What if Collins had lived?

An article exploring the hypothetical ‘What if?

The titular question is probably the one encountered most in question and answer sessions at Michael Collins House. It has no definitive answer and any attempt to discuss its vagaries must be less of an exercise in history, and more of a flirtation with clairvoyance. Whilst conjecture is not something historians should indulge in, an essay with this title has to be based more on conjecture and less on fact. For the purposes of this essay we write, not as historians, but as journalists or commentators. Nonetheless, in these peculiar days when history cannot be extensively researched, it seems appropriate that we should take to gazing at our metaphorical crystal balls.

A dominant feature of the Collins mythology is the idea that Ireland would have been ‘better’ if he had lived to have greater influence on its evolution. All that was ‘bad’ in twentieth century Ireland might have been cast aside by Collins and replaced with that which we retrospectively deem to be ‘good.’ In the early twenty first century, as Irish society drifts from a more conservative social outlook to one which is increasingly rooted in libertarian European values, many of the twentieth century’s major social influences are less significant than they were. The major example of waning social influence in a changing Ireland, is the diminishing power of the Roman Catholic Church. As that power wanes, contemporary Irish society feels empowered to question the interaction of Church and State in a way that would have seemed unthinkable a few short decades ago.

Religion and the Irish State

Many have come to believe that the Irish State was unduly influenced by the Roman Catholic hierarchy in designing and implementing policy on a range of social and economic issues and even in the construction of the State’s own institutions.[1] Some have suggested that if Michael Collins had lived, he would have been less susceptible to suggestions of Roman Catholic primacy than some of his former comrades like de Valera and Cosgrave. But what is the validity of such a claim?

Collins was born into a typical Irish farming family in 1890. As such, religion was an integral part of his youth. Collins’s mother, Mary Anne was said to be a very devout woman and counted several clerics and nuns among her relatives. When one of her daughters met with an accident which caused a delay in her beginning to walk, Mary Anne made regular trips to a nearby well to pray that the child would take her first steps. When the child did so, Mary Anne, and perhaps some of the rest of the family, credited the power of prayer with her recovery. That child, Helena Collins, later joined the Mercy Order of nuns and became Sr. Mary Celestine.[2] Thus Collins had a mother to whom religion was important and as a young boy her values were, at least in part, instilled in him. Whilst the Collins family seem to have had considerable commitment to the Roman Catholic faith, they also committed themselves to more broadly Christian values. We are told that Collins’s father fell afoul of extended family when he loaned a winnowing machine to a local Protestant clergyman, and that his mother was well respected within the Protestant community. When she died, many of the neighbours at her bedside came from that community, and many of them attended her funeral.[3] The cordial relationship between the Collins family and their Protestant neighbours may well have been a reason why Michael Collins never engaged in sectarian politics, though it should be said that this was a behavioural trait he shared with most of his contemporary Republican comrades.

In later life, as Collins struck out on his own and made his way through London’s Irish social scene, he seems to have taken a more anti-clerical line than was typical of his generation. PS O Hegarty later wrote of attending a lecture that Collins gave at a Sinn Féin club in London. The lecture was virulently anti-clerical and even suggested that to ‘exterminate them’ was Ireland’s best answer to its anti-nationalist clerics. That O’Hegarty would write such a recollection in the 1920s gives it a ring of truth. Nonetheless, Collins’s correspondence with Kitty Kiernan throughout 1921 and 22 suggests that he turned to religion after her encouragement, as the stress of Treaty negotiations weighed upon him.[4] One might be tempted to suggest that the mass going habits Collins described for Kiernan were, at least in part, a fiction driven by his desire to placate her. However Ned Broy later described witnessing Collins’s mass-going habits during the treaty negotiations and seemed impressed by his superior’s level of religious devotion.[5]

Thus Collins, like most men of his time, was religious. Yet he was also capable of challenging members of the hierarchy when their moral utterances conflicted with his political persuasions. He was once said to have questioned the justification of shooting civilian spies and traitors while not doling out the same punishment to the Cork Bishop that had excommunicated IRA Volunteers.[6] But are his alleged anti-clerical outbursts really enough to suggest that Collins would have ‘perhaps designed a more politically secular Ireland than de Valera allowed for’?[7] The latter part of the statement indicates that the answer may be in the negative. De Valera inherited a State that was dominated by that Church. Indeed, given that both Church and State were defined as the people that comprised them, and that approximately 90% of the population of Ireland were Roman Catholic. In reality, Church and State were essentially the same thing. De Valera did not make the two things homogeneous – they already were. Article 44 of the constitution’s recognition of the Roman Catholic Church’s ‘special position … as the guardian of the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens’ was a recognition of fact, albeit a fact that did not have to be constitutionally recognised. This recognition received widespread political support and was opposed by only one TD. That TD was Protestant. When all of Collins’s former comrades supported Article 44, it is hard to visualise Collins himself not doing so. It is also worth noting that this recognition of a ‘special position’ did not go far enough for many Irish Catholics and the Vatican itself who had wanted their religion declared the State religion. De Valeras opposition to Roman Catholic elitism, whilst maintaining the support of ordinary Irish Catholics, at a time when such notions were prevalent in continental Europe, saw him demonstrating considerable diplomatic skill. Would Collins have taken a similar view to de Valera or would he have taken a different route?

De Valera’s seeking to accommodate some form of the views of the Roman Catholic hierarchy as a corner stone of his constitution does stand in contrast to actions of the Free State government of which Collins had been a part. That government had not appointed RC or COI bishops to sit in the Irish Senate, per the original details of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. They had also moved to loosen the control that the RC church had in the educational sphere by ensuring that schools had a specific percentage of lay teachers. Yet, it has been creditably argued that the Free State Government had room to manoeuvre when they were assured of the RC hierarchy’s support during the Civil War, but had become considerably less liberal by the close of the decade. It is much more likely that their increasing conservatism was a consequence of their desire to gain electoral traction by winning the support of the church, than a result of the loss of their leader, Michael Collins. A government which had to win the hierarchy’s support, and the consequential support of a large sector of the electorate, had to be more considerate of the Catholic position. Both parties competed for Catholic support and it seems likely that had Collins lived, he would have been part of that competition.[8]

The Blueshirts

Dolan and Murphy have recently argued that Collins was less of ‘visionary’ than many might assume. He was rather, a propagator of the ideas of others, or as Beaslai put it ‘a great reaper where others had sown.’ Collins frequently returned to ideas of nationhood and nationality that had been espoused by people like PS O’Hegarty, DP Moran, JJ O’Kelly and others who created and repeated the well-worn clichés of the Gaelic League. He was more of a follower of fashion than he was its creator, though he did tend to ignore the ‘Catholic Chauvinism’ inherent in the writings of Kelly and Moran.[9] So how would Collins have reacted to the political fashions of the 1930s? Curiously, had he lived, his memory could not have been exploited by Eoin O’Duffy as a sort of patron saint of the Blueshirt movement. Collins’s posthumous fame was important to that movement. They painted themselves as the inheritors of Collins’s nationalist ideology and referred to him glowingly and frequently. The emotions that pulsed through Ireland in the wake of the civil war were probably of some assistance to O’Duffy as he sought to galvanise a more nationalistic wing of former Free State proponents, and there was no better way to evoke that emotion than to refer to the memory of the Civil War’s best known fallen hero.[10] It should also be said that O’Duffy’s visualisation of himself as Collins’s successor had some validity, at least on a personal basis. The two men had been friends and a few days after Collins’s death, Helena Collins (Michael’s sister) had gifted her brother’s revolver as a memento to O’Duffy.[11] Had Collins lived, he would have had far less propaganda value for O’Duffy, but would he have joined his friend in the Blueshirt movement?

It’s obvious that the nationalistic element of the Blueshirts would have appealed to Collins. But the darker side of the organisation’s philosophy may have been less appealing. While the organisation itself (and O’Duffy himself) wasn’t overtly anti-semitic, some of its members were. The Blueshirts were very openly xenophobic and directed much of their vitriol towards ‘the Spaniard’ – de Valera. Before the Civil War Collins was an admirer of de Valera and there is no evidence that he was, at any stage during his brief lifetime, enamoured with such xenophobic philosophies. Any suggestion that he may have embraced them in the context of a time when fascism was fashionable must be made without any evidence. O’Duffy’s occasional flirtations with the anti-democratic spectrum of fascism probably wouldn’t have appealed to Collins either. He was capable of suspending normal democracy in the National interest and did so during the Civil War when the cabinet seldom met and the war was directed by Collins and his immediate circle. Yet the suspension of normal democratic procedures is not unusual for any government prosecuting a war.

Collins’ membership of the IRB might also be used to question his democratic credentials. When Cathal Brugha’s fear of that organisation claiming the primary allegiance of the Volunteers led to his suggesting that the Volunteers swear allegiance to the Dáil, Collins was not immediately receptive to the idea. He argued that a Volunteer oath to the republic should be sufficient and only relented because Griffith supported Brugha’s position.[12] Although this might seem like a peculiar resistance to democratic authority from a democrat, it should also be stated that Collins and Brugha had some personal animosity and Collins’ position may have had something to do with his desire not to cede control of military affairs to Brugha.

Collins’s overall commitment to democracy is most evident in his chairing of the committee that drafted the Free State Constitution. The constitution had to be approved by the British parliament and therefore had to conform to the provisions of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, meaning that its authors had to include parliamentary democracy at its core. But they also included a series of provisions which empowered the people via direct democracy. This allowed citizens access to the legislative process by forcing the legislature to legislate, subject to referendum, wherever a sufficient number of citizens compelled them to do so via petition. The proposals were a very firm commitment to an extraordinary level of democracy and it is difficult to see how Collins could have agreed to them were he not a democrat.[13] Would Collins have been persuaded by O’Duffy’s assertion that ‘party politics has served their period of usefulness’? Even if he was, it is unlikely that he would ever have approved any cessation of normal democratic processes.[14]

Collins Successor and the Civil War

If Collins’s relationship with Eoin O’ Duffy might be misused to create an erroneous retrospective controversy, so too might his relationship with Richard Mulcahy. Mulcahy was directly responsible for the Free State’s execution of IRA prisoners captured under arms. This campaign resulted in the execution of 81 prisoners and the summary execution of many more. As such, Mulcahy became the visual embodiment of much of the war’s excessive cruelty. This made him an unacceptable Taoiseach for the Clann na Poblactha party that Fine Gael sought to coalesce with in 1948. Mulcahy then held the peculiar position of being party leader of the senior coalition party, Fine Gael, but not Taoiseach, in two separate coalition governments. Could a similar fate have befallen Collins? It is impossible to say for sure. During the War of Independence Collins displayed a support for the execution of his enemies, particularly through his use of ‘The Squad’. Though Collins was reluctant to engage militarily with those he once called his comrades, he observed their position as undemocratic and vowed to ‘not rest until we have established the authority of the people of Ireland.’ But would he have engaged in similar tactics to Mulcahey?

Though Mulcahy initially asked that there be no reprisals for his friend’s death, he also embraced the tactic of summary execution in the month’s that followed. Had Collins lived, and Beál na mBlath never happened, the Civil War may not have plumed the depths of depravity that it did. In the absence of the death of a leader and friend, Collins may never have carried the same emotional baggage when faced with the decisions that Mulcahy was. Or would Collins alleged attempts at peace talks on the morning of his death with Florence O’Donoghue have bore fruit and brought the war to a swifter and more amicable ending?

Northern Ireland

One other aspect of Collins’s thinking remains obscure enough to warrant further speculation. What would Collins have done in relation to Northern Ireland? It is true that Collins had established a northern Command within the IRA and had used it belligerently against the northern state, when February raids were conducted by the IRA in an attempt to pressurise James Craig’s government into reprieving IRA prisoners due for execution. Collins deliberately armed northern IRA units during this period and toyed with the idea of conducting further offensives in May. However historians still debate whether this rather aggressive stance was the sign of a genuine attempt at militarily undermining the northern state, or a political attempt at attaining the support of the northern IRA in the forthcoming Civil War. In the absence of further evidence it is impossible to say which of these perspectives is more accurate. Indeed it is possible that Collins could have seen the activities of his northern command as a method by which he could achieve both of those outcomes at once.[15] Would Collins have persisted with these tactics or followed a similar route as those who came after him?


The question of ‘What if?’ raises more questions than answers. These are often difficult questions to ask of someone who is as revered as Michael Collins. Collins achieved an incredible amount in a short lifetime and his influence will always be recognised in the formation of the modern Irish state. Saying this, if Collins had lived, would it have been considerably different from the Ireland which was created by people who had political beliefs similar to his and were close intellectual cohorts of his when he died? Similarly, the country that Michael Collins had helped to create was a democratic one. The electorate would have consisted of the same people, we must ask, would their values and consequential voting patterns have been considerably altered by Collins’ survival? Nonetheless, the popular interpretation of Lorenz’s ‘butterfly effect’ allows us to question what unknown effects a detail like Collins’s survival may have had on subsequent events. What do you think?

[1] Irish Times, 17 September 2018 (Church and State in Modern Ireland – Anthony Lay, Letters Page), 26 March 2019 ( Church and State Divided, Declan MacSweeney) , Sunday Independent, 27 October 2002 (Eoghan Harris), Irish Independent, 13 May 2002 (Seamus Breathnach – Letters Page), Evening Herald, 28 November 2002 (Review of ‘Spiked’)www.notme.ie/church-and-state .

[2] Michael Collins House (MCH), Liam Collins Papers, Sr, Celestine Memoir.

[3] Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins, Arrow Books, London 1991, p4. Mary Anne Collins’ obituary appeared in her son-in-laws newspaper the West Cork People. It outlines much of her life. I do not have the issue to hand.

West Cork People, Mary Anne Collins Obituary, date currently inaccessible.

[4] Mary Kenny, Michael Collins’s Religious Faith in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review Vol. 96 No 384

[5] Bureau of Military History (BMH), Eamon Broy Witness Statement, WS 1280.

[6] Ibid. See also; Tim Pat Coogan, Ireland Since the Rising, Dublin 1966.

[7] Ibid

[8] Whyte, 35-37.

[9] Dolan & Murphy, pp172-174.

[10] Fearghal McGarry, Eoin O’Duffy: A Self Made Hero, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005, pp234-235.

[11] MCH, LCP, Dept. Of Defence Note August 1922, signed by Helena Collins.

[12] T. Ryle Dwyer, Michael Collins: The Man Who Won the War, Mercier Press, Cork, 2009, pp120-121.

[13] Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins, Arroe Books, London 1991, pp325-329.

[14] For a thoughtful discussion of Collins’s democratic credentials see; Dolan & Murphy p196

[15] Dolan & Murphy, p196.

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