In our house, there was never any doubt, Michael Collins was a hero.
It never occurred to me to ask why someone who had fought against the British should be a hero in our family.
There was a long history of military service, one great grandfather had served in Hussars regiments from 1899-1918, seeing action in South Africa and on the Western Front, and had then joined the Military Provost Staff to guard prisoners at The Curragh. We weren’t predisposed to supporting armed factions who fought against the British army.
Why had a boy in 1960s Somerset held the commander of the Irish forces in high regard?
Perhaps it was because we shared a birthday. I was born on the seventieth anniversary of the birth of Michael Collins. Perhaps it was because he had died while still a young man. But neither of those explanations would have explained the respect my father showed for the memory of Michael Collins.
It was only in the past decade that the reason had emerged. My grandmother had worked with Collins’ sister in the post office in London. The respect with which we remembered Michael Collins derived from the stories of him told by his sister.
Loath to discard childhood sentiments, I have always tried to see Collins in the best light. But reading accounts of the War of Independence and the Civil War, there are causes to doubt the image I had created in my mind of a man fighting for democracy and tolerance.
Collins was ruthless in ordering the murders of men who were often doing no more than the job for which they were paid.
The ruthlessness extended to his attitude to power. In the summer of 1922, it would have been hard to be certain which body was ruling Ireland. The British army were present, but disinclined to intervene any more in Irish affairs. The provisional government found its authority challenged by those who did not accept the 1921 Treaty. The third Dail had been elected on 16th June 1922, but had been prorogued. The Anti-Treaty elements claimed legitimacy for themselves as representatives of the Republic they sought.
In this situation of confusion and conflict, Michael Collins created a War Council of three men, with himself at the head. Collins had become a military dictator.
Perhaps such measures were necessary to save the new state. Perhaps Collins was the only man who could have provided the leadership required.
Michael Collins seems far removed from the person I once imagined.