August 22nd marks the anniversary of the death of Michael Collins, the commander-in-chief of the Irish Free State army, minister of finance, and chairman of the provisional government, in the dusk hours near a small crossroads in west County Cork called Béal na Bláth during the Irish Civil War. And yet despite the years since, the facts surrounding his death remain no more certain than they did on August 23, 1922—Michael Collins was dead at the age of 31, killed during a skirmish with Irish Republican Army forces, and, as one Amazon commenter wryly notes, “that the sun did indeed set that day.”
It is arguably the most significant unsolved murder mystery in Irish history, spawning a cottage industry of books devoted solely to piecing together exactly what happened during the firefight that killed Collins. Each scrutinizes historical documents and military records like any academic historian, and each dissects clues and inconsistencies in witness testimonies like a green detective hot on a first assignment. At this point, nearly a century after the Irish Civil War and Collins’s death, it should come as no surprise that we will probably never know a true enough version of events that would lead to definitively answering the question of whether Collins was murdered, killed in action, or assassinated, let alone who, if anyone, ordered the ambush itself.
Since that fateful evening, the claims have ranged from the plausible—Collins was killed by a ricochet bullet fired by one of his own men while defending against an impromptu Republican ambush—to the downright fanciful – the ambush, and Collins’s reason for being in hostile territory in the first place, was a set-up perpetrated at the direct orders of Eamon de Valera. No autopsy was performed on Collins, and even reports on his wounds differ. Some say he had a small bullet hole at his hairline with a large exit wound at the rear; others claim two bullet holes; others still claim no exit wound, giving credence to the ricochet theory.
Moreover, there was never an official inquiry into the events of the evening, either by the Irish Republican Army or the Irish Free State army, leading some to suggest a cover up. Undoubtedly, the lack of official inquiry, military or otherwise, was an odd choice, considering Collins was commander in chief of the army at the time, let alone his status as chairman and minister of finance. And it is one that to this day has yet to be rectified. Instead, that role has been served by historians, journalists, and documentary filmmakers. In other words, storytellers.
It is for this reason that so many theories, many contradictory, about August 22, 1922 at Béal na Bláth thrive, and will probably continue to do so for as long as the public imagination holds a flame for Collins. Which is to say it will likely be quite some time.
S.M. Sigerson, author of the 2013 book-length plea for an official investigation The Assassination of Michael Collins, gives perspective on why the story of Collins has endured:
“Michael Collins, his life and times, command an inexhaustible fascination for people everywhere. This is perhaps because they are a sort of microcosm of a political predicament that continues to repeat itself all over the world.
“An ancient, semi-feudal oppressor. A people literally dying for self-determination. A vigorous new generation, chomping at the bit to ‘have a go’. A wealth of new thought and thinkers, transforming political debate, intellectual and cultural life.
“Among the best and brightest, a young leader steps into the breach: with the genius, vision and courage that turns the key and brings it all together. Spearheaded by him, his people sweep all before them.”
Ireland is indeed nothing without its myths, and Collins is no exception. There’s a reason it’s easy to poke fun at “Irish Alzheimer’s,” i.e. the ability to forget everything except the grudges. The grudge of Collins’s death runs deep, and when an event maps on to readily-available mythmaking tropes, it’s even easier to imbue with great significance for nation building. That Collins was 31 at the time of his death handily contours the classic narrative of a life cut short, a national figure killed in their prime. Think Joan of Arc, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, Freddy Mercury, or Cut Nyak Meutia.
Collins was a hero of the Irish War of Independence and the 1916 Easter Rising before becoming something of a pariah to the southern and western parts of the country who thought his negotiation of a peace treaty following the War of Independence was nothing short of treason.
Michael Collins was born the third of eight children in 1890 in west County Cork and educated at national schools until he took the British Civil Service exam at 15 and moved to London in 1906. There, he joined the London G.A.A., one of the oldest county boards of the Gaelic Athletic Association outside Ireland, and came into contact with Sam Maguire, eponym of the current Sam Maguire Cup and a staunch Irish Republican also from County Cork. It was Maguire who introduced Collins to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret society dedicated to Irish independence and precursor to the modern Irish Republican Army.
In London, where he lived until the age of 24, Collins worked variously for the post office and a stockbrokers, as well as studying law at Kings College. Collins briefly lived in America from 1915 to 1916, before returning to Ireland and accepting a job at a trust in Dublin just prior to the Easter Rising, for which the IRB had been preparing since at least 1913.
Soon after arriving in Dublin, Collins accepted a position as financial advisor to Count George Nobel Plunkett via his connections in the IRB, and served as aide-de-camp to George’s son, Joseph Plunkett, who served as a commander at the rebellion’s headquarters at the Dublin General Post Office and was one of the executed leaders of the Rising. Collins was arrested and imprisoned, along with many other participants of the Rising, but released in December 1916 as part of a release agreement with the British government.
It is credibly alleged that Collins harbored discontent with the way the Rising was carried out from a strategic point of view, criticizing the occupation of spaces such as St. Stephen’s Green that were difficult to hold, and more difficult to supply, demonstrating a keen military mind in the aftermath of Ireland’s most notorious military blunders.
Following the Rising and his release from prison, the 26-year-old Collins quickly filled a vacuum in republican leadership and was appointed secretary to the National Aid and Volunteers Dependents Fund by Kathleen Clarke, wife of the executed Rising leader Tom Clarke, the first signatory of the 1916 Proclamation. Collins, along with many other Rising participants joined the organization Sinn Féin, which had been founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith as an Irish nationalist party, but played little role in the Rising itself, initially advocating for a dual monarchy reform for Ireland. Despite it’s limited participation in the Rising, the British press, whether for misunderstanding or for laziness, branded Sinn Féin responsible for the events, inadvertently giving it more authority than it actually had and making it an attractive option for many young Irish republicans, who agreed to set aside differences in order to form a large, and increasingly powerful umbrella organization.
In October 1917, Collins became an executive in Sinn Féin and was appointed director for organization of the Irish Volunteers, an independent military organization that had fought in the Rising and would eventually spawn the Irish Republican Army. The following year, Sinn Féin swept the Irish election over the Irish Parliamentary Party, with Collins being elected as an MP for south Cork to represent Ireland in the British House of Commons. Sinn Féin, however, had no intention of taking their seats in Westminster and instead set up the first Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann, in January 1919. Collins, with his legal and brokerage background, was appointed minister of finance. Despite the fact that the government was officially unrecognized by any other nation, declared illegal by the British government, and was in a state of war, Collins managed to secure several hundred thousand dollars worth of loans and bonds to finance the fledgling state.
With the first meeting of the first Dáil, the Irish War of Independence officially began and the real military myth of Collins begins with this struggle. He was appointed president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and in September 1919 made director of intelligence for the Irish Republican Army, which was by then the officially recognized army of the new nation. During the War of Independence, Collins pursued a guerilla campaign based on intelligence gathering, routing out of spies, and quick, decisive attacks meant to avoid the types of symbolic victories for which he had previously criticized the Easter Rising. He formed “The Squad” for the express purpose of killing British intelligence officers and agents. During this time, Collins remained out of the public eye, was rarely photographed, and often traveled in disguises, including as a priest, nun, with an umbrella, and he even allegedly had a store of different colored false mustaches he would wear in rotation. A bounty of £10,000 was placed on information that could lead to his capture or death.
Yet partly because of his intelligence gathering skill, and partly for enjoying the broad support of the Irish citizens, the bounty was never collected and by July 1921 a cease-fire was declared and negotiations with the British on a treaty commenced. His support among the Irish citizens would not last however, as the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was eventually signed on December 6, 1921, separated the six counties of today’s Northern Ireland from the remaining 26, and included a requirement of an oath of allegiance to the British monarch. Pro-treaty and anti-treaty factions soon developed over the conditions, which many felt did not achieve true Irish independence from Great Britain.
The first half of 1922 saw Collins, in his new role as chairman of the provisional government (effectively prime minister), attempt to negotiate a peaceful settlement with anti-treaty legislators, led by Éamon de Valera, who resigned his title of president of the republic in protest when the Dáil ratified the treaty that January. Many solders in the Irish Republican Army were staunchly anti-treaty, creating a rift that by June 1922 calcified into the Civil War, with Collins leading a much smaller Irish Free State army against the IRA, which he previously commanded in the War of Independence. It was thus that the final groundwork was laid for his death that August.
So, what actually happened on August 22? Though there is no official record of why Collins was traveling in west Cork, a hotbed of anti-treaty IRA forces, there is credible evidence to suggest he was there to negotiate peace with various republican factions. Éamon de Valera was in the area at the time, and, as S.M. Sigerson notes, Collins met with neutral IRA leaders Florence O’Donoghue and Seán O’Hegarty, and had hoped to meet with anti-treaty leaders Tom Barry and Tom Hales to propose a truce. This is important because it has led to wide speculation that the whole endeavor was a set up specifically designed to entice Collins to hostile territory with the express purpose of assassinating him, as Gerard Murphy contends in his recent book The Great Cover Up.
This isn’t the first time a theory of double crossing has been proposed. A 1981 book by John M. Feehan called The Shooting of Michael Collins: Murder or Accident? argued that Collins was killed by one of his own men acting on orders of a secret faction of the Provisional Government or the British Secret Service. But even Feehan later acknowledged the folly of this argument, eventually rejecting it himself. Still, it lives on in the more conspiracy theory minded corners of Irish history.
The first plausible theory is that he was killed by a ricochet bullet. This was put forward by Eoin Neeson in his 1968 book The Life and Death of Michael Collins and sparked interest in the specific events of the firefight. Patrick J. Twohig’s 1991 The Dark Secret of Béal na Bláth also argues most plausibly that Collins was killed by a gunshot, though almost by accident. Twohig interviewed Mike O’Donoghue and Bob Doherty who claim to have been passing the ambush site by chance and got involved when they saw a Free State officer standing on the road, taking what amounted to a well-aimed pot shot.
But a few years before Twohig’s book, an IRA soldier named Sonny O’Neill also admitted to killing Collins in a documentary called “Shadow of Beal na Blath.” Military records released to the public in 2014 confirm O’Neill was at the ambush and later received a full military pension. During his pension hearing, he said he also happened upon the ambush by chance: “[We] accidentally ran into the Ballinablath thing, Tom Hales and myself. We heard about the party going through in the morning. They took a wrong turning and went into Newcestown. We went down to look at the position in Ballinblath [sic].” Speculation about O’Neill has been around since 1922, and Meda Ryan’s 1979 The Day Michael Collins Was Shot, also points the finger at him.
Ultimately, it will never be solved who fired the shot. Neil Jordan didn’t even bother giving the character who fired the shot in his seminal 1996 film Michael Collins a name, though he did take care to suggest that de Valera was behind the killing, further fanning the flames of conspiracy and muddying the waters between fact and fiction.
More important, and more interestingly to historians, is the question of the circumstances that led to his death. On that, speculation will continue. And yet, given that Collins was on an official Irish Republican Brotherhood “death list” and knew it and still traveled to enemy territory suggests that, whatever the circumstances, Collins was a notorious risk taker and, as Murphy contends, was likely bound for death whatever the location:
“It can also be stated that had Collins not been killed at Béal na Bláth, it is likely that he would have been assassinated at some other point, since he was not one to remain holed up in Government Buildings for very long. Every valley and bend on the road in the south and west of Ireland was a potential Béal na Bláth in the summer and autumn of 1922. Béal na Bláth just happened to be the one at which Collins actually died.”