Collins, Commemoration, Conciliation & Conflict

Collins, Commemoration, Conciliation and Conflict.

As Ireland seems to move towards a historic coalition government between the political descendants of our civil war belligerents, it is worth noting a forgotten event that attempted to reconcile those two factions. That event was the commemoration to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Michael Collins’s death at Béal na Bláth. The commemoration since its beginning had always had a political undertone that reflected the politics of the day as well as the effect that the Civil War had on the Irish political landscape. The 1972 event marked a visible thawing in relations between former civil war rivals representing the Fine Gael and Fianna Fail political parties. The reconciliation was overshadowed though by another war that threatened to erupt in Ireland’s North eastern corner. In 1972 Beál n Bláth witnessed a southern reconciliation in the darkening shade of northern discord.

The history of Beal na Bláth’s commemorations had always been one of polarised political identity. The first commemorations featured members of the Collins family, Free State luminaries, the National Army, and an oration by Piaras Béaslai. WT Cosgrave unveiled the monument during a large ceremony in 1925.[1] Commemorative ceremonies then ceased for a number of years, though it was later claimed that small personal commemorations continued as the Collins family laid a wreath at the site annually.[2]

If the foundation of the Fianna Fáil party gave voice to the dying embers of militant republicanism, their coming to power in February 1932 stoked fears about democratic transition, and the influence of IRA militants on government. Partly as a result of those fears, the Army Comrades Association (ACA) was formed in 1932 and that association (which would become colloquially known as ‘the Blueshirts’) were centrally involved in the revival of Béal na Bláth ceremonies in 1932 and appropriated it for their own ends.[3]

By 1933, ‘the Blueshirts’ were led by Eoin O’Duffy who had just recently been removed from his position as Garda Commissioner. The newly installed de Valera government had become concerned at O’Duffy’s attempts to organise a military coup and had proscribed several demonstrations including a proposed ‘March on Dublin’ which seemed reminiscent of Mussolini’s ‘March on Rome,’ and theBéal na Bláth commemoration. O’Duffy reacted to the Béal na Bláth ban by holding a Blueshirt Rally in Bandon where he addressed 3-4,000 people in the town. He then journeyed towards Béal na Bláth where the Gardai halted his convoy near Crookstown. He made a speech and promptly returned to Bandon. This, along with commemorations of Arthur Griffith and Kevin O’Higgins, was seen as a breach of the ban and the organisation was declared illegal. At Beal na Blath Collins’s sister Margaret had also attempted to get to the monument where she had laid a wreath every year since her brother’s death. She too was denied access even after she attempted to rush the cordon.[4]

O’Duffy returned to Béal na Bláth in 1934. By then, O’Duffy was at the head of a new party, Fine Gael. The event was marred by violence when the ‘Blueshirts’ engaged in a scuffle with youths who had shouted ‘fuck Collins’ from a nearby hill.[5] By 1935 O’Duffy had departed Fine Gael and the old Blueshirt organisation was split. Both factions paraded on separate weekends at Béal na Bláth in August. The presence of female members was remarked upon by the Irish Press.[6] O’Duffy returned in 1936 again, this time with his new green shirted organisation and used the Beal na Bláth event to announce the formation of an Irish Brigade for action in the Spanish Civil War.[7] It was the last of the big political parades and the organised commemorations went defunct until 1939 when a new commemoration committee tried to strike a less political tone.[8] This more apolitical approach, mixed with war-time rationing of petrol may have been the reasons that the thousands of attendees which had once been reported, soon turned to hundreds.[9]

By 1946 the Béal na Bláth commemoration was again gaining some traction with a swelling attendance. By now the event was frequently attended by various units of the ‘Old IRA.’ This collection of disparate veterans’ associations was partially active in various guises since 1923 and had frequently occupied themselves in pursuit of pension payments for its members, all of whom were former members of the IRA.

When Fianna Fáil were removed from power newspapers reported the return of ‘official’ commemorations to Béal na Bláth from 1948.[10] The new Inter Party Government were as good as their word and the Minister for Defence led the army to Béal na Bláth for the first time.[11] This was repeated in 1949 and 50, but by 1951, Fianna Fáil were back in power. The organising committee expressed their frustration that the army would not attend.[12] Although large crowds attended for Collins’s thirtieth anniversary in 1952 the ceremony would remain un-official until a Fine Gael led coalition again came to power in 1954.[13] Once again Fine Gael gave Béal na Bláth an official status until Fianna Fáil returned to power in 1957. Although some of the men who had formed the IRA attacking party at the ambush now attended the commemoration, the government would not send Óglaigh nah Eireann to play an official part.[14] By 1962 their role was partially filled by men who had been among the first to join their ranks and now stood in the ranks of the Old IRA.[15] Fianna Fáil would hold power until 1973, but before they left office, they relented on the Béal na Bláth issue.

Appeals for the army to attend at Béal na Bláth were renewed through the pages of the press in 1969.[16] Now, with storm clouds gathering in the North of the island conciliatory speeches were made by Fine Gael politicians at Béal na Bláth in 1970 and 71.[17] Theirs was a view of constitutional nationalism which was something that they shared with Fianna Fáil. Now the constitutional nationalists of southern Ireland would combine to allow the army partake in the commemoration. It was a statement of constitutional southern unity that may well have been overdue. The pro-Fianna Fáil Irish Press supported the involvement of the army though it did caution that 1972 might be the year that; ‘with savage irony we commemorate the Southern Civil War by beginning another Civil War in the North of Ireland.’[18]

On 21 July 1972, the Provisional IRA detonated at least 20 bombs in the space of eighty minutes across the city of Belfast. Nine people were killed and some 130 injured. Most of them were civilians. The bombs came almost two weeks after peace talks had broken down and the IRA had called off its ceasefire on 9 July. It was a massive show of strength from an organisation that could trace its origins back to the foundation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913. One month later another organisation tracing its origins back to the same event assembled at Béal na Bláth in County Cork. That organisation was the Irish Defence Forces (Oglaigh na hEireann) and they had come to pay tribute to their first Commander and Chief. It was the first time that they had visited Béal na Bláth under the direction of a Fianna Fáil government.

Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Jack Lynch was known to some of the Collins family as one of their own, Michael Collins-Powell, had provided him with work when he was first employed as a barrister.[19] Earlier in the year, he had responded positively to overtures regarding the restoration of the Collins homestead in Woodfield and its listing as a National Monument and placement in the care of the State.[20] The stage was set for a reconciliatory commemoration at Béal na Bláth.

Although the spirit of reconciliation was upheld when the two civil war factions met in an official capacity at the monument in August, the event was undoubtedly Fine Gael led. Donal Creed, the local Fine Gael TD chaired the commemoration committee. He and a handful of his fellow committee members, all identifiable Fine Gael members or councillors from Mid and West Cork, provided the official welcomes for all of the elected officials that day. Those elected Fianna Fáil officials who attended, were met with courtesy and respect.[21]

The Fianna Fáil Minister for Defence, Jerry Cronin, was loudly applauded when he became the first minister from that party to attend in an official capacity. He laid a wreath at the monument, before he and the army withdrew. Michael Collins’s nephew Seán Collins, leader of Fine Gael Liam Cosgrave, and former Fine Gael Taoiseach John A Costello each welcomed Cronin to the site and extended the hand of friendship to him. Everybody did their best to be conciliatory and comradely. The huge crowd in attendance however, could not have failed to notice the large number of armed soldiers at the scene, and the numbers of Gardai and Military Police that patrolled the approach roads.[22] Whatever the conciliatory optics among former militant republicans at the monument, there may have been a fear that more contemporary militant republican sympathies might result in violence. Reconciliation and the rejection of this violence which had been sparked in the North seemed to be the theme of the day.

The Lord Mayor of Cork was the first to speak and commented on the representation of past, present, and future among the political representatives on the platform that day. He commented that the young people of ‘today were … prepared to work as hard, if in a different way, to build a better Ireland in the future.’ It was the first clarification of the rejection of violence in pursuit of political aspiration, by all of those present. The honour of the keynote address was left to John A Costello. While he did not directly mention the Provisional IRA, there was little doubt that some of his speech was addressed to them, and their supporters. Costello had not been a member of the IRA but had served in the Free State Attorney General’s office. As such, his sympathy for armed insurrection may have been more lacking than in other members of his party. Addressing the presence of the Irish Army, Costello noted:

The army which is represented here today by its officers and men, is the real and only Oglaigh na h-Eireann, the only legitimate army of the Republic of Ireland, founded on, and subject to, an Irish Parliament and broadly based upon the will of the Irish people.[23]

Costello’s words were carefully chosen. While the Provisional IRA and its supporters claimed questionable authority from the First Dáil, they could not claim that they were still ‘subject to an Irish Parliament.’ While they might claim that their actions were ‘broadly based upon the will of the Irish people’ there was no electoral measure by which such a fanciful claim might be verified. The Irish Army’s claim to legitimacy was verified each time the people went to the ballot box to elect a President or a Dáil, and each time the Dáil appointed a Minister for Defence. Costello undermined the legitimacy of the Provisional movement by referring to the authority that was conveyed by contemporary democracy. He did not indulge in discussions regarding historical legitimacy.

The remainder of Costello’s speech recognised the legitimacy of the aspiration for Irish unity but rejected armed struggle as a methodology by which it could be achieved. It was standard fare for the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties throughout the decades of the northern troubles. But there was one stirring reminder of the responsibilities of the British government regarding the Irish population of Northern Ireland. It did not go as far as Jack Lynch’s famously misquoted ‘stand idly by’ efforts from three years previously, but it did serve as a reminder that the Southern State was vociferously critical of northern government.

It has to be recognised too that even Irish unity may be bought at too great a price, if bought at the price of sin and shame. While it has been made clear that the overwhelming majority of the country has no wish to coerce a million of the North-Eastern Ireland Protestants and that we will exercise towards them the virtue of Christian charity and tolerance, we are entitled to demand on our part that equally neither they nor Britain will continue to deprive half a million Irish Catholics, now resident in the six North Eastern counties of their just rights … These people with the acquiescence of the British, have been subjected for a period of fifty years to what is now admitted to be a constant series of injustices. Any peace or settlement or unity must see that liberty is universal, freedom of conscience is supreme, and coercion unknown.

The British people also have a serious responsibility. Their governments created the problem and maintained or acquiesced in the injustices … They surely are under an obligation of morals and justice to make reparation to the nation that was dismembered and to the portion of its people that have suffered.[24]

There is one underlying feature of the 1972 Béal na Bláth commemoration that points to the possibility of acquiescence on the part of the Southern State too, however. During the course of his speech, Costello referred to the Catholic/Nationalist majorities in two of Northern Ireland’s counties and three of its cities. Yet, these nationalist representatives were not reported present. While the commemoration had a theme of reconciliation the absence of Northern representatives, from either the Provisional movement or the newly founded SDLP which seemed to offer Northern Nationalists an alternative, made evident the growing North-South political divide. On this occasion the healing of old wounds was the foremost concern, present conflict would have to wait for another day.

The fiftieth anniversary of Collins death provided a fitting opportunity for a political reconciliation of the Civil War divide. The occasion reflected the man they had come to commemorate to a certain extent. While Collins’ viewpoint on the Treaty was divisive at the time, he still held the respect and affection of those who opposed him he, possibly even more so retrospectively. In August 1972 we had two organisations traditionally founded in the remnants of the opposing sides of the Civil War coming to an understanding that both held differing viewpoints but showing a level of respect towards each other and taking the first steps towards reconciliation and the healing of deep wounds. It is interesting that now as we approach another milestone, the centenary anniversary, that the reconciliation has reached a point where the parties can lay their difference aside and move forward away from the lasting divisions of the Civil War as they attempt to form a coalition Government.

[1] Béal na Blath Commemoration Committee, Béal na Báth Commemoration Ninetieth Anniversary 1922-2012, Cork, 2012, pp23-27.

[2] Ibid, p15 & 31. See also; Cork Examiner, 28 August 1933.

[3] Béal na Báth Commemoration Ninetieth Anniversary 1922-2012, Cork, 2012, pp29-30

[4] Ibid, p31. See also; Cork Examiner, 23 & 28 August 1933 & Irish Independent, 28 August 1933.

[5] Fearghal McGarry, Eoin O’Duffy: A Self Made Hero, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, pp 245 & 394.

[6] Irish Press, 12 & 19 August 1935.

[7] Irish Independent, 31 August 1936

[8] Evening Echo, 21 August 1939

[9] Irish Independent, 24 August 1943.

[10] Irish Press, 14 August 1948. Irish Independent, 14 August 1948.

[11] Irish Independent, 23 August 1948.

[12] Beal na Bláth Commemoration, p32. Evening Echo, 11 August 1950. Irish Press, 28 August 1951.

[13] Irish Independent, 23 August 1954.

[14] Sunday Independent, 25 August 1957.

[15] Beal na Bláth Commemoration, p32

[16] Cork Examiner, 11 & 16 August 1969.

[17] Ibid pp45-46

[18] Irish Press, 31 May 1972.

[19] T Ryle Dwyer, Nice Fellow: A Biography of Jack Lynch, Mercier Press, Cork, 2001, p27.

[20] Wicklow People, 4 August 1972. A letter by Anita Allord Brown cites her correspondence with Lynch’s office. The Taoiseach’s secretary stated that the office understood that the Fine Gael party were to purchase and restore the Woodfield site, and that its subsequent declaration as a National Monument would be favourably considered by Lynch’s government. The Woodfield site had generated some controversy of its own when its owners had asked £5,000 of a Fine Gael led committee tasked with buying it. (Sunday Independent, 21 May 1972).

[21] For details of attendees, organising committee and welcoming officials see; The Kerryman, 26 August 1972.

[22] Irish Independent, 21 August 1972.

[23] The Kerryman, 26 August 1972.

[24] Ibid

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