Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland, & Michael Collins: the unfinished business of Irish independence

photo of Martin McGuinness

It was through the lessons of Collins’ life & death, that Former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, with his colleagues & community, survived to achieve so much: in a lifetime struggle to repair what happened to northern* Ireland, following Collins’ death.

 

photo of Michael Collins at a rally in Armagh 1921

Michael Collins in Armagh 1921

In 1922, Dublin’s fledgling independent government was headed by the representative for Armagh in northern Ireland: Michael Collins, TD.

What links Collins with Martin McGuinness’ generation of Irish statesmen? These excerpts from The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Beal na mBlath? explore their connections:

“The 26-county Republic of Ireland, and the 6-county Northern Ireland statelet, directly owe their existence, their institutional structures, and much of their history, to Michael Collins’ life and times; to the controversies which culminated in his death; and to the travesties which his death enabled.

… Before the ink on the Treaty was dry, even among smiles, handshakes, and agreements, Winston Churchill was funding, directing and protecting military aggression in Ulster (both on and off the record.) Michael Collins, not to be outdone, cooperated without hesitation in republican units’ response there…

On 1st and 2nd August 1922, Commander-in-Chief Collins met with northern [IRA] officers at Portobello Barracks in Dublin. He told them, “The civil war will be over in a few weeks and then we can resume in the north. You men will get intensive training.” Collins explained that, until the Civil War was resolved, IRA in the north would have to remain defensive and avoid engagements. A small, specially paid “Belfast Guard” would be created to protect Catholic areas from sectarian attacks. The Dublin government in the meantime would apply political pressure. Said Collins, “If that fails, the Treaty can go to hell, and we will start again.”

… Following British soldiers’ killing of two adolescent girls near the northern border, an outraged Collins wrote to WT Cosgrave:

I am forced to the conclusion that we have yet to fight the British in the northeast. We must by forceful action make them understand that we will not tolerate this carelessness with the lives of our people.

In other correspondence:

[The north] must be redeemed for Ireland, and we must keep striving in every way until that objective is achieved. The northeast must not be allowed to settle down in the feeling that it is a thing apart from the Irish nation.

Six counties implies coercion. South and east Down, south Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone will not come into Northern Ireland.

… Coogan … agrees that Collins’ policy on the North was “unwelcome to his Cabinet colleagues and of course to the British.” [That is,] Collins was serving on a Cabinet with men whose agenda for the future of Ireland was closer to the British, than to his own.

… [Then, in August 1922,] Arthur Griffith and Collins suddenly died within two weeks of each other. And with them, all hope of an amicable settlement with honor to the Civil War. All hope of merging anti-Treaty heroes from the War of Independence into the leadership of the Free State Army. All hope of continuing armed resistance against unionist pogroms in the north.

It was then that the Troubles for Northern Ireland began.

The spreading [Civil War], marked by the cessation of IRA operations in the north, was correctly interpreted by the unionist government and armed loyalism as effectively removing the threat of concerted assault on the northern state.” **

… That threat was more real and present than most people, (including many historians,) realize … A shooting war between Irish troops and their British / loyalist counterparts in the northeast flared up continually throughout 1922. It included both IRA guerrilla actions and Free State regulars, British troops and loyalist paramilitaries combined. It moved Churchill to call for defense preparations against a Dublin-sponsored invasion of Ulster. https://ansionnachfionn.com/2015/06/08/the-battle-of-pettigo-and-belleek-may-to-june-1922/

With Collins removed, subsequent Dublin governments were content, or reduced, to leave northern nationalists twisting in the wind.”

Dublin governments all too willing to “tolerate this carelessness with the lives of our people” and to allow the northeast “to settle down in the feeling that it is a thing apart from the Irish nation.” Until the north’s simmering apartheid regime exploded into thirty years of bloody conflict.

Would the north have been different, had Collins lived? Could Martin McGuinness have been born in a united 32-county Ireland? Could decades of mayhem and murder been avoided, had the appropriate governments and armies come to grips, in 1922?  photo of Martin McGuinness 1971

Could Collins, with his War of Independence army intact, have extended their victory throughout the north? With the aid of officers who, over Collins’ dead body, were later executed by the Dublin government of W T Cosgrave (founder of Finn Gael)?

Could the Troubles have been prevented, by Collins and company’s combination of political pressure from Dublin, plus sustained military response to British/loyalist violence in the north?

Ultimately, the story of Ulster is inseparable from the story of Michael Collins: who clearly saw, almost a hundred years ago, that peace might be won only at the cost of eventual armed conflict in the north; who perhaps died striving to make it possible for republican comrades to lay down their arms; and who died … as elected representative for the people of northern Ireland.

 

** Eamonn Phoenix Michael Collins – The Northern Question 1916-22

* “northern Ireland” is here used to refer to that region of the country, before partition; “Northern Ireland” (capitalized) refers to the statelet created by Partition.

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

by S M Sigerson

Book cover image - The Assassination of Michael Collins - What Happened at Béal na mBláth

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A Michael Collins Christmas

photo of Michael Collins & friends at the Gresham Hotel

Michael Collins & friends at the Gresham Hotel

During the height of the Tan War, David Neligan, Collins’ “Spy in the Castle”, recounts the Big Fella inviting him to Christmas dinner at the Gresham Hotel. Collins asked whether Neligan would be there.

“No!” exclaimed Neligan, “And neither should you! It’s the most dangerous place to be tonight!”

Still Collins was determined to regale his closest associates with holiday cheer, in the best hotel in Dublin, as planned.

The festivities were in full swing when the party was raided by the notorious Auxiliaries. What’s more, it was not the most random spot check. They had a photo of Collins ready to hand, (probably snipped from the 1919 group photo of the First Dail,) and were looking for him there. An officer promptly fastened on the Big Fella, and dragged him off to the men’s room for interrogation. He was searched, and a small notebook from his pocket was scrutinized. One entry seemed to be a reminder to order “rifles”.

Collins persisted in taking all their questions with easy-going bemusement, as a tremendously droll mistake. He assured them they were reading his scrawl all wrong: that it really said “refills”. He kept up his good humor as they yanked back his head by the hair, staring at the photo & then at his face. It went on for half an hour or more.

photo of The Gresham Hotel, Dublin

However, at last they gave it up, persuaded that this must be the wrong fellow entirely. Collins went back to the dinner, and ordered drinks all around; while the Auxies continued to hover about, watching the party closely.

It was quietly decided that the wisest course under these circumstances was to get truly, indubitably, certifiably drunk. It was one of the only occasions throughout the war when Collins was seen to be visibly intoxicated.

And so the most wanted men in Ireland did uproarious justice to the good things before them, and all slept sound in their beds that night.

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The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?
by S M Sigerson

Book cover image - The Assassination of Michael Collins - What Happened at Béal na mBláthPaperback or Kindle edition here:
www.amazon.com/dp/1493784714

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The Spy in the Castle
by David Neligan
www.amazon.com/Spy-Castle-David-Neligan/dp/0953569705

 

graphic of Christmas garland

2022 Michael Collins Centenary: What happened at Béal na mBláth?

photo of Michael Collins close-up in uniform 1922

 Michael Collins’ 2022 Centenary will offer unprecedented opportunities to examine, celebrate, and reflect on the meaning of his life and death.
How should it be observed?

The 1916 Rising was neither the beginning, nor the end of the movement for Irish independence; nor of the Revolutionary Era (whether counted from 1900 or 1913 through 1923.)

The Rising would always have significance in itself, even if it were a stand-alone event. Its greatest significance, however, is in those who survived it: who went forth from it to organize, to carry on the cause of independence, in the amazing achievements of 1919-1922.

Ireland’s “Decade of Centenaries” has so much to explore, celebrate, remember, between now and 2022: the centenary of Michael Collins’ death.

The Rising Centenary has brought to light a wealth of original materials, records, testimony, which had long languished unexamined, inaccessible to the public. The study of this period has thereby been greatly enriched, on countless levels; which may never be understood in our lifetime.

It opened a vast, new, fertile debate in Ireland, on the Rising’s meaning, causes, effects. How successful was that revolution? Is Ireland truly independent today? Has it ever been? Can Ireland yet be called independent while the UK still claims dominion over six counties in the North? Was violent conflict unavoidable? Did taking down the Union Jack & raising the Tricolor, as James Connolly warned us, in itself, solve none of Ireland’s problems?

These are questions still debated today. Most of us, inside & outside of Ireland, recognize the establishment of the Dáil & Dublin government, the conclusive departure of the British Army and British colonial administration from 26 of 32 counties, as a tremendous achievement; as Collins (a Rising veteran) himself said, “…beyond our wildest dreams in 1916.

Between now and 2022, we’ll have a chance to celebrate the achievements of those who survived the Rising: who raised the siege of 1919-1921, and forced the British to the negotiating table (a development they considered unthinkable in 1916.)

In this there is much to be learned: about what happened to the dream and promise of the 1916 Proclamation, and those who fought for it.

To ponder his death and his life eternally…

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The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
by S M Sigerson
Book cover image - The Assassination of Michael Collins - What Happened at Béal na mBláth
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www.amazon.com/dp/1493784714

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Michael Collins, unemployment, & mass immigration

Photo of Auxies searching civilians during the War of Independence

Auxiliary troops stop and search civilians during the War of Independence

“The keynote to the economic revival must be … that the people have steady work, at just remuneration, and their own share of control. ”
– Michael Collins 1922

Michael Collins grew up in an Ireland plagued by mass unemployment and mass immigration.  There was famine in the year of his birth, 1890; and its spectre of starvation continued to haunt everyday life.

As a young banking professional in London, a “glass ceiling” kept himself and other Irish hopefuls in the relatively menial clerical sector.  There was no hope of advancement: due to unwritten British policy that the Irish were not to be considered for management positions.

How ironic that this young man, passed over as unfit for management, would go on to manage a nation so effectively; much to London’s cost.

What parallels might be found today in Ireland, and in the rest of the world?   Are we not surrounded by general unemployment, poverty, hunger, and desperate mass immigration for survival?

Have we not seen, in our own lifetimes, how multitudes, once excluded from employment, from management, from professional and government positions, have suddenly broken down socio/political barriers which confined them to menial work and poverty wages?

People of color, and women of all nations, have proven themselves again and again, in fields so recently barred to them.  This writer remembers well the day when it was seriously debated in scholarly circles whether women were biologically incapable of discharging the duties of a government official.  When it was generally believed that women could never be police.  When chaos and mayhem were seriously posited as the results which must be expected if people of African descent were allowed to attend the same schools as those of a lighter complexion, or to follow the same articled professions.

Surely, all things considered, we must ask ourselves whether the immigrating, jobless Irish of today, might manage things well enough, given equal opportunity.  And could desperate millions, now herded into camps,  separated from schools, jobs, homes, all hope of building a life, do their own jobs well enough … if only those in responsible positions did theirs?

Can we not do better?  Is mass extreme poverty, unemployment, and refugee-ism so unavoidable?

#WWMCD : What would Michael Collins do?

“…to stop the national hemorrhage of emigration for the whole of the year.  There you have the practical politics of our new day.”
– Michael Collins 1922

Read more
“The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
by S M Sigerson
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www.amazon.com/dp/1493784714

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Assassination of Michael Collins COVER