Michael Collins in the British Media Part 2

Michael Collins in the British Media- Part II

Up until the truce of July 1921 Collins was a bit of an unknown entity to the media. He had been cast as a mystery figure, an indefinable force, an unknown quantity. His was a story that people wanted to read more of and probably more importantly for the media, one who sold papers. After the truce of July 1921 it was possible for Collins to come more into the public sphere, albeit a little attentively at first. Public appearances were now possible and more importantly the photo ops were also more possible. So much so that the large majority of photos we have of Collins today originate from the time of the truce up until his death a little over a year later in august 1922. It was time for the shroud of mystery surrounding Collins to be removed.

After the failure of Peace negotiation between de Valera and the British government in July, English newspapers continued their speculation as to who might represent Irish Republicanism in more broad ranging peace talks. Some newspapers also began reporting that the inevitability of compromise on republican demands was already accepted by some in Dublin. It was even reported that a referendum might allow the people to decide on the terms of settlement proposed by Lloyd George or the full ‘secession’ advocated by men like Collins. This was said to have caused tension within the republican movement, but any such tensions were strenuously denied by that movement. [1] With the Dáil now meeting publicly, one newspaper commented on Collins’s popularity which was judged by the applause he received when he spoke. It also complimented him on his ‘promising and interesting’ manner of speaking and being the only one who ‘showed any trace of a sense of humour.’[2] Writing in the Nottingham Journal Katharine Tynan declared that the most fascinating part of the Dáil’s first public meeting was watching Collins taking his seat while looking furtively over his shoulder and declared it ‘one of the things one would have travelled a long way to see.’[3]

Collins’s speeches in the six counties that would become Northern Ireland, were reportedly far less humorous. While reaching out to Unionists and assuring them that their interests would be protected in an independent Ireland, he firmly rejected partition and assured nationalists that ‘no matter what happens we shall not desert them.’[4] Collins’s Armagh speech made front page headlines on the Illustrated London News. His photograph adorned the entire front page accompanied by the headline: THE ILLUSIVE IRA CHIEF IN THE OPEN AT LAST: THE NOTORIOUS MICHAEL COLLINS SPEAKING AT ARMAGH.[5] The same newspaper had given de Valera the full front page treatment two months previously, but had declared him neither illusive nor notorious.[6] A few days after the front page spread in London, the Daily Herald featured a photograph of Collins throwing in the ball at a Croke Park hurling match. The caption clearly identified him as ‘the leader of the IRA.’[7] The illusive militant leader was ‘in the open’ and that was of intense interest.

By mid-September that interest was expanded as Collins was identified as one of the plenipotentiary negotiators.[8] Reviving the De Wet comparisons and combining them with further tall tales of his daring and illusiveness, the London reporter of the Birmingham Daily Gazette informed its readership:

The most interesting of the Sinn Fein visitors who will be coming over for the conference next week will be Mr Michael Collins. He is expected to arrive here on Saturday, and I hear that the London Sinn Feiners are determined to give him a great reception. The general public will be curious to see Mr Collins in the flesh, for he has played a remarkable part in the Irish drama. His elusiveness was extraordinary for the Crown forces spared no effort to catch him, and the raids that were made with that purpose were innumerable but never succeeded. Whether, as has often been alleged, Collins was an interested spectator of the attempts of the police and military to discover him, and even offered them personal encouragement on occasion, I do not know, but he has earned something of the same reputation that was enjoyed by General De Wet during the South African campaign.[9]

But it was Collins’s arrival in London that really lit up the press. Huge crowds of Irish expats waited to greet the Irish delegation at Euston station complete with pipers who played Irish melodies. Collins disappointed many by not arriving with the rest of the delegation. Some claimed that he was detained for ‘family reasons.’[10] The Daily Herald noted that Collins ‘who has a thousand and one times been called “illusive” lived up to the adjective.’[11] When he did eventually appear in London’s public eye, the newspapers reported his still clinging to his mysterious persona. He arrived in dead of night covering his face with his hands while moving between the railway station and the waiting car, and again between that car and the ‘Sinn Fein headquarters.’[12] Again, on the first day of negotiations, he stepped from a car outside Downing Street trying to hide his face while dashing to the door.[13] For all of his attempts to hide himself, at least one newspaper reported a description of his physical appearance and mannerisms:

A mere youth in appearance, rather carelessly dressed in a blue suit, possessing none of the picturesqueness of the leader of bands of armed men in the hills except that he is sturdy and well built, and full of life, and one of the most cheerful of Irishmen. His black hair hangs carelessly over his brow, and his eyes are of typically Irish blue … His smile disarms one. But in repose there is a strength of jaw and a look of determination which explains how he controlled and directed his men. Mr Collins will certainly make himself conspicuous at the conferences. Mr Griffith may be the leader of the party, but Mr Collins will play most of the music at Downing Street.[14]

When that music began several newspapers reported Collins joking with Lloyd George about posing for a photograph with an ornamental gun at Downing Street.[15] Others told fanciful stories of Collins being mobbed by amorous women outside Southwark Cathedral.[16] Collins was generally treated as an object of fascination by English newspapers. But some had not forgotten the war which he had reportedly orchestrated and the Yorkshire Post felt it had to correct the imbalance. Under the headline ‘Begorra’ they ran an article written by Harold Owen. As the title would imply it mimicked the Irish accent and amounted to a supposed Irishman’s sarcastic assessment of Collins’s arrival in London:

Tis a great week we are having in London this week, for it began last week, on the Saturday evening, with Euston as full of Flahertys and O’Flannagans as ever the widow Biddy Malone’s potato-patch was full of weeds, welcoming the delicates of Dail Eireann. Thousands of us … wasn’t there … but we’ve been reading about it in the London papers, that might have been written in Cork this week, they’re doing the thing so well – how the flags and drums were there with the Irish pipers, and the crowds whirrooing like mad when the wrong train came in and then doing it all over again for the “No. 2 portion.” And the joke Mike Collins played on us all, not being there at all, and us looking under the seat for him … for Mike is just a broth of a boy and ‘tis just the sort of joke he knew would tickle us. And what a laugh we had by the powers, when someone said that perhaps Mike was already in London and would spring out at us from an ambush somewhere on the way to Chelsea.[17]

The Morning Post also reminded its readership of Collins’s past deeds and such publications presumably spoke for those people like Harry Chanow who was arrested for assaulting a woman waving an Irish flag near Downing Street. He also spat on her flag and referred to having had friends who were ‘murdered’ in Ireland. He was particularly vociferous in his contempt for Collins whom he blamed for leading ‘people with susceptible minds to do all kinds of things.’[18]

As the months rolled by though, Collins the gunman quickly became Collins the diplomat. Mysterious Mike was replaced by the ‘man of practical ideas’ and the ‘chief negotiator on the Sinn Fein side.’[19] It was also reported that the chief negotiator had fully conquered his fear of cameras by the end of November.[20]

With the treaty signed Collins departed London and its newspaper columns. The reporting of his send off at Euston provided a clear contrast with that of his initial arrival. Collins had arrived a gunman, covering his face in the dead of night. He left a celebrity with policemen clearing his way through a throng of 2,000 well-wishers, though they were unable to prevent a ‘young lady’ from implanting ‘kisses on his cheeks.’[21] The mystical Collins had now fully retreated from English newspaper columns and was replaced by a pragmatic politician defending the treaty he had signed. A series of American newspaper articles where Collins defended that treaty were exclusively re-printed in the Illustrated Sunday Herald. Those who opposed him were sometimes portrayed as fanatics, sometimes as brainless zombies. One particular cartoon showed an anti-treatyite banging his head off of a wall constructed by Griffith and Collins while they looked on in bemusement.[22] Collins was now cast as the peacemaker who intervened on behalf of kidnapped British journalists and de Valera as somebody who spent the war safely in captivity while Collins had a reward on his head. When sectarian tensions inflamed Northern Ireland Collins was often reported to be taking steps to secure a peaceful treaty-based solution, in partnership with the British government.[23] Collins’s political rallies were photographed and reported in various British newspapers throughout the Spring of 1922.

Collins’s private life continued to fascinate and a profile of Kitty Kiernan adorned the pages of the Sketch in March. In it Kiernan is photographed sitting on her couch in an evening dress, and out and about with ‘prize winning dogs.’ Kiernan’s photographs were published opposite a full page sketch of Collins by Hazel Lavery. A couple of month’s later one London publication caused Collins some distress when it identified Lavery as Collins’s sweetheart.[24] Hannie Collins was also drawn into the orbit of newspaper intrigue when it was reported that ‘someone has just discovered that Mr Michael Collins has a sister on a London Post Office. Miss Collins is described as a quiet, unassuming postal assistant who seems more interested in postal stamps than polemics.’[25]

Rumblings of discontent in Ireland were reported as having escalated through the personage of Collins, when it was claimed that he was attacked in Dublin in April 1922. It was said that ‘Collins displayed all the dash of his old days of guerrilla warfare during several minutes of deadly peril when a concerted attack was made on his life.’[26] His ‘old days’ were not that far behind him that the dashing hero couldn’t still be imagined for the newspaper columns. In a quote attributed to the man himself, Collins supposedly claimed to have captured one of the gunmen. ‘I headed him off and ran him down in a doorway where I disabled him by striking him on the hand with my revolver.’[27]

As many English journals began to question the compatibility of the Collins/de Valera electoral pact, Collins was not enamoured with British reportage of Irish politics and felt that such articles contributed to tensions. He took to the pages of the Sunday Express to remind British readers that violent tensions were common as new nations were born in post war Europe. He cited the examples of Poland, Estonia, Finland and Germany and noted that ‘our transitional period is not being attended by scenes anything like as bad’ as in those countries. [28] Unfortunately, he spoke too soon.

Throughout June the English press reported on Collins’s electoral victory, the sectarian tensions in the north of Ireland, and the republican occupation of the Four Courts. The kidnapping of JJ O’Connell was reported and the consequential determination of Free State authorities to ‘stamp out lawlessness in Ireland.’[29] The eruption of the Civil War made front page news on the Leeds Mercury complete with separate photographs of Collins and of Free State Troops going into action. Crowds watching the siege of the Four Courts adorned the Yorkshire Evening Post while the Birmingham Gazette and Sheffield Independent each featured photos of the Four Courts with the former containing a map of Dublin’s fighting. The Nottingham Gazette ‘s front page produced a photograph of Free State troops manning a field gun which seems to be situated north of the Four Courts.[30] The Pall Mall Gazette complimented Collins on beginning to govern and refusing offers of assistance from British forces. The English press were overwhelmingly supportive of Collins’s actions, and a new villain entered their lexicon in the shape of Rory O’Connor.

Rumours of Collins having fallen ill did not seem to spill over from the Scottish press into the English mainstream in July [31] during which time the English press was generally consumed by news of the Civil War and Collins’s reorganisation of the National Army. While the Morning Post cautioned that Collins and de Valera were each primarily loyal to the IRB, and as such Collins’s destruction of Loyalist property in Dublin was a clever ruse to prevent his having to strike more vigorously at Republicans, the English media were generally positive about Free State operations.[32] Writing in the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, a Dublin based reporter returned to an articulation of the Collins persona when he recorded an interview with Free State troops:

Mick had done more fighting than all the rest of the crowd put together. To these men there is no one in the World like Michael Collins … Their utterances express the sentiments of the whole of the Irish Army. The men worship Michael Collins for the service he has rendered Ireland in the last and for the service he is rendering her today. They are fighting not only for Ireland, but for Michael Collins and Ireland. Collins was known throughout the country by the men who fought with him in 1916 as ‘the big fella.’ … Today the old name, dead for a while, is reviving … His feats during the troubled years of rebellion are becoming legendary. No cheap novel packed with death, blood and the unexpected, can compete with the real truth of his fighting life. Soldiers have told me here that when there was any assembly of men in the old days, the first question passed around in whispered tones was: “Where is the big fella?” There were many answers but few were correct. Collins was everywhere, just as he is today.[33]

While during the Irish War of Independence this omnipresent legend of Michael Collins was a propaganda coup, during the Civil War it was counterproductive. Their positive portrayal of Collins and the Treaty pushed the wedge between Republican/Anti-Treatyites further. The perceived positive relationship between Collins and the British media and government was propaganda ammunition to be used by Collins Civil War foes to undermine the legitimacy of the pro-Treaty argument. Regardless, the media story had grown too big to stop and the legendary portrayals of Collins were still present in the English newspapers of the July 1922 and they were about to enter the annals of history.

When Collins met his untimely end at Béal na Bláth in August, the English media were all over the story. The pimpernel that they had created had not only been caught, he had been killed. The Illustrated London News, carried another full-page photo, this time of Collins in uniform and declared ‘Ireland’s Strong Man Assassinated.’ The Sphere declared him ‘one of the most romantic figures of the struggle for Irish Freedom’ and around a photo of Collins in uniform, went on to reminisce about his being a ‘military genius’ and a ‘statesman’ in contrast to ‘the de Valera malcontents.’[34] Various publications sought to outdo each other for dramatization of Collins’s life and death. In just a sample of the numerous tributes bestowed upon him, he was described as ‘fearless, humorous, versatile,’ as being of ‘fearless courage and great ability,’ and ‘the biggest man left in Ireland.’[35] This hero of English newspaper columns was of course, heroic, to the last. It was said that he fell after his party of 20 had been ambushed by 200 rebels, and that his last whispered words urged his comrades to ‘forgive them.’[36]

The legend of Michael Collins was substantially created and propagated by the English media during his lifetime. The popularity of these news articles still shows today and has coloured the way that we have viewed the man. Time has not lessened the popularity of Michael Collins in the media either. News articles and books about Collins’ love life, familial stories of their connection to ‘The Big Fella’, and conspiracies around his death are as popular as ever. While it is always important to separate historical fact from the fiction, in this case, the history of the fiction is as much a part of the Michael Collins story as the historical fact.

[1] Sheffield Independent, 12 August 1921. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 16 August 1921. Manchester Evening News, 26 August 1921. Sheffield Independent, 12 August 1921.

[2] Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, 27 August 1921.

[3] Nottingham Journal, 2 September 1921.

[4] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 5 September 1921. See also; Portsmouth Evening News, 5 September 1921.

[5] Illustrated London News, 10 September 1921.

[6] Illustrated London News, 2 July 1921.

[7] Daily Herald, 14 September 1921.

[8] Hull Daily Mail, 15 September 1921. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 15 September 1921.

[9] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 5 October 1921.

[10] Illustrated London News,

[11] Daily Herald, 11 October 1921.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Northampton Chronicle & Echo, 11 October 1921.

[14] Western Morning News, 11 October 1921.

[15] Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 14 October 1921. Gloucester Citizen, 14 October 1921. Yorkshire Evening Post, 14 October 1921.

[16] Shields Daily News, 26 October 1921.

[17] Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, 15 October 1921.

[18] Manchester Evening News, 12 October 1921.

[19] Sheffield Independent, 4 November 1921.

[20] Leeds Mercury, 22 November 1921.

[21] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 8 December 1921.

[22] Wells Journal, 20 January 1922.

[23] Hull Daily Mail, 6 January 1922. Westminster Gazette, 17 February 1922.

[24] The Sketch, 8 March 1922. Meda Ryan, Michael Collins and the Women Who Spied for Ireland, Mercier Press, Cork, pp163-4.

[25] Leeds Mercury, 30 March 1922.

[26] Daily Herald, 18 April 1922. See also; Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 18 April 1922 & Yorkshire Evening Post, 17 April 1922.

[27] Sheffield Independent, 18 April 1922. Nottingham Journal, 18 April 1922.

[28] Daily Express in Westminster Gazette, 1 May 1922 & Cornishman, 24 May 1922

[29] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 28 June 1922.

[30] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 29 June 1922. Sheffield Independent, 29 June 1922. Yorkshire Evening Post, 30 June 1922. Nottingham Gazette, 30 June 1922.

[31] The Scotsman, 23 July 1922.

[32] Morning Post in Portadown News, 15 July 1922.

[33] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 3 July 1922.

[34] The Sphere, 26 August 1922.

[35] Sheffield Independent, 24 August 1922. Coventry Evening Telegraph, 23 August 1922. Hull Daily Mail, 24 August 1922.

[36] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 24 August 1922. Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 24 August 1922.

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