Late Night Thoughts – Part II – “The Big Fella”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael Collins today… and Michael Collins.  Near the end of this year – Christmas Day, to be precise – I will be the exact same age Collins was when he was assassinated.

Michael Collins

I have the type of historical mind that plays games like this: who was what age when what happened to them and how that contrasts with my own life.  Nine times out of ten, I end up feeling that I haven’t done enough yet.  Try as I might, I can pretty much guarantee that when I am 36, the number of times I think of both Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe will border on the ridiculous.

Collins, to me, is one of the most complex figures that I have had to deal with (peripherally) in my career.  I remember the first time I held a document at the PRO (now NA, I know, but PRO was better) that he had touched.  Every so often in an archive, you get a frisson down your spine and nerves stand on end – this was one of those moments.  For days, I poured over his various telegrams to Churchill about the goings-on in the new state of Northern Ireland – his take on the Special Powers Act was especially rich.  My work thus far on the 1910s to 1940s period has not focused on the Irish Free State or any key republican figures – I’ve been too busy sorting through all of the Edward Carson paraphernalia and Craigavon’s speeches at Stormont.  As my future projects now turn to the Irish-Canadian connection, I can guarantee that I’ll rarely, if ever, write an official word about “The Big Fella.”  But, in their own odd way, both Michael Collins and Michael Collins have cast large shadows over what I’ve done, and what I’ve yet to do.

I have enormous respect for Michael Collins – I enjoy intelligent people (and, I can’t deny, Irishmen who top the 6’0” mark).  In his relatively brief time as a power broker, Collins changed an entire country.  This was a once-in-a-generation mind.  And, yet, I’m fairly sure that files at the PRO – when they are opened – will confirm that Collins was directly involved in calling for the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, someone I *have* researched in a professional capacity.  Collins isn’t easy – he was both ruthless and pacific, the mastermind of modern urban guerrilla warfare and also the man who made a valiant – if futile – attempt to take the gun out of Irish politics.

Sir Henry Wilson in 1921

Wilson and Collins were both the targets of assassination the same year – two months apart to the day, actually.  Wilson, one of the most notable of Irish Unionists for his time, was shot by two IRA gunmen outside his London home on 22 June 1922 just after he had dedicated a memorial at Liverpool Street Station to the fallen of the Great War; he had read passages from Kipling’s Recessional to the assembled crowd brief hours before his death, which just added to the drama of the day.  Collins died of a shot to the head during an Anti-Treaty IRA ambush at Béal na Bláth, having gone home to Co. Cork to meet with Republican leaders and, he hoped, end the Irish Civil War.  Collins’ funeral was a massive public event that echoed in those of the hunger strikers nearly sixty years later; the film Neil Jordan made of his life became the top grossing movie of all time in Ireland in the pre-Titanic era.*

Certainly if the man had moved in the same way as Liam Neeson, I would have had a crush on him, making Collins join the ever-revolving list of my historical flirtations alongside Julius Caesar, Henry II, Simon de Montfort, Samuel de Champlain, and T. E. Lawrence, among others.  In fact, having Lawrence and Collins at the same dinner table would have been fabulous, if only for what they might have said to one other about the merits and strategies of guerrilla warfare.

I have absolutely no flippin’ idea what he would have made of me.

One thing that is undeniable, however, is that the film Michael Collins is directly responsible for my becoming an historian of Ireland and the Irish Diaspora.  Never in my life have I called the theatre more (yes, we did call them by telephone back in the 1990s, prior to www.whatsonkingston.com) to find out when, exactly, the film would be released.  I’d never behaved that way before… or since, come to think of it.  With the blessings of hindsight, I can see the irony that the men who became the subject of my interest turned out to be on the screen for only a matter of seconds before being blown up (read here [p. 28] regarding Neil Jordan’s “uneasiness” towards Protestant unionism):

However, the film did set me walking down a certain proverbial path in terms of my academic career – one which, despite wonderful classes with Professor Anne Lancashire at the University of Toronto, did not include a specialisation in film studies.  Instead, I went the historical route and haven’t regretted it for a moment.

Equally influencing to my teenage self (and future professional interests) was the accompanying documentary on the Michael Collins’ DVD of The South Bank Show hosted by Melvyn Lord Bragg.

Previously, I had only known Bragg for his biography of Richard Burton (another name on the list!), but his interview with Neil Jordan, with the Irish Sea glinting in the background, certainly helped to trigger my now near-insatiable interest in all things Irish.  I watched that part of the DVD again tonight and was struck by two things:

1)      It was certainly made in the period prior to the Good Friday Agreement;

2)      Both David Ervine and Ed Moloney were interviewed to give their opinions about Collins.

As someone who is following the current Boston College archival debacle with great fascination – and not a little professional worry regarding the future trappings of oral history – the presence of these two men was highly intriguing.

For those of you who require a small refresher, here goes:

David Ervine (d. 2007) was the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, following a career as a UVF man at the height of the northern Troubles. (In the following clip, watch for his use of the word “reared”.)

His untimely death at the age of 53 began, in my opinion, the ever-increasing vacuum in Northern Irish politics.  It will always be a regret of mine that I never had the chance to interview Ervine myself, as I’m sure his views on unionist masculinities would have been extremely illuminating.

Ervine participated with Ed Moloney (www.thebrokenelbow.com)­, an editor of The Irish Times and the Sunday Tribune as well as a noted author of books on the Provisional IRA, in the Boston College Belfast Project.  This is a recorded oral history of the Troubles made on the proviso that any particulars from a given interview would be kept confidential until the death of the respective individual.  Following the deaths of Ervine and famed hunger-striker and Provisional IRA leader Brendan Hughes (d. 2008), Moloney wrote the phenomenal Voices from the Grave, where the interviews with the respective UVF and IRA legends formed the basis of one of the most revealing histories of the north of Ireland.  The accompanying RTÉ documentary is available on Youtube and really is worth a look.  I personally have yelled sharply at random people who have dared to come into my office while I’ve been watching it:


Acting on a request from the PSNI, a legal case is currently pending for a subpoena from the United States Justice Department for information regarding the Jean McConville case; Boston College agreed to turn over the relevant documents,** while Moloney and Anthony McIntyre are fighting to block any handover of material from the archive, given the avowal of secrecy until death given to the interviewees and the obvious personal consequences that could arise should information from these tapes lead to the arrest and trial of notable public figures and/or the collapse of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland.  The blog detailing the case can be viewed here: www.bostoncollegesubpoena.wordpress.com

The Globe and Mail by-line about the case has lived on my fridge for the past two months and opinions on the matter were loudly stated at the American Conference for Irish Studies in New Orleans over St Patrick’s Day.   At the centre of the case are fundamental issues regarding the protection of academic freedom, the “Special Relationship” between America and the UK, and the manner in which historical truths are revealed to the general public.

This is the most riveting thing to happen in Irish Studies since the Good Friday Agreement.  It also has involved the most invocations of archival destruction since the bombing of Berlin in 1945.

Every time I see something about the case, I think of Moloney, and then of the movie’s documentary, and then of Collins.  It’s a bit like playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, only the accents are better.

In terms of my own academic career, I find it fascinating to think about what moulded me in terms of opinions and reactions — and how future legal decisions will affect my own research into contemporary transatlantic issues.  I’m sure a blog in the future will be devoted to my early childhood encounters with both Errol Flynn (at the age of 2) and Peter O’Toole (age 4 for The Lion in Winter; age 6 for Lawrence of Arabia), but the Michael Collins moment in 1996 had more direct results.   I’m not sure how many historians can pin-point an exact event that turned them into what they are, but I certainly can.  It was the first time I saw this:

I always joke that my interest in Irish masculinities came from watching too many Liam Neeson films as a child. 

Really, it only took just the one.

Further Reading

Melvyn Bragg, Rich: The Life of Richard Burton (1988)
Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland (2002)
Peter Hart, The IRA and its Enemies, Violence and Community in Cork, 1916-1923 (1998)
— —  Mick: the real Michael Collins (2006)
— —  “Michael Collins and the Assassination of Sir Henry Wilson,” Irish Historical Studies Vol. 28, No. 110 (Nov., 1992): 150-170
Keith Jeffery, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier (2006)
Henry McDonald, “Obituary: David Ervine,” The Guardian, 8 January 2007, available at The Guardian website, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2007/jan/08/obituaries.northernireland
Jane G. V. McGaughey, Ulster’s Men: Protestant Unionist Masculinities and Militarization in the North of Ireland, 1912-1923 (2012) — see p. 9 for unionist reaction to the death of Wilson and pp. 284-287 for Collins and the SPA
Brian McIlroy, “History Without Borders: Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins” in Contemporary Irish Cinema: From The Quiet Man to Dancing at Lughnasa, edited by James MacKillop, 22-28 (1999)
Ed Moloney,  Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland (2010)
— —  www.thebrokenelbow.com
National Archives (Kew), Colonial Office Papers 739/14, letter from Michael Collins to Winston Churchill, 21 March 1922

*The next two weeks certainly will be Titanic-palooza.  When outside of PRONI’s new home in the eponymous Quarter last summer, I happened to overhear two American tourists waxing euphorically about the Titanic-themed areas in the city… but then wondering where the boat was.

**Clarification for the Boston College case.  Two subpoenas are actually involved, with the second much broader in scope, moving beyond the Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes interviews.  BC has appealed the judge’s decision on the second subpoena, but not his decision on the first.  BC did turn over all of the documents to the judge for his inspection in chambers, which has received much criticism.

NB – Musical accompaniment for this blog entry was a mix of Highland Cathedral and the soundtrack from Jesus Christ Superstar (the 1996 Broadway recording with Alice Cooper as King Herod).  I lose all attempts at subtlety during Holy Week.

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Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
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4 Responses to Late Night Thoughts – Part II – “The Big Fella”

  1. Ted Folkman says:

    Hi, Jane,

    Thanks for this very interesting post. Just a note on the Boston College appeal. You write that BC “agreed to turn over the relevant documents.” That is partly right. There were two subpoenas. The first called for the Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes interviews. The second was much broader. BC has appealed from the judge’s decision on the second subpoena, but not from his decision on the first. On the other hand, it is true that BC turned over all of the documents to the judge for his inspection in chambers, which Moloney & McIntyre have criticized.

    You may be interested in my archive on this case. It’s at http://lettersblogatory.com/tag/belfast-project.

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