Were I at home in England, the commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising would be entirely uncontroversial: we were admirers of Michael Collins.
My grandmother began work in the post office in London in 1927. Among those she came to know was Johanna “Hannie” Collins, from Clonakilty in West Cork. Hannie Collins was almost thirty years senior to my grandmother, who was just eighteen at the time, and had joined the post office in London in 1899, when nineteen years old (and would remain until her retirement in 1940). Given their age difference, Hannie Collins must have seemed like an honorary aunt to the young Marjorie Bennett. On one occasion, my grandmother’s 21st birthday in January 1930, Hannie gave her the gift of a pocket torch – a gift that became much valued because it was said to have belonged to Hannie’s younger brother, Michael, who had for fifteen years lived in London with Hannie.
Michael Collins had so become an iconic figure by 1930, that, within a decade of his death in an ambush at Béal na Bláth in Co Cork in August 1922, to be given something that was said to have belonged to him was thought a privilege. The torch is still a treasured possession of my father, it is our symbolic, if not actual, connection to the “Big Fellow.”
Of course, our family had never borne the consequences of the actions of Collins and his men, nor had we to endure the economic privations or religious oppression of the decades that followed Collins’ death. In years past, had I been challenged about the Rising and the War of Independence and the history that unfolded, I would almost certainly have asserted that history would have been different if Collins had not been murdered on that fateful summer’s day, but that assertion would have been to avoid the question.
That the planned commemorations are dogged by arguments, and that there are questions being raised about what it is that is actually being commemorated, is a reflection not so much of doubts regarding the qualities of those who participated in the Rising, but a lack of any common understanding of the process set in train. The easiest thing would be to take the Rising outside of its context and to commemorate it as a one off event, but history does not work in such simple ways. There has been little indication that the centenaries that will be marked in the next six or seven years will pass without vicious debate and controversy. It is not as though there has not been enough time to prepare, centenaries only come around once every hundred years, more that politicians seem to prefer anecdotes and assertions to the process of reflection and painful self-examination.
Ah, sure, it’s easier just to shout for Mick Collins and mourn the loss of the Big Fellow.