AUGUST 22 2021 will mark the 99th anniversary of Béal na Bláth and the death of one of the most significant figures in modern Irish history - Michael Collins.
Collins' death, in an ambush outside the small County Cork village during the Irish Civil War, has long been the subject of mystery, conjecture, and debate, but a new documentary will challenge all we thought we knew about the day ‘The Big Fellow’ was killed.
The Murder of Michael Collins, is a two part, three-hour, in-depth historical documentary, written, directed, and edited by Galway born Paddy Cullivan, which is currently streaming on his website.
Paddy is best known as the leader of The Late Late Show house band, The Camembert Quartet, but in recent years he has won acclaim for his investigative history shows, such as The 10 Dark Secrets of 1916 and The Two Murders of Wolfe Tone.
The Murder of Michael Collins is deeply researched, forensic, and does not shy away from the complexities of the subject, yet it is also interpersed with Paddy’s trademark humour and wit, and features a number of songs - the soul-pop ‘Beal na Blath blah blah’ manages to be very catchy, while successfully illustrating the multiple theories behind Collins’ death.
Encountering ‘The Big Fellow’
Collins is one of Ireland’s great heroes - the powerhouse of the Revolution. While other leaders of Sinn Féin and the independence movement were on the run, in gaol, or in the USA, Collins direction and leadership saw the destruction of British intelligence in Ireland, while the guerilla tactics and methods of organisation he developed would see the defeat of the Black and Tans, the RIC, and British rule.
This achievement would later inspire Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, and future Isreali prime minister, Yitzak Shamir, a notable admirer of Collins. All this, along with Collins determination to end partition by force, if necessary, have made him an inconvenient figure for Official Ireland.
'Collins knew that politics without action is meaningless. He would have been enraged at the inertia of today’s political establishment'
Paddy’s interest in Collins and the controversy over his death arose from his reading Uinseann MacEoin’s book Survivors (1980 ), which contained interviews with veterans of the War of Independence and the Civil War.
“It contained statements from veterans like Sean MacBride who never accepted the official story of Collins’ life or death,” Paddy tells me. “I love Collins because he was the only Irish revolutionary who fought the British Empire to a settlement – his genius was fighting them on his terms - using their own techniques against them.”
Ambush or assassination?
That passion has led to this new documentary and an examination of what happened on August 22 1922. The controversy arises because the ambush involved 30 combatants. Collins was the only one who was killed. None of the others were in any way even seriously injured.
“Collins died in the company of thirty men, all of whom had a different tale to tell,” says Paddy. “His death occurred the same year as the foundation of the State, changing Ireland’s path completely and sealing partition in stone.”
'He would be horrified to see partition still in place a century later and would be agitating up and down the country for a unity referendum post-haste'
So the question arises, was Collins death the tragic result of an ambush, or might it actually have been an assassination? “It was both. The ambush provided the cover for the assassination to take place,” says Paddy. “What points to it being an assassination over an ambush is that nobody else died, despite a supposed ‘firefight’ taking place, between 25 men with vastly superior firepower, against five men armed with rifles. Yet the most important man in Ireland ends up dead with no other casualties?”
In the decades since, those who were at Béal na Bláth have spoken about what took place, but all have given different statements as to what happened. Furthermore, key pieces of evidence are missing. To the historian, this presents challenges in trying to get to the truth of what happened. “The challenge was huge – not least because Desmond Fitzgerald [the then Minister for Defence] burned most of the evidence in 1932, two days before de Valera assumed power,” says Paddy.
Theories and conspiracies
A number of theories have been put forward to explain what happened, most famously the ricochet/lucky shot theories, where Collins was killed by a ricocheting bullet; and that Sonny O’Neill, a member of the ambush party, who had previously carried out intelligence work for Collins during the War of Independence, fired the fatal shot - an assertion Paddy successfully challenges in his documentary.
As Paddy points out, Collins death was “the worst security failure possible for a state in its infancy – the death of its leader”, and embarrassment over this may have resulted in the State wishing not to look too deeply into what happened.
“However, I fear it’s worse than that,” he says. “The more I’ve looked into our history, the more I’ve seen that the ‘agreed lie’ is just as bad as the wildest conspiracy theory out there. So while I don’t have ‘the answer’. I have ‘an answer’, one I believe to be more acceptable than what we have been fed over the decades.”
The documentary has only recently gone up online and already the reaction has been hugely positive. “I worried because it was a brand new way of interpreting history – but people got it straight away,” says Paddy. “My best reaction was from a professor of history I respect hugely – he gave it the thumbs up and said it would change how he used sources in his own work. That floored me.”
The tragedy of the Civil War
Next year marks the centenary of the start of the Civil War, an 11-month conflict that wiped out most of the best and brightest of a generation which had secured independence for (most of ) Ireland - Collins, Cathal Bruga, Liam Mellows, Liam Lynch, Arthur Griffith...
“It was disastrous,” says Paddy. “There’s a school of thought that claims Collins was the same as all the rest, and that all the lost leaders would have led us up the same church-ridden, repressed path as Cosgrave and Dev. But I think it would have been a lot different.
“With Collins uniting the armies and advancing on the North, a different paradigm would have ensued. Everyone says ‘we avoided a bloodbath’ – we didn’t. The bloodbath was kicked down the road to the 1970s. A stand-off with further terms may have seen a four-county Ulster that was untenable and unity may have come a lot quicker.
“The loss of real socialists like Mellows and Connolly was also a disaster. Even Collins had priorities at odds with the Free State – he wanted poverty and the slums dealt with immediately; Churchill described his constitution as ‘Bolshevik’ in nature! The new Free State government defended the elites and wore top hats. I can’t imagine Collins ever wearing a top hat.”
With next year marking the centenary of Collins’ killing, how should we remember ‘The Big Fellow’?
“Bernadette Devlin once said, ‘I feel a kindred spirit with the arrogant personality of Collins, and I think that I’m in much the same situation as he. Basically, I have no place in organized politics.’ Collins knew that politics without action is meaningless. He would have been enraged at the inertia of today’s political establishment. He was someone who got things done,” says Paddy.
“He would be horrified to see partition still in place a century later and would be agitating up and down the country for a unity referendum post-haste. He was obsessed with the North in a way that would surprise many of his supposed fans. Maybe he’d be a member of the party he died a member of, Sinn Féin.
“I’d hope he’d appreciate my mission to show his Fine Gael followers how anti-partition they should be – and how his detractors should look at him more deeply. He may have seemed to be all things to all men, but at his core, he was a true Republican.”
The Murder of Michael Collins can be viewed on www.paddycullivan.com A ticket costs €10 with the holder sent a permalink to view the documentary at any time.