Arthur Griffith & Michael Collins: Were their deaths connected?

Photo of Arthur Griffith (1871-1922)

Arthur Griffith 1871-1922)

(The following is an excerpt from the book
“The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth?”)

Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, is considered by many to have been the leading strategist of Ireland’s 20th century independence movement … After ages of continual battle against British imperialism, it was his genius for uniting Ireland’s internal divisions, which brought nationalism into a new, ultimately victorious phase …

… The chances seem astronomical against there having been anything either “accidental”, “random”, or “natural” about the sudden death, within days of each other, of Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, and Harry Boland. Even in the dangerous environment of the Civil War, it would be about equivalent to being struck by lightening while holding a winning lottery ticket.

P S O’Hegerty quotes Griffith himself as saying, in their interview on June 30, “Of course, those fellows will assassinate Collins and myself. DeValera is responsible for this, for all of it. There would have been no trouble but for him.”

[The Cabinet “junta’s”] first step was to isolate Arthur Griffith … shortly before his death [P Moylett] found Griffith sitting alone with not even a secretary or typist available to him.  –  John M Feehan 

Collins, who was working intimately with Griffith on a daily basis at the time, by no means took his death so much for granted as historians have been willing to do. As shown in his personal correspondence:

The death of poor Mr Griffith was indeed a shock to us all, more so naturally to those of us who had been intimate with him, and who thought that his illness was a very slight thing indeed. We shall miss for many a day his cheerful presence and his wise counsel … He had sounder political judgement than any of us, and in this way we shall feel his absence very keenly. 

Although no bounding youth like the C-in-C, Griffith, at 51, was hardly decrepit. The negotiations with Britain, the deterioration of the country into Civil War, certainly would place a tremendous strain on anyone in his highly responsible position. Yet, lest we forget, since the founding of Sinn Fein in 1905, Griffith had lived in the eye of a political storm. His life had consisted of unending controversy, continual persecution; in the course of which he endured years of imprisonment, and constant threat of arrest or assassination.

Yet P S O’Hegerty was even more shocked at Griffith’s demise:

Until the last few months, he never lay in a sickbed. Whoever else died, we felt sure that it would not be Griffith – Griffith with the iron will, the iron constitution, the imperturbable nerve. Griffith, whom we all thought certain to live to be one hundred and write the epitaph of all of us.  Griffith, upon whom we all leaned and depended.

At the time of Griffith’s death, the Civil War was in full swing. A list appears to have issued from some quarter, indicating that members of the Dublin government were to be shot on sight at the first opportunity. Government Buildings became for Griffith and other ministers “a place of internment,” for their own safety…

As for DeValera, that ambitious statesman would never have the most potent political voice in Ireland, as long as Griffith still lived.  Nor would any post-war government led by Griffith ever be supine to British interests …

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“The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
by S M Sigerson
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Cabinet Counterrevolution? Ernest Blythe, WT Cosgrave & the death of Michael Collins

Free State Provisional Government Cabinet 1922 - Collins leaning forward on the left; Ernest Blythe opposite him, Cosgrave at the head of the table

Free State Provisional Government Cabinet 1922 – Collins leaning forward on the left; Ernest Blythe opposite him, Cosgrave at the head of the table

‘We find, then, two independent bodies with a very direct interest in getting rid of Collins, viz, the junta within the Cabinet and the British secret service.’
– John M Feehan

In 1922, shortly after the Irish took power in Dublin, how did the Collins-Griffith government become the Cosgrave-Blythe government overnight?  And with what consequences for Ireland?

On the relationship between the Cosgrave-Blythe government, and the death of Collins, here are some excerpts from
“The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth?”:

“In his seminal biography, Tim Pat Coogan [pointed out] that Collins’ policy on the North was ‘unwelcome to his Cabinet colleagues and of course to the British.’ In this he supports that Collins was serving on the [Free State Provisional Government] with men whose agenda for the future of Ireland was closer to the British, than to his own. This in itself speaks volumes. John M Feehan (in ‘The Shooting of Michael Collins: Murder or Accident?’) went even further:

‘Collins never concealed his contempt for [WT] Cosgrave, whom he regularly referred to as “that bloody little altar-boy.” He detested [Ernest] Blythe and distrusted Eoin MacNeill and the feeling on their side was mutual, although for political reasons he had to have them in the cabinet.

“… Exactly one month before the C-in-C’s untimely demise, W T Cosgrave (former Minister for Local Government, and, until then, not a luminary in national affairs) became Chairman of the Provisional Government in Collins’ place… Think how convenient it was, one month later, that Collins’ successor was already sitting at the head of the Provisional Government, when both Griffith and the C-in-C 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. And, with their deaths, organized political and military resistance against unionist pogroms in the north was effectively suspended.

“The Collins-Griffith government became the Cosgrave[-Blythe] government, indefinitely; with a very different direction for Ireland indeed. Soon after commenced Dublin’s shooting without trial of Irish prisoners. The Free State seemed to become everything the anti-Treaty side said it was; in an Ireland dominated by what J J Lee would call:

‘...the flint-minded [people] whose grandparents had done well out of the Famine and who intended to do better themselves out of the Free State.’

“Was the Treaty and the Civil War which it ignited, in a sense, the ‘counter-revolution’? A strategy to put the breaks on the independence struggle; to extirpate its most effective leadership; and replace that leadership’s agenda? In this case, with a Dublin government less staunchly opposed to cooperation with imperialist interests: even willing to perpetuate old policies of colonialistic exploitation?

There are a lot of unanswered questions and mysterious incidents which [the Cabinet] could have cleared up and did not, and if the finger of guilt is sometimes pointed at them they have only themselves to blame.’
– John M Feehan


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

The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth? by S M Sigerson - Cover Image

by S M Sigerson
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The Shooting of Michael Collins by Feehan cover image       “The Shooting of Michael Collins:
          Murder or Accident?
by John M Feehan


Michael Collins by Coogan cover image



“Michael Collins
by Tim Pat Coogan




Cover Image of the book "Ireland 1912-1985 Politics and Society" by JJ Lee Ireland 1912-1985 Politics and Society by JJ Lee

Michael Collins: “Threats” played no part in signing the Treaty

photo of Michael Collins speaking 1922 Clonakilty County Cork

Michael Collins speaking, Clonakilty, County Cork, 1922

A number of historians and biographers have reiterated the erroneous contention that the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 was signed in response to threats of extraordinary military action by the British.

However, this was roundly refuted by Michael Collins himself; who, excepting only Arthur Griffith, certainly carried the lion’s share of work, responsibility, and decision-making in those negotiations.

Others’ writings about Collins often seem to be more readily before the public these days, than the unquestionably more valuable writings of the man himself.

His own cogent statements on this issue are characteristically blunt and penetrating:

It has been variously stated that the Treaty was signed under duress.  

“I did not sign the Treaty under duress, except in the sense that the position as between Ireland and England, historically, and because of superior forces on the part of England, has always been one of duress.  

“The element of duress was present when we agreed to the Truce, because our simple right would have been to beat the English out of Ireland.  There was an element of duress in going to London to negotiate. But there was not, and could not have been, any personal duress.  

“The threat of “immediate and terrible war” did not matter overmuch to me.  The position appeared to be then exactly as it appears now.   The British would not, I think have declared terrible and immediate war upon us.  

“… The threat of immediate and terrible war was probably bluff. The immediate tactics would surely have been to put the offer of July 20, which the British considered a very good offer, before the country, and if rejected, they would have very little difficulty in carrying their own people into a war against Ireland.

“I am not impressed by the talk of duress, nor by threats of a declaration of immediate and terrible war.  Britain has not made a declaration of war upon Egypt, neither has she made a declaration of war upon India.  But is the conflict less terrible because of the absence of such a declaration?  

“We must not be misled by words and phrases.  Unquestionably the alternative to the Treaty, sooner or later, was war, and if the Irish Nation had accepted that, I should have gladly accepted it.  …

“To me it would have been a criminal act to refuse to allow the Irish Nation to give its opinion as to whether it would accept this settlement or resume hostilities.  That I maintain, is a democratic stand.  It has always been the stand of public representatives who are alive to their responsibilities

“The Irish struggle has always been for freedom – freedom from English occupation, from English interference, from English domination – not for freedom with any particular label attached to it.  

“What we fought for at any particular time was the greatest measure of freedom obtainable at that time, and it depended upon our strength whether the claim was greater than at another time or lesser than at another time.

“When the national stiuation was very bad we lay inert; when it improved a little we looked for Repeal of the Union; when it receded again we looked for Home Rule under varying trade names;  when it went still worse we spoke of some form of devolution.  When our strength became greater our aim became higher, and we strove for  greater measure of freedom under the name of Republic.  But it was freedom we sought for, not the name of the form of government we should adopt when we got our freedom.

(Excerpted from “Advance and Use Our Liberties” from the Treaty debates, 1922; included in:)

“A Path to Freedom
by Michael Collins

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What Happened At Béal na mBláth?
by S M Sigerson

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Kitty and Michael: a revolutionary courtship

photo of Michael Collins

Michael Collins

photo of Kitty Kiernan

Kitty Kiernan

Some historians have been obliged to play down Michael Collin’s fiancé, Kitty Kiernan, in order to support their theories about his death.  However, Ms Kiernan cannot be relegated to a footnote here, but merits a few choice words on her own account (excerpt from the book): 

“There is no basis for the erroneous characterization of Ms Kiernan as politically naïve. It is, at best, a gloss of inexcusable carelessness. The contention that others would have had more capacity than Ms Kiernan, as a political confidante, is entirely refuted by the record.  Writers seem to have presumed on the fact that … Ms Kiernan was merely the proprietor of a small hotel and shops, in a modest country town, in rural Ireland; her name unknown to the public, outside of her relationship with Collins.  Collins biographers seem to have written off Ms Kiernan as clueless and useless politically, on this basis alone.

Clearly Collins did not think so; as an attentive reading of their letters illustrates. Such an assumption does not demonstrate adequate acquaintance with their correspondence, with her education, her family’s prominent, albeit secret role in the War of Independence; nor with the level of political sophistication general among Irish people of her time, place, class and social standing.  On the contrary, as muse, hostess, networker, companion and confidante, the Kiernan sisters and their hotel may be called the Irish nationalist counterparts, of a London lady’s political salon.  With Ms Kiernan, Collins could feel secure that he was not confiding in a British agent: the Kiernan hotel had been a key safe house for Volunteers throughout the War of Independence. In their correspondence, she and Collins frequently discussed the political situation; of which she demonstrated a keen grasp, often providing insight and encouragement. The C-in-C, for his part, explicitly declared that Kitty was more and more necessary to him in these stressful days, and that “there’s no one like you.”

Ms Kiernan came from precisely the same sort of background as he: a traditional Irish farming family, hard-working, upwardly mobile,  successful in business and adaptable to town life. Both were products of a progressive, republican education. Both were ambitious, modern and stylish. In Collins’ world, Ms Kiernan was an elegant lady, and the female of his own species.”

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What Happened At Béal na mBláth?
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Michael Collins and President Kennedy: What did they have in common?

photo of Michael Collins

Michael Collins


As we mark another anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, lest we forget … Did JFK and Michael Collins really have much in common?

Both leaders were from an Irish Catholic background.

Both their families came from simple, agrarian origins, in Ireland. Both descended from an ancient clan, perhaps no stranger to national affairs.

Both were political leaders who united diverse factions in their respective countries. They bridged gaps and opened dialogue between the middle class, the poor, ethnic and religious minorities, and political leadership.

Both were friendly to women’s rights, and supported greater inclusion for women in the highest  office; at a time when this was still highly controversial.

They each were the standard-bearer of new hope, in a political landscape that was ossified, stagnant, and unresponsive to the changing times in which they lived.

Each became the spearhead of a new generation, which brought dramatic, far-reaching changes: Collins, in the form of full-scale, violent revolution and the creation of new government institutions. Kennedy, in domestic affairs, was the first US President to lend active support to an epoch-making civil rights movement on the ground, which constituted nothing less than social revolution. In foreign relations, he was first to openly challenge militaristic Cold War thinking, which had kept the world teetering on the edge of nuclear war, since the 1940s. 

Both were robbed of the chance to fulfill their great promise: cut off in their prime by an assassin’s bullet.  Passionately mourned by the public, millions turned out for their respective funerals.

Both died from a massive head wound, caused by gunshot; as they travelled in a motorcade, through hostile territory, in a country torn by civil discord; within 12 months of a major national election.  On the 22nd.

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What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
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Did Sonny O’Neill shoot Michael Collins?

ambushers artist's impression

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.”

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The Shooting of Michael Collins: Murder or Accident?
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 “The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
by S M Sigerson

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Why do we need to know how Michael Collns died?

aerial photo of Béal na mBláth

Béal na mBláth (courtesy of the Ordinance Survey Ireland

On the anniversary of the ambush at Béal na mBláth, we ponder the meaning of Collins’ life and death.

Remember the Annual Béal na mBláth Commemoration is this Sunday 24 August.  (See previous blog post of 5 August, below for full details.)

Excerpt from the book:

Tim Pat Coogan introduces his discussion of Béal na mBláth with a lament that “It is a perversion of Collins’ significance to Irish history that the circumstances of his death … should have come almost to overshadow the significance of his life.” Yet it is the special importance of his life, which makes it necessary to answer the questions surrounding his death.

That one man’s death could change the future is astounding. How and why we lost such a man, is as important as any other question. If there is any perversion, it is the failure to fully account for the nation’s terrible loss, of the man they needed most, at the moment he was most needed. It may not be in our power to make another like him. What we might learn from this story, should we ever get such a one again, is how we could better manage to keep him. Certainly that is a lesson worth studying.

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What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”
by S M Sigerson

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Commemorative edition: 90th Anniversary pictorial history

Michael Collins: a biography by Tim Pat Coogan