For a time a while ago I worked in a civilian capacity for the Irish Defence Forces. Contract work with a fixed end date, when it was finally concluded, the staff I had worked with were kind and gracious enough to present me with a small gift in appreciation for my time there, an act for which I was very much grateful.
The gift was a modestly sized bust of Michael Collins in the uniform of the National Army, based off his appearance circa 1922. It was while staring at this bust, now displayed on a shelf in my home, that I begin to think about our relationship to the individual figures of the Irish Revolutionary Period, and why we have raised up some in our estimation in comparison to others.
If I was to ask the reader of this piece, right now, to name the most famous personalities of the Irish Revolutionary Period, who can we surmise would be the first names to spring to mind? Michael Collins of course, probably fighting it out for top spot with Padraig Pearse. Then Eamon De Valera and James Connolly in all likelihood, followed by men like Tom Clarke, Rory O’Connor, Cathal Brugha, Thomas McDonagh, Jim Larkin and Liam Lynch. The response will change from person to person, but I feel I am not out of order with my posited answers.
With the notable exception of De Valera, the recurring thread for all of these men is that they died during the Irish Revolutionary Period, most of them before they reached true middle age. There is an attraction, in terms of historical remembrance, in that. We make romantic heroes of those who did not make it through, of those who died heroically, with little stain left on their characters – or, rather, those who never had the chance to have that stain. They are our “great men”, as defined by that Victorian idea on the flow of history.
Michael Collins, of course, is especially romanticised. The accent, the handsome face, the disposition. He is perceived as the lynchpin and driving force of the IRA effort, especially in the skulduggery intelligence war in Dublin. His name is attached to events like Bloody Sunday and their aftermath. He is seen, with some justification, as a swaggering heroic figure, cycling around Dublin and organising attacks on the DMP and its supports, even while being the most wanted man in Ireland. His disputes with the contemporary’s in the cabinet and the Dail mark him as twice the rebel, and culminated in the diplomatic epic of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. He made the hard choice and sided with the pro-Treaty side. He was shot dead while trying to be a peacemaker, in dramatic circumstances, even as his fiancée was preparing for her wedding (or at least, so Neil Jordan has managed to ingrain on the Irish consciousness). Here is a giant, a man with a story easily followed and even more easily celebrated. The romanticisation is easily done, leaving little room, for most people, for more serious critique of the man’s life deeds, and effect.
We do not consider, too much, the likelihood of what came after and how Collins may have lived in that world. We do not think about how such a militarily minded man might have approached the passing over of Irish rule to civilian democrats, or even the rest of the Civil War. Some soothe themselves with ideas that Collins, the giant, the incorruptible, would have executed no Irregulars, would have continued IRA attacks in the North, would have been every inch the republican so many continue to want him to be in their minds. Or would he have been a tyrant, a man unsuited to the world of pure politics, disdainful of the Dail and the squabbles it engendered? Or would he have been an unremarkable politician in the new Irish Free State, fading to mediocrity in a world without gunmen? They are questions we could ask of nearly all the figures that I have mentioned above, though the usefulness of such an endeavour is curtailed by the inherent pointlessness of the counterfactual posit.
Why not admire these men? Or rather, why admonish the admiration of them? I do not seek to tear down peoples inspirations, or belittle their motivation in choosing these people for such a role. I only wish to point out that, today, in this Ireland, men like Collins and Pearse, Connolly and Clarke, would not be heroes. They would not be effective politicians, anymore than they were 100 years ago. They would not be at the forefront of representative democracy. Today, we are a nation of peace loving people, who emphasise neutrality and discourse, a process epitomised in things like the Good Friday Agreement. But still we look back and proclaim these military men our heroes, our inspirations, our figures to look up and be like. We make busts of Michael Collins still.
There is a quote by an English author Samuel Johnson, who, writing in 1778, said: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier”. Today, in our comfortable pacifism and enjoying the fruits and productivity of political discussion and negotiation instead of air raids and infantry marches, I do not think it is too much to suggest that part of our glorification of the past in this manner, our unrelenting favouritism given to the heroic martial figures of a hundred years ago, might have something to do with the way that our world is today, with its lack of opportunity for similar daring do, for the same level of traditional tests of manhood, that have so defined our ancestors in days more dangerous than our own. I suggest that some of us look back and pick our inspirations, our national heroes, on the basis of things we cannot do today, and imbue these men with greater honour and reverence than they perhaps deserve because of it. I admire Michael Collins in a way, but I am beginning to realise more and more in this period of remembrance that such admiration should also be given to others.
John Bruton has aggravated many in recent weeks and months with his championing of John Redmond’s cause, that of Home Rule and its possible effects if it had been implemented without the violence of 1916, provoking a debate on the nature of the centenary decade, where political achievements are either ignored or outright scorned. I do not claim to believe in all of Bruton’s argument about Home Rule, but I admire the sincerity of his beliefs, and the larger message that there are figures from the Irish Revolutionary Period whose lives and acts should serve as greater inspiration for people today than the same lives and acts of military men and women.
Consider Eamon De Valera, the one man in the above list who survived the Irish Revolutionary Period and had a notable political career afterwards. You will be hard pressed to find busts of De Valera being handed out as gifts. He’s seen as the Machiavellian puppetmaster of the early Irish state, the man who sabotaged the Anglo-Irish treaty negotiations, was willing to “wade through Irish blood” to get his way, who kept Ireland backward and in the control of the church, who was the architect of Irish neutrality in World War Two. The reality of some of these things is clear, and I merely wish to point out that the degradation of De Valera’s memory is copper fastened by the fact that he lived and went on to become continually controversial, while others, like Collins, were denied the chance to sully their names through subsequent deeds or misdeeds. The reason why Collins is thought of better than De Valera is obvious, but the reason should still give us all cause to question ourselves.
Because remembrance today is not about De Valera, or Redmond, and it won’t really be about Arthur Griffith or Eoin MacNeill or Bulmer Hobson or any other person who took a mostly non-militaristic role in the entire affair. It won’t be, largely, about women or trade unionists. The centenary decade, inevitably, will focus on military deeds, and will seek to celebrate them. The Easter Rising, Soloheadbeg, Kilmichael, Bloody Sunday, the Battle of Dublin, they will receive pride of place, as will the people who fought in them. We will continue to focus on those like Collins and Pearse, the gunmen, and I fear that the people of this country will not do a good enough job at asking themselves just why they are doing so.
I and others can merely be Cnut pressing back against the tide. It is pointless, and perhaps unwise, to tell people to back away from the deification of Michael Collins and the people like him, after a century of things going in the other direction. And they are not unworthy of remembrance themselves in any way. Just, I believe, less worthy of dominating proceedings as they previously have done.
For now, I think we could, at the very least, start small and utilise some of the great resources that have been made available to us for this centenary decade. I encourage, and even challenge, the readers of this piece to go the digitised witness statements of the Irish Bureau of Military History, and find an account to read. Follow up on a name, or pick someone at random, and perhaps see the Irish Revolutionary Period through the eyes of someone you didn’t know about before, to find a unique perspective, which will open eyes and engender greater understanding of the struggle in a general sense.
I certainly plan to, and will perhaps devote some of the future entries of this heading to them.