Michael Collins and Irish Freedom

I wrote this back in early 1997, when Neil Jordan’s movie about Collins was attracting large audiences here (and elsewhere); it appeared at the time in the first issue of revolution, a NZ-based marxist journal

Director Neil Jordan waited ten years to make his movie about the legendary republican leader.  It was only when the IRA leadership declared a ceasefire, as of September 1994, that Jordan felt comfortable about beginning it.  Needless to say, the end of the ceasefire, just as production was drawing to a close, made Jordan uneasy about the possible effects of the film.  Like the rest of the comfortable southern Irish middle class, one of Jordan’s chief preoccupations is the way in which raking over the past may end up legitimising the struggle for Irish freedom today.

Response to Michael Collins in Ireland and Britain

The southern Irish establishment has moved over the past 20 years to ban republicanism and root it out of society, through a combination of repression, censorship and rewriting of history.  In this situation, the movie came as a breath of fresh air for a public deprived of knowledge of their own recent past and daily subjected to a barrage of anti-republicanism from the Irish and British media.

Debate raged in the Irish papers and on radio and TV about the film and the effect it might have in winning sympathy for the anti-imperialist cause today.  Indeed, in Ireland virtually all representations of the past – whether in history books, films, plays or any other medium – are written with the present in mind.  The southern Irish establishment has been particularly keen to expunge the long history of British injustice in Ireland and to legitimise the neo-colonial set-up over which it presides as Britain’s partner in maintaining exploitation and oppression in the country.  In the end Jordan and the southern establishment’s fears are somewhat overdetemined.

The resumption of armed activities by the Irish Republican Army does not represent any threat to the established order in Ireland; as the Belfast Irish language paper La noted on January 6 this year (ie 1997 – PF), the ceasefire ended in order to prevent a split in the IRA ranks.  Another aim is to provide the British government with a little armed lobbying, the highest aim of which is, as veteran Irish revolutionary leader Ruairi O Bradaigh has noted critically, “mere admission to the Stormont talks”.  (This  review was originally accompanied by an interview with Ruairi, which is also reproduced on this blog – see here.)  Arms dumps remain sealed.  Indeed, just as Collins and his fellow conservatives brought the revolutionary struggle to a conclusion, resulting in a counter-revolution in 1921-3, so Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein and IRA leaders today have brought this stage of the struggle to an ignominious end.

A movie with a gaping hole in the middle

The struggle for Irish independence that opened with the 1916 Easter Rebellion and closed with a civil war in 1922-23 certainly provides the raw material for some great films.  The making of history, passion, violence, death, betrayal: it’s all there in abundance.

But to tell a story, even a big-budget movie version, there as to be some context, some characterisation and half-decent direction and scripting.  Unfortunately, Michael Collins has none of these.

Jordan and Liam Neeson rely on a lot of swearing, yelling and mad dashing about to convey action and drama, imagining that these antics can cover up the gaping lack of substance.  It is never clear, for instance, what motivated most of the republicans.  Indeed, the whole struggle of the period is reduced to Collins and a few rather thick and nervous young men – whom he has to shout at in order to be understood – bumping off a few key British political police.

There is nothing at all in the movie to suggest that Ireland in this period was in massive political, social and economic ferment.  In fact, Ireland was rocked by mass struggles by urban workers, agricultural labourers, small farmers and women during the period covered by the film.

The 1916 Rising, which opens the movie, itself followed in part from the organisation of the Dublin working class by James Larkin and, later, James Connolly.

In 1913-14 a huge labour struggle took place in Dublin, as the militant Transport and General Workers Union, led by revolutionaries, took on the city’s employers, many of whom were Home Rulers.  The labour struggle saw the formation of Europe’s first workers’ militia this century, the Irish Citizen Army, which was formed – as one of its founders, Jack White, put it – “to teach the police manners.”

Shortly afterwards, the Irish Volunteers were formed to help keep the pressure on the British for Irish Home Rule, although many of the Volunteers were republicans and wanted much more than this.

When the First World War broke out, the British shelved their promise of Home Rule and also decided to partition the country against the wishes of the vast majority.  The Citizen Army and the most radical elements of the Irish Volunteers came together to launch a rebellion.  For a week they held out against superior British forces, but were forced to surrender as British guns reduced central Dublin to rubble.  Sixteen republican and socialist figures were executed – 15 by firing squad and one hanged – following the Rising.  One of the other leaders, Countess Markievicz, who had been a founding leader of the Citizen Army and was second-in-command at Stephen’s Green in the centre of Dublin, had her death sentence commuted to penal servitude for life, the British deciding not to execute female leaders.

The execution of the leaders and the British treachery over Home Rule served to galvanise public support behind the rebel cause.  Public opinion in Ireland and in the USA, which Britain wanted to encourage to enter the war, meant that by early 1917 the less important republican figures, including Collins, were released.  The last prisoners, Markievicz being the final one, were freed later in the year.

The republicans decided to use a small and largely irrelevant party, Sinn Fein, as the vehicle for rebuilding a political movement.  The Irish Volunteers also reorganised.  But from its reconstitution in late 1917 as a mass republican party, Sinn Fein functioned not as a revolutionary organisation guided by the ideas of the 1916 leaders for the fundamental social, economic and political transformation of Irish society, but instead as a mass single-issue campaign around the question of political independence.  It aimed to unite Irish people on the sole basis of nationalism.  In short, it was a pan-nationalist front.

The reformed SF contained a number of revolutionary leaders, such as Markievicz and other left-wing women and republican radicals such as Liam Mellows.  The central leadership, however, was dominated by Arthur Griffith, who had opposed both the workers in 1913-14 and the Easter Rising, and Eamonn de Valera, a sanctimonious and socially conservative Catholic.

Destabilising the old order

Nevertheless, the revitalisation of a political movement for independence served to destabilise the old order in Ireland.  As the working class recovered from the defeats of 1913-14 and 1916, it stepped up struggle on the economic and political fronts.  British plans to introduce conscription in Ireland were met in April 1918 with a massive general strike which closed down the whole country outside the most loyalist parts of Belfast.

In late 1918, despite many of its candidates being in prison, its manifesto being heavily censored, and its campaign activists continually harassed and jailed, Sinn Fein won the vast majority of Irish seats in the British general election – 73 of the 105 Irish seats at Westminster – and destroyed the old Irish bourgeois Nationalist Party.  Instead of taking their seats at Westminster, the Sinn Feiners had declared they would establish an independent Irish parliament in Dublin, Dail Eireann.

At its first meeting in January 1919, the Dail declared independence and adopted the Democratic Programme, a radical document which declared that “all right to private property must be subordinate to the public right and welfare”, although more radical formulations in the original draft, pointing to the abolition of private ownership of the means of production were removed before it got to the Dail.

The Irish Times of January 21, 1919 declared that the Dail contained two sets of republicans: “idealists” who engaged in “theatrical protests” and a more dangerous section which “proposes to apply the principles of Lenin and Trotsky to Irish affairs”.

The reorganised Irish Volunteers became the Army of the Irish Republic (or IRA) and commenced activity against the continuing British occupation.  Rural flying columns (mobile guerrilla units) harried police and British soldiers and burned down hundreds of police-army barracks, making chunks of the countryside no-go areas for the forces of British rule.

Class war

The politico-military struggle against British rule opened up further possibilities for militant struggles by the working class.  As labour historian Emmet O’Connor has noted, “The ascent of Sinn Fein also politicized wage militancy.  In breaking the hegemony of conservative nationalism, separatists subverted the social consensus, creating the scope for native echoes of international radicalism to flourish” (O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland, 1824-1960, 1992, p94).  On August 18, 1919, in the midst of a series of industrial struggles in Dublin, the Irish Times declared, “Political Bolshevism is paving the way for industrial anarchy.”

Workers staged a second general strike in 1920, this time demanding the release of hunger-striking republican prisoners in Mountjoy Jail in Dublin.  This succeeded in forcing the British to release the prisoners, just as the 1918 general strike had helped stop British conscription plans.  Militant workers’ struggles took place over other political and economic issues.  Dock, rail and transport workers refused to move British forces and munitions, for instance.  Factories and mines were occupied across Ireland in pursuit of economic demands, often with soviets being formed.  Landless peasants attempted to take over the properties of the big pro-British landowners.

This period was also noticeable for the involvement of significant numbers of women.  About a quarter of the Sinn Fein executive were women.  In 1918 Markievicz had been the first woman elected to the British parliament, and she was made Minister of Labour in the Dail government.  Thousands of young women flocked into Cumann na mBan, the women’s wing of the IRA.  Given the nature of Irish society at the time, the dominant position of the Catholic Church and conservative ideas about the position of women, this was a major challenge to the old order.

The IRA itself was composed overwhelmingly of workers and peasants, and some of its leading officers such as Peadar O’Donnell were militant labour organisers and socialists.  Others, like Mellows, were sympathetic to the working class.  But it was the pan-nationalist element who dominated the republican leadership, most especially Griffith, de Valera and Collin whom left-wing republican activist Maire Comerford, a secretary in the Dail at the time, later described as “the triumvirate of men with limited objectives which cornered the republican leadership” (Comerford, The First Dail, 1969, p42).

In the labour movement, too, moderate men had come to the helm following the execution of Connolly.  Larkin, meanwhile, was stuck in prison in the United States.  The new labour leaders paid lip-service to socialism, and could be fulsome in praise of the Russian Revolution, but in practice they completely subordinated themselves to the republican leadership.

British rule unsustainable

In 1920 Sinn Fein captured control of most of the urban and county councils in Ireland, and these transferred their allegiance from Britain to the underground republican government.  The republicans also set up their own underground courts, which began replacing the British ones.

By 1921, British rule was no longer sustainable.  The old order in Ireland was coming apart and the longer the war for independence went on the more radical the struggle became at the grassroots level.  The British ruling class, the old Irish establishment and the new Irish leaders such as Griffith, Collins and de Valera were anxious to draw things to a close.

The British began sounding out sections of republican leadership opinion in order to work out who the moderates were with whom they could do business.  They knew that much of the republican leadership were as anxious as themselves to put the lid back on the class warfare which had emerged as such a potent factor over the previous several years.

In July 1920, for instance, leading Tory Unionist MP and First Lord of the Admiralty Walter Long received a letter from a friend who had been visiting Limerick.  The friend reported that Sinn Fein were running things very well at the local level and maintaining social order (Thomas Jones, Whitehall Diary, vol 3: Ireland, 1918-25, 1971, pp24-5).  Jones was the leading Whitehall civil servant of the time and his diary covers British cabinet meetings, letters, policy discussions and so on which provide illuminating insights into British thinking and policy-making at the time.)

Another leading Tory policy-maker on Ireland, Herbert Fisher, argued within the British cabinet that they should try not to break up the republican courts “because it appeared moderate men were working these courts efficiently” (Jones diary, p30).

Although British rule had become unsustainable, they still held several ace cards.  One of the most potent was partition.


The effects partition would have had been explained before World War I by James Connolly.  He had warned that it would lead to the creation of two totally reactionary states on the island and set back every progressive tendency in Ireland.  Workers should therefore oppose it, he argued, arms in hand if necessary.  The British also understood the effectiveness of partition in turning back the revolutionary upsurge in Ireland.

In mid-1921 they organised separate elections for a six-county area in the north-east of the country and for the other twenty-six counties, under a new Government of Ireland Act.  Sinn Fein won all the general seats in the twenty-six counties unopposed, but only six of the seats in the artificially-created north-east sector, where supporters of Britain were strongest and the Unionists captured a majority.

The election came about after major policy discussions in the British government over how to defeat the liberation movement.  British leaders had decided that the level of violence and coercion they would have to use would be impossible to sustain without creating huge social disorder in Britain itself and massive international opposition.

As historian C. Desmond Greaves has noted, “It was no longer a matter of crushing republican resistance in order to impose partition.  Partition must be imposed in order to outflank that resistance and bring about an imperial peace. . .  (T)he application of the Government of Ireland Act to the six counties was expedited, while Dail Eireann was alternately wooed and threatened, as the terror increased and weaknesses were probed for.  The aim was to deprive the Republic of part of its territory and, having thus weakened it, bring it to terms” (Greaves, Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution, 1971, p233).  The pro-British forces in the north-east quickly set about establishing a sectarian apartheid-like state.  As Greaves put it, “The six counties were lost without a blow.”

The pan-nationalism of the dominant section of the republican leadership made it impossible for the liberation movement to prevent partition.  As a pan-nationalist front, SF could not mobilise the power of the working class and rural poor and unite their economic struggles with the political struggle for the independence of the country.  Indeed, the pan-nationalists could not even achieve their own limited goal of political independence.

By contrast, a genuinely revolutionary movement would have been able to forge grassroots organisations of dual power, rather than remaining trapped in a framework set by the British state.  The workers and rural poor were already waging struggles over much of the country, occupying workplaces and the holdings of the big pro-British landowners, and setting up soviets.  If a genuine revolutionary movement had have existed it could have led the way in generalising and deepening these developments and establishing dual power.  British machinations could then have been halted.  For instance, a general strike, mass demonstrations, electoral boycott and armed actions could all have been deployed to prevent the British imposing the partition elections.

Search for moderates

In the situation opened up after the partitioning of the island, the search for moderates in the republican movement was a cornerstone of British policy.  During the armed struggle of 1919-21, the underground nature of the movement meant that the British had little chance to know, let alone size up, the key republican leaders.  As the British moved towards a truce, in July 1921, they improved their intelligence.

The British were careful in their dealings with the republican leaders to be polite and act as if they were taking them seriously.  Jones’ diary, however, reveals the British leaders’ real views and scheming.  British prime minister Lloyd George summed up leading Dail figure Eoin MacNeill as “a hopeless dodderer”.  (MacNeill had been allowed into the republican leadership despite his treacherous role in undermining the 1916 Rising.)  South African leader General Smuts, who played an important part in the British scheming of the time, met leading Sinn Feiners de Valera, Griffith, Eamon Duggan and Robert Barton in Dublin on July 5 and told the British cabinet that they were “all small men, rather like the sporadic leaders thrown up in a labour strike” (Jones’ diary, p83).  (Lloyd George and Smuts were, of course, correct in their assessments of these leaders.)

The British were careful too because they realised that de Valera would need to “bring his left-wing along with him” (Jones’ diary, p91).  Courting the moderates was seen as essential to isolating and containing the more determined republican elements, described by the British as “intellectuals like Childers” and “Fenians” such as Cathal Brugha.  (Childers was head of the extremely efficient underground republican publicity machine; Brugha was minister of defence, Michael Collins’ boss; both opposed the 1921 Treaty and were killed by the Free Staters the following year.)  Even if the radicals proved “obdurate and impervious to reason the influence of the moderates will still probably be sufficiently strong to prevent them precipitating a renewal of hostilities,” Britain’s Ireland under-secretary Cope wrote to Jones on August 24, 1921 (Jones’ diary, p101).

Collins, the supposed hard man, was well and truly sussed by the British: indeed, Archbishop Clune of Perth told the British cabinet, “after interviews with various Irish leaders, he had found Michael Collins the only one with whom business could be done” (Jones’ diary, p131).

From Treaty to civil war

In the months following the truce, negotiations went on between republican leaders and the British, resulting in the signing of a Treaty in London in December 1921.  The Treaty basically gave Home Rule, rather than real independence, to the 26-county area which now became the Irish Free State.  The British monarch remained the head of the new Irish State, with its government having to take an oath of allegiance.  The six-county area would stay part of Britain.  The Treaty was signed by Collins, Griffith and other negotiators without even referring it back to the government and parliament in Dublin, although they were under express orders to do o before any signing.

When Collins, Griffith and the others signed the Treaty, Scottish Marxist Willie Gallacher, a prominent supporters of the Irish freedom struggle, rushed to Dublin to warn the more militant republicans about what had happened and what the result would be.  He met with Mellows, Brugha and Rory O’Connor and urged them to arrest the signatories and repudiate the Treaty, arguing, “If you don’t arrest them, it will not be long before they’re arresting you.”  Brugha responded naively that Irishmen who supported the Treaty would not arrest Irishmen who opposed it and dismissed Gallacher’s Marxism as inappropriate to the Irish situation.  (See Greaves, pp268-9, for an account of this meeting.)  Six months later Brugha was killed in a hail of Free State gunfire as the anti-Treaty forces were defeated in Dublin and the Free Staters about whom Brugha had been so naive launched a bloody wave of repression to be Britain’s go-fors.  Gallacher’s Marxism had proved much more prescient than Brugha’s faith in pan-nationalism.

The struggle defeated

Although the Treaty was narrowly accepted in the Dail – by 64 votes to 57 – it was rejected by the big majority of the IRA, Sinn Fein, Cumann na mBan and other republican organisations which had carried out the struggle.  The Treatyites therefore had to set up the apparatus of the new state while buying time for themselves, until they were ready and strong enough to crush the anti-Treaty republicans.

They were assisted in this process by the key anti-Treaty leaders as most of these figures remained wedded to pan-nationalism.  For month after month they dithered, refusing to act against the Treatyite counter-revolutionary minority within the republican movement.  In the meantime, the British armed the new Free State regime, and every important business interest in the country, along with the Catholic Church, came out in full support of the Treaty.  While the anti-Treaty forces prevaricated and procrastinated, hoping for the movement to be reunified, the Treatyites grew stronger and stronger by the day, until they were ready to attack.  The civil war began.

James Connolly’s young son Roddy noted in 1922 that the more radical republicans fetishised unity and constantly subordinated themselves to the ‘moderates’.  “The preponderance of unity-minded members,” he argued, ensured that the period from the signing of the Treaty until the civil war broke out in June 1922 was “a series of lost opportunities”.  Even during the civil war itself, the republican leaders refused to take the offensive against the new Free State.  On the military level they ordered retreat after retreat and on the economic-political level they failed to relate to a massive new round of workers’ struggles and occupations (see Roddy Connolly, The Republican Struggle in Ireland, 1922).

In the end the workers and rural poor had no reason to back the anti-Treaty forces, and the new neo-colonial regime won out, even though Griffith and Collins were dead within the first few months of the civil war.  (Griffith died of a stroke and Collins was killed in an ambush.)

James Connolly had understood that the working class had to lead the national liberation struggle and, in freeing Ireland, would free itself.  After the crushing of the 1916 rebellion, however, the movement for freedom was dominated by pan-nationalism and disaster was inevitable.

As Mellows had warned, the new Irish Free State became the buffer between British imperialism and the Irish masses in the south.  Indeed, the establishment of two reactionary states in Ireland, both of which upheld British interests, made the conditions under which the struggle for freedom had then to proceed even more difficult than ever.

In the north, a sectarian police state, based on discrimination against the nationalist population in every area if social, economic and political life, was established.  In the south, a neo-colonial backward state, dependent on the Catholic Church for its moral authority and British imperialism for its economy, ground down its own people.  Both states ruthlessly suppressed republicanism.

Michael Collins played a crucial role in establishing partition, setting up the new southern state and waging ruthless war on the opponents of the Treaty.  His great ‘achievement’ was thus to do for British imperialism what British repression itself could never do.

See also:                                                                                                                                   Civil war, counter-revolution and the consolidation of the Free State


Posted on September 25, 2012, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, Civil War period, Free State in 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Historiography and historical texts, Irish politics today, James Connolly, Liam Mellows, Partition, Political education and theory, Provos - then and now, Republicanism post-1900, Revolutionary figures, War for Independence period. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Michael Collins and Irish Freedom.

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