, and more than willing to accept, for now, the measure of independence won at the 1921 London negotiations. This result was freely admitted on all sides.

Just days after the poll was decided, two events overturned all laudable peace efforts, and hurled the country into full-scale civil conflict: the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson (post, this site) and the resulting shelling of the anti-Treaty garrison at Four Courts. ( Four Courts Bombardment – Who Gave the Order? post this site)

According to the [Four Courts garrison], they were loading their arms onto lorries and would have evacuated the Four Courts by 8AM in the morning. Had the shelling not started at 4AM, they say, there would have been no Civil War.
– John M Feehan

photo of Four Courts siege 1922

Four Courts siege 1922

Michael Collins has unjustly been scapegoated as having ordered both disastrous actions; despite marked lack of substantial evidence that he did so. ( Sir Henry Wilson Assassination 1922 post, this site) Both may be said to have led directly to his own killing, just weeks later. Hazy, contradictory details in the chain of command in those actions echo the mystery surrounding Collins’ suspicious death; as well as that of Arthur Griffith, Harry Boland, and Liam Lynch.

Certainly blaming the victim is ever an all too convenient cop out. But Collins did not survive years on the most wanted list, captain Ireland’s most successful assault on foreign occupation yet, all the way to the negotiating table, winning unprecedented liberties which voided the nefarious Treaty of Limerick and Act of Union… by being known for such monumentally suicidal blunders.

…There is as yet no adequate study available dealing with the role of the British secret service in the Civil War. No one really knows how far their promptings were responsible for starting the Civil War or indeed for the subsequent shooting without trial of so many republican prisoners.
– Feehan

Who was a traitor?
It’s necessary for commentators of all persuations to acknowledge that many well-meaning patriots supported FS and AT alike. Even as well-intentioned voters in Ireland today might vote for Sinn Fein, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, the Labour Party, the Green Party, People Before Profit… as it may seem to them might best serve the country’s needs.

I disagreed with MIchael Collins about the Treaty. But he was no traitor.
– Kathleen Clarke

photo Kathleen Clarke

Kathleen Clarke


At the same time, Feehan’s call (above) for greater scrutiny of the role of clandestine British operations in the Civil War has remained a voice crying in the wilderness. While spies and “moles” (those who joined nationalist forces as operatives for the British) are freely discussed in histories of the Anglo-Irish War 1919-1921 (aka War of Independence / Tan War,) the topic with regard to the Civil War seems almost taboo. No one wants to admit that such operatives could have been active on their side.

Even as sincerity was in plentiful supply on both sides, it’s necessary to recognize that neither was either free from opportunists, even in the leadership of both sides: willing enough to exacerbate the situation, without regard to Ireland’s welfare; but rather with a view to their own subsequent post-war career. As history shows, some did very well for themselves by it.

Soul-searching among leaders of today would not be remiss: is there not reluctance to critique one’s own political forebears / founders of one’s own party? Certainly, in practical terms, every politician’s number one job is to raise a cheering section: to drum up support for their party. Whatever their programs, their sole means of pursuing them, is to gain power; which is to say, to gain popularity.

Who can blame them, if history may often be with them largely a tool for realizing such goals? How can they see a too-unsparing moral inventory of their founders as in any way related to that job?

Yet surely, any party which advertises itself as offering government for all, must move past a partisan position on the Civil War; and ought to do better than commemorating 1922 with a statement that “the shelling of the Four Courts started the Civil War.” As if no events preceded and led up to that turning point; as if members of the ATI garrison at Four Courts had no part in picking up the gun against their own countrymen, but were merely sitting on the quay, smelling a flower! As if both pro-and anti-Treaty leaders did not first carry on months of painstaking negotiations to avoid conflict.

“When choosing someone for a mission in which courage and judgement are equally required, I’d rather send a clever coward than a stupid hero.”
– Michael Collins

photo Michael Collins speaking at Clonakilty 1922

Michael Collins speaking in favor of the Treaty Clonakilty 1922

Perhaps the greatest service to Ireland possible, with regard to Civil War commemoration, might be for today’s prominent political representatives to cop on, and be an example of the good old democratic principle of criticism/self-criticism. To admit that, for all their sincere patriotic intentions, it was the ATI who first “turned guns on comrades“; and that their doing so never won a single further millimeter of Irish soil from British control. That however politically correct anyone might esteem them, their military strategy was a failure.

Let’s see the present Fianna Fail / Fine Gael (FF/FG) establishment issue a condemnation of the wanton executions, imprisonment, and torture practiced against the ATI under their successive governments; as well as their like failure to address or improve upon Ireland’s most imperfect independence, for the past 100 years.

Let’s be revolutionary. Let’s revolutionize the way we think of the Civil War; the way we deal with each other, and with that past.

R E A D    M O R E
on Irish History / Irish Civil War:
The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”

cover image - The Assassination of Michael Collins - What Happened at Beal na mBlath?

by S M Sigerson
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Spiritual Wounds – Trauma, Testimony, and the Irish Civil War – Book review

COVER image - Spiritual Wounds by Siobhra Aiken

“The deepest wounds of
the Civil War were spiritual wounds.”
– Desmond Ryan

Spiritual Wounds is a milestone in the study of Ireland’s Civil War 1922-23, by Siobhra Aiken, Lecturer in Irish and Celtic Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. A worthy offering indeed for the 2022 Centenary of that national tragedy: not merely a chronicle of battles fought, or body counts, or political manoeuvres by the great and good; but a new perspective. “Spiritual Wounds” at Irish Academic Press website

This in-depth study of first-hand experiences & human cost, as told by those who fought it, re-opens for readers a astonishingly vast library of first-class literature, written by veterans of the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921 aka War of Independence / Tan War) as well as the Civil War. Over the decades, remarkably numerous literary soldiers, both women and men, produced a surprisingly prodigious stream of reminescences, both non-fiction and fictionalized: memoirs, biographies, novels, articles, plays.

They had come from prisons and camps; some even from the condemned cell; from mountain haunts, from hay-lofts and ditches, from cellars and caves, to be placed in power: they were hysterical with reaction.

Dr Aiken has mined this priceless vein of lost gems; many of which are now largely forgotten, having gone out of print, or only ever appeared in periodicals and other ephemera. Some, like Patrick Mulloy’s “Jackets Green” (quoted above) were even banned in Ireland; but only after appearing on the Irish Times bestseller list!

The wealth of this body of testimony suggests that the silence of the Irish Civil War was not necessarily a result of revolutionaries’ reluctance to speak, but rather due to the unwillingness of the architects of official memory – journalists, historians, politicians – to listen to the testimony of civil war veterans. …However, studies of civil wars internationally suggest that these calls to forget often paradoxically produce a commitment to remember.

The science of historical research has come a long way since 1923.  The Irish Civil War Centenary trains the searchlight of an entire new body of knowledge on its paradoxes, tragedies, & mysteries.

No less important is this work’s exploration of the role played by the post-Collins-Griffith Free State & successive Fianna Fail-Finn Gael establishment’s neglect, even stifling of public discussion on the period; particularly affecting anti-Treaty testimony.

…the study of trauma in the context of the Irish revolution is fruitful given that the conflict coincided with the opening up of ideas about the psychological legacies of war across Europe.

Until the 1900s, such intimate personal voices of those who fought wars have tended to be culturally silenced, not only for centuries, but for millennia. Military societies generally have depended on carefully constructed cultures which cultivate myths of loudly trumpeted glory; while covering up the horrors of war, its devastating damage to those affected by it.  Thus the scrutiny of war’s dirty underside is itself “dangerous” to the structural underpinnings of such militarist culture.

The beliefs of a lifetime swayed and crashed and reeled to death. Friendship had gone as the volleys of firing parties crashed and spades clanked to open gaping graves.
 – Desmond Ryan: The Invisible Army

Aiken sets in bold relief how the study of this side of war, its trauma and recovery, is a new field. It was only by World War I that Freud’s nascent science of psychology was on a firm enough footing to address such psycho-emotional damage on a mass scale; common enough in wars of the past, but suffered in silence, even in shame, without access to remedies, by uncounted legions, throughout humanity’s bloody martial history.

The gendered subtext of trauma also meant that female revolutionaries were perhaps more likely to admit to ‘nervous breakdowns’ given that the vocabulary was more readily at their disposal. Mental injuries among men, however, could be deemed as a failure in masculinity.

As the foregoing quotation highlights, this was another field in which the raising of women’s voices ultimately won more freedom for men: to discuss issues formerly tabooed by conventions of manliness.

It came as a thunderclap – hardly could they believe their ears. Never, for one moment, had they anticipated this. They might be shot dead, the building might be set on fire, but that they should be ordered to leave it – to go away just because they were women…– it was beyond belief.
– Annie M. P. Smithson (1873–1948)

As to the numerous women who gave distinguished service in the Civil War and Anglo-Irish War, Spiritual Wounds laudably does much to restore them to the record. Readers can hear these real-life heroines speak for themselves, in profuse excerpts from best-selling authors (like Smithson, quoted above) who were veterans. Both their non-fiction and:

…fictionalised testimonies of female revolutionaries directly challenged efforts to forget the civil war and the sidelining of women’s activism during this period.

Aiken offers a fascinating, detailed critique of the air-brush culture which erased such women from history. At the same time, her chapter on sexual violence in these conflicts is no simplistic rant. Rather, it outlines the complexity of this issue; and its prevalence wherever women live and work in times and places fraught by violence. Once again, the author relies on the voices of the women themselves, offering plentiful examples from their writings on the period (many published in the 1930s and 40s.)

This chapter does not seek to grapple with the complexities of quantifying sexual violence as either ‘rare’, ‘widespread’ or ‘relatively scarce’. Rather, it complicates the belief that such violence ‘disappeared from public discourse for decades after the Civil War.’

This book would be invaluable for its Bibliography alone. The works Aiken discusses and quotes at length make up a bookshelf of must-reads for every Irish history enthusiast.

This book is also the story of the readers who bought, shared and often carefully scrutinised the testimony of revolutionary veterans. These interactions shed light on the public validation of private stories on which ‘testimonial resolution’ relies. The reading, sharing and discussion of these testimonies is essential to understanding how they facilitated a countermemory which contested the ‘amnesia’ promoted in official discourse.

While Aiken’s work is certainly scholarly, general readers need not be daunted. So much of the book is made up of lengthy quotations from page-turner first-hand accounts of that heroic, harrowing era, which are not to be missed. Readers are sure to come away with a book list of these Civil War authors, whose works they’ll be keen to obtain in full.

We’ve had enough of this camp.’
Let’s burn it.’
Yes, burn the bloody kipp to the ground.’
We’ll be mowed down.’
Let them mow us down – we’ll be shot one by one, anyhow.’
Three have been shot already.’
Seven have died because they couldn’t stick it.’
One went mad.’
                                 – P Mulloy “Jackets Green”

Spiritual Wounds is a cautionary tale for revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries everywhere. Read it and weep. Read it and marvel at these forgotten heroes’/ heroines’ courage, resilience, despair, determination, humanity. Read it and smile, even laugh with their wry wit & irony. Consider their unsparing insights into society; the wreck & salvation of their lives.

At what price freedom?

R E A D    M O R E
on Irish History / Irish Civil War:

The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
Cover Image - The Assassination of Michael Collins - What Happened at Beal na mBlath by S M Sigersonby S M Sigerson
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Sir Henry Wilson Assassination 1922: A Great Black Op?

Cover image of "A Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson" Ronan McGreevy’s book draws attention to a most important case: to which an entire chapter is devoted in The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth? by S M Sigerson. But in  McGreevy’s excellent research, is there a glaring omission of the most shocking theory of all? Or could his editors be to blame?

It’s most welcome to see a writer of McGreevy’s calibre take by the horns this long-neglected mystery of history: so deeply entwined in the tragedy of Ireland’s Civil War (1922-23). It’s quite debatable whether that fratricidal conflict might have been averted, but for the shooting of Sir Henry Wilson on 22 June 1922. Despite critical unanswered questions, the case has been shamefully neglected by historians. The Assassination of Sir Henry Wilson (2014 post – this blog)

This writer’s first instinct, on learning details of the Wilson case was, “…Did the British have a motive?” Having found that a first instinct in these things often proves the right one… Just scratching the surface, Wilson’s British enemies with motive, means, & opportunity become evident.

The principle of Cui Bono? / Who Gains? thoroughly supports the possibility that the British elements may have been behind Wilson’s killing: It was a disaster for Ireland. It got the (unionist) British everything they wanted. Ultimately, it achieved the removal of Michael Collins, and put DeValera over the Irish indefinitely.

Wilson had unquestionably come to be seen by some as a political liability. Is it possible that Lloyd George, Churchill and their cabal came to the conclusion that, in realizing their scheme for Ireland, Wilson would be worth a great deal more to them dead than alive?          
                            – S M Sigerson

The hypothesis known to readers of The Assassination of Michael Collins is as follows: if DeValera were the real turncoat serving British interest (as history seems to support,) a slight shuffling/confusion of official IRA orders could easily have been arranged. Resulting in an assassination plan, slated before the Truce, suddenly being re-activated; with devastating consequences.

photo of Reggie Dunne

Reggie Dunne

This would entirely account for Collins’ reported fury and confusion on hearing that the shooting of Wilson had been carried out by his own men in the London IRA.

No war ever begins for just one reason. All the factors [at work in Ireland in 1922] may be seen as a powder keg: the explosive elements which placed the country in danger of war breaking out. In that sense, the siege of the Four Courts was the fuse, and the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson the spark, which together set off the conflagration; which cost so many lives, and broke out afresh in the northern Troubles of the 1970s -1990s.

McGreevy eschews any mention of Sigerson’s investigation into the Wilson case, which he certainly has drawn upon; even borrowing its very language (quoted above): “Without a fuse and a spark, there can be no conflagration.”

It’s difficult to understand how the author can make so much of the theory that somehow the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) shot Wilson; despite the IRB’s unequivocal denial of responsibility, on behalf of both the organization and Collins personally, by Sean McGarry of the Supreme Council at the time:

“I reject any suggestion that the IRB or Michael Collins, as Head Centre of our organization, had anything to do with Wilson’s death.”

This important book thus wanders into danger of becoming a long elaborate exercise in pinning Wilson’s death on Michael Collins (again,) on no more than hearsay.  Yet, in fairness, McGreevy does air evidence to the contrary as well.

Nor does he omit mention of fierce enmity between Wilson & Lloyd George’s government. But all evidently on the presumption that of course proper British authorities could never do anything like that. At the same time laudably chronicling London’s loyalist darlings’ contemporaneous daily indiscriminate slaughter of the Irish of the northeast.  Of whom Sir Henry Wilson was one.

Still, despite any flaws, A Great Hatred: The Assassination of Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson MP by Ronan McGreevy remains a most worthwhile study of this critical-yet-long-neglected case. It will definitely inspire more inquiry & debate; which is one of the best things that any book about it can do.

Methodical, disinterested study of this period has really only begun. While the Bureau of Military History’s ongoing publication of thousands of detailed first-hand personal narratives by the revolutionaries themselves, long held secret and confidential during the testators’ lifetimes, opens up new vistas for research. Their full ramifications for what we think we know about that largely secret war can hardly be fully explored in one lifetime.

In his book, McGreevy makes full use of these narratives to great effect. This means that much testimony about Wilson’s shooting is now available with definite verifiable provenance as to precisely who said what, who they were, what was their exact role in the Volunteers, and how their evidence was recorded, for the first time.

R E A D    M O R E:
The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
Cover Image - The Assassination of Michael Collins - What Happened at Beal na mBlath by S M Sigersonby S M Sigerson
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RECONCILIATION and The Irish Civil War Centenary 1922-2022


Irish Civil War - Free State soldiers in combat Dublin

We will never tell anyone who we are until we know who we are.
We will never get anywhere until we know where we are.
– Malcolm X

The Civil War Centenary can hardly be a celebratory commemoration; yet neither dare we forget. Nor is it enough to repeat by rote time-worn rhetoric handed down from that day to this; depending on which side our forebears embraced; or on the political expedience of the moment.

(Also see linked posts: “Reconciliation and the Irish Civil War” Part II and Part III on this blog site.).

Like the Centenary of the Easter Rising, this is a priceless opportunity for deepening our understanding of who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we might go from here. A chance to re-examine the meaning of independence, patriotism, history; the meaning of Ireland itself.

It is offered that there can be no better means to commemorate that generation’s achievements & hardships, than a fearless moral inventory, and unsparing scrutiny of the Civil War in all its aspects, on all sides.

How could anyone more substantially express respect for their good intentions, reverence for their sacrifices, gratitude for the very same combattants’ immense achievements in the Tan War / War of Independence of 1919-1921?

The Civil War divide
As in any country which has suffered the tragedy of civil war, personal feelings or factional outlook may color Irish views. Bitter recriminations continue to resound over it, to this day.

At the same time, reconciliation has become a cornerstone of astounding achievements in Ireland wp.me/p43KWx-9z It’s been at the core of policies & dialogue which, in our lifetime, helped free Northern Ireland from the violent Troubles, which once seemed eternal & insoluble.

Courgeous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace.
– Nelson Mandela

Uncomfortable Conversations - poster for reconciliation dialogue Northern IrelandYet for all the amazing work done on reconciliation between Catholics & Protestants, between Nationalists & Unionists… never has anything been heard about reconciliation within Ireland, over the Civil War split, now a hundred years old.

There can be no reconciliation where there is no open warfare.
– M E Braddon

There remain those in Ireland for whom the clock stopped with the Second Dail (1922): who still refuse to accept the legitimacy of any subsequent Dublin government. On the opposite extreme are those who abhor the memory of any war with Britain, who objected to the commemoration of the Easter Rising, & even would seem to sigh for a return to the British Crown!

It’s said that truth is the first casualty of war. Truth recovery must therefore be both the first step and ultimate goal in any responsible remembrance: the alpha and the omega.

For the Civil War Centenary, this will require partisans of both sides to acknowledge not only what our side says happened: but also to listen to what patriots on the other sIrish Civil War - anti-Treaty partisans Limerick 1922ide say happened. Not only to celebrate those whom we look on as the heroes of the day, not only to lament the wrongs they sustained; but also to hear heartfelt tributes and greviances from the other persuasion.

To hear that heroes of the independence struggle were shot by former comrades; others shot by former British soldiers in green uniforms, some by firing squads, and some by secret service assassins. Some were beaten and died in Free State custody. Some fell to anti-Treaty mines. Yes, and to hear that some elements in leadership, as history has taught us to expect, perhaps sold out the popular victory for a piece of London’s pie.

Now two Russias will be facing each other.
Those who were sent to prison. And those who sent them there.
– Anna Akhmatova

The Republic and the republican movement today have suffered from these flaws in their foundations. A lot of politics and policy have been based on fallout from the Civil War.

Yet, as Michael Collins’ story itself demonstrates, that period remains so controversial, that there is still a great deal of confusion about what in fact actually did happen. wp.me/p43KWx-7o That child-bed of the nation was so recent, so chaotic and volatile, that public discussion and public record about it has been distorted: both in flawed institutions of the south, in republican rhetoric of the north... and, dare we add, in British versions (so as not to say “coverups”.)

Irish Civil War - Four Courts DublinEighty years of institutionalized inhibition of historical research often left the public with little but oral traditions to judge by. Without access to reliable, scholarly analysis, it has been all but impossible to make an accurate assessment of that era, or of its meaning for subsequent generations.

This has sometimes allowed mistaken analysis, misfired arguments, rumour, or open wounds to stand in the place of history. Such errors have in some quarters been carried on and enshrined like some sacred scroll; as Ireland wandered through the wilderness of the 20th century. Since the 1970s, new generations, wrestling with these legacies, have brought new hope, new conflicts, tragedies, and victories.

We are only beginning to unravel that story now. Perhaps the first lesson here is that the lessons of the Civil War have not yet been fully learned.  

Margaret Skinnider dressed as a man

Margaret Skinnider fought in the Easter Rising and served the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War


Our debt to the past
To those who lived through that crucible of fire, because it was the only path they could see to Ireland’s independence… we owe a great debt. We owe it to them to ferret out the painful truths of that crippling wound in the national psyche; or we’ll never get beyond it. Or their suffering would truly have been in vain.

Certainly such reassessment will not be possible without constructive, realistic criticism of the actors in those events.

I admired the men and the women [engaged in the Easter Rising]… I admire Connolly… Tom Clarke & [Sean] MacDiarmada… They have died nobly at the hands of the firing squads.

But at the same time… the actions of the leaders should not pass without comment… On the whole I think the Rising was bungled terribly, costing many a good life. It seemed at first to be well organised, but afterwards became subjected to panic decisions and a great lack of very essential organisation and cooperation.
– Michael Collins (private letter)

Can this generation well afford to do less by the Civil War, which continues to haunt, and even control, so many aspects of national life, than Collins did here for the Easter Rising? Is it not the duty of the survivors to learn all that can be learned, not only from the successes but also from the failures of those who went before?

Were there really any heroes in the Civil War? Certainly none who are universally revered. One side’s patriotic martyrs may still be regarded by descendants of the other persuasion as enemies of Irish freedom.

Whatever heroism there may have been in that hell paved with the good intentions of some of Ireland’s best and brightest… the Civil War certainly had no winners.

Is it time for all persuasions to openly acknowledge that this was a failed strategy, for both sides? Could this be a fertile occasion for facing up to its catastrophic consequences, which Ireland is still living with today? To candidly discuss who we are, where we’ve been, and where we might go from here, together.

May your choices reflect your hopes not your fears
– Nelson Mandela

This post includes excerpts from:
The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
Cover Image - The Assassination of Michael Collins - What Happened at Beal na mBlath by S M Sigersonby S M Sigerson
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Why DeValera didn’t go to the Treaty negotiations

Michael Collins with Eamonn DeValera 1921
(courtesy sarasmichaelcollinssite.com)

The Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921 officially ended Ireland’s War of Independence / Tan War 1919-1921. Collins’ death was directly related to the Treaty dispute among the Dáil leadership, and the resulting split in the army. This split was led and actuated by DeValera; ostensibly on the argument that the Treaty negotiators had betrayed Ireland, by failing to secure the immediate establishment of an independent 32-county republic. In some quarters, this debate still rages. Yet, with the Government of Ireland Act 1920, partition was a done deal before negotiations opened.

“The compromise was in agreeing to negotiate at all.” – Michael Collins

DeValera was the main Irish negotiator, for the preliminary meetings which established the terms upon which talks would be based. Documentation now entirely proves beyond any doubt that it was DeValera himself who agreed with British authorities in advance, that there would be no republic at that time.

DeValera: “How can I come over and negotiate a Treaty if I know
in advance there can be no republic?”

Lloyd George: “You don’t have to come. Send somebody else!”

By August 1921, DeValera’s private meetings and correspondence with Lloyd George had agreed partition, in exchange for a Dublin-based Irish government in the south.

[DeValera] knew that any agreement brought back would be a compromise. Having left Collins at home while he teased out from Lloyd George what was on offer, he now, having found out, began to steer Collins towards the negotiating table in Downing Street. The man who had felt his place was in America during most of the Tan war felt he must stay in Dublin during the coming diplomatic offensive in London… – T P Coogan

He admitted to the Dáil when announcing his decision to stay in Dublin that “he knew fairly well from his experience over in London how far it was possible to get the British Government to go.” [Dáil Eireann, private sessions 14 Sept 1921 ]

“When I was caught for this delegation, my first thought was how easily I had walked into it. But having walked in, I had to stay.”

In this letter excerpt, was Collins writing of his first inkling of betrayal by someone close to him, in the highest echelons of the provisional government? Someone with the motive, means, opportunity, and cold-bloodedness to sacrifice him and countless others, on the altar of personal ambition? In a private letter to Kitty Kiernan about the same time, he was more explicit:

The Treaty will not be accepted in Dublin, not by those who have in mind personal ambitions under pretense of patriotism.

Read more
The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened at Beal an mBlath?”


by S M Sigerson

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