They ambushed Michael Collins' car at 1pm on Friday 18 August.

They hit it with 30 bullets. A grenade was thrown.

The car had just passed Stillorgan on the road from Greystones to Dublin.

The men inside the car fired back, but the second driver, Rafter, was hit. The attackers melted away, their casualties unknown.

This time, Michael Collins was not in the car.

It was 37 days since Michael Collins had appointed himself as Commander in Chief of the National Army.

It was 52 days since the battle of the Four Courts that began the Civil War.

It was five days before Béal na Bláth.

Image - Michael Collins, the Cabinet minister...

Michael Collins, the Cabinet minister...

Image - ... became General Michael Collins overnight (Pics: National Library of Ireland)

... became General Michael Collins overnight (Pics: National Library of Ireland)

The Commander in Chief appoints himself

"It would be well, I think ... if the Government issued some sort of official instruction to me nominating the War Council of three, and appointed me to act by special order as Commander in Chief during the period of hostilities."

With these words, Michael Collins requested that the Provisional Government in effect rubber-stamp what he himself had created, without any prior consultation: Himself as Commander in Chief of the National Army, and a Council of War of three, with him at its head. Richard Mulcahy would be Army Chief of Staff, and Eoin O'Duffy would lead the South Western Command. The message was dated 14 July, two days after Collins had announced the appointments.

He got his wish.

There was more.

Even before the fighting in Dublin had ended on 5 July, critics were wondering what the newly elected third Dáil would have made of the Government's sudden decision to attack the Four Courts on 28 June, without consulting it.

The third Dáil did not meet, in fact it was postponed - prorogued - three times on the insistence of Generals Collins and Mulcahy, who argued that a definitive change in the military balance - a decisive defeat of the anti-Treaty Irregulars - was necessary before the newly elected deputies could meet to debate the conflict.

This meant the Army would tell the Government when it considered that conditions were right to recall the Dáil, a total reversal of democratic norms.

The third Dáil would not meet until 9 September, by which time Collins and Griffith were dead, and Éamon de Valera, once president, was a fugitive.

No quick victory

As the anti-Treaty forces reeled from their comprehensive defeat in the Battle of Dublin, and then their headlong chaotic retreat from the capital, the Provisional Government could for one moment believe that the conflict could be ended there, and a toll of blood and treasure saved, if the anti-Treaty side would lay down its arms.

That faint hope died within days.

The anti-Treaty forces consolidated their forces to form a line, at least on paper, across the southwest from Limerick to Waterford.

The IRA had lost its Chief of Staff Joe McKelvey, now a prisoner in Mountjoy Gaol. Liam Lynch simply announced he was taking over.

With hopes of a rapid and comprehensive victory expiring, the Provisional Government had to prepare to fight a war, and to take stock of what it possessed to fight, and win, that war.

A Call to Arms on 7 July announced the rapid formation of a new army, effectively from scratch. Such a creation even in peacetime would have been a colossal undertaking.

Image - General Richard Mulcahy inspecting troops. He knew how raw and unformed this new army was (Pic: Getty Images)

General Richard Mulcahy inspecting troops. He knew how raw and unformed this new army was (Pic: Getty Images)

Image - Artillery troops in training (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Artillery troops in training (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

In wartime, the Government needed to recruit large numbers of men and to set them immediately to the task of fighting and killing with almost no training in even the basics of soldiering.

Men who had never been soldiers themselves, were trying to turn large numbers of other men into soldiers overnight.

Their task was eased by the rapid buildup of weapons and ammunition of all kinds from the British.

The huge influx of weapons and ammunition to the National Army meant that events on the battlefield in those weeks of summer moved rapidly in its favour.

The cities fall

Limerick and Waterford fell on 21 July, collapsing the nominal line the anti-Treaty IRA had retreated to after losing Dublin.

The National Army took Cork City on 10 August.

Image - Cork city fell to the National Army on 10 August (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Cork city fell to the National Army on 10 August (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Image - The first troops arrive in the city (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

The first troops arrive in the city (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Image - RETREAT: An extremely rare photograph, snatched in secret, of IRA fighters evacuating Cork city, just ahead of the National Army's advance on 10 August (Pic: Prof W.J O' Donovan /Military Archives/Imperial Hotel)

RETREAT: An extremely rare photograph, snatched in secret, of IRA fighters evacuating Cork city, just ahead of the National Army's advance on 10 August (Pic: Prof W.J O' Donovan /Military Archives/Imperial Hotel)

To the Provisional Government and the National Army, the collapse seemed like proof that the anti-Treaty forces could not prevail against even their raw but heavily-armed troops, and that this was a moment to contemplate ending the fight.

To the anti-Treaty leadership, it meant a return to guerilla war. IRA Commander in Chief Liam Lynch issued the order on 11 August.

Image - 'We are finished with a policy of compromise and negotiation'; Liam Lynch, the new IRA Chief of Staff (Pic: Bridgeman Images)

'We are finished with a policy of compromise and negotiation'; Liam Lynch, the new IRA Chief of Staff (Pic: Bridgeman Images)

Peace feelers

But, even then, there were peace feelers out.

In early August, a body in Cork calling itself the People's Rights Association, run by Micheál Ó Cuill, claimed to be in possession of a series of proposals by General Liam Lynch to the Provisional Government.

The proposals included:

A cessation of attacks on the anti-Treaty IRA forces by the National Army, to be followed by a cessation of operations by the anti-Treaty forces.

The confirmation of the second Dáil as the 'Government of the Republic'. The 'Army', ie the anti-Treaty forces, would offer its allegiance to the second Dáil. Not to the third Dáil, just elected in June 1922, which had returned a pro-Treaty majority.

Micheál Ó Cuill put the reported conditions outlined by Liam Lynch directly to Michael Collins, for a reply.

Image - 'The people here want no compromise with the Irregulars' (Pic: Getty Images)

'The people here want no compromise with the Irregulars' (Pic: Getty Images)

'These things must end or there is no future for this country'

Michael Collins replied.

Military operations against the anti-Treaty forces would cease if those forces offered obedience to the Government.

The Irregulars must give up their weapons and cease their 'depredations' against the Irish people, who had expressed their wishes for peace in the June election.

Michael Collins wrote that the prisoners taken by the National Army during the fall of Cork had been made a simple offer: In return for freedom, sign an undertaking not to use arms against the elected Parliament or the Government, nor to interfere with the property and persons of others.

He pointed out that almost all the prisoners refused to sign the undertaking.

"The rule of the gun, the shameless offences that have been committed against the rights of private people, the destruction of public and private property, the robbery of the Exchequer - these things must end or there is no future for this country."

"The time for face-saving is passed. Irregular leaders ... got an opportunity of doing this over ... seven or eight months."

"The issue is now very clear. The choice is between the return of the British and the Irregulars sending in their arms to the people's government, to be held in trust for the people."

At best, Collins was offering the anti-Treaty side the chance to remain at liberty without punishment after surrendering their arms.

Even when Emmet Dalton telegrammed him from Cork on 18 August saying he had heard there were peace feelers coming from Liam Lynch, Collins remained emphatic.

In his last-ever letter, written from Cork in great haste to his successor WT Cosgrave the day before he died, he reported: "The people here want no compromise with the Irregulars."

Image - Michael Collins' last ever letter gave no hint of peace feelers (Pic: Royal Irish Academy)

Michael Collins' last ever letter gave no hint of peace feelers (Pic: Royal Irish Academy)

Image - Dáil President Arthur Griffith (Pic: Getty Images)

Dáil President Arthur Griffith (Pic: Getty Images)

The first blow - the death of Arthur Griffith

On 12 August, Arthur Griffith, President of the Dáil, died of a cerebral haemorrhage aged 51.

Exhaustion, horror and disillusionment had exacted their price.

Exhaustion from the unremitting pressure of years of leadership through the War of Independence, the Treaty negotiations, then the efforts to prevent the fatal breach in the Republican cause.

Horror at the way that breach had exploded into Civil War, and the lengths the opponents of the Treaty were prepared to go to.

Disillusionment at what he saw as the failure, until 28 June, of Michael Collins to take a stand against those opponents, as the scale of their defiance became clear.

Fellow Cabinet member Ernest Blythe believed that Griffith's relationship with Michael Collins had never recovered from the way he, the President, was in effect forced at the Cabinet table to accept the May 1922 election pact agreed in secret by Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera.

Image - Collins and Griffith together in happier times (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Collins and Griffith together in happier times (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Image - Rare smiles from the two men at General Seán Mac Eoin's wedding in June 1922 (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Rare smiles from the two men at General Seán Mac Eoin's wedding in June 1922 (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Image - Michael Collins was among the pallbearers at Arthur Griffith's funeral (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Michael Collins was among the pallbearers at Arthur Griffith's funeral (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Not for the last time that August, the Provisional Government moved fast to bind its wounds. WT Cosgrave succeeded Griffith as President of the Dáil.

Image - WT Cosgrave succeeded Griffith as President of the Dáil (Pic: Getty Images)

WT Cosgrave succeeded Griffith as President of the Dáil (Pic: Getty Images)

Why Michael Collins was in Cork

There were sound reasons why the Commander in Chief should be in Cork on those August days.

The fall of the city, helped by the landing of troops by sea behind enemy lines at Passage West, Youghal and Union Hall, was a massive boost to the morale of the Army, to the Government's cause, and an unmistakable defeat for the Irregulars. It marked a potential turning point in the war, the end of organised resistance by the anti-Treaty IRA.

Image - The successful landing of troops on the Cork and Kerry coast ensured a swift victory (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

The successful landing of troops on the Cork and Kerry coast ensured a swift victory (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Where better for Michael Collins to be, at that moment of seeming victory?

Michael Collins was never a military strategist. He left the detail of the management of the war to Eoin O'Duffy, but his personal inspection tours had become a feature of his leadership. He had already toured the midwest, the southwest, and the border. He knew that in this half-formed Army, the core units had been motivated at the start by personal loyalty to men like himself and Seán Mac Eoin, so he had to get out there and personally drive that Army forward.

Image - Collins used his personal inspection tours to impose his will on the new army (Pic: Getty Images)

Collins used his personal inspection tours to impose his will on the new army (Pic: Getty Images)

Image - Some of the soldiers he inspected had not even received uniforms (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Some of the soldiers he inspected had not even received uniforms (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

The IRA money trail

And then, there was the IRA money trail.

The fall of Cork City gave Collins a rare opportunity to see for himself the inner workings of the finances underpinning the anti-Treaty cause.

He knew the anti-Treaty side in Cork was diverting a fortune in Customs revenue into its own coffers, perhaps hundreds of thousands of pounds, which was then hidden in bank accounts across Britain and Ireland.

Collins himself had perfected the system while Minister of Finance for the underground Republican government during the war with Britain. He knew every accounting trick, every hide-in-plain-sight ruse to throw investigators off the scent.

In that last letter, written in great haste to WT Cosgrave the day before his death, fully two of the three handwritten pages deal with instructions to set financial investigators ('we shall require three first-class independent men') on the trail of money extracted from Customs and Excise, and deposited in named banks in London.

Image -
Image - His last letter, 21 August written in great haste to his successor in government, WT Cosgrave (Pic: Royal Irish Academy)

His last letter, 21 August written in great haste to his successor in government, WT Cosgrave (Pic: Royal Irish Academy)

What peace mission?

The notion that he was also on a kind of peace mission, to sound out IRA leaders in Cork about the prospect of a settlement, is harder to pin down.

On his journey to Cork, he met respected middle-ranking IRA officers like Tom Malone (AKA Seán Forde), by now a prisoner in Portlaoise, and Florence 'Florrie' O'Donoghue, once the IRA Intelligence Chief in Cork during the War of Independence, now staying on the sideline in the Civil War. But the meeting with Malone ended with vague ideas that there might be peace talks in Cork, and the meeting with O'Donoghue was by chance, in Mallow Castle where he had been briefly and mistakenly locked up.

But there is no evidence of any plan to meet or contact the IRA leadership in Cork, the Commander in Chief Liam Lynch or Liam Deasy, the Commander of the First Southern Division.

Deasy admitted that Emmet Dalton, as the senior National Army officer in Cork, had made approaches to the Republican leadership, but Collins' demand for unconditional surrender made the approaches meaningless.

And by travelling through West Cork in a military convoy that day, said Deasy, Collins had ensured there was no chance that there could be any meeting.

Image - Liam Deasy, Officer Commanding, IRA First Southern Division

Liam Deasy, Officer Commanding, IRA First Southern Division

Lynch himself had set out the bottom line for the anti-Treaty IRA in a letter to Ernie O'Malley just weeks before:

"We are finished with a policy of compromise and negotiation, unless based on recognition of the Republic.".

And surely the reaction of the IRA leadership to news of Collins' presence in West Cork on 22 August is the strongest evidence that nothing resembling peace contacts was in the works.

22 August 1922 - The last day

Collins had been in Cork since the 20th.

The next day, he decided that on Tuesday 22, he would inspect Army positions across West Cork, all the way from Cork City to Skibbereen and back.

In the end, it turned into an awkward mix of emotional reunions with family members, and hard-headed huddles with Army officers across the region.

Orders were issued for the convoy to be ready to leave at 4am. The convoy left the slumbering city, heading westwards for Macroom.

The convoy consisted of:

A motorcycle outrider.

One Crossley Tender (armoured truck), with ten men on board, including two machine-gunners.

A Leyland Touring Car, racing model, straight eight cylinder, with two drivers, carrying General Collins and Major General Dalton. The canvas top was rolled back. It had no military modifications, such as armour plating.

A Rolls Royce armoured car, carrying six men.

Progress was slow, due to so many bridges on the main road being blown up. Incredibly, no one in the convoy was familiar with the roads between Macroom and Bandon, so a local man was persuaded to join them as a guide.

But even he needed to ask directions when the convoy arrived at the crossroads at Béal na Bláth.

They stopped at Long's Public House to ask directions. At this point Collins was spotted in the back of the Leyland by an IRA lookout, Denis Long.

By complete co-incidence several IRA officers and men retreating from the fighting in Limerick and Buttevant had arrived at Béal na Bláth the previous evening and had established a headquarters in a farmhouse near the crossroads.

Denis Long went to the farmhouse with the scarcely believable news that the Commander in Chief of the National Army had passed less than a mile away.

An ambush is planned

General IRA policy was to attack Free State convoys wherever possible. It was decided by the officers in the farmhouse that an ambush would be set at Béal na Bláth in case the convoy returned the same way later on the 22nd.

Liam Deasy, Officer Commanding the First Southern Division, had arrived at the farmhouse. With him was Éamon de Valera, who was trying to get from West Cork to Dublin. Deasy had agreed to accompany him as far as Béal na Bláth.

Image - The IRA leadership were wary of Éamon de Valera's desire to end the war (Pic: Getty Images)

The IRA leadership were wary of Éamon de Valera's desire to end the war (Pic: Getty Images)

De Valera was by this time in the Civil War still respected, appointed as a staff officer to the Commander Liam Lynch, and active in that role on the front lines across the battlefield.

But he was also isolated and out of favour with the IRA leadership for his growing conviction, which he did not hide, that with the fall of Cork and all other towns in Munster, the time had come to end the fighting. He was appalled at the destruction caused by the fighting and the scorched-earth tactics of the IRA.

On his journey towards Dublin, he had tried to engage the IRA Commander in Chief Liam Lynch in the debate. Lynch gave him short shrift, and was so concerned about his loss of faith in the war, that when de Valera left his headquarters to meet Deasy, Lynch sent a warning ahead to Deasy not to encourage or listen to him.

'It would be a great pity if Collins were killed because he might be succeeded by a weaker man'

When de Valera arrived at the farmhouse with Deasy, he was told an ambush was likely if the convoy passed that way again.

Deasy recalled that de Valera's response was: "It would be a great pity if Collins were killed because he might be succeeded by a weaker man."

De Valera would by August 1922 have been well aware of his loss of influence with the men fighting the war, with whom the initiative now lay. He left the farmhouse and continued on his way to Dublin.

Oblivious to the events behind them, the convoy pressed on. They stopped at Bandon, and Collins met local senior Army officers at the Devonshire Hotel.

On and on they went, deeper into West Cork, sometimes on side roads, sometimes stopping to remove trees toppled on to the main road. Collins joined his men in getting stuck in with axes and cross-saws to cut a way through.

There were more meetings with senior officers in Skibbereen and Rosscarbery, more reunions with friends and family at Clonakilty, Caherbeg, and Coolcraheen.

At the Four Alls pub at Sam's Cross, he bought his men a round of the local 'Wrassler' porter.

Outside Clonakilty, they diverted to Woodfield, the ruins of Michael Collins' family home, torched by the British Army what now seemed like an eternity before, in the War of Independence.

Image - Michael Collins in earlier times, visits the burned-out ruins of the family home at Woodfield. He returned briefly on 22 August (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Michael Collins in earlier times, visits the burned-out ruins of the family home at Woodfield. He returned briefly on 22 August (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

A shallow, soggy valley - the ambush is laid

Back at Béal na Bláth, the ambush was in place around noon.

The first ambush party consisted of about 25 men. During the day these men came and went.

Image -

It was a few hundred yards south of the crossroads, in a shallow, soggy valley through which a stream flows. At a bend in the road, before where Carroll's Bridge crosses the stream, they placed their barricade. Vehicles from Bandon would have slowed down through the double bend in the road, so the barricade didn't need to be much, and it wasn't: a brewer's wagon with a wheel removed and crates of empty bottles taken from the back of the wagon.

A landmine with gelignite was buried in the road just in front of the barricade. Another roadblock lay across the only boreen leading from the road at that point.

The main barricade cut off access to a laneway that ran from Carroll's Bridge parallel to, and slightly above, the main road. From that laneway smaller lanes ran at right angles to local farms. Taken together, the laneway and farm lanes made up a perfect combination of shooting gallery down onto the road, and lines of retreat.

IRA Officer Commandant Tom Hales oversaw preparations for the ambush.

At about the same time, a few miles away in Lee's Hotel in Bandon, his brother Seán Hales, the Officer Commanding the National Army in West Cork, met Michael Collins for the general's last engagement of the day.

Image -
Image - Brothers Tom and Seán Hales. At the same time as IRA officer Tom Hales was preparing the ambush at Béal na Bláth, his brother Seán was meeting Michael Collins, as Officer Commanding National Army troops in Bandon (Pic: The Hales family/Cork Public Museum)

Brothers Tom and Seán Hales. At the same time as IRA officer Tom Hales was preparing the ambush at Béal na Bláth, his brother Seán was meeting Michael Collins, as Officer Commanding National Army troops in Bandon (Pic: The Hales family/Cork Public Museum)

'If we run into an ambush along the way, we'll stand and fight them'

It has never been explained why, to return to Cork City, the convoy went the direction it did. Not only did the road take them away from the city, it was folly to return by a route along which the vehicles had passed that morning.

Liam Deasy believed there were four other roads open to the convoy that evening, to take them back to the city.

At one point just before leaving Bandon, Collins seemed to sense the looming danger. An officer looked at the few vehicles drawn up for departure, and asked why such a little convoy was setting off to carry the Commander in Chief through countryside swarming with Irregulars.

Image - General Collins and Major-General Dalton (Pic: Getty Images)

General Collins and Major-General Dalton (Pic: Getty Images)

Collins laughed off the concerns. "Where you can go we can go." But then he quietly took Emmet Dalton aside, and said: "If we run into an ambush along the way, we'll stand and fight them."

Image - Michael Collins gets into the Touring car outside Eldon's Hotel in Skibbereen, to begin the return journey that would end at Béal na Bláth. To the very end, crowds cheered him (Pic: Cork Public Museum)

Michael Collins gets into the Touring car outside Eldon's Hotel in Skibbereen, to begin the return journey that would end at Béal na Bláth. To the very end, crowds cheered him (Pic: Cork Public Museum)

Image - THE LAST PHOTOGRAPH: Thirty minutes before the ambush, local girl Agnes Hurley snatched this image on her Box Brownie camera, as the convoy prepared to leave Bandon (Pic: National Museum of Ireland)

THE LAST PHOTOGRAPH: Thirty minutes before the ambush, local girl Agnes Hurley snatched this image on her Box Brownie camera, as the convoy prepared to leave Bandon (Pic: National Museum of Ireland)

The convoy departed around 7pm local time. The motorcycle outrider first, followed by the Crossley Tender, then the Touring Car, finally the armoured car.

As the convoy approached the narrow valley, perhaps Collins sensed that if there was to be an ambush, it would be here. Soldiers in the Crossley Tender saw Collins reach down and lift a rifle from the floor of the Touring Car and lay it across his knees.

The ambush nearly never happened.

Liam Deasy had returned to the ambush site as evening approached, to find Tom Hales ordering the ambush party to stand down. The two men agreed that it was unlikely the convoy would be returning that way after all. Hales ordered the position cleared up – the barricade dismantled and removed, and the landmine disarmed.

Members of the ambush party began to move away from the site, some heading south, some north. Several men took up positions on the laneway above the road, to cover those clearing the barricade and mine.

On hearing the approaching convoy some of the men clearing the road ran to the laneway, carrying the gelignite coil and plunger for the landmine, leaving the casing behind.

'Stop! Jump out and we'll fight them!'

The first shots were fired by the men stationed on the laneway.

The outrider dismounted and headed for cover. The Crossley Tender stopped, the soldiers opened fire on the ambushers with rifles and machine guns. Two of the IRA men were wounded. The Leyland was hit, the windscreen shattered. The firing here only lasted a few minutes.

Dalton had ordered the driver of the Leyland to 'Drive like hell!', but Collins countermanded the order, telling the driver to stop. "Stop! Jump out and we'll fight them!"

They jumped out of the Leyland, and took cover on the left hand side of the road.

Collins and Dalton took up firing positions in front of the Leyland, shooting at the ambushers moving down the laneway.

The armoured car had moved up near the Leyland.

The IRA men were firing down on the road from the laneway. The armoured car's machine gun was brought into action, firing at the men in the lane from 40 yards.

After firing two and a half belts of ammunition, the armoured car's machine gun jammed. The convoy's main advantage in the fight had just disappeared.

'Come on boys, there they are running up the road!'

After about 20 minutes there was a lull in the firing. Dalton recalled Collins was now firing from behind the armoured car. He said the Commander in Chief then shouted "come on boys, there they are running up the road!"

The ambushers had run down the laneway, heading for one of their lines of retreat, the lane to Long's Farm. Here they were exposed to fire from the road.

Collins had moved from beside the Leyland back to the rear of the armoured car. He then moved 15 yards out onto the road to get a better firing position from where to shoot at the retreating IRA men.

'If he had ever been in a scrap, he'd have learned to stay down'

He was then seen to stand up, reloading.

Dalton reflected bitterly afterwards. "If he had ever been in a scrap, he'd have learned to stay down."

The General had moved out of Dalton's line of sight. Then Dalton said he thought he heard a faint cry 'Emmet'. He and Commandant Sean O'Connell moved to where Collins had been firing from, and found him lying motionless.

Those covering the retreat from the laneway had been firing down at the road. One of those bullets had struck Michael Collins.

Michael Corry, one of the drivers of the Leyland, described the wound as a gaping wound near the left ear lobe extending to the upper section of the skull. There was also a tear in the front of the forehead, and a hole nipped in the front of his cap close to the badge.

O'Connell dragged Collins across the road and behind the armoured car. He and the outrider Joseph Smyth lifted Collins on to the armoured car. While doing this, Smyth was shot in the neck.

The vehicles moved forward, past the barricade for several hundred yards towards the Béal na Bláth crossroads. Collins was transferred to the back of the Leyland car. The convoy moved off, past the turn for Macroom and took the road to Crookstown.

A nightmare ride

Dalton described the journey as a nightmare ride. None of the convoy soldiers was familiar with the area, locals had to be ordered to guide them towards Cork City.

The convoy tried to get to Cork on the main road from Macroom, but the bridge at Ovens had been blown up by the IRA earlier that month. The convoy got lost in the maze of roads around Killumney. The vehicles were driven off-road across fields, the men at some stages throwing their greatcoats down to give the wheels traction. To no avail; the Leyland car and the armoured car became bogged down and were abandoned. Collins' body was put on to the Crossley Tender. Eventually the Crossley Tender reached the road to Cork.

The body was taken to the former British Military Hospital at Shanakiel, by then a National Army hospital. The body was seen by doctors who concluded that the head wound could only have been inflicted by a dum-dum expanding bullet. There is no record of a formal autopsy being performed at Shanakiel.

Emmet Dalton later recalled that there was no working telephone connection working between Cork and Dublin. News of Collins' death had to be sent to Valentia Radio Station, from there to New York, then to London, and finally to Dublin.

Image - Days after the ambush, soldiers pray at the spot Collins was shot (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Days after the ambush, soldiers pray at the spot Collins was shot (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Image - The Béal na Bláth memorial cross (Pic: Getty Images)

The Béal na Bláth memorial cross (Pic: Getty Images)

Ricochets, expanding bullets, friendly fire - What killed Michael Collins?

There is more inconsistency and contradiction about Michael Collins's wounds, than about any other aspect of the killing.

Differing claims support differing versions of what really happened that evening on that bend in the road at Beal na Blath.

Was Michael Collins killed directly by a bullet fired from the laneway, was he hit by a ricocheting bullet, was he killed by a dum-dum bullet (one illegally modified to inflict catastrophic damage upon hitting a body), or was he even shot by accident from behind by one of his own men?

Soldiers at the scene – Sean O'Connell and Michael Corry – reported the biggest wound on the left side of the skull. Corry reported it as being near the left ear lobe. He also described damage to Collins's cap, consistent with an entry wound to the forehead.

Doctors Michael Riordan and Christy Kelly, examining the body at Shanakiel Hospital later that night, reported a huge wound to the right side of the skull, behind the ear, and no other wound.

It was this finding that led to the conclusion that the wound was caused by a dum-dum bullet or a ricochet. But another doctor, Patrick Cagney, an army doctor during the Great War, examined the body again that night, and reported an entry wound as well as an exit wound.

This same doctor told a friend of Michael Collins many years later, that his conclusion was that the wounds were caused by a regular point 303 bullet, the kind used in Lee Enfield rifles (as used by both sides in the Civil War), in other words, not a dum-dum.

The existence of entry and exit wounds would also scotch the ricochet theory.

The largest wound being at the back of the skull, whether left or right, would indicate that that was the exit wound.

In 1989, the then State Pathologist Dr John Harbison, gave RTÉ's Colm Connolly his conclusions, based on the testimonies available.

His conclusion was that Michael Collins was killed by a high-powered rifle or machine gun (The ambush party had no machine guns), and that the gaping wound at the back of the skull was caused by the fatal bullet exiting the skull.

Apart from the first examination of the body at Shanakiel Hospital, there are no records of an official autopsy being conducted on the body. There is no death certificate in existence for Michael Collins.

The 'what-ifs', the warnings ignored, and the fatal mistakes

Much is made of Collins's immediate reaction to the ambush, to stand and fight, not drive through it. Would he have been saved if he had allowed the driver follow Dalton's order to 'drive like hell'?

In fact, Collins, at that moment, was right.

There was no way the Leyland could have picked up enough speed on that bend, to get through the remains of the barricade. IRA men present at the ambush remembered the road strewn with broken glass from the brewery bottles.

If they were to break through and not stand and fight, that order would have had to be received and acted on by the entire convoy. There was no way this could happen.

The Crossley Tender up ahead had stopped once firing had begun, the men inside dismounted.

Even if the Leyland could have driven through, was the Commander-in-Chief to leave his men behind?

The real mistakes had all been made long before.

The mistake of being there at all, in the heartland of the anti-Treaty IRA, in countryside swarming with defeated and vengeful fighters.

The mistake of having an escort convoy that was at the same time too big for the Irregulars to ignore, but too puny to have a decisive advantage in an ambush.

The mistake of reading the war wrong, of not realising that far from being on the verge of collapse, the anti-Treaty IRA had moved into a new phase of guerilla war.

August would be the worst month for ambushes. The National Army suffered over forty killed and more wounded in those weeks.

Collins could not have known, but just the day before, Frank Thornton, one of his most trusted officers, had been badly wounded in an ambush while leading a convoy near Clonmel in Tipperary.

Why did the attack on his own car at Stillorgan five days before, not make Collins realise the game had changed?

Michael Collins is dead; the word spreads

Back at Béal na Bláth, it seems no one in the ambush party knew anything about Collins's death.

Officers who took part in the ambush reported that as far as they knew, there were no fatalities on either side.

The IRA officers gathered at the farmhouse near the crossroads stayed in place. They only heard of Collins's death after Tom Murphy, one of the local men pressed into service as a guide by the convoy bearing Collins's body back to Cork, returned home to Crookstown and told villagers the news. One man, Sean Galvin, heard the news at the blacksmith's forge, turned his horse around and rode the two miles to where he knew the officers were meeting.

Its hard to believe the IRA officers would have stayed in the area if they had had any reason to believe Collins had been killed or wounded. Once they heard the news, they scattered for fear of being caught by National Army troops.

IRA General Tom Barry, a prisoner in Kilmainham since the battle of the Four Courts, recalled a 'heavy silence throughout the jail', and ten minutes later, he watched 'a thousand kneeling Republicans' saying the Rosary for Michael Collins.

Exactly a year before, Barry had been married, and among the guests were Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, Richard Mulcahy, Liam Deasy, Harry Boland and Emmet Dalton.

De Valera's reaction to Collins's death was recalled by Jack O'Brien, a messenger with the First Southern Division, who was with de Valera in North Cork when the news broke: 'My God, it is too bad; there is no hope for it now'.

Image - Éamon de Valera. 'My God, it is too bad; there is no hope for it now' (Pic: Getty Images)

Éamon de Valera. 'My God, it is too bad; there is no hope for it now' (Pic: Getty Images)

The Army Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy sought to prevent his soldiers running amok against Republican prisoners. He issued a message to the Army: 'Let no cruel act of reprisal blemish your bright honour'.

Emmet Dalton in Cork prevented both soldiers and officers setting out on revenge missions.

Not everyone heeded the orders against reprisals. Four days after Collins's death, three unarmed republicans, IRA officer Bernard Daly and Fianna members Alf Colley and Sean Cole, were abducted in Dublin and shot dead by men believed to be Free State officers.

Image -
Image - Collins led his officers at Arthur Griffith's funeral. Two weeks later the same officers were marching behind HIS coffin (Pic: © RTÉ Photographic Archive/Cashman Collection)

Collins led his officers at Arthur Griffith's funeral. Two weeks later the same officers were marching behind HIS coffin (Pic: © RTÉ Photographic Archive/Cashman Collection)

Michael Collins's body was carried by boat to Dublin, brought to St Vincent's Hospital for embalming by Oliver St John Gogarty. It was later brought to City Hall to lie in state.

Image - The body of Michael Collins lies in state at City Hall, Dublin (Pic: Getty Images)

The body of Michael Collins lies in state at City Hall, Dublin (Pic: Getty Images)

Image - An inconsolable Sean Collins contemplates his brother's remains (Pic: © RTÉ Photographic Archive/Cashman Collection)

An inconsolable Sean Collins contemplates his brother's remains (Pic: © RTÉ Photographic Archive/Cashman Collection)

Image - RESPECT: Once these British soldiers hunted Michael Collins; now they returned in their best parade uniforms to pay their respects to his remains (Pic: © RTÉ Photographic Archive/Cashman Collection)

RESPECT: Once these British soldiers hunted Michael Collins; now they returned in their best parade uniforms to pay their respects to his remains (Pic: © RTÉ Photographic Archive/Cashman Collection)

Image - The death-mask (Pic: Getty Images)

The death-mask (Pic: Getty Images)

At the State funeral, the funeral procession was three miles long. Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the route.

Image - Sir John Lavery's painting of Michael Collins lying in state, 'Love of Ireland' (Pic: Collection and image © Hugh Lane Gallery)

Sir John Lavery's painting of Michael Collins lying in state, 'Love of Ireland' (Pic: Collection and image © Hugh Lane Gallery)

Image - Lavery's depiction of the state funeral 'Pro-Cathedral Dublin 1922' (Pic: Collection and image © Hugh Lane Gallery)

Lavery's depiction of the state funeral 'Pro-Cathedral Dublin 1922' (Pic: Collection and image © Hugh Lane Gallery)

Image - The funeral cortège was three miles long (Pic: Getty Images)

The funeral cortège was three miles long (Pic: Getty Images)

The coffin was carried to Glasnevin Cemetery on one of the gun carriages used at the Four Courts. To draw the gun carriage, six black horses, with full accessories and fittings, were procured by the Government from the Royal Artillery.

Image -
Image - Graveside (Pic: National Library of Ireland/Getty Images)

Graveside (Pic: National Library of Ireland/Getty Images)

Image - Postcards of the funeral were printed immediately and widely distributed. Image: National Library of Ireland.

Postcards of the funeral were printed immediately and widely distributed. Image: National Library of Ireland.

Image -

The Provisional Government and the National Army now faced their greatest test. The man who had 'won the war' against the British, who had declared himself Commander in Chief of the Army to fight the Civil War, the man who was the international face of the Free State, was gone.

Collins' successor as Chairman of the Government, WT Cosgrave, was an unknown quantity to most people. The British feared he would not be strong enough to hold the Free State cause together, and losing Griffith and Collins inside ten days would derail the Provisional Government entirely.

Image - WT Cosgrave was now confirmed as successor to both men (Pic: Getty Images)

WT Cosgrave was now confirmed as successor to both men (Pic: Getty Images)

In fact, the Government moved fast to repair the damage. WT Cosgrave succeeded Collins as head of the government; Richard Mulcahy moved to Commander in Chief, alongside his role as Minister for Defence; Kevin O'Higgins became Home Affairs Minister. Eoin O'Duffy became Commissioner of the Civic Guard.

With both Collins and Griffith gone, Cosgrave assumed both their roles, Chairman of the Provisional Government and President of Dáil Éireann. The roles would not be separated again.

'Prompt, effective, vigorous and utterly ruthless action'

With Collins gone, the civilians were shaping policy now. The great paradox of the conflict - that the civilian ministers were more hard-line than the frontline soldiers - would now emerge in its starkest form.

Away from the battlefield, around the Cabinet table, the Attorney General Hugh Kennedy steeled the ministers for what was to come.

Image - The Cabinet contemplated the terrible decisions to be made (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

The Cabinet contemplated the terrible decisions to be made (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Image - Attorney-General Hugh Kennedy warned the Cabinet of what was to come (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

Attorney-General Hugh Kennedy warned the Cabinet of what was to come (Pic: National Library of Ireland)

He told them that history showed that the crisis facing the embattled Free State would only be resolved by "prompt, effective, vigorous and utterly ruthless action". It was important, he said, that "a mistaken idea of humanity", not get in the way of that action.

Prompt. Effective. Vigorous. Utterly ruthless.

Hugh Kennedy's words marked the onset of a new and terrible phase of the conflict.