It was only after the IRA ceasefire that I began once again to be proud of my family’s political past. For more than two generations, it’s been doctors, solicitors, dentists and teachers. Like many Irish families we’ve been happy to lengthen our names with the prefixes and acronyms of professional achievement, while glossing over the patriotic killing and the willing sacrifice of an earlier generation that fought two terrible wars for our unborn lives. Now, after Canary Wharf, Manchester and Lisburn, it should have been back to silence and material success. But a complication has emerged, which threatens to bar our family’s return to its amnesiac state. Michael Collins, Neil Jordan’s film, is not about us as a family, but we are part of its revolutionary story and provide much of its romance.
In May 1917, Michael Collins came down for a few days to Longford, one of those anonymous midland counties that tourists in Ireland pass through quickly on the way to somewhere they’ve been told to go. It is a boggy and flat array of fields, interrupted by a few main streets calling themselves towns. Only the partisan eye would call it beautiful, which I do, but then I was born and reared there, going first to school at Granard’s Convent of Mercy and then on to Abbeylara National, where I had three classmates until amalgamation with Springstown swelled our numbers to eight. Back in May 1917, Longford was briefly in the imperial eye. Joe McGuinness, a Sinn Fein prisoner interned by the British after the Easter Rising, had the temerity to challenge the established Irish party for a seat at Westminster. It was to help run McGuinness’s by-election campaign on behalf of their new party that Collins had come down. The place was plastered with pictures of McGuinness in his prison uniform, under the slogan ‘Put him in to get him out.’
Astonishingly, Joe McGuinness won the seat, by 37 votes. He was the first Sinn Feiner elected to Westminster and his success gave an inkling of the great triumph that the Party was to enjoy in the 1918 General Election. It certainly helped McGuinness that his family were well-established in Longford. His niece married a local man and their second son, born in 1930, was my father. As a child, I used to help out at one of the two stores run by Auntie Bee, Joe’s spinster niece. This McGuinness background was a great source of pride to all of us, in those days in the Sixties when it was not complicated to be a Republican. I used to wish that McGuinness was my surname and not this Gearty one that no one could pronounce.
While Collins was campaigning in Longford, a relation of McGuinness’s, Brigid Lyons Thornton, suggested that he stay in the Greville Arms Hotel in Granard, a small town 16 miles from Longford town. ‘Auntie Thornton’, as we called her, was also involved in the Republican movement: on this occasion, however, it wasn’t subversion but match-making that was on her mind. Collins might have been a revolutionary leader in the making, but he was also a grand fellow from west Cork and Auntie Thornton thought he should meet the Kiernan girls from Granard.
The Greville Arms was a small family hotel run by Larry Kiernan and his four sisters, Chrys, Kitty, Helen and Maud, all ‘lovely glamorous girls’, as Auntie Thornton described them to Collins. When their parents died within a couple of months of each other in 1908, Larry, then aged only 17, was left at the helm of a business that included not only the hotel but also a grocery and hardware store, a timber yard and an undertaking business. His sisters were no ordinary country girls. The family’s guardian and relative Andrew Cusack, a draper in the town, arranged for them to be sent as boarders up to Dublin to be educated in Padraig Pearse’s experimental school, St Ita’s. This was an extraordinary decision for any family in Ireland at that time, even more so for one from the depths of the country. St Ita’s was a place where young ladies visited museums in school hours, held classes in the garden and immersed themselves in Ireland’s Celtic culture. The girls there read Yeats and Synge as contemporary writers and steeped themselves in the myths and folklore of ancient Ireland. Above all, they encountered advanced Irish nationalism as a political force. One of their teachers was the daughter of the legendary Charles Gavan Duffy, who led a noble but futile revolution against the British at the height of the Famine in 1848. A few years after the Kiernan girls left his school, Pearse was executed by the British for leading another rebellion.
The Kiernan sisters took a bit of the creative atmosphere of St Ita’s back to Granard on their return. By the time Collins came to stay, they were helping Larry to run the family’s concerns with bohemian zest and flair. They had their clothes designed by a cousin (another Granard adventurer, who had been tutor to a maharajah in India), held grand parties and sang and played music together. Their style and beauty drew the county’s talented and hopeful young to the town, and turned the hotel into a centre of elegance and excitement, a kind of Bloomsbury standing alone in the midlands of Ireland. Before Partition and the triumph of the motor-car, Granard was the sort of place where tradespeople happily stopped for a night on the way to Belfast or Dublin or Galway. It was a humming, prosperous town. Larry became chairman of the district council, bred and showed hunters at the Royal Dublin Show and rode with the Longford Harriers.
A regular visitor to the Greville Arms, Peggy Sheridan became the female head of this vibrant family when she married Larry. They had four children, the youngest of them my mother. Gran Peg lived until 1978. I stayed in her flat in Dublin when I was a student, and was with her at home in Granard when she had her last fall. She often used to pull out the old faded photographs and tell us barely credible stories of the family’s Edwardian life in the middle of rural Ireland, with lawn tennis in the garden, sojourns at the Gresham in Dublin, frequent travels abroad and exotic guests dropping by at home. The Granard she described seemed a million miles away from the one in which we lived. One of her favourite stories was about the songs she used to sing for Mick Collins in one of the hotel reception rooms. Was it any wonder that Auntie Thornton should have been so keen for the Big Fella to see this household, or that he should have fallen for one beautiful member of it?
The time for courtship between Collins and my great-aunt Kitty proved very short. The McGuinness success he helped to achieve greatly enhanced his authority within the nationalist movement; and it was not long before he attracted the attention of the Crown authorities. In April 1918, by which time he knew the Kiernan family well, Collins was arrested on a trumped up disaffection charge after a speech he made near Granard. He was charged in Longford, but jumped bail, going immediately to Granard, where he was welcomed by a tumultuous crowd of Volunteers lining the main street. My family, I imagine, was behind this dramatic celebration. From that moment on, however, everything changed. Collins went on the run, taking with him the innocence of the earlier era. In the years that followed, he was to descend now and again from the hills to visit Kitty, my Gran Peg and the rest of the family, before disappearing with equally dramatic suddenness back into the night. The countryside became caught up in a bitter and increasingly vicious war, of which he was the leading orchestrator on the Irish side. On the evening before Guy Fawkes in 1920, 11 lorry-loads of British troops entered Granard, sacking the town and burning the Greville Arms to the ground, in retaliation for the shooting dead of a police inspector in the hotel bar four days before. The hotel was rebuilt, but after the Free State was established in 1922, the town went into decline, like much of the rest of Ireland. By the time I was growing up there in the Sixties, it was dominated by a harsh, unyielding priest who had ruled the place with an iron fist for decades. The hotel stayed in the family until the late Sixties and as children we used to go there, treating its by now often unoccupied upper floors as a lavish warren of playrooms.
I doubt that Kitty first met Collins while tending his wounds in an outhouse borrowed from Ryan’s Daughter, as Neil Jordan’s movie suggests. Nor was her great gun-toting leap into the fray on his behalf exactly in character. There are lots of other historical short-cuts and omissions in Michael Collins. None matters much to me nor, it seems, have any mattered to the Irish public. Robert Kee put it well when he wrote that the film’s intentions were honest and its central themes ‘historically wholly acceptable’. Not for the first time, however, Kee is in a minority position. The film’s historical compression has been transformed by some critics into a cavalier disregard of the facts, a deliberately deceitful Republicanism. Jordan has been excoriated for using the wrong kind of gun in one incident and the wrong kind of bomb in another, as though the exposure of such minor details destroyed the movie’s central truth, which is that Michael Collins was the revolutionary leader of a popular movement which defeated the British Forces in most of Ireland. There is an analogy here with the way the British authorities reacted to the IRA ceasefire in 1994, ignoring its dramatic historical implications, and asking instead for proof of permanence and for the prior decommissioning of weapons.
There is something about Britain’s attitude to Ireland which causes it to deny truths that are accepted commonplaces in its other post-colonial relationships. Of course, Ireland was never strictly speaking a colony. In 1801 it became an integral part of the United Kingdom, a decision taken jointly by the Irish and British Parliaments the previous year. Irish nationalism poses, therefore, a threat, not of liberation but of dismemberment. This is why the authorities fought so hard against Collins and why there are those who continue to be embittered by his success.
Critics of Michael Collins might seem to be on stronger ground when they describe the film as a propaganda coup for the contemporary IRA. Certainly it is a violent film, and its main protagonist is a glamorously efficient killer of British soldiers and their Irish surrogates. Opinion in the Republic has been a little overstated in its claim that there is no connection between Collins’s revolutionary violence (legitimate) and the IRA’s current campaign of ’terrorism’ (illegitimate). The point is a fine one. Collins may have been constantly legitimised at the ballot box, from my granuncle’s election in 1917 right through to his assassination, but it was not for a campaign of violence that the Irish were necessarily voting in 1918, and there are even suggestions that Uncle Joe’s narrow success the year before was achieved by a late and rather unorthodox approach to the returning officer, which resulted in the sudden ‘discovery’ of a number of ‘lost’ McGuinness votes. The film provokes a careful reconsideration of the morality of the campaign of violence on which Collins and his colleagues embarked.
One influential school of thought is critical of the entire armed struggle, pointing out that a compromise solution on Ireland was already on the Westminster statute book in the form of the 1914 Home Rule Act, and arguing that this would have been brought into operation at the end of the European war had it not been for Sinn Fein’s self-defeating violence. On this version of history, the 1916 Rising and the subsequent IRA campaign diverted the country from a clear and agreed path to peace and hurtled it down a bloody cul-de-sac.
My own pleasure at the Republic of Ireland’s present-day independence predisposes me not to judge too harshly the means used initially to make it a possibility; and critics of the armed struggle must accept that they would have been content for Ireland to have remained within the United Kingdom. Apart from a measure of autonomy on some local matters, this was all that was on offer in 1914. It is Unionism that defines these critics’ evaluation of Collins’s morality, just as it is Republicanism that defines mine. In any case it is not at all clear that the compromise of 1914 was really available at the time, much less after the war. The prospect of it had already provoked an officially tolerated seditious conspiracy in the North of Ireland as well as the famous ‘mutiny’ at the Curragh. Home Rule would not have avoided partition. The Bill that was passed in the summer of 1914 involved the exclusion of the nine Ulster counties from the mild local government permitted in the rest of Ireland – which even the deferential Irish Nationalists at Westminster would have found it impossible to accept. The writers who applaud the ‘1914 solution’ now are merely celebrating a brilliant – and partly lawless – Unionist triumph over constitutional nationalism.
The context in which to view the rise of Irish Nationalism and Collins’s eventual emergence as its ‘minister for mayhem’ (as he called himself) is the First World War, which brutalised Ireland’s relationship with Britain. To suggest that the 1914 compromise was still available three or four years later is either mischievous or unbearably quaint. In the first months of the war, the authorities used the draconian Defence of the Realm Regulations to suppress nationalist sentiment in Ireland, closing down newspapers, exiling leading figures from their home counties or from the whole island, and jailing others who continued to make speeches in favour of Irish autonomy. It was hoped that the Irish would enlist to fight on the Western Front with the same fatal abandon as their British contemporaries. In this the Government enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the Nationalist leader at Westminster, John Redmond, who made a dramatic recruiting speech at Wooden-bridge, County Wicklow in September 1914. Despite this, most Irish proved unwilling to die for what they were increasingly unsure was their country. By early 1916, only 48,315 Irishmen (excluding Ulstermen) had enlisted out of 430,000 men who were of military age. Irish conscription was eventually announced in April 1918, a move that the Government quickly followed up with the appointment of a new military viceroy, with an increased deployment of the Defence of the Realm Regulations (which included internment of the Sinn Fein leadership, as shown in the movie) and with a new reliance on an 1887 Act which restricted freedom of speech where it operated to the detriment of the forces of law and order.
All of this was happening before Collins and his men fired their first shot. The brief interlude of Easter 1916 apart, Ireland was relatively peaceful throughout the war and Britain’s coercive campaign both before and after the Rising was directed more at the expression of unacceptable opinion (particularly on recruitment) than at any manifestation of violent subversion. As for the Government’s response to the Rising itself, this was a key factor in Ireland’s subsequent embracing of the advanced nationalist cause. Martial law was immediately declared and jury trial suspended; no fewer than 3419 suspected Sinn Fein sympathisers were arrested, two thousand of these tried by secretly convened courts-martial. Fifteen of the leaders of the rebellion were shot over a gruesome nine-day period.
As a result of the Rising and the mass slaughter of the Western Front, the Irish opinion that Collins and his Sinn Fein colleagues sought to influence in the 1918 election was a far cry from that which had previously been so enamoured of Redmond’s genteel and diffident agitation. Only Sinn Fein had given consistent public expression to Irish anti-war sentiment and it was duly rewarded. The war of independence that began in earnest only after Sinn Fein’s electoral triumph was not an irrational and misguided rejection of a prewar compromise that was by now barely remembered. It was a response to the state-organised violence of the previous five years.
Because of his contribution to the armed struggle of 1919-21, Collins has frequently been described as a terrorist. It is true that his was not a conventional war. Jordan’s film shows how novel and effective Collins’s methods were, but it also shows the extent to which what he did was only possible because of widespread popular support, not only for his goals but also for the rigorously controlled (as well as bloody) way he went about achieving them. The Dublin that Collins rode his bicycle through, the countryside that he defiantly moved about in, were enemy territory only for those who purported to govern them. The Republican campaign of this period included its own court system, its own structure of government and its own foreign policy, as well as its ministry for mayhem. Collins’s chutzpah, so beautifully captured by Liam Neeson, was rooted not in recklessness but in a knowledge of, and trust in, his people.
What Jordan’s film does not show is how indiscriminate and violent was the British reaction to Collins’s successful subversion. If anything, it could be criticised for dwelling more on separatist than on state violence. The killing of 14 civilians at a football match, in retaliation for the deaths earlier that day of 19 British intelligence officers, was not the one-off event that audiences might be led to believe. The previous June, the town of Fermoy had been wrecked after the IRA had captured three senior army officers who had ill-advisedly gone on a fishing holiday in the area. In September, Balbriggan was destroyed after the local head constable had been killed. Further large-scale retaliation followed in Clare after the killing of a district inspector. It was in the same dreadful autumn that the Greville Arms was burnt to the ground. Much of this was done by Britain’s auxiliary forces and by the especially hated Black and Tans. In revenge for the killing of 16 members of the auxiliaries in an IRA ambush on 28 November, over five hundred Nationalist sympathisers were arrested and large parts of the city of Cork burned. This was followed by the proclamation of martial law in four counties on 10 December 1920, making into a capital offence (after conviction by a military court) such crimes as the unauthorised possession of ‘arms, ammunition or explosives’, the unauthorised wearing of military apparel and the harbouring or assisting of any rebels who were ‘levying war against His Majesty the King’. The man put in charge of all this, the Commander-in-Chief of the Crown Forces, Sir Nevil Macready, could hardly be described as well-disposed towards the Irish, having written the previous year to a colleague who had been transferred to Ireland: ‘I cannot say I envy you for I loathe the country you are going to and its people with a depth deeper than the sea and more violent than that which I feel against the Boche.’
The nagging question remains: to what extent does Collins’s campaign of subversion set a moral precedent for the contemporary IRA? The goal – a united republican Ireland – remains the same, and the political and legal ethos of Northern Ireland in the Sixties was in many ways as repressive and even more sectarian than that of Dublin Castle fifty years before. The Special Powers Act 1922, from which the anti-Nationalist authoritarianism of the civil authorities in Northern Ireland drew its legitimacy, was a direct descendant of the Defence of the Realm Regulations, via the Restoration of Order in Ireland Regulations that had briefly superseded them. The beginning of the campaign of violence in 1969, as in 1919, lacked explicit political legitimacy; it was essentially a reaction to state violence and in turn provoked extreme police and army responses.
Even in those early days of the Troubles, however, the differences were more marked than the similarities. Repression emanated from the Unionist sub-state, not from the Westminster establishment. Indeed, the political classes in London were initially not unsympathetic to the need for reform. Even in the terrible years of 1969-71, the Army’s conduct in Northern Ireland, though stupid and sometimes brutal, never approached the barbarity of the auxiliaries and the Black and Tans. Nor did officers enjoy such powers of civilian courts-martial as were assiduously deployed between 1916 and 1921.
Collins’s methods were never as savage as those of the contemporary IRA, and he was supported across the whole of Catholic nationalist Ireland rather than in a few working-class communities. After the campaign of violence had got under way, Collins’s party was able to secure widespread electoral support in the local government elections of early 1920, gaining control of 72 out of 127 town councils in the municipal elections in January and also doing well in the rural plebiscite that followed. The elections held in 1921 under the Government of Ireland Act confirmed this trend. In contrast, the modern Provisional Sinn Fein has always had to grub for support, picking up little outside its own working-class bastions unless the British Government played into its hands, as with the mishandling of the hunger strikes in 1981. Collins’s Sinn Fein obliterated Redmond’s brand of constitutional Nationalism, but it has been John Hume’s commitment to peaceful change that has made him the hero of Ireland’s latest war.
Above all, and unlike the contemporary IRA, Collins knew when to stop. Three years into the present conflict, the IRA rejected Edward Heath’s power-sharing initiative. One can easily guess what Collins would have had to say about such reckless, bloody nonsense. Criticism of Jordan’s film as an apologia for the IRA is particularly foolish when its final, riveting scenes are taken into account, with Collins in the uniform of his new state army seeking to impose an impeccably democratic compromise on De Valera’s ideological purists, who are prepared to kill fellow Irish men and women in the pursuit of an already rejected and always unattainable goal. The movie is a celebration of political flexibility. True compromise requires more courage than unyielding certainty and it is this rarely celebrated truth that Jordan’s movie has captured.
Collins’s early death in a trap sprung by anti-Treaty forces deprived Ireland of its leader, and paved the way for eventual domination by Eamon De Valera. Quite soon after Collins’s death, this wily careerist found himself able to accept just those Treaty constraints which he had earlier allowed to precipitate the country into civil war. We remained in thrall to this man’s arid, scholastic nationalism for over fifty years, until his death in 1975, just two years after Ireland’s entry into the European Community. It was only at this point that Collins’s legacy of a politically and culturally confident Ireland could be remembered and realised, though even then it remained qualified and undermined by the conflict in the North. The Republic of Ireland is at last close to the kind of country for which Collins might have hoped: the nation now ready to help Britain to solve its Irish problem, created in its present form when it imposed Partition on Collins as the price of what turned out to be a temporary peace.