Michael Collins Commemoration

It would have been hard to miss the centenary of the death of Michael Collins over this past week. He was killed at Béal na Bláth, West Cork on 22 August 1922, during the Irish Civil War. His passing – and his life – has been the stuff of legend ever since. He’s buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, but the events this week were focussed on the place where his life ended – not far from where we live.

Micheál Martin – Taoiseach and Head of Government in Ireland – (on the left, above) and Leo Varadkar – Tánaiste and Deputy Head of Government – (on the right) presided over the ceremony at Béal na Bláth this week (picture courtesy of The Independent). This was an historic get-together as both men lead different parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael respectively: these are in coalition at the moment, together with the Green Party. The Taoiseach said in his speech that the willingness of those of differing political views to try to find common ground was one of the great strengths of modern Ireland. In Collin’s time, a century ago, such coming together would have seemed extremely implausible.

This bust of Michael Collins is sited at his home place, Woodfield, Sam’s Cross in West Cork. There’s nothing left of the main house now (below): it was burned down during the Irish Civil War. But the original cottage still stands as a shell (it’s behind the trees in the background of the lower photo, to the right of the Public Works signpost). It was there that Collins was born.

We didn’t go to the official ceremony at Béal na Bláth on the 21st: many thousands of people attended. We were interested to visit a bit later in the week, to see how the site has been upgraded to mark the centenary. Previously, the memorial itself was gaunt and severe: here’s a pic from our visit in 2013:

It’s significantly different now: car parking has been rationalised and the commemorative cross is the main focus, with some significant hard landscaping. In our opinion, the works (by Cork County Council) have succeeded in focussing the main elements, and the scale is more human.

The new walling defining the edge of the memorial site is built from huge blocks of slate from Valentia Island Quarry, Co Kerry: “. . . the most westerly quarry in Europe . . .” The material is fittingly monumental. When we visited Valentia back in January 2019, we recorded the fact that this quarry has its very own Marian grotto:

We were interested – and pleased – to see that the upgraded memorial still gives space to ‘popular’ offerings. We maintain that Michael Collins is on his way to beatification, and he is already being treated as more than a fallen warrior (although that status is, in itself, heroic). Amongst the floral tributes are religious symbols, messages, and ‘relics’.

And – of course – the fateful spot (above) where Collins fell is still marked by the simple white stone which has been at this site for generations.

‘The Moment’ at which Collins was shot by an enemy bullet, captured in a dramatic painting (above), now on display in the Michael Collins Centre at Castleview, Clonakilty. No one has ever been held to account for the shooting, which was the only fatality on that day, and some have suggested that Collins was not intentionally targeted, and may have been the victim of an accidental ricochet. It’s most likely that we will never know the true story, but there’s no doubt that popular folklore has stepped in to fill the gaps.

The Michael Collins Centre (above) has been run for over 23 years by members of the Crowley family who are directly related to Collins. Visitors are given a comprehensive presentation on his life and times – and his death. There are many artefacts and memorabilia, including replicas of the vehicles which were in the convoy at Béal na Bláth. It’s also well worth looking out from the Museum grounds to the spectacular view across the Argideen River valley (below). Argidín means Little Silver River, and it flows from Reenascreena to Courtmacsherry.

We are keenly watching the progression of Michael Collin’s journey towards sainthood – or further. During the narrations we attended, we noted the descriptions of some of his followers as ‘apostles’. Also, we can’t ignore the fact that he foretold his own death (after he was sent to England to negotiate and sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty). His sister Mary Collins was nine years old when Michael was born in what she said were ” … miracle conditions, as there was no doctor and no trained nurse … mother and baby were well and comfortable … ” Michael was adored by the family, with his old Uncle Paddy predicting the future upon his birth, saying: “Be careful of this child, for he will be a great and mighty man when we are all forgotten” …

(Above) – a reminder of the ‘glory days’ – Michael Collins addressing huge crowds at a Free State demonstration in Cork City, 13 March 1922 (Wikimedia Commons). (Below) – Collins (behind the driver) leaving the Eldon Hotel, Skibbereen, 22 August 1922: the last known photograph of the hero (Cork Public Museum).

The Laughing Boy

Birthplace of a Folk Hero

Birthplace of a Folk Hero

T’was on an August morning, all in the dawning hours,
I went to take the warming air, all in the Mouth of Flowers,
And there I saw a maiden, and mournful was her cry,
‘Ah what will mend my broken heart, I’ve lost my Laughing Boy’

bust

Let’s face it: our travels today were a pilgrimage. We went out in search of a hero and we found shrines, monuments, places of devotion and folktales. It all started last week, which was ‘Rebel Week’ in Cork County and Skibbereen was one of the centres of activity. We were attracted by a flyer for a ‘Tribute to Michael Collins’ being held in the Eldon Hotel – a venue which we now know features in the story of the man: it claims to be the place where he ate his last meal. The ‘Tribute’ proved a bit of a damp squib as the advertised speaker didn’t turn up, but as compensation we were shown a 1973 British film made and zealously narrated by a very ebullient Welsh actor, Kenneth Griffith: Hang Up Your Brightest Colours. This film extravagantly documents the life of Michael Collins and the Irish struggle for freedom in the early twentieth century, and was considered ‘incendiary’ in a time when The Troubles were boiling over; consequently its showing was banned for twenty years. We determined to visit some of the significant locations that featured in the film and which are not too far away from Nead an Iolair.

Master of Oration

Master of Oration

West Cork is Collins’ country: he was born in Sam’s Cross, near Clonakilty – the youngest of eight children – in October 1890. His father Michael had married Marianne O’Brien (23) when he was 60. Already the folklore kicks in: Michael the elder was the seventh son of a seventh son and therefore gifted with powers of divination. On his deathbed he predicted that our hero – then aged 6 – would one day “…be a great man. He’ll do great work for Ireland…” Also, there’s a touch of mystery about Collins’ birth: the records state he was born on 16 October whereas on his tombstone the date is given as 12 October.

The Collins grave in Rosscarberry

The Collins grave in Rosscarbery

In the burial ground in Rosscarbery we found the family grave. There is a modest entry on the headstone for young Michael, recording that he died on 22 August 1922 (he’s actually buried in Dublin). That’s about all that’s modest about the Collins story. He was known as The Big Fella, as much because of his reputation and charisma as for his physique.

You can’t miss his birthplace – it’s signposted for miles around the area of Woodfield – but the family farmhouse isn’t there! It was burnt to the ground by the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence (and not by the Black and Tans, which is often claimed). However, the site has been preserved as an essential waymark of the Michael Collins pilgrim trail.

Memorial at Sam's Cross

Memorial at Sam’s Cross

There is also another, larger monument to Michael a little way up the road at Sam’s Cross – this is in fact next door to the house where his mother was born – and opposite his cousin Jeremiah’s pub – The Four Alls (this is one of several places where Collins is supposed to have taken his last drink).

Four Alls pub - cousin Jeremiah's

Four Alls pub – Cousin Jeremiah’s

For anyone who doesn’t know I had better just say that Michael Collins – soldier, freedom fighter and politician – was one of the key figures in the long Irish struggle for Independence – a conflict that was won, after a fashion, in December 1921 when the irish Free State was set up. Collins signed the Treaty in his then role as ‘Chairman of the Provisional Government and Commander-in-chief of the National Army’ and (legend has it) pronounced that he was also signing his own death warrant (the great folk heroes usually foretold their own death). The conditions of the Treaty, and the exclusion of some of the northern counties from the new state caused such dissension that a civil war ensued, and Michael Collins fell as a victim to that war as he toured through his home county of Cork on 22 August 1922.

The Eldon, Skibbereen

The Eldon, Skibbereen

His convoy left the Eldon Hotel, Skibbereen, in the early afternoon for Cork city and was ambushed at Béal na Bláth, on a minor road between Clonakilty and Macroom. During the skirmish Michael Collins was shot in the head and died instantly. He was the only casualty of that confrontation.

memorial2

Béal na Bláth

Béal na Bláth may mean ‘Gap of the Blossoms’ but there is some debate as to its correct translation: ‘Mouth of the Ford of the Buttermilk’ is one suggestion. Brendan Behan, in his folk ballad on the death of Michael Collins (the first stanza of which starts off this post), goes for ‘Mouth of Flowers’. We began our pilgrimage here on a wet Sunday morning. The place had a sombre atmosphere and the monument that we found – although unmistakably Messianic – is grim. Crowds come to this site, especially on the anniversary of the assassination. A white stone marks the actual spot where he fell: the fine details seem all important.

ambush

But – sifting through these details when I was trying to assemble this piece – I realise that there is so much that is apocryphal or contradictory in the various accounts, not just of his death but with many aspects of his life. And it’s the stories that will win out in the end. Michael Collins is a real national hero – quite rightly – but he’s on his way to becoming a folk hero – something different. He could be a Saint (he did after all perform a miracle in bringing together so many different factions and feelings to found the beginnings of modern Ireland) but to me he is more likely to end up in the ranks of the great Hero Warriors of Irish mythology such as Cu Chulainn, Medb or Finn McCool – or even the Gods. I wish I could be around to hear his sagas told in a few hundred years from now.

The fate of a Folk Hero...

The Fate of a Folk Hero…