Analysis: the mystery, romance and cult around Michael Collins has created an idealised version of the Irish leader

"He was the revolution's Princess Diana, its star and sex symbol — and the first example of that 20th-century phenomenon, the guerrilla celebrity," wrote Peter Hart in his 2005 biography of Michael Collins. The Big Fella was a celebrity in his own time; a handsome, revolutionary leader made all the more interesting by the mystery surrounding his actions, death and whereabouts.

It was once said that the chairman of the Irish provisional government and commander-in-chief of its army had been portrayed as the "James Dean of Irish history". Earlier this year, a lock of Collins' hair sold for €21,000. Visitors still leave tributes at his gravesite every day in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin including flowers, candles, and even Valentine's cards.

"One of the things that occur when you're creating these cults around people, is they almost always die young", says Dr Gillian O'Brien, reader in Modern Irish History at Liverpool John Moores University. "It's unfulfilled promise or unfulfilled potential. Collins dies in the middle of a civil war. It’s also fair to say that he is not greatly beloved by everyone and the whole legacy is very contested. But equally his grave is the most visited grave in Glasnevin Cemetery."

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences
From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline, listeners discuss a lock of Michael Collins' hair selling at auction for €21,000

"That grave wasn't erected for quite a long time after his death and when the family wanted to erect a grave around it, Éamon de Valera dictated sort of "how high, how big", Collins wasn't allowed be have a big mausoleum. Because I think even then, De Valera recognised that he would always, in some respects, depending on what side people were on, be in the shadow of Collins' death."

When he was alive, Collins was the subject of numerous rumours surrounding his love life, including one of an affair with Lady Hazel Lavery and Moya Llewelyn Davies. Some gossip even made it into the Dáil records. On 3 January 1922, in a debate on the Anglo-Irish Treaty that had been signed weeks earlier, Countess Markievicz said she had heard Collins was to marry a British princess: "I also heard that there is a suggestion that Princess Mary's wedding is to be broken off, and that the Princess Mary is to be married to Michael Collins who will be appointed first Governor of our Saorstát na hEireann."

Collins hadn't been present when Markievicz made her comment and opened his statement later in the day by requesting a couple of minutes to make a "personal explanation". He said "[Markievicz] made reference to my name and to the name of a lady belonging to a foreign nation that I cannot allow to pass," he began. "I do not come from the class that the Deputy for the Dublin Division comes from; I come from the plain people of Ireland.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ One's News At Nine, Michael Collins' diaries to go on display to the public

"The lady whose name was mentioned is, I understand, betrothed to some man. I know nothing of her personally, I know nothing of her in any way whatever, but the statement may cause her pain, and may cause pain to the lady who is betrothed to me (hear, hear). I just stand in that plain way, and I will not allow without challenge any Deputy in the assembly of my nation to insult any lady either of this nation or of any other nation," he said, which was met with applause in the Dáil.

This was, as it happened, also how he made known his engagement to Kitty Kiernan. A collection of letters exchanged between them until Collins’ death in August 1922 was handed over to the state in 2000. The "love triangle" between Collins, Kiernan and Harry Boland was played out on screen in the popular 1996 Neil Jordan film.

"For a lot of people Michael Collins is Liam Neeson", says O'Brien, "Liam Neeson is dashing, and it's a romanticised, quite a politicised film, and collins comes out of it very well. He’s handsome and he’s dynamic and there’s various love interests. There is a very fictionalised and idealised version of Collins."

We need your consent to load this YouTube contentWe use YouTube to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

Trailer for Michael Collins

"He was a formal military man for a tiny period of his life, but that's the representation that is more often than not brought out. You can kind of mould him to be whatever you want him to be. He was probably a very convivial individual and he was someone that you might want to go for a pint with. Whereas I think even people who really support de Valera, he was a slightly more awkward individual, there was probably something likeable about Collins to a large extent and that makes a difference."

"No more than James Dean, there is that sense of mystery", says Dr Elaine Kinsella, lecturer in psychology at University of Limerick. "I think as human beings, we are drawn to mysterious characters, or enigmatic characters, there’s a sense of drama. We’re always trying to make sense of people’s behaviour and when we can't do that easily it adds to their intrigue".

Research has shown that charismatic leaders draw us in and can be influential in convincing us of a particular way forward or influencing our behaviours, says Kinsella. The combination of mystery, the different layers of complexity to Collins' character, and then charisma, makes him even more appealing as a figure.

"We're always trying to make sense of people's behaviour and when we can't do that easily it adds to their intrigue" Photo: Getty Images

Kinsella explains that figures from Irish history, particularly ones linked to national strength and pride, can evoke a feeling of nostalgia and a fondness for the past. Nostalgia in turn increases our sense of meaning in life, particularly during a time of challenge. A national hero, then, who played a pivotal role in our history, brings us together.

"In our own research, when we have asked people over the years to name who are their heroes, he is one person that does come up, even among young people. So the stories about him seem to be handed down through generations."

At first glance, Collins’ is remembered for many of the characteristics we typically associate with heroes — bravery, willingness to sacrifice, courage, moral integrity, altruism and risk-taking — but it might be more fitting to look at him as an anti-hero, says Kinsella. "He died young and for a cause, so he was willing to make this ultimate sacrifice for what he saw as the greater good. On the other hand he is also known for causing great harm to other people and of course this was 'for a cause’ but still violence and harm."

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Archives, eye witness recalls the death of Michael Collins

"It's some of these inconsistencies that add to this enduring mystery and as with all stereotypes and labels, once we have categorised somebody, we often actually then gloss over some of those details that mightn't be consistent with the label. It’s like a halo effect."

Kinsella says all the different portrayals of Collins, in film, documentaries, songs, and plays, have added to the sense of charisma and mystery. "Particularly where we got glimpses into his love affair with Kitty. So on the one hand we’re seeing this strong leader character but on the other hand we’re seeing this personal vulnerability, which adds to his charm and our ability to relate to him."

Until the treaty negotiations in late 1921, Collins had remained a figure of some mystery, which was deliberate, says O'Brien. "Official photographs [of Collins], apart from personal family photographs, are only from the last couple of years of his life because he was undercover, running a spy network, and he really is only sort of outed when he goes over as one of the treaty negotiators."

Signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 2021 (left to right) Arthur Griffith, Eamonn Duggan, Michael Collins, Robert Barton; standing, Gavan Duffy. Photo: Getty Images

While Collins would have been known within the republican community, he wouldn't have been more broadly known. "When you look at the British records, they often say they don’t really know what he looks like. He may have been regarded as having sort of lent in to that celebrity status, but he didn't want to go [to the treaty negotiations]. One of his arguments for not going was that it would essentially reveal him and the power of not being known would be lost."

"A lot of it is, I think, what later generations have retrospectively tagged on to Collins as much as anything else."

An Irish Independent newspaper report at the time described Collins' departure from Dublin in December 2021, on his way to sign the treaty, writing "... and one young woman succeeded in embracing him and kissing him heartily on both cheeks. 'God bless you Michael!' were the last shouts of a few hundred of his women admirers."

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Archives, "Dearest Kitty..." collection of letters between Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan go on display in 1996

Stories and rumours would have circulated about General Collins. "In terms of the British, he had his fingers in every pie and the extent of his ability to know what was going on was quite frightening to them. There was a sort of generated mystique about the men surrounding him and those that he was in charge of… and they would move from safe house to safe house," says O'Brien.

"I think there’s something very romantic about that, the freedom fighter idea. You see it not just in Ireland, but it is replicated in a lot of countries with a similar history. The idea of a freedom fighter who is on the run, who is very popular, he’s quite handsome, who’s young and dynamic. It’s easy to see how those stories developed and quite quickly."

There’s a poignancy to the fact that he dies young, in his early 30s, and close to home. O’Brien draws a comparison to American president John F Kennedy, who was assassinated and subsequently "lionised" because he was killed in office. "It’s equally worth nothing that not everyone thinks this way about Collins," O’Brien adds. "There’s a considerable amount of people who roll their eyes when these discussions about Collins come up."


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ