by John M Feehan
Recent newspaper articles trumpeted headlines naming a certain
Denis “Sonny” O’Neill as “the man who shot Michael Collins.” This is
difficult to understand, since that theory was entirely discredited, over
twenty years ago.
John M Feehan, one of the greatest authorities on the ambush, published the following in his landmark work “The Shooting of Michael Collins: Murder or Accident?” (6th Edition, 1991). Reprinted here courtesy of Mercier Press.
…How [Collins] met his end is still shrouded in mystery… This, of course, is almost entirely the fault of the Free State government who, on the eve of Fianna Fail coming to power, burned thousands of sensitive documents including a number of files on the shooting of Michael Collins … [Also destroyed were files identifying who it was that,] in an extraordinary act of cover-up, refused to hold an inquest into his death despite the strong pressure of people like Major General Sean Hales. Why there was such a massive cover-up has never been satsifactorily explained. The general public have been left puzzled, but in their own shrewd way they know that there must be some compelling reason for this.
Speculation has continued as to who did shoot Michael Collins. Since the last edition of [The Shooting of Michael Collins: Murder or Accident,] a television programme made by RTÉ and two books have suggested that a local IRA man, Denis “Sonny” O’Neill was the man who shot Collins. These endeavours have, in one sense, been positive developments. It is in the public interest that Colllins’ death be probed and the results of such investigations be put into the public arena.
However, it is equally in the public interest that any investations in turn be held up to critical scrutiny.
In my view I find it most unwise to make allgations that cannot stand up to the laws of evidence which apply in any civilised court. Here I propose to look at some of the items put forward as evidence that Sonny O’Neill was the man.
Another element which has added to the confusion has been the amount of hearsay evidence in circulation, hardly any of it worth a second thought. “I was always told So-and-So shot him,” “I knew a cousin of one of the survivors who told me,” “Dubhairt bean liom go ndubhairt bean lei” etc. More than a score of people have named to me one particular man (not Sonny O’Neill) as Collins’ killer. Virtually all of this is worthless as real evidence.
These rumours have given birth to a number of folktales on who shot Collins, each one as ridiculous as the other. Sensible and solid people have sworn to me that DeValera shot him. Others were equally adamant that he was shot by John McPeake. Still others were quite sure that he was shot by Emmet Dalton. The late Jim Hurley was deeply perturbed by the number of false rumours naming him. Because of the cover-up these stories abound and they surface every few years, hold the stage a little while, and then vanish.
… I should say that when I decided to examine this new dernier cri carefully I approached some of Sonny O’Neill’s living relations and asked them for their cooperation. At the outset, however, I made it crystal clear to them that if I found the slightest piece of solid evidence implicating him in the shooting I would not hesitate to say so. They willingly agreed to this condition and gave me all the information I asked for.
The first piece of evidence is a letter written to me by the late Maire Comerford shortly before her death. As she was in advanced years at the time it is rather a confused letter. In this letter she says that John Dowling, a Dublin IRA officer, told her that Sonny O’Neill told him that it was he fired the fatal shot and she in turn told me. Please note the number of times told is used. This is not even hearsay evidence. It is hearsay evidence three times removed and as such is worthless. To add to this clumsy uncertainty Maire added: O’Neill may or may not be his name. So it could be anybody. She was not even sure of the name.
I later discussed this whole matter with John Dowling and he was by no means clear as to what happened. He most certainly did not say that Sonny O’Neill admitted to firing the fatal shot. He had a vague recollection that some officers of the Dublin Staff of the IRA, whose names he could not remember, had a discusssion with a man (unnamed) who thought he might have shot Collins. He had no personal interview with this individual himself. Dowling was also in advanced years and his memory was fuzzy when I spoke to him…
I cannot help feeling puzzled as to why Sonny O’ Neill would travel to Dublin and tell a number of IRA officers that he was guilty of shooting Collins and at the same time forget to mention this to his own superiors and comrades in West Cork. This simply does not make sense. As evidence this whole incident is worthless and would not be accepted by any court.
Some few months ago a Mr Jim Kearney from Bandon made a number of statements to the effect that: 1) He was one of the four or five who attacked the Collins column and 2) He knew Sonny O’Neill’s bullet shot Collins. When I was researching this book I interviewed all known survivors with the exception of John O’Callaghan. These included amongst others Dan Holland, Jim Hurley, Tom Kelleher. As well I interviewed Liam Deasy and Pat Buttimer and not one of them ever mentioned a Jim Kearney being present. They did mention a Mr Pete Kearney, who was present at Béalnabláth but did not take part in the ambush. During the war I shared living quarters with both Deasy and Buttimer and I discussed the ambush with them many times. I am not saying that Mr Kearney is making misleading statements. What I am saying is that I have no corroborative evidence that he took part in the actual ambush.
In my view the most important man at Béalnabláth from the point of view of a writer was a man called Tom Foley. He could hardly be called an active participant since he was only sixteen years of age at the time and was unarmed. He was in fact the runner. His job was to go for messages, cigarettes etc., to the shop and to bring tea and bread from the local farmers. Because of this he knew the exact location of every participant and who they were. A few months before his accidental death he made a tape recording of his memories of that day in Béalnabláth. He was questioned by a local priest on tape. He was absolutely emphatic that there was no Jim Kearney present amongst those who took part in the ambush. Furthermore he confirmed what was generally believed that Sonny O’Neill had left the ambush site with the main body an hour before the action. This latter evidence was confirmed by Cormac MacCarthaigh one of the greatest experts on the death of Collins. He had evidence that O’Neill and some other IRA men were having supper in a safe house about three miles away at the exact time of the ambush. I made an appointment with him to get details of this but unfortunately he died unexpectedly two days before I was to see him.
So here you have totally conflicting statements as to who took part in the ambush. According to Tom Foley neither Sonny O’Neill or Jim Kearney took part … According to Jim Kearney both himself and Sonny O’Neill were present.
In an attempt to clarify this issue I wrote the following letter to the Cork Examiner which was published on 28 September, 1989:
“Sir – In your issue of September 18, you report a Mr Jim Kearney
claiming to have taken part in the ambush at Béalnabláth. When I was
researching my book … I interviewed at great length the survivors of the
actual ambush, Tom Kelleher and Jim Hurley. They gave me the names
of those who took part … They never mentioned the name of any Jim
Kearney being present.
I also interviewed Liam Deasy who discussed the action in great detail
with me. Again there was no mention of any Kearney.
Mr Kearney states he was one of the engineers laying the mines. Jim
Hurley and Tom Kelleher both told me that a man named O’Callaghan
dismantled one mine which had been laid earlier that day. Hurley helped
O’Callaghan. There was no mention of any Kearney.
In the interest of historical accuracy I would be grateful if Mr Kearney
could furnish details to substantiate his claims.”
Unfortunately there was no reply to this letter… Later that month the family of the late Tom Kelleher wrote, inter alia, in the The Southern Star:
“Colm Connolly who compiled and presented the documentary on the
death of Collins has cast doubts on the involvement of the man he
presented in his programme as the last survivor of the ambush at
Béalnabláth. On a radio programme presented by Andy O’Mahony
August 1989 Colm Connolly stated that he had interviewed people on
both sides in the Civil War but only one person could state that Jim
Kearney was present when Michael Collins was killed and that person
was Jim Kearney himself… If the maker of a programme has doubts
about the involvement of a man whom he uses as a major witness then
it must be unwise and foolhardy to name a particular person as the one
who shot Michael Collins.”
This letter was published in the Southern Star on 3 February 1990 and in this case also no reply has appeared…
So looking at all the facts there is no conclusive evidence whatever to suggest that Sonny O’Neill was even present at the ambush let alone to say that he fired the fatal shot. What is put forward as evidence is unsubstantiated…
Every writer makes mistakes, and sometimes believes people who should not be believed. It is simply a professional hazard that goes with the job. But when it comes to accusing a man of committing a murder then there is no room for mistakes … Every detail must be such as to stand up to the most rigorous cross-examination in accordance with the established rules of evidence in any respectable court of law. If that criteria is not measured up to then there is no evidence.
Such is the case with Sonny O’Neill. There is no acceptable evidence to suggest that he was the man who shot Collins.”
The Shooting of Michael Collins: Murder or Accident?
Great books about Ireland / Irish history
“The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
by S M Sigerson
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