Page 11, 19th September 2003

19th September 2003
Page 11
Page 11, 19th September 2003 — Florence O'Donoghue admires a history which exposes the frantic politicking

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Locations: Dublin, Haileybury, Cambridge


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Florence O'Donoghue admires a history which exposes the frantic politicking

and violence that lay behind the creation of the Irish Free State Commemorating the Irish Civil War: History and Memory 19232000 by Anne Dolan, Cambridge University Press, £45 In a speech at Oxford University in 1924, Kevin O'Higgins spoke of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State in 1922 as "simply eight young men in the City Hall standing amid the ruins of one administration ... with wild men screaming through the keyholes". By then a senior minister, O'Higgins had in mind Eamon de Valera as a screamer, and Michael Collins a man inside the City Hall.

On 6 December 1921, the AngloIrish Treaty ended more than two years of political violence in Ireland. Among the English signatories were Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, and Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary. Michael Collins was one of the Irish signatories. Of Ireland's 32 counties, 26 received Dominion status, as the Irish Free State. Six, in the North, by then had their own Parliament, and stayed within the United Kingdom.

By the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Westminster had also created a similar parliament for the South. It did not work as planned. The Dublin assembly, controlled by the anti-British Sinn Fein, was called the Dail. By a narrow majority, the Dail accepted the Treaty. but de Valera demurred. And the militants, by now known as the Irish Republican Army, were divided. The result was civil war.

The Irish Free State created its own army. Collins became its Commander-in-Chief. On 22 August 1922, he was killed by ambushers in Co. Cork. The place was Beal na BIM, translated as Valley of the Blossoms. Further violence drove the Provisional Government into making it a capital offence to have unauthorised firearms. Between November 1922 and May 1923, firing squads executed 77 men. One of the first was Erskine Childers, educated at Haileybury and Cambridge, author of The Riddle of the Sands, and with a fine record in the British Army. O'Higgins, notably, defended the shootings: in Sligo in 1925 he said: ""I stand by the 77 executions and 770 more if necessary." In 1927 he was shot dead, aged 35, by unknown men when on his way to Mass at Booterstown, Co. Dublin. De Valeria denounced the murder. He did not form a government until 1932, when his Fianna Fail party (translated as Soldiers of Destiny) won a General Election. But it is Collins who dominates this hook. He was 31 when he died. The killings and bombings in the Irish countryside were largely local enterprises. Collins organised some Dublin assassinations, and had the role of Finance Minister in the Dail regime. His membership of the Supreme Council of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhool — long condemned by the Catholic Church — gave him heavy influence with its members.

His death led to a cult of heroism. The great painter Sir John Lavery sat with the corpse for three days to do a portrait of the lying-in-state. It was titled "Love of Ireland". Miss Dolan writes: "The fact that Collins had only worn a uniform for the last few weeks of his life no longer mattered." Nor was there mention of imprudence in leaving the security of his well-armed convoy for "a shoot-out that the most naïve soldier would have shunned". And at the unveiling of a cross at Beal na Blath in 1924, in the presence of W T Cosgrave, President of the Irish Free State Executive Council, Eoin O'Duffy, head of the Army he was later to organise a brigade to fight for Franco — spoke of "that spot made sacred by the blood of General Collins".

But political violence was to give way to constitutionalism, and a desire to bury the memory of the Civil War. Then in 1996 came Neil Jordan's film, with Liam Neeson playing the part of Collins and a script which did not praise de Valera, who had died in 1975. There had been those who had blamed him for the death of Collins. He had nothing to do with the ambush at Beal na Blath, though his disapproval of the Treaty kept him out of power for nearly a decade.

Collins commended the Treaty as a settlement that would lead to full independence for the 32 counties. With de Valera in office, some of the Dominion trappings were shed. Miss Dolan puts it: "In the 1930s de Valera had, after all, out Collinsed Collins. Since 1932 he had clambered across Collins' stepping stones, casting articles of association aside, grasping at 'this freedom to achieve freedom' until freedom was a republic in all but name. Collins had been vindicated but eclipsed."

And she deals with a statement allegedly made in private in 1966 by de Valera: "It's my considered opinion that in the fullness of time history will record the greatness of Collins and it will be recorded at my expense." But Miss Dolan questions its authenticity, points to other sides to de Valera, and concludes: "In the aftermath of civil war, memory is a contested thing. In Ireland, despite the occasional newspaper headline that attests smugly to the end of bitterness, the race is far from run."

Miss Dolan, research fellow in contemporary Irish history at Trinity College, Dublin, has written an interesting and magnificently researched book.

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