Michael Collins in the British Media

Michael Collins in the British Media- Part 1

As the Irish War of Independence began to escalate the British media clamoured to get a new angle or scoop on the Irish story. A relatively unknown West Cork man, a leader of the ‘Sinn Fein army’ slowly began to become a focus of much of their attention. Portrayed as young, handsome and charismatic with a streak of mystery and daring, he had everything a good story needed. Much of it was true but more was added for effect. In reality it was a propaganda coup that Collins couldn’t have hoped for better. Of course it was a propaganda coup for the IRA also, though some of his colleagues may have been bemused, if not somewhat irritated, by the attention and stories of grandeur being circulated. Overall, it was here that the myth of Michael Collins was born and where much of what is believed of Collins today in popular culture can be traced back to.

The first discernible traces of Michael Collins in the English newspapers came in the Autumn of 1920. By that time a largely disinterested press had erroneously identified Arthur Griffith as President of Sinn Féin (a position he had ceded to de Valera three years previously) but correctly identified Collins as the Minister for Finance. In that position he initially seemed subordinate to Griffith and it was the latter that reprimanded and threatened an imposter who sought to gain the inner confidence of Sinn Féin in a rather fanciful spy story.[1] Within a month, Collins was mentioned in the Westminster Parliament and the newspapers began constructing the Collins mythology. Foremost among them was the Yorkshire Post which once again inserted Arthur Griffith in the role of leader before describing Collins as a cross between the scarlet pimpernel, and Dangerous Dan McGrew:

“Mysterious Mike” as he is known has been whispered about in Ireland since the beginning of the year; but although his identity has been established and his photograph is in the possession of the authorities, he has to the present evaded arrests. Collins is, in fact, the Moriarty of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Commander in Chief of the Sinn Féin army. In one of the secret fastnesses of Ireland he plans the enterprises which are later carried out by his associates of the IRB or the Republican Volunteers. Occasionally he visits the towns and cities, where he is usually well guarded by Sinn Féiners. Not so long ago he openly walked along Sackville Street Dublin. Two detectives of the S Division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police approached. Collins gripped his revolver for he is a desperate man, but the police officers allowed him to pass, apparently without recognition. A few minutes later the street was searched by scores of detectives, but Collins had disappeared. In Ireland whenever his name is furtively mentioned, they say he will never be taken alive.[2]

A week later the same publication had removed all mention of Griffith. Having discovered that Collins had once worked in ‘the sorting branch of the GPO in London,’ they connected him to Seán Treacy implying that the two men were part of the same gang. Later, the Daily Mail also connected Dan Breen to this alleged gang. Collins and his gang were  considered renegades by a republican movement that would welcome their ‘extirpation.’[3]

By November, the renegade theories seemed to have vanished and Collins was publicly identified as the Commander in Chief of the IRA.[4] In that capacity, the London Illustrated News reproduced documents that were allegedly captured during raids in the wake of Bloody Sunday. The documents purported to be a memo passed from Collins to his Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy. Sensationally they discussed plans to spread typhoid to British troops by introducing it to the milk they drank. Plans to spread glanders to army horses via their oats were also discussed. This biological warfare was contemplated by somebody who had a basic understanding of how to obtain microbes and cultures and was surely quite shocking to those who read it. It was accompanied by a scowling photograph of Michael Collins which was probably the first published by a British newspaper.[5]

Over the next few months Collins was alternatively portrayed as a both hawk and a dove. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph portrayed Collins as somebody who was willing to talk if the British sought a truce, but happy to make war in the interim. This portrayal was based on a statement that Collins made in the Irish Bulletin at the time and featured in many of the English newspapers. The Daily Mail reported Collins’s overtures for peace via Archbishop Clune.[6]  Yet other papers still warned about the extremism of the mysterious renegade Collins. The Northampton Chronicle and Echo claimed to have made enquiries in Ireland and found that ‘scarcely anybody in Ireland knows at all clearly who he is.’ Yet their intelligence was able to reveal that he was one of the ‘irreconcilable’ Sinn Féiners and that he had ‘been a junior drapers assistant in Dublin up to the Rebellion of 1916.’[7] Apparently news of Collins’s former role in the employment of the Post Office had travelled from London to Yorkshire but had somehow circumvented Northampton.

With Griffith in prison and de Valera in America, throughout December of 1920 the English newspapers reported Collins as being Minister for Finance and Chief of Staff of the IRA while occasionally representing him as a gunman and leader of a ‘murder gang.’ There is little of the escapologist narrative that would later come to dominate their reportage. Yet what does emerge in those months is the identification of Collins as the military leader of the Irish Republicans. De Valera, then missing in transit between Ireland and the US, still received more than four times the coverage that Collins did. While the imprisoned Arthur Griffith seemed to have almost reached parity with the President.[8]

January of 1921 saw the Collins pimpernel angle significantly enhanced with English papers treating of three occasions where police thought they had captured Collins in Dublin, Belfast and Armagh, but all were reported as cases of mistaken identity.[9] These were coupled with stories alleging narrow escapes by Collins on several other occasions.[10] By February 1921 rumours of his death were circulating. It was said that the elusive republican leader, who one newspaper referred to as ‘the Irish De Wet,’ was killed at Burgatia House near Skibbereen after His Majesty’s forces had engaged some 400 rebels and driven them back to the house, from which they escaped. Some accounts speculated that Crown forces had made things so difficult for Collins that he had had to change his quarters and had even fled to London for a period. He returned to Ireland to raise morale and was shot off his white horse at Burgatia House. The rumours of his death were accompanied by confusing conformations from alleged Irish police sources and contradictory denials from sources in Dublin Castle. The reports may have emanated from the fact that some of the newspapers were well aware that Collins was born within a few miles of Burgatia House, and that Tom Barry’s West Cork Flying Column did escape the house after a firefight on 2 February 1921. A few days after his alleged death it was reported that Collins was involved in an attack on the RIC barracks at Drimoleaugue.[11] Once it had been established that the rumours of his’ demise were premature, the Birmingham Gazette couldn’t resist reporting that ‘Black Michael’ had received the press reports of his death ‘with an incredulous smile.’[12]

Although the reports were absolutely false, their inaccuracy may well have added to the perceived invincibility of Collins. Every time Collins was reportedly captured, subsequent accounts of further activity convinced the reader of his escape. Now, after reports of his death, reports of his continued life made it seems as if he’d cheated the grim reaper himself. Under the headline “The Illusive Pimpernel,” The Daily Herald surmised:

The mysterious Michael Collins must have a charmed life. Some months ago he was reported to have been killed. But this, in view of his subsequent activities was only a rumour.

          A few weeks ago I read in several newspapers picturesque accounts of how he had died fighting at the head of his men “Somewhere in Ireland”. A few days later I heard that Michael Collins was in a position to contradict the report that he had been killed in action.

          Later still a Belfast paper reported that he was captured at last … However this report has also been denied.

          Everywhere you go in Ireland you hear the most extraordinary rumours of the wonderful exploits of the ubiquitous “Mike.” I have been told that on one occasion when the soldiers were searching for him he strolled past them wearing the uniform of a British Tommy and nonchalantly smoking the inevitable cigarette.

I have also heard it rumoured that on the day of his reported death Michael had a drink in a Dublin hotel with two Black and Tans.

He is certainly the illusive pimpernel of the Irish Republican movement.[13]

In the space of a few weeks the papers had taken Collins from the illusive rebel who was gunned down while leading his army from atop his horse, to a captured super-villain, to a master of disguise who nonchalantly drank with his pursuers. The same newspapers that identified Collins, Brugha, and Mulcahy as the orchestrators of ambushes in Dublin, also identified Collins as the leader of the ‘Field Army’ so regularly engaging British troops in the hills of Cork and Kerry.[14] When nobody quite knew who or what Collins was, he quickly became all kinds of things to all kinds of people.

In April 1921 the London Illustrated News published another photo of Collins accompanied by a story about his riding off on his bicycle with an umbrella under his arm, as the police launched extensive raids with him as their primary target.[15] Another publication evoked images of a vampire by claiming that he hid in a morgue, inside a coffin while a raid was in progress.[16] The mystery man was then said to have struck at the very heart of British democracy when he opened up a new line of propaganda by having British MPs ask Parliamentary Questions about RIC resignations and then using the answers for propaganda purposes.[17] Collins also emerged as a leader when Lloyd George referenced him twice in a reported exchange of correspondence with senior clerics seeking a peaceful solution. Seeking to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln, the British premiere asked ‘why shouldn’t I and England be thought heroic and not Michael Collins and Ireland?’ He also declared that ‘we will not give in, it is the Irish who must give in. Michael Collins must climb down.’[18] Collins was being identified as the leader of the republican movement. His pimpernel and leadership personas now began to travel hand in hand. The Sheffield Independent explained:


The most wanted man in the World today is Michael Collins, the man with a hundred disguises, about a dozen doubles; and he is the big brain behind the Sinn Féin movement.

          The story of Collins’s escapes from tight corners reads like fiction. He has been face to face with police on many occasions and they did not know it. They have raided houses in which he was hiding, have even entered the room where they could have sworn he was seated – and he has got away. He is the most elusive personality in the world.

          This Irishman has got all fictional characters beaten. He is here, there, everywhere. And he is much more the leader of the Irish Sinn Feiners than even De Valera. He is really Commander in Chief of the IRA, Paymaster General of his own forces, and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Sinn Féin “Government.”

          Thousands of copies of his portrait have been circulated throughout Britain … Yet not very long ago  he actually came across to London, did business in the metropolis, and went back to Ireland under the very noses of the police. A Government servant actually carried his bag aboard the steamer.

          …The stories which could be told about this modern Scarlet Pimpernel are legion. One year ago the Dublin Castle officials nearly went cray one morning. When they found that they had been entertaining Michael Collins (disguised under another name) the previous evening. He had actually gone into the centre of the enemy web to find out something. And he had also made a clean escape.

          …A month after this he went into the castle again, spoke to some of the officials and did some business for himself. This second time he was dressed as a lady. The officials were madder than ever when they discovered the second trick.

          …The most daring of his many escapades occurred at a wake … there came word that the police were outside and were about to raid the house. Collins quickly got the dead body of his friend taken from the coffin … and he lay down and became the corpse. The police dared not touch the “dead” man and when they had gone Collins got up and went his way.

          He never walks abroad without a bodyguard of four or five deadshots close behind or abreast of him. Once a Government agent in Dublin met him in broad daylight walking along Sackville Street. They recognised each other but close behind Collins were several men their hands in their pockets, who at a signal from him kept their eyes on the agent.

          One movement from the sleuth meant that he would have been shot there and then. He passed Collins without a sign. When he was about twenty paces past he turned around. Two men were at his heels. “Walk on” he was told.

          …He is the mystery man, the Don Q of Irish affairs.[19]

In the summer of 1921 Collins was connected with the killing of Nellie Carey in Fermoy. Carey seems to have been killed accidently while in the company of two soldiers who were the targets of the attack. But the Taunton Courier, alleged that the attack was carried out as part of a policy of execution of women consorting with British soldiers, and that Michael Collins had endorsed the policy.[20] In the wake of WWI, during which the execution of Edith Cavell was viewed with widespread repulsion, such an allegation could not have endeared Collins to a British readership. Collins was also frequently connected with the killing of Major Compton Smith, a decorated war hero who was held hostage by the IRA, and executed after the execution of IRA members in Cork.[21] News of his connections with a senior British legal advisor, Crompton Llewelyn Davis, also set typewriters clacking.[22]

When stories of peace initiatives filtered through to the papers, de Valera and Griffith were said to be involved and Collins, ‘the fighting leader,’ supportive of the moves. It was reported that two factions had emerged within Sinn Féin, one of which, under de Valera might support a dominion solution, and the more extreme faction, under Collins, which would not.[23] The papers were pitting de Valera and Collins against each other and placing Collins in the more extremist role.

By the end of June, peace negotiations were in the air and many of the papers discussed the possibility of Collins being granted safe passage to Downing Street as one of the men who ‘counted.’ It was a moral dilemma for the British establishment. If Collins was the murdering psychopath presented by some newspapers, how could he possibly be allowed to go free? But by late June newspapers had noted the lack of any restriction being placed upon those who attend any peace negotiations and noted that if de Valera ‘chooses he may bring Michael Collins.’[24] Richard Mulcahy was also occasionally mentioned as one of the militant faction that may or may not take part in peace negotiations, but he was not mentioned as frequently as Collins and his potential attendance doesn’t seem to have aroused the same interest.

With a truce declared on 11 July 1921, the English newspapers naturally turned to speculation regarding a final settlement. It was reported that Michael Collins signed the truce on behalf of the IRA, thereby cementing his reputation as the military leader of Irish Republicanism.[25] By now Collins was generally regarded as less moderate than de Valera. Some argued that Collins may not agree to the compromises that men like Griffith and de Valera would have to make. Others had begun to assert that he wasn’t quite as wild as the caricature indicated.[26]

Collins was still a mystery man. Still an indefinable force and an unknown quantity. The English press had created myth. Whether or not the man could compete, remained to be seen. In Part II of this article we will look at the next stage of the Collins story in the British media. When the shroud of mystery surrounding Collins in removed and he steps out into full view of the public for the first time as the Anglo Irish Treaty negotiations begin.

[1] Western Evening Herald, 18 September 1920.

[2] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer in Hull Daily Mail, 11 October 1920.

[3] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 18 October 1920. Daily Mail in Western Evening Herald, 1 December 1920.

[4] Portsmouth Evening News, 23 November 1920. Western Morning News, 30 November 1920.

[5] Illustrated London News, 27 November 1920. Approximately three weeks later Collins noted that another photograph of him had been used in several British periodicals (See Anne Dolan & William Murphy, Michael Collins: The Man and the Revolution, Collins Press, Cork, 2018, p212).

[6] Daily Mail in Nottingham Evening Post, 9 December 1920. Clare born Clune acted as an intermediary in peace negotiations in late 1920.

[7] Northampton Chronicle and Echo, 9 December 1920.

[8] A simple search of Britishnewspaperarchive.com generates 52 hits for ‘Michael Collins’ in December 1920, approximately 230 for de Valera, and approximately 200 for Arthur Griffith.

[9] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 18 January 1921. Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, 11 & 18 January 1921.

[10] Lancashire Evening Post, 18 January 1921.

[11] Westminster Gazette, 4 & 12 February 1921. Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 8 February 1920. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 8 February 1921. Nottingham Evening Post, 8 February 1921. Leicester Daily Post, 8 February 1921. Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 8 February 1921. Daily Herald, 8 February 1921. Taunton Courier & Western Advertiser, 9 February 1921. Derby Daily Telegraph, 9 February 1921.

[12] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 10 February 1921.

[13] Daily Herald, 24 March 1921.

[14] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 2 & 19 March 1921. Lancashire Evening Post, 18 March 1921.

[15] Illustrated London News, 2 April 1921.

[16] Sheffield Independent, 2 April 1921.

[17] Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, 22 April 1921.

[18] Westminster Gazette, 21 April 1921.

[19] Sheffield Independent, 25 April 1921.

[20] Taunton Courier & Western Advertiser, 4 May 1921.

[21] Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 30 May 1921. Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, 30 May 1921. Western Daily Press, 30 May 1921.

[22] Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer, 15 June 1921.

[23] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 10 & 27 May 1921.

[24] Hull Daily Mail, 27 June 1921. Westminster Gazette, 28 June 1921. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 27 June 1921.

[25] Birmingham Daily Gazette, 9 July 1921. Daily Herald, 9 July 1921.

[26] Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 2 & 9 July 1921. Northampton Chronicle & Echo, 11 July 1921.

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