Ireland’s Wars: Beal Na mBlath

The ambush that killed Michael Collins remains an emotive moment in Irish military history. It’s been immortalised on the page and on screen, Irish political parties continue to give speeches at the spot every year, the man’s grave is a place of pilgrimage. It has come to represent the great tragedy that was the Civil War, boiled down to a single engagement, a single shot, a single death. It is rare in my study of the Civil War that I will have the occasion to give much attention to any such firefight that had such a low death toll, but what happened on that stretch of country road on the 22nd August 1922 is more than worthy of greater consideration. It is the great “what if” of 20th century Ireland, and pointed the way to a more bitterly fought conflict, with everything that came out of that.

Collins had largely set aside his political appointments – Chairman of the Cabinet of the provisional government, and Minister of Finance – in July, so he could focus on being the designated “Commander-in-Chief” of the National Army. In reality he served both a political and military role regardless of his exact title, directing operations nationwide with the assistance of his immediate subordinates like Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy, while maintaining an extensive influence over the running of the provisional government. Most members of the cabinet and of the military leadership deferred to Collins on nearly all matters, with his role at this time described as a kind of “generalissmo”. The National Army was Collins’ army to a very large extent: he took a leading role in the recruitment of former British Army officers to key roles and in the appointment of the regional commands, though it is arguable how much influence he had on events in the field. Arthur Griffith remained the nominal political head of the provisional government, but he and Collins were on poor enough terms, the rift over “the Pact” never fully healed – and the “President of Dail Eireann” did not do much to combat Collins on most things. It was Collins who prorogued a meeting of the Dail until a later time owing to the ongoing hostilities, a move that some writing later have characterised as a dictatorial act.

On the 11th August Collins departed Dublin to undertake a tour of Munster, and more specifically the South-Western Command. There were numerous reasons for Collins to undertake this trip: to inspect the National Army in the area; the further his understanding of the military situation and to make whatever orders in that regard that there were to make; to secure sums of money that members of the anti-Treaty side had placed in various banks; to get a greater feel for the situation “on the ground”, especially regards the opinions of the civilian population; and last, but most certainly not least, to engage with the possibility that a settlement to conclude the war might be reached with the senior figures of the IRA.

Surviving pictures of the time tend to show Collins at the peak of his powers, looking prim and proper in an immaculate National Army uniform, striding confidently around the country. But in reality according to many who observed Collins at the time, the Commander was under a huge deal of stress, and was displaying a depressed mentality that bordered on the nihilistic. He had never been especially religious, but attended Mass more regularly during the Civil War (though this may have been more at the urging of his fiancee, Kitty Kiernan, whom he was due to marry in November). As gung ho as Collins was about ending the war as quickly as possible, he seems to have been genuinely distraught that things had ever gotten to the point of violence in the first place, and was acutely aware of the danger he was in. Collins made more than one premonition of his death since the signing of the Treaty, and throughout these early stages of the Civil War he and his immediate bodyguards had to be aware of a number of aborted or stalled efforts to kill him by die hard republicans.

Collins’ mood would not have been improved by a number of deaths that occurred in early August. On the 1st Harry Boland, one-time a very close friend of Collins before the Treaty split, died from wounds sustained during an encounter with National Army soldiers in Skerries several days before: it is unclear whether this was an unofficial assassination or just a botched arrest. A popular story went round that some of Boland’s last words were “Have they got Mick Collins yet?”: Collins, in correspondence with Kiernan, refused to believe this, but was clearly upset at the circumstances, whereby he knew he would be unwelcome at Boland’s funeral. In the early weeks the casualties the National Army incurred at Kilmallock, and perhaps more pertinently that the Dublin Guard took in their Kerry campaign, would presumably also have had a huge influence on Collins. On a larger level, the sudden passing of Arthur Griffith on the 12th came as a large shock. Griffith, chronically stressed, overworked and suffering from tonsillitis, collapsed from a cerebral haemorrhage that morning and died shortly afterwards, aged only 51. This circumstance forced Collins to temporarily abandon his tour of Munster so he could attend the funeral and presumably make political arrangements: Griffith was not immediately replaced in his role as President of the Dail, owing to it not sitting, so Collins was now undisputedly the man in sole charge of the provisional government and the entire pro-Treaty faction.

On the 20th Collins resumed his tour of Munster, travelling into the heart of the anti-Treaty faction in the form of Cork. He was warned off from doing so by multiple people close to him, who felt the danger was enormous. Collins would famously, or perhaps infamously, insist that he would not be killed in his “own county” and this may be taken more as bravado rather than underestimation. In truth, it appears that Collins was very deliberately heading into such dangerous territory in the hope that he could meet with key anti-Treaty leaders. He wanted peace, though it is debatable just what form that peace could possibly take.

In some of his last writings Collins enunciated to a limited extent in terms of what he was willing to offer. He wanted the anti-Treaty IRA to disarm and go home, where they would be allowed their political opinions and rights, but they would have to be willing to accept “the People’s verdict”. It is hard to know how republican leaders would have reacted to such a general proposal, but it is unlikely to have been persuasive enough all on its own. Collins, as he always did, was hoping that his established relationship with these men, that network of contacts he had built up over years since he had first come to major prominence in Frongach, might yet prevent further bloodshed. As part of this he was opposed to an enlargement of the military effort in Munster, specifically O’Duffy’s plan to institute sweeps of the countryside.

Collins had been attempting to reach out to people on the other side for a little while around that time, but this was more concrete. He met with Florence O’Donoghue and Sean Hegarty, members of the “Neutral IRA” in Cork on the 21st, with an eye to arranging a meeting with Liam Deasy as soon as possible: Deasy would later claim he was due to meet with Collins on the 23rd, and he may well have been open to the ideas that Collins was selling. On the morning of the 22nd, Collins, accompanied by Emmet Dalton, set out from Cork City in a convoy of vehicles, for the nominal purpose of inspecting National Army outposts in the west of the county, and calling on members of Collins’ family, though perhaps he was also hoping to meet with republican leaders.

At some point in the outgoing trip the convoy passed through a small village roughly 10-15 km’s north-west of Bandon named Beal na mBlath, a name that can be loosely translated as “Mouth of Flowers” or “Mouth of Blossoms”. The road near the village snaked through a valley, with heights on either side. The convoy briefly stopped in this area to ask for directions from a man who they thought was a local, Dinny Long. Long was in fact a member of the IRA, acting as a sentry for a meeting of the Cork No. 2 Brigade leadership – that included Deasy, Tom Hales and many other key officers – that was happening nearby. It was somewhat foolhardy for Collins’ group, the man himself easily identifiable, to advertise their presence in this way, and Collins would pay for it. Once the convoy was on its way Long alerted his comrades at the unexpected opportunity that had fallen into their laps. They immediately arranged for the road to be blockaded and then covered by an ambush party, in the event that the convoy took the same route back to Cork City later that day.

The convoy did duly go back that way, and was in the vicinity of Beal na mBlath after 8PM, allegedly after driving through two other attempted ambushes elsewhere in Cork. The ambushing party of around 20 to 25 men, which had stationed itself in the heights north of a turn of the road, had actually given up on the project, with most of its members, including Deasy, retiring to a nearby pub. When the sound of engines could be heard in the distance, the few left who had been uninstalling a mine were rapidly joined by whomever could get there in a new position further down the road. With the road blockaded the convoy was forced to slow, and as soon as it had stopped they came under fire.

The resulting engagement appears to have lasted around half an hour, which is curious in itself: there seems to have been no clear reason why Collins ordered his men to engage the enemy for this length of time. Dalton would later claim he had ordered the convoy to push through and drive on, but was superseded by the C-in-C, who wanted to fight it out with the ambushers. The convoy may possibly have been able to force its way past the blockade and drive away, or may just have been backed up in the attempt. For the vast majority of the exchange there were no casualties incurred: the IRA had sufficient cover in the hills, and the National Army soldiers were able to hunker down behind their vehicles and grass banks next to the road. The convoy’s machine gun was delayed in firing owing to a jamming issue, but once it did the balance of firepower was greatly swung in the direction of the pro-Treaty soldiers. Anti-Treaty Volunteers had difficult raising their heads to be able to fire.

After some time of these exchanges, there was a lull in the firing, as ammunition was changed for the National Army and the IRA, low on ammo, limited their shots. Some of the attacking party had also left the area, doubtless thinking that furthering the engagement served no purpose. At this point Collins is said to have left the cover of an armoured car and walked a certain distance down the road in the direction of Bandon, seemingly firing at the enemy as he went. In some accounts – they are contradictory, and some were only related decades after the events in question – Collins went as far as to be out of sight around a bend in the road, though it’s unclear why he would do this. Perhaps he felt that the IRA were on the run, and was happy to engage in a limited pursuit. We will never know.

At this point Collins was hit, with a bullet leaving a gaping wound on the back of his neck. How exactly this happened has been the subject of extensive debate: a volunteer named Denis “Sonny” O’Neill is popularly attributed as the shooter, having previously served as a sniper in the British Army (and he had met Collins several times over the previous few years). A detailed examination of accounts and the terrain, like that undertaken by historian Meda Ryan, has more popularised the theory that Collins may have been the unfortunate victim of a ricochet fragment, the exact origin of which is impossible to know for certain. Either way, Collins received a fatal wound. It’s not certain exactly how quickly Collins died, but it seems unlikely he was still alive when the convoy left the site a few minutes later. A motorbike rider who helped move Collins’ body to a vehicle was the only other casualty of the engagement, hit in the neck as he helped his commander, though he survived. The convoy rapidly left the scene, as did the IRA. The postponed Brigade meeting resumed nearby, with a report that indicated there had been no casualties on either side at the ambush. Somewhat ironically, the meeting agreed that an honourable peace would be more agreeable than continuing the conflict.

The nature of the ambush, in the differing accounts of survivors and the infamy of it, has meant that it has become easy fodder for various lines of conspiracy theory, that generally attempt to get across the idea that Collins was murdered by a member of the convoy. Prime targets for such speculation include Jock McPeak, who manned the machine gun on the armoured car: a British Army veteran, he would later defect to the anti-Treaty side. Emmet Dalton has also been the subject of such scrutiny, with much made of different, contradictory, accounts that he would later give of the events in question. Motivation for an apparent murder of Collins is generally described as being on the foot of British manipulations. There is little to really say about such things, other than to state that the evidence for them is, at best, hearsay, and at worst completely nonsensical: the British government would hardly have wanted to kill the Treaty’s biggest supporter, and the idea that Collins could have been killed by his own side and this not getting out somehow stretches credibility. The truth is far more likely to be the simple reality that he was killed by an anti-Treaty Volunteer while fighting against an ambush he should not have been fighting against.

The ambush itself bears little study from a military perspective. The National Army blundered repeatedly in the build-up: in revealing their position and VIP to people they could not trust, in following the same route on their return journey as they had used when outbound and in choosing to engage the ambushers when they had the opportunity to withdraw. The first instance was careless, the second incompetent, while the third appears to have been a result of Collins’ own attitude. It must be remembered that Collins had little practical experience of tactical engagements, beyond what limited fighting he had seen or taken part in during 1916, which may explain his unwise choice to fight it out. It’s tempting to also look at the morose attitude that had marked him in those final weeks, and posit the engagement served as the sort of activity to buoy his flagging spirits, but this is pure conjecture. On the other side the IRA laid the ambush correctly and were able to enact the attack despite limited numbers and the confusion of the sudden convoy arrival, which was to their credit, and they were able to disengage without casualties: on another day the whole affair would have been little more than a footnote in the history of the period, the day Michael Collins narrowly missed a bullet.

Collins was taken to a nearby village where a priest was called to deliver the Sacraments: according to Dalton emotions were so high that when the priest left to retrieve the needed oils a soldier misinterpreted this as the priest refusing to perform the rite, and was only narrowly prevented from shooting him in the back. A torturous journey to Cork City through the night followed, with the convoy getting lost in the back roads of the countryside, and at one point having to abandon some vehicles that got bogged down in fields. A doctor at the British Military Hospital in the city concluded that Collins had been hit by a “dum-dum” bullet, but there is no record of an official postmortem or autopsy being performed. A lack of telephone connection to Dublin meant that news of the death had to be relayed first by telegraph to New York, then London then back to the capital. Dalton restrained local soldiers who wanted to set out on a mission of revenge, and aside from increased patrols in the Beal na mBlath area there was no reprisal (three republicans killed in Clondalkin at the time is considered a lone example).

One of the curious aspects of the whole affair was the presence of Eamon de Valera near Beal na mBlath that day. De Valera was travelling with Liam Deasy having spent time in the HQ of Liam Lynch, and passed through not far from the place where Collins was shot. This has led a popular narrative to emerge that Collins was in the area to meet with de Valera, and that de Valera had a hand in what happened to his former comrade. There is little to back-up either assertion. De Valera’s presence in the general area appears to have been little more than mere coincidence, and there has never been any hard evidence presented that he and Collins were supposed to meet. Collins would probably have been aware that “Dev” was not the person to get in contact with in terms of arranging a peace deal, with the former leader of the Dail having little to no influence over the direction of the anti-Treaty movement. For that reason also, the idea that de Valera arranged or ordered Collins’ assassination is similarly faulty. When informed of Collins’ death, de Valera was observed reacting in a devastated manner, stating the belief that the killing now made peace impossible:  “My God, it is too bad; there is no hope for it now”.

He was not the only one to react that way, though it is important not to romanticise the aftermath of Collins’ death becoming public knowledge. The idea that both sides of the Treaty divide were “temporarily united in grief” as Neil Jordan’s biopic put it, is true only to a very partial extent. His funeral in Dublin was a massive affair, with Collins’ body carried on one of the gun carriages used for the attack on the Four Courts, but it did not come with any pause in the hostilities of the Civil War. As noted de Valera was seemingly devastated by Collins’ passing, and plenty of other anti-Treaty figures, including Tom Barry, recorded mournful feelings, but others were happy to celebrate the death of a man they deemed their chief adversary in the conflict. Beyond emotional feelings of revenge for the perceived architect of the hated Treaty, there may well have been hopes that the provisional government could waver absent its key figurehead. But if the IRA thought that the war had reached a turning point with the death of Collins they were to be disappointed.

One consequence of Collins’ death was a break-up of his roles, so that the civil and military portions of the pro-Treaty faction now got distinct leaders. Many thought that Richard Mulcahy, who won a great deal of praise for his conciliatory message to the Army after the death was announced and efforts to prevent reprisals, could step-up to inherit the full remit of Collins’ powers, but when the Dail finally did meet in September, W.T. Cosgrave was selected to become the new Chairman of the Provisional Government, with Mulcahy taking command of the National Army alongside the Defence portfolio. In truth much of the directing work of this new cabinet fell to Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister of Justice, but Cosgrave was a solid, calming influence at a time when such things were badly required.

And they were very much required. Collins’ death came in a new stage of the Civil War, with the anti-Treaty side turning to guerrilla warfare wholesale, and already finding a great deal of success. The provisional government, having to turn from fighting a conventional war to an unconventional one in a rapid space of time, now also had to deal with enormous changes of leadership. Moreover, the death of Collins, despite those efforts to try and rein in emotional responses, was going to have its effect too: a man who wanted peace had been removed from the equation, and replaced by those who now found their attitudes towards the enemy hardened, along with a commitment to end the conflict with nothing less than a total military victory. This is the true legacy of what happened that August evening in the countryside of Cork: the Irish Civil War was about to get worse.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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8 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Beal Na mBlath

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