Queen's Policy Engagement

Remembering ‘Mick’: the contested legacies of Michael Collins, 1922-2022

In the second of three articles on the 100th anniversary of Michael Collins' death, Dr Conleth McCloskey reflects on the commemorations and contested legacies of Collins

Remembering ‘Mick’: the contested legacies of Michael Collins, 1922-2022

Monday 22 August 2022 marks one of the more significant dates in the Irish decade of centenaries, the one-hundredth anniversary of the death of the revolutionary leader, Michael Collins. In three reflections based on their research, historians for QUB look at the significance of Collins’s death in the context of 1922 and how his legacy and memory has been fashioned in politics and film in the intervening century.

Read the first article here

Read the third article here

In July 2020, a portrait of Michael Collins that hung on the wall of outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s office, and which was usually removed after a change of government, was elevated to a symbol of reconciliation between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. To ‘symbolise unity 100 years on from the Civil War’, Fianna Fáil’s leader and incoming Taoiseach, Michéal Martin, asked Varadkar to return the portrait to hang it alongside one of Éamon de Valera. The Fianna Fáil Taoiseach will also address the Michael Collins centenary gathering at Béal na mBláth.

Official remembrance, as these developments confirm, remains highly selective and is frequently orchestrated to complement contemporary political climates, aspirations and agendas. Michael Collins, it also seems, continues to inhibit the popular imagination. His grave is the most frequently visited site in Glasnevin Cemetery; daily floral tributes of appreciation are left, many of which include romantic overtones— indicating a curious sense of intimacy for a figure who has been dead for a century. Among the items displayed at the National Museum of Ireland’s Soldiers and Chiefs exhibition was the overcoat Collins wore on the night of his death, his sidearm and the pen he used to sign the Treaty.

Material culture, once associated with dissent and division, is now broadly accepted as part of the historical fabric of modern Ireland. Historically, the ghost of Collins functioned as both a source of stability and dissent; remembering Collins was a selective process that involved forgetting certain aspects of his career. We might even note the existence of two ghosts of Collins: one focusing on his pre-Treaty militancy, the other emphasising his state building achievements after the Treaty.

Through official commemoration, in various respects, Collins had embodied the Treaty’s political legacy. Beginning with his funeral and maintained through annual commemorations, Collins was publicly recalled in remembrance rituals that attempted publicly to instil his posthumous image as a visionary, founder of democracy and Free State martyr. In the promotion of this narrative, the erection of the Leinster lawn cenotaph was critically influential. From 1923, Collins had been commemorated as part of a state-sponsored project which also incorporated the memory of Arthur Griffith and later Kevin O’Higgins, following his assassination in 1927. Such monuments of multiple remembrance remain, in the Irish context, a rarity. Normally reserved for war graves, they promote a sense of unanimity of purpose, outlook, and sacrifice which, as with the example of the Collins-Griffith(-O’Higgins) memorial, was exaggerated.

‘Fianna Fáil’, as Arthur Griffith’s recent biographer, Colum Kenny, has noted, ‘finds it easier to acknowledge Collins as a gunman than to accept Griffith as the father of the state’. Although what might be described as the ‘official’ interpretation of Collins emphasised his role as a state-builder and Civil War leader, the counter-narrative emphasised Collins’s militant republican role during the War of Independence. Cosgrave’s government, it has been argued, under-emphasised Collins’s this aspect as reminders of his previous militancy could have legitimised republican violence towards the Free State during the Irish Civil War. For Cumann na nGaedheal, Collins’s reputation as the ‘man who won the war’ legitimised the compromises of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and their emphasis on the discipline, work ethic and sacrifice of the martyr Collins had many propagandistic benefits.

The period 1948 to 1973 proved highly significant in the shaping of Collins’s posthumous reputation. This era witnessed the formal establishment of the Republic of Ireland, an assertion of legitimacy which, for some, underlined the futility of Civil War, and vindicated – apart from the persistence of partition – Collins’s stepping-stone vision of the Treaty. These years were also characterised by the emergence of two republican campaigns of violence, governmental attitudes towards which involved the promotion of Collins, the democrat and state-builder, as opposed to that of the advocate and key organiser of violence.

Nevertheless what P.S. O’Hegarty regarded as Piaras Béaslaí’s (Collins’s first biographer) ‘super gunman’ portrayal of Collins continued to resonate, and provided the foundation of an uncomfortable parallel with the upsurge of violence in Northern Ireland. Kenneth Griffith’s 1973 Collins documentary Hang up Your Brightest Colours was deemed so controversial that it was banned for two decades before being screened by BBC Wales in 1993. It was then shown throughout the remainder of the UK in 1994, a period which conveniently coincided with the IRA ceasefire. This confirms that popular interpretations and receptions of Collins are largely dependent on the contemporary political climate, with periods of republican conflict being particularly influential in shaping attitudes towards his memory.

Widely accredited for enhancing Collins’s fame are Tim Pat Coogan’s 1990 biography and Neil Jordan’s movie (1996). Notably, it was in 1997 that the Collins monument at Béal na mBláth began to resemble a religious shrine; personal items, and religious symbols, including rosary beads and candles were placed around the memorial. These were later removed by the organisers of the annual commemoration, but such devotional scenes undoubtedly signify the extent to which the cult of Collins had ultimately evolved. Michael Collins’s memory, as current commemorative practices will confirm, has many uses.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.

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Dr Conleth McCloskey was awarded a PhD from QUB in 2021 for his thesis on ‘The afterlife of Michael Collins: commemoration, biography and historiography, 1922-1973’.

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