Article abstract: As a guerrilla leader, negotiator, finance minister, and head of the provisional government, Collins led Ireland toward independence from Great Britain.
Born on the ninety-acre family farm named Woodfield, Michael Collins was the last of eight children. His father, Michael John Collins, was sixty when he married Mary Anne O’Brien and seventy-five when Collins was born. On his deathbed, Michael John pointed to the six-year-old Collins and admonished the family to mind the child, whom he expected to do great things for Ireland. The local schoolmaster, Denis Lyons, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), inspired Collins with dreams of Irish nationalism; a local blacksmith, whose father had made the weapons for earlier Irish rebellions, reinforced Collins’s formal education with oral histories of a heroic past.
Because the family farm could not support such a large family, the children moved away. Collins’s mother sent him to live with a sister so that he could study for the British Post Office exam. While in school, Collins worked part-time for his brother-in-law as a local reporter and improved his writing style. Qualifying in 1906 for a boy clerkship, he was sent to London and put into the care of another sister already employed at the post office. While living with his sister for the next ten years, Collins entered into the life of London’s Irish community by joining the IRB, the Gaelic League, and the Gaelic Athletic Association. Despite a reputation as a hard drinker and a temper that flared on the playing field, Collins rose to leadership positions in the organizations. He earned the nickname “Big Fellow,” not because of his size, but for his desire to be important.
It was in the London Gaelic League that Collins first learned the Irish language. His parents had spoken Gaelic but used it only when they wanted to communicate without the children understanding them. Trying to recapture his Gaelic roots, he focused on the cause of Irish nationalism by dropping his college night courses and spending all his free time working in Irish organizations. Faced with the possibility of being drafted into the British army during World War I, Collins returned to Ireland on January 15, 1916, determined to fight the British for Irish independence.
Collins’s central contribution to the Irish struggle for independence was his development of a system of guerrilla warfare that used limited Irish resources effectively against the British. Joining the most extreme elements among the nationalists, he fought in the ill-fated Easter Rebellion in the spring of 1916 at the Dublin Post Office and narrowly escaped execution. As a prisoner at Frongoch in Wales, he emerged as a leader among the Irish nationalists whose revolutionary dedication redoubled in jail. Released at Christmas in 1916, Collins returned to Dublin, where he was selected to head the National Aid Association, a charity created to support the Easter Rebellion’s veterans and their families. This position enhanced his standing among Irish revolutionaries. He advanced to the supreme council of the IRB and later becoming its leader.
After entering electoral politics in cooperation with the Sinn Féin (“ourselves alone”) party, Collins worked to elect men who would refuse to take their seats in the British Parliament. One of his candidates in a by-election was in a British prison. Collins promoted him with the slogan “put him in to get him out.” Sinn Féin candidates steadily won, and the general election in December, 1918, produced a solid victory for members refusing to go to London. Elected from Cork, Collins was among the members of the Sinn Féin Dail, or parliament, which claimed to form an Irish government. In 1918 he left the National Aid Association to take on a military role with a host of titles including director of intelligence. He organized an extensive spy network ranging from policemen to seamen and doormen. His female cousin, who decoded the British government’s secret messages, was especially helpful. Collins earned a formidable reputation for daring and ruthlessness. His most famous exploit was to spend the night of April 7, 1919, in a Dublin castle reading the British intelligence files on himself and the Irish revolutionary government. He could also be irresponsible. Bragging about the contents of his file endangered his counteragents.
Collins established a hit squad called the Apostles on September 19, 1919, and murdered key policemen and blinded British intelligence. As the most wanted man in the British Empire, Collins openly bicycled around Dublin dressed as a successful businessman. Operating on the assumption that appearing normal was the best disguise, his exploits became legendary. He joked and slapped the backs of British soldiers and policemen as they searched him at roadblocks. In one incident, the British...
(The entire section is 2033 words.)