by jdurney on March 1, 2011

The day the Big Fellow came to town

The name Michael Collins still provokes a frisson in a modern Ireland. It is amazing how three generations removed from the era in which he lived his name has a certain magnetism. Only recently there was a successful campaign to preserve what remained of the national school which he attended in west Cork. And within the past month when RTE carried out an on-line poll to identify a short-list of Ireland’s greatest persons, Collins featured among the final five. For many the picture of Collins is characterised by the oft-repeated photograph of him in the uniform of the army of the Free State – a photograph which projects an aura of authority, leadership and dynamism. For others the image of Collins is forged through the accounts of his multiple roles in the construction of a new State in the volatile years from 1919-22. As a republican leader he masterminded an insurgent campaign in the capital virtually under the noses of the British authorities in Dublin Castle. His indefatigable energies and talents extended across the full range of skills needed to establish a working government for an independent Ireland. His success as Minister for Finance in the early Dáil government in raising a loan for the new state – at a time when the same Dáil government was a banned organisation – reflects his potential as an administrator capable of structuring a viable government machine while operating under extreme pressure. His personal courage both in the immediacy of fighting a guerrilla war and on the wider scale in signing the Treaty with Britain have been widely acknowledged. But it would be going too far to say that all of his contemporaries felt that he could do no wrong. In the contentious early months of 1922, after the signing of the Treaty the previous December, there were many who were bitterly opposed to his decision to sign the Treaty. This was a key theme in the beginnings of the split in the nationalist movement which was to break out into a wasting Civil War from late April 1922 – had Collins and company wrested the best deal possible for Ireland or had they betrayed the aspirations of the Republic proclaimed in 1916? As in all political situations it is difficult to calibrate to what extent the arguments on either side were influenced by high principle. The personality clashes and the inevitable rivalries for power which seems to permeate all organisations probably had as much to do with raising the tension of the time. However when Collins came to address a public meeting in Naas in April 1922 he was met by a great crowd vocal in their enthusiasm in what he had to say in defence of the Treaty. According to a report in the Kildare Observer up to 3,000 people gathered in the square of Naas to greet Collins who it described as ‘Chairman of the Provisional Government’. The crowd could have been greater – special trains had been laid on from Tullow and from Maryborough (Portlaoise) but few travelled.  A comment by the reporter perhaps sums up the way in which across the country a certain perception of Collins was crystallising: ‘In the crowd were several former Unionists, attracted doubtless by the personality of Mr. Michael Collins, around whom so much mystery sounded long ago, and whose pronouncements in the recent past have given traits of statesmanship and sound commonsense.’ Certainly the crowd were not be disappointed. Collins delivered an intensely-argued speech which drew interjections of support from the audience assembled in the main street of Naas. He injected fire into the political argument that had developed between his supporters and those of Eamon de Valera, political leader of the anti-Treaty faction. But his intensity had a certain logic. He pointed out that things which Irish people had never thought they would see in their own lifetimes – the evacuation of the British army and the Royal Irish Constabulary, was underway in towns across the country.  Series no: 201.

Liam Kenny in his Leinster Leader column ‘Nothing new under the sun’ of 4 November 2010 describes the visit of Michael Collins to Naas. Our thanks to Liam.

Previous post:

Next post: