The Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins (1890-1922) was a founder of the Irish Free State.
Michael Collins was born near Clonakilty, County Cork, on Oct. 16, 1890. He was educated at local primary schools and went to London in 1906 to enter the civil service as a postal clerk. For 10 years Collins lived in London, where he became active in various Irish organizations, the most important of which was the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret society dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland.
Collins returned to Ireland in 1916 to take part in the Easter Rising and after its suppression was interned in North Wales with most of the other rebels. When the internees were released in December 1916, he went to Dublin, where his keen intelligence and dynamic energy soon secured him a position of leadership in the reviving revolutionary movement.
After their victory in the general election of December 1918, the revolutionaries established an Irish Parliament, Dail Eireann, in January 1919. The Dail proclaimed an Irish Republic and set up an executive to take over the government of the country. British attempts to suppress the republican movement were met with guerrilla warfare by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Collins played the most important role in this struggle. As director of intelligence of the IRA, he crippled the British intelligence system in Ireland and replaced it with an effective Irish network. At the same time he performed other important military functions, headed the IRB, and, as minister of finance in the Republican government, successfully raised and disbursed large sums on behalf of the rebel cause. Despite constant efforts the British were unable to capture Collins or stop his work. The "Big Fellow" became an idolized and near-legendary figure in Ireland and won a formidable reputation in Britain and abroad for ruthlessness, resourcefulness, and daring.
After the truce of July 1921, Collins reluctantly agreed to President Eamon De Valera's request to serve on the peace-making delegation headed by Arthur Griffith. During the autumn negotiations in London, the British government firmly rejected any settlement that involved recognition of the republic. Instead its representatives offered Dominion status for Ireland, with the right of exclusion for loyalist Northern Ireland. Collins decided to accept these terms, in the belief that rejection meant renewal of the war and quick defeat for Ireland and that the proposed treaty would soon lead to unity and complete freedom for his country. Using these arguments, he and Griffith persuaded their fellow delegates to sign the treaty on Dec. 6, 1921, and Dail Eireann to approve it on Jan. 7, 1922.
De Valera and many Republicans refused to accept the agreement, however, contending that it constituted a betrayal of the republic and would mean continued subjection to Britain. As the British evacuated southern Ireland, Collins and Griffith did their best to maintain order and implement the treaty but found their efforts frustrated by the opposition of an armed Republican minority. Collins sought desperately to pacify the antitreaty forces without abandoning the treaty but found it impossible to make a workable compromise.
In late June 1922, after the population had endorsed the settlement in an election, Collins agreed to use force against the dissidents. This action precipitated civil war, a bitter conflict in which the forces of the infant Irish Free State eventually overcame the extreme Republicans in May 1923. Collins did not live to see the end of the war; he was killed in ambush in West Cork on Aug. 22, 1922, just 10 days after the death of Arthur Griffith.
Much of Collins's success as a revolutionary leader can be ascribed to his realism and extraordinary efficiency, but there was also a marked strain of idealism and humanity in his character which appealed to friend and foe alike. The treaty that cost him his life did not end partition, as he had hoped, but it did make possible the peaceful attainment of full political freedom for most of Ireland.
Further Reading on Michael Collins
Frank O'Connor (pseud. of Michael O'Donovan), The Big Fellow: Michael Collins and the Irish Revolution (1937; rev. ed. 1965), offers penetrating insight into Collins's complex personality. Piaras Béaslaí, Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland (2 vols., 1926), is the most detailed biography. Rex Taylor, Michael Collins (1958), fills in important details of the treaty negotiations.
Additional Biography Sources
Coogan, Tim Pat, Michael Collins: a biography, London: Hutchinson, 1990.
Dwyer, T. Ryle, Michael Collins: "the man who won the war," Cork: Mercier Press, 1990.
Dwyer, T. Ryle, Michael Collins and the treaty: his differences with de Valera, Dublin: Mercier Press, 1981.
Feehan, John M., The shooting of Michael Collins, Dublin: Mercier Press, 1981.
Michael Collins, Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1980.
Ryan, Meda, The day Michael Collins was shot, Swords, Co. Dublin, Ireland: Poolbeg, 1989.