Monday, 26 February 2007

The Michael Collins story

Published November 1996

... until the conflict of partition is overcome
the ghosts of Collins and Dev will never be laid to rest

On the day the Michael Collins movie, written and directed by Neil Jordan, premiered in Ireland, it was impossible to avoid the media hype. Since its earlier release in the U.S., the media was churning it out - the crits, good and bad, the historians, the begrudgers, they all had a go. It created as much copy on political pages as on entertainment or arts sections. The jury is still out.

What is so fascinating about Michael Collins? He was handsome, clever, at the centre of political and military intrigue - a raw country boy who was sent to Westminster to negotiate treaty terms with the might of the British Empire.

How did he find himself in this position? Did he get the best terms possible? Were there any alternatives? These are the questions that history has never answered, and that fascinated historian Neil Jordan, who spent over 12 years working to develop the film.

What we do know is that the Treaty led to a bloody Civil War that divided communities, even families, through the length and breadth of the country. We also know that it led directly, as Collins had predicted, to his death. We may never know the full truth of the period, but the film brings Collins firmly into the mainstream of historical investigation, in from the cold where he had resided for more than half a century. In 1966 Eamon de Valera, then President of Ireland, said that history would come to recognise the greatness of Collins, at his expense. The general consensus on the film is that the prediction has come true, and definitely at Dev's expense.

History is full of what might have beens, but they serve little purpose in the art (or is it science?) of historical analysis. What did occur, as a result of the Treaty, was a bloody Civil War, and an aftermath that is still felt. Growing up not far from Collins' family home, I can testify to the legacy of secrecy and division that prevailed. The politics of the new nation were dominated by Civil War divisions, and the two main political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, developed out of Dev and Collins camps. It is only with the passing of the Dev era, in the last two decades, that Irish society has begun to move away from Treaty politics. The two main parties are still entrenched (Nora Owen, Minister for Justice is a niece of Michael Collins), but an increasingly young electorate has indicated that Civil War divisions no longer concern them.

Queen Elizabeth I put forward the theory that imperialism should be based on the principle of divide and rule. Thereby she established the world's most powerful empire. Time and again, history has shown, that divisions remain long after the imperialist departs with his booty. The bloodbath that greeted Indian Independence, the bloody and starving mess on the African Continent, the collapse of Eastern Europe, perhaps even the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland, all speak of layers of ethnic conflict that strike at the heart of society. It is arguable that the Irish Civil War was unavoidable, given the apartheid system that was introduced in the plantation of Ulster. It is also possible that the subsequent dominance of our politics by these issues was unavoidable, a mere blip on the road to national identity. It might be argued, however, that until the conflict of partition is overcome the ghosts of Collins and Dev will never be laid to rest.

Published in
Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - November 23, 1996.

1 comment:

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