FUTURE commemorations will need to address frankly the exclusive and partisan way in which the pension applications for participants in the War of Independence were handled, president Michael D Higgins said at the Béal na Bláth commemoration ceremony last Sunday.
In particular, he said, they would need to address the exclusion of women, and the failure to recognise the poverty or examine the reasons for the emigration of so many who had participated in the armed struggle for Irish Freedom.
‘Indeed, it is the case that from some parts of Kerry, for example, over 90% of the members of some companies of volunteers emigrated to the United States before the end of the 20s,’ he added.
The president was addressing the annual tribute to Michael Collins and thanked the organisers for inviting him.
‘It is my great pleasure, as President of Ireland, to stand with you all at this emblematic site of our national memory in recognition of MichaelCollins’ great contribution to Irish independence. I am particularly delighted to be able to do so in a year when we are commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916, that foundational event in Ireland’s journey to Freedom – and at a time when we are recollecting, too, a sense of where we come from as a nation.’
He described Collins as being ‘energetic, committed, pragmatic, with a zest for life and companionship, and the robust rural version of that companionship.
‘His background was endowed with what I would call “the native richness of rural Ireland”. His mother and father were equipped with robust practical skills, yet the two of them also had an interest in literature, in languages, in both the oral history of their own people, and the written accounts of the history of our nation,’ he said.
He told the gathering that Michael Collins would, later in life, acknowledge the role of both Denis Lyons, the schoolmaster, and James Santry, the blacksmith, as his “first stalwarts” along this path to a political goal.
James Santry’s old forge at Lisavaird was one of the places which sparked Collins’ interest in politics. ‘An ardent republican, the local blacksmith captured the imagination of the boy with his vivid accounts of Ireland’s struggle for Freedom and the part that the people of West Cork had played in it. Santry’s grandfather had fought with Tadg-an-Asna at the Battle of Ballinascarthy in 1798, and his father had forged pikes for subsequent rebellions inspired by the teachings of Wolfe Tone, in 1848 and 1867.’
The president also made reference to the legacy of the famine in Collins’ life: ‘Michael Collins’ father, who was 75 years old at the time of Michael’s birth, did live through the Great Famine which devastated the West Cork area, and which saw Skibbereen, for example, become iconic as the centre of some of the most harrowing suffering caused by the failure of the potato crop.
‘Another important family memory was the year which two of Michael Collins’ uncles had spent in Cork Jail for whipping out of their crops members of the landlord class on a hunting party. And even with the distance of time, we cannot but be stricken by the symbolism of the brutal burning down of the Collins Woodfield family home by a detachment of soldiers from the Essex Regiment, in April 1921. To witness the house where he had spent his childhood, filled with hay, with neighbours forced to assist at bayonet point, the hay sprayed with petrol, and burned to the ground on the orders of an officer in an imperial army, must have had an incredible impact on Michael Collins.’
The President made reference to West Cork solicitor, Helen Collins, a grand-niece of Michael’s who, he said, ‘tells us that she was raised “in a home of forgiveness and understanding”, dispositions that are shared by all the other members of the Collins family who have made of Béal na mBláth a powerful symbol of memorial hospitality.’
President Higgins said that the man who died at Béal na Bláth on August 22nd 1922 was ‘a man of compassion in that terrible Civil War. He wept upon learning of Cathal Brugha’s death after the attack on the Four Courts. And he asked those who fought under him to treat men from the other side as irregulars, as colleagues who had misconstrued the situation, had judged wrongly, but whom it should be always remembered were fellow Irishmen, never enemies.’
President Higgins continued: ‘The ability to hold together a forgiving consciousness of the past and an openness to the potentialities of the future – forging the alliance of pardon and promise: this is the essential imperative for our living together in harmony and cohesion on this island.’