Michael Collins played a major part in Ireland’s history after 1916. Michael Collins had been involved in the Easter Uprising in 1916, but he played a relatively low key part. It was after the Uprising that Collins made his mark leading to the treaty of 1921 that gave Ireland dominion status within the British Empire.

Michael Collins was born in October 1890 in County Cork. This area was a heartland of the Fenian movement. His father, also called Michael, instilled in his son a love of Irish poetry and ballads. At school, Michael was taught by a teacher called Denis Lyons who belonged to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the village blacksmith, James Santry, was a Fenian. He told the young Michael stories of Irish patriotism and in such an environment, Michael grew up with a strong sense of pride in Ireland and of being Irish.

When he was 15, Collins emigrated to London. He worked as a clerk for the Post Office and he lived within the large Irish community in London. This community was never absorbed into London’s society itself. There were many people in London who felt that the Irish undercut the wages paid out to other workers and many in the Irish community felt ostracised. While in London, Collins joined Sinn Fein and the Gaelic League and in 1909, he became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

In 1916, Collins returned to Ireland to take part in the Uprising in Dublin. He fought alongside others in the General Post Office. He played a relatively minor part and was not one of the leaders who was court-martialed.


The inside of the General Post Office after the surrender

Collins was sent to Richmond Barracks and then to Frongoch internment camp in Wales. He was released in December 1916 and immediately went back to Ireland. His goal now was to revitalise the campaign to get independence for Ireland. Collins was elected to the executive committee of Sinn Fein and he led a violent campaign against anything that represented British authority in Ireland – primarily the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Army. The murder of RIC officers brought a tit-for-tat policy from the British. Ireland, post-World War One, was a dangerous country to be in. The more killings that were carried out by Collins and the men he led in the newly formed Irish Republican Army (IRA), the more the British responded with like. 

The notorious Black and Tans and the ‘Auxies’ were used by the British Army to spread fear throughout Ireland (though primarily in the south and west). Violence led to more violence on both sides. On November 21st, 1920, the IRA killed 14 British officers in the Secret Service. In reprisal, the British Army sent armoured vehicles onto the pitch at Croke Park where people were watching a football match, and opened fire on them. Twelve people were killed. In May 1921, the IRA set fire to the Custom House in Dublin – one of the symbols of Britain’s authority in Ireland. However, many of those in the Dublin IRA were captured as a result of this action. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was given some blunt advice by his military commanders in Ireland. “Go all out or get out” – meaning that the army should be allowed to do as it wished to resolve the problem, or if this was not acceptable at a political level, the British should pull out of Ireland as the army was in an un-winnable position as matters stood then.

Eamonn de Valera, considered to be the leading republican politician in Ireland, sent Collins to London in October 1921 to negotiate a treaty. It was generally recognised by both sides that the situation as it stood in Ireland could not be allowed to continue. The difficult negotiations took three months before the treaty was signed by Collins and Arthur Griffiths. In December 1921, it was agreed that Ireland should have dominion status within the British Empire; i.e. that Ireland could govern itself but remain within the British Empire. The six northern counties were allowed to contract out of the treaty and remain part of the United Kingdom. To Collins, the treaty was simply the start of a process that, in his eyes, would lead to full independence for what was now the Irish Free State.

Collins is said to have commented when he signed the treaty that:

“I tell you, I have signed my death warrant”

There were many in the south who believed that Collins had betrayed the republican movement. These people, including de Valera, wanted an independent and united Ireland. Some believed that Collins had sold out to the British government. Few seemed to realise that Collins was not a politician and that he had been put into a situation in which he had no experience of what to do. He was up against British politicians who were experienced in delicate negotiations. Some have argued that de Valera deliberately put Collins in this situation knowing that if he came back with an unacceptable treaty, it would seriously damage the reputation of Collins and weaken whatever political kudos he had in Ireland – therefore removing any potential threat he may have been to de Valera at a political level. It is known that Collins did not feel that he had the necessary knowledge and experience to get what was wanted and he asked de Valera to send others instead of him. Some, such as Countess Markievicz, openly called Collins a traitor to the cause.

The Dáil accepted the treaty by just seven votes. This, in itself, seemed a justification of what Collins had set out to achieve. Arthur Griffiths replaced De Valera as president of the Dáil and Collins was appointed chairman of the provisional government which would take over Ireland once the British had left. Those who did not support the treaty fell back on violence and a civil war took place in Ireland from April 1922 to May 1923. The IRA split into the ‘Regulars’ (those who supported the treaty) and the ‘Irregulars’ (those who did not).

On August 22nd, 1922, Collins journeyed to County Cork. He was due to meet troops of the new Irish Army. His car was ambushed at a place called Beal na mBlath and Collins was shot dead. To this day, no-one is completely sure what happened or who killed him. No-one else was killed in the ambush. Collins’ body lay in state in Dublin for three days and thousands paid their respects. Thousands also lined the streets for his funeral procession.