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Michael Collins: Irish Hero or Terrorist?

November 11, 1990|PAUL MAJENDIE | REUTERS

DUBLIN — China's Mao Tse-tung and Israel's Yitzhak Shamir regarded Irishman Michael Collins as the founder of modern guerrilla warfare.

To some he was a freedom fighter, to others a terrorist. Now, on the centenary of Collins' birth, an Ireland born in blood is reflecting once more on the fratricidal hatred that flared so viciously in the newborn nation's civil war.

Collins was the brains behind a brilliantly conceived guerrilla war of hit-and-run ambushes against Britain, colonial ruler of Ireland for 700 often repressive years.

He founded the Irish Army, became its first commander-in-chief and brought the British Army's intelligence network in Dublin to its knees.

Faced with the massed might of the British Empire, he negotiated the 1921 Treaty that enshrined the partition of Ireland into north and south and sparked a civil war. That division has bedeviled Anglo-Irish relations ever since.

Killed in a civil war ambush that launched academics on an Irish whodunit industry about who fired the fatal shot, the charismatic Collins still stirs passion whenever his name is mentioned.

If you mention his name in conversation, bear in mind whose grandfather fought on which side in the civil war. History on this island is one long remembered yesterday.

Opening a heritage center at the Collins' family homestead at Woodfield, Irish President Patrick Hillery urged his compatriots to bury the past and pleaded: "Put the long-term legacy of fratricidal hatred behind us."

In a thoughtful and deeply felt address, Peter Sutherland, Ireland's former European Community Commissioner, fired a salvo at the Irish Republican Army fighting to oust Britain from the north.

"Those who are carrying out vicious and sordid acts of murder and pointless violence today must never be allowed to invoke the name or the authority of those who took part in the war of independence, and least of all Michael Collins, to justify their crimes."

Pointing to what is seen as a prevalent Irish trait, he said: "We have a capacity for excessively admiring noble failure. Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of a history which consistently over centuries placed us on the wrong side."

The Irish have in the past been reluctant to explore the aftermath of the civil war, fearing skeletons may spring from certain cupboards.

But the romantic, intriguing, worshipped and feared Collins has great pulling power. Fourteen books and two television documentaries have covered his life and four film biography proposals have been sketched out.

The latest to pitch into the fray is journalist and author Tim Pat Coogan with a 480-page biography of "The Big Fella," as Collins was called.

Coogan nails his colors firmly to the mast. Collins is portrayed as a brilliant general and a visionary whose death was a tragedy for Ireland.

On the other hand, archrival and Irish founding father Eamon de Valera is portrayed as petty, vindictive, mean and vicious.

"De Valera did not study Machiavelli merely for enjoyment," Coogan says. "He was adept at concealing his moves from public view."

But Coogan does at least absolve De Valera from any involvement in the hastily arranged ambush that killed Collins on the way to Cork on Aug. 22, 1922. He argues that De Valera, in fact, actively tried to prevent it.

Plunging into the whodunit controversy, Coogan discounts theories that it was a British Secret Service conspiracy and names Sonny O'Neill, one of the ambush party, as the man most likely to have fired the fatal shot.

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