PRAISING the annual Béal na Bláth commemoration of the death of General Michael Collins as ‘a powerful symbol of memorial hospitality’ during a well-researched and thought-provoking 94th anniversary oration last Sunday, President Michael D Higgins hailed the Collins family’s forgiveness and understanding which reflected the compassionate side of their famous ancestor who emerged as such a pivotal figure in Irish history between 1916 and 1922.
From the naïve heroics of the Easter Rising to the brutal Civil War, which was to lead to his untimely demise at the age of only 31, the West Cork man was an integral part of the first steps towards Irish freedom with the negotiation of the Treaty of 1921 – which was not enough for some, but which Collins felt was the best that could be achieved at that juncture. He saw it as a stepping stone to full sovereignty, one that would give Ireland ‘not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it.’
However, it sparked a vicious Civil War that must have made Collins despair after all the gains made in the previous five years and he insisted that those who fought under him should remember that those on the other side may have been misguided, as he saw it, but were still fellow Irishmen, never enemies. He is said to have wept upon learning of Cathal Brugha’s death after the attack on the Four Courts.
Unfortunately, most others involved chose to eschew Collins’ compassion during a bloody conflict which divided families and friends, and during which many atrocities were committed, with some people using the Civil War as an opportunity to settle personal old scores they had with people, leaving a legacy that was felt for generations.
While the 1916 Easter rising centenary commemorations this year have marked the bravery of the leaders who made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in the cause of Irish freedom, President Higgins – in his Béal na Bláth oration – looked forward to the commemorations in the next few years of the events of the early 1920s for which, he said, ‘we will need to display courage and honesty as we seek to speak the truth of the period, and in recognising that, during the War of Independence, and particularly during the Civil War, no single side had the monopoly of either atrocity or virtue.’
The narrative won’t be as straightforward as it has been for the 1916 centenary commemorations and a lot of what happened during the Civil War in particular will not make sense to many today. As the President said, ‘it will need to be made meaningful by both a real sense of history and a generous willingness to go past old wrongs so as to build a new shared understanding of who we are as a nation and as a republic.’
When Michael Collins was killed at Béal na Bláth on the evening of August 22nd, 1922, it made a lot of people on both the pro- and anti-Treaty sides realise that the Civil War had gone too far and this provided a catalyst to bring the madness to an end. Granted, the emnity continued during the lifetimes of those involved and carried down through generations of Irish families as it moved into the political arena and, finally, today we find ourselves with a government, albeit a fragile one, led by the historically pro-Treaty Fine Gael party and propped up by the begrudging temporary goodwill of the anti-Treaty Fianna Fáil party.
Civil War politics is not quite laid to rest yet as there are still hardliners on both sides, but we – as a nation – need to find a new honesty and maturity that reflects the forgiveness and understanding of the Collins family by the time it comes to marking its centenary five years’ time.
President Higgins’ contribution last Sunday has added to the rich and impressive legacy of Béal na Bláth orators and orations and the variety of opinions expressed by speakers of different political hues and none over the years who share a deep admiration for Michael Collins and the wonder of what might have been had he not been gunned down in the prime of his life.