The impact of the death of Michael Collins was widely felt – in his native county, across Ireland (north and south), inside the corridors of power in the United Kingdom, within the Irish communities of the British Empire and the United States of America, and further afield still, for his name recognition at this point had attained truly global proportions.
Coming so soon after the death of Arthur Griffith and with the outcome of the Civil War by no means decided, news of his passing was celebrated by some, but came as a shattering blow to others. The circumstances of his demise – slain by his countrymen less than twenty miles from his birthplace – added to the sense of pathos.
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The most immediate impact of his death was, of course, felt within his close family circle – which, as was the norm at the time, was an extended one. A dearly-loved brother, nephew, and cousin had been killed in the prime of life, and even though premature death was not uncommon in those days, the Collins family, like any other placed in such a situation, was naturally consumed with grief.
News of Collins's death also came as a shattering blow to his fiancé, Kitty Kiernan. Indeed, 22 August was one of the dates the couple had considered for their wedding, and this knowledge must have accentuated her great grief. Coming so soon after the shock of the death of Harry Boland, with whom she had been romantically linked prior to meeting Collins, she was, by all accounts, devastated by her loss. The fact that she named her second son after Michael Collins testifies to how the affection between the two survived death itself.
The loss of a Commander-in-Chief
Beyond the personal loss suffered by his fiancé and his family, the most important consequence of Collins's death was in the military field. The National Army had lost its founder, guiding light, and Commander-in-Chief. The building-up of this force into a credible fighting machine had been one of his top priorities since coming into office as Chair of the Provisional Government in January 1922, and its strong performance in defeating (against the expectations of many) its republican opponents across all fronts in the first, conventional, stage of the Civil War was testimony to the thorough nature of the job he had performed over the intervening seven months.
It had, of course, been far from a one-man show, and in Richard Mulcahy Collins had the assistance of a first class officer, whose long experience as Chief-of-Staff of the IRA was invaluable training for the position of Minister for Defence in the Provisional Government, and, in the aftermath of Collins's death, simultaneously as Commander-in-Chief of the National Army.
His message to the members of that force that appeared in the press on 23 August – demanding that the soldiers see through Collins's unfinished national business, and refrain from reprisals – was judiciously phrased and helped to maintain discipline in the short term when it might have broken down.
While Collins's office may have been filled, the authority that he brought to that position could not be replaced, by Mulcahy or anyone else. One can only speculate how Collins might have handled the subsequent deterioration in the standard of the conduct of the National Army during the guerrilla phase of the Civil War, but deteriorate it certainly did.
Cosgrave takes control
The fact that Collins had resigned as Chair of the Provisional Government shortly after the outbreak of the war meant that his death had a less immediate impact on political, as opposed to the military affairs, but here, too, his demise had seismic consequences.
While his successor, W.T. Cosgrave was neither politically inexperienced nor lightweight (having been one of the few elected Sinn Féin representatives prior to the First World War, and a successful Minister for Local Government in successive Dáil Ministries from 1919 onwards), he had virtually no leadership experience prior to August 1922, and, with his quiet demeanour, had neither Collins's charisma nor his track record.
The Dáil returns
However, it could be argued that the interests of Irish democracy were served, albeit unintentionally, by Collins's death, for one of Cosgrave's priorities after his accession to the position as Chair of the Provisional Government was to convene Dáil Éireann.
The elections for the third Dáil had been held as far back as 16 June, but following the outbreak of the Civil War twelve days later, Collins had postponed the calling of the Assembly on five separate occasions, with little sign before his death that he was about to change tack.
The suggestion that, through these frequent postponements, Collins had showed himself to be afraid of parliamentary scrutiny seems unduly harsh, and the accusation that he thereby revealed himself to be a dictator-in-the-making ludicrously so (he had, after all, shown himself to be a highly skilled, victorious, parliamentary performer in the Dáil debates on the Treaty), but the fact that the Dáil was finally convened by Cosgrave on 9 September 1922 was without doubt a progressive measure.
Beyond the 'Free State'
The demise of Collins had ramifications beyond the frontiers of the putative Free State. It removed the individual on whose shoulders had fallen a disproportionate share of the burden of the post-Treaty negotiations with both the Northern Ireland and British Governments. In truth, the Craig-Collins pacts agreed earlier in 1922 promised more than they delivered, but they at least held out the prospect of cross-border dialogue when the atmosphere in Belfast and border areas was poisonous in the extreme.
Collins himself was by no means blameless (but neither was he alone) in nurturing the violence that reached unconscionable levels in the six counties during the early months of 1922, even though the unionist regime under the control of Prime Minister James Craig could never quite lay its hands on the evidence that would have confirmed their suspicions in this regard.
What is certain, however is that subsequent Cosgrave administrations (before and after the formal creation of the Free State) showed as little interest in nurturing constructive north-south relations as their counterparts in Belfast. The resulting decades-long stasis was in marked contrast to the energy Collins had invested in the matter during his brief time at the political helm.
British government attitudes towards Collins had evolved markedly during the brief ten months when he had appeared in person on its political radar screen. The Treaty negotiations from October to December 1921 had seen his stock rise in London, as His Majesty's Ministers were able to make their own appraisal of his abilities, independent of the speculative press coverage that had grown apace earlier in the year.
This initial favourable impression was enhanced over the following weeks, as a result of his strong performance in the Treaty debates and the constructive tone he struck as Chair of the Provisional Government in his deals with Craig, and in the bilateral talks with London that culminated in the 'Heads of Working Arrangements', which put administrative flesh on the skeletal governmental framework provided by the Treaty.
Over the course of the Spring and early Summer of 1922, however, the British view changed markedly. They began to suspect that Collins was not whole-hearted in his advocacy of the Treaty, perceiving him to be backsliding into republicanism. The electoral Pact arrangement with de Valera, announced in May, and the republican-oriented draft Free State Constitution submitted to London by Collins in the following month seemed to confirm these suspicions, suspicions that were not allayed when Collins backed down over the Treaty.
The demand made of Collins by the British Cabinet in the aftermath of the assassination of Henry Wilson, that he attack the republican garrison in the Four Courts, should be interpreted in this light. The Cabinet sought a means of obliging Collins to honour his Treaty commitments, in what they saw as the spirit if not the letter of the accord.
Even his conduct of the Civil War did not completely dispel these suspicions. General Macready informed the Cabinet that, in his opinion, Collins was not conducting aspects of the campaign with the required urgency – citing, in particular, his failure to punish appropriately members of the anti-Treaty forces guilty of cold-blooded assassination.
For a variety of reasons, therefore – in part because the death of Collins was merely the latest of a decades-long series of sensational news from Ireland, in part because the attitude of His Majesty's Government had decidedly cooled towards him over the previous months, and partly because his death occurred during the depths of the political holiday season – the news of that death made far less of an impact in Britain than it did in Ireland. In that way, as in so many others, the story of the two islands differed markedly.
This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil, Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.