Michael Collins & the Easter Rising

Michael Collins & the Easter Rising

The months and weeks before the Easter Rising of 1916 saw a few Irish Republicans returning from various parts of Great Britain and among them was a 25 year old Michael Collins. Collins seems to have taken up employment with the Plunkett family in late 1915. He assisted them with their property and rental interests, answering mostly to Geraldine Plunkett, who spoke extremely highly of him. It is little wonder that she did. Collins had gained employment as a senior clerk in an American stock-broking firm in London. Prior to that, he had worked in the Post Office Savings Bank and as a junior clerk in another firm. Bureaucracy was Collins’s business and he had attained a well-paid post by being good at it. Had he remained in London, Collins could have had a bright and financially rewarding future, so why did he return to Ireland?

By 1915 Collins was a member of the GAA, the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin, the Irish Volunteers, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He was clearly an advanced nationalist and a physical force separatist. Had he been aware that an armed insurrection was forthcoming it may well have been enough to send him back to Ireland. According to much maligned biography by Haydon Talbot, Collins would later claim that it was Tom Clarke who appraised him of the forthcoming rising when he had announced his intention to emigrate to the USA.[1] Collins was certainly considering the possibility of emigration to avoid the provisions of a conscription act which would apply to British residents. He conducted some correspondence with his brother Patrick, then in Chicago, regarding the possibility of settling there. He also applied for his Birth Certificate in December 1915 and this may have been necessitated by his intention to apply for a passport. Collins’ sister Hannie later recalled discussing potential emigration with her brother before he announced, just prior to Christmas 1915, that he would return to Ireland as ‘there was going to be trouble’ there. Another of his London acquaintances, Seán McGrath, later remembered him announcing to IRB comrades that he was returning to Ireland in December. An alternative narrative suggests Collins had decided to leave London for Ireland in December as Geraldine Plunkett later remember his working for her in November.

It is quite possible that she was mistaken, but Peter Hart in his often challenged biography proposed more nuanced theory. According to Hart Sam Maguire later stated that Collins was unaware of the forthcoming rising while living in London. If that is true, his (or Talbot’s) subsequent story about Clarke’s invitation to participate seems likely to have been invented, or at least, did not happen in London. He suggests that Collins initially left London in November 1915 advising his employer that he was returning to Ireland to care for a relative. Upon returning to Dublin some of his IRB contacts connected him with the Plunkett family and it was while working with them that Collins learned about the rising. He then returned to London and discussed his options with Hannie, before handing his final notice to his employers. Hart’s theory seems very plausible and goes a long way towards explaining the alternative dates offered for Collins’s departure from London. Whether one believes Hart, or choses to believe Talbot, both of whom biographies have come under scrutiny, it is quite clear that Michael Collins found himself back in Ireland at the beginning of 1916. He was then acquainted with some of those who would become the leaders of the rising and was likely to have been aware of what was coming.

Geraldine Plunkett was impressed with Collins. She noted that he came to her ‘off the boat’ and worked part-time with her for three months before leaving for what was presumably a better paid and full-time position in an accountancy firm.[2] But she noted that his accent came and went, and that he had an intensity which seemed hidden:

When I first met him in the yard at Larkfield in November 1915 he was twenty six but looked younger. He was not tall, medium height and colour, quiet and with a sense of humour. He had lost his Cork accent but could produce it at a moments notice … He could present a perfectly blank appearance and could not be picked out of a crowd unless you knew him. Until I looked at his eyes he was not remarkable.[3]

Thus Collins’s intensity seemed quiet to her. But there were others in the Plunkett family who found him less quiet and more irritating. If the recollections of Geraldine’s nephew Eoghan are to be believed, his mother, Geraldine’s sister-in-law, had a different view of Collins:

My mother knew Mick Collins well … He had an office in her flat and she despised him. He was a pup. A nasty piece of work. Whenever he came into their living room, the carpet on the living room floor was surrounded by a timber floor, but he walked on the timber part. Why? Because it made more noise. That’s the sort of fellow that he was. She and he were both from west Cork; she recognized him for what he was.[4]

Mary Plunkett (nee MacCarthy) was not the last person who would develop a personal dislike of what they considered Collins’s boisterous behaviour. The further he rose in the republican movement, the more prominent he became, and the more people developed strong opinions about his personality. Some liked him and some did not. Unfortunately almost all of our evidence of the personality of Collins comes in the form of retrospective recollection, flavoured as it may be, by the lingering aftertaste of the civil war.

The early part of 1916 saw Collins still working with the Plunketts before he moved on to the afore mentioned accountancy firm. He was resident with his aunt Hannah O’Donovan. Her husband Timothy was a customs officer and we cannot be sure whether or not they were aware of her nephew’s involvement in revolutionary politics. Around this time Collins became Aide de Camp to Joseph Mary Plunkett, a role that brought him into the immediate orbit of some of the most prominent republicans in Dublin. The Aide de Camp (ADC) serves as a personal assistant to a high-ranking officer. They carry little official authority of their own, but their close proximity to one senior officer makes them well-known to many other senior officers. They make powerful friends and some of the power of those friends can rub off. In this new role Collins became intimately acquainted with Seán MacDermott, another of the eventual signatories of the 1916 proclamation. MacDermott saw him as ‘a very valuable man.’ By now Plunkett was suffering with TB and thus his Aide de Camp became his eyes, ears, and legs to an even greater extent than would normally be the case. Collins appears to have been one of at least two men who shared this position, but it was still enough to place him in the republican inner sanctum.

Collins had also joined the Keating branch of the Gaelic League and it was through them that he got to know some of the most important IRB operatives in Dublin. Men like Gearoid O’Sullivan, Piaras Beaslai, Cathal Brugha, Fionan Lynch and Diarmuid O Hegarty were not particularly big players in the Easter drama which was about to unfold, but all of them would become senior republicans in the years ahead.[5] The ‘very valuable’ Collins was also known to call (most likely on behalf of Plunkett) at some of the spots where the Easter munitions were being manufactured. The men involved in this project saw the young Cork man as energetic and hard-working, but occasionally abrasive and self-important. One of them bemoaned his lack of knowledge when it came to ‘mechanics.’ Collins was not opposed to taking his turn in the work however, and it may have been his lack of knowledge regarding the finer points of manufacturing explosives that led to a hand injury which he carried into Easter week. [6] He was also remembered for his generosity of spirit and his passing some second hand clothes to some of the more impoverished volunteers.[7]

In the days leading up to Easter Monday, Dublin’s republican inner sanctum buzzed with couriers carrying messages to all corners of the city. The counter-order issued by Eoin MacNeill came to cause confusion in all parts of Ireland, but considerably less so in Dublin. The senior republicans were all based in Dublin and they were able to countermand MacNeill quickly, thereby keeping their own plans in motion. As Plunkett’s ADC, Collins was doubtlessly involved in carrying his C/O’s orders across the city and so played his part in ensuring that the Dublin battalions were mobilised on Easter Monday morning. He seemed to have specific knowledge of the forthcoming rising by Holy week as Nancy O’Brien later remembered Collins and MacDiarmada discussing it with her in a Dublin café. Although Coogan rightly suggests this would have indicated their trusting her to an unusual extent, Collins depended heavily upon O’Brien (a relative of his) in the years ahead and thus his trust in her does not seem unusual or misplaced.[8]

On Easter Monday morning Collins mobilised with the rest of the volunteers, and in the company of Plunkett, he took up position in the GPO on Sackville Street. Michael Collins was now 25 years old and was beginning a campaign of militant resistance to British rule in Ireland, that would last the remaining six years of his life. In those six short years he would achieve much, but in that first week, in the Easter of 1916, his achievements were less stellar. Collins was about to participate in the biggest failure of his military career. Paradoxically, this failure would ultimately secure his prominence in Irish history.

Collins would later be remembered as an active and efficient officer during the week’s hostilities. Frank O’Connor later wrote of recollections of Collins throwing barrels of stout down a drain and remarking that the rebels of 1798 had been called louts and drunkards, they would not be able to say the same of the rebels of 1916. Desmond Fitzgerald wrote of a dusty Collins who had been involved in dismantling barricades demanding that Fitzgerald feed his men even if it took the last of the food in the building. There were recollections of his good humour in waiting until after a fierce fusillade to ask Pearse if he and a friend could leave to go on a date with two girls who they didn’t want to leave down. He is also described guarding a ladder to the building’s roof rather sulkily as he may have considered such a task below him and a waste of his time. He spent some time in the Freeman’s Journal offices across the road answering the phone to its managing director and refusing to identify himself – something which he eventually did some years later in the telling of the story. By Friday, he was in the thick of the action fighting fires in the GPO and, in the process, destroying his Irish Volunteer officers uniform of which he was enormously proud.[9] Collins achieved all of this activity while carrying an injured thumb which prohibited him from using a weapon.[10] He must have been one of the few men running around the Dublin garrisons who was unable to defend himself with a firearm. His courage in turning out unarmed is surely exceptional. By the end of the week Collins apparently persuaded many of the London Irish that they should not attempt a futile escape from the GPO and instead wait bitterly for the end. Fitzgerald later described him in the final hours of the fight as they awaited what seemed like certain death:

Michael Collins sat in a corner, a look of horror in his eyes, a pallor spreading over his face. Disjointed words told Harding that O’Rahilly’s eviscerated corpse and the riddled civilians, on the blood clogged cobbles had come to life in one mans imagination, straining his control to breaking point. Moans escaped him and he huddled into his corner at every far away sound. Macken went swiftly to Michael Collins and spoke to him in cheerful undertones … Collins looked up, and back, stoical and impassive, with the rest of the doomed volunteers waiting for the end.[11]

Before their end came the final surrender was ordered, Collins was marched off down the street with the rest of the GPO garrison. It was said that he turned around to look at the smouldering ruins of the GPO and reportedly remarked; ‘at least the flag is flying.’[12] Little did they know at that point the importance of what had taken place or of what was about to take place, as the leaders of their movement were to be executed. From a personal point of view Collins was also unaware that his childhood friend, Seán (Jack) Hurley, had been mortally wounded just a few hours earlier and lay dying in the care of the Capuchan Franciscan Order. Hurley had gone to school with Collins in Clonakilty, had travelled to London and joined the same organisations alongside Collins and had returned with Collins to take part in the Rising. He would be the only Cork man killed in action in the Rising in Dublin that week.

One year later Collins had been released from internment and was busy rebuilding the republican movement in a new iteration. The 1916 Rising was not just a formative event of the modern Irish State but it was also a significantly formative part of Collins’ story and the beginning of what he would be remembered for over one hundred years later. He was certainly not the most famed or distinguished soldier of Easter week. Indeed, it can be argued that his military knowledge was never as impressive as his bureaucratic zeal. Collins was never a gunman. By 1917 he was building a new republic with the pen and paper that fired a thousand guns.

[1] Hayden Talbot, Michael Collins’ Own Story, p26.

[2] BMH, Geraldine Dillon Witness Statement, WS358

[3] Hart, p. 74.

[4] Irish Times, 29 June 2015.

[5] Hart, p. 88.

[6] Hart, p. 89.

[7] T.P. Coogan, Michael Collins, (London 1991), p. 34.

[8] Coogan, p. 37.

[9] Hart, p. 94.

[10] Bureau of Military History, Sorcha Nic Diarmada Witness Statement, WS945. This injury appears to have occurred while he worked on explosives prior to the rising (Hart, p. 88).

[11] Coogan, p. 43.

[12] Ibid, p.44.

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