An Irregular Meeting
In February 1964, an unofficial committee of seven men met in the Metropole Hotel in Cork to write down together the details of a defining event in modern Irish history: the death of Michael Collins on 22nd August 1922. The perspective of the seven men in the Hotel forty-two years later was exceptional in that all but one of them had participated in that fatal ambush.
The odd man out, Florence O’Donoghue, had been elsewhere that day, but had been invited to the reunion to act as the scribe for what the group would collectively agree upon as the truth.
O’Donoghue had most likely been chosen for the role because not only had he been a comrade of theirs, but he had in the succeeding years established himself, much like his contemporary Ernie O’Malley, as a literary man and a historian of note. His role in the War of Independence had been as head of intelligence for the Cork No. 1 Brigade, though he had remained neutral in the Civil War.
As a man who knew the value of information and the use of the pen, O’Donoghue was the ideal choice to record on behalf of the group their version of events.
This article does not attempt to cast the death of Collins in a new light. Instead, it aims to look at a piece of historiography about it, and in particular how O’Donoghue on behalf of his group attempted to portray their own roles in the most favourable way. Or in a way that would be the least embarrassing. After all, Collins had been held in high esteem even by those who ended up opposing him. Tom Barry recalled the Anti-Treatyite prisoners in Kilmainham Jail dropping to their knees en masse to pray for Collins upon hearing of his death (Barry, pp. 168-9).
That Barry and the seven men in the Metropole had been in the Cork Brigade may have been a factor. Todd Andrews, while writing about his time as an Anti-Treatyite prisoner, thought that “the Cork IRA suffered from a sense of collective guilt from the death of Collins”, as opposed to the less reverential Kerry prisoners (Andrews, p. 292).
For some, Collins’ death hung about as the ghost at the feast. When there was talk after the Civil War of re-establishing the Irish Republican Brotherhood, one former Anti-Treatyite and prospective member had to deny the accusation that he had cheered upon hearing of Collins’ death, insisting instead he, like the prisoners in Kilmainham Jail, had knelt down in prayer (Valiulis, p. 126).
The Finished Product
The resulting record from the meeting in the Metropole is short and concise, coming to just four pages in Edward O’Mahony’s printing of it (O’Mahony, pp. 40-44; also available online here). After setting the scene of the seven men meeting at the Metropole, and the listing of their names and IRA army ranks at the time of Collins’ death, O’Donoghue explains that the motive for the record was not merely for the sake of posterity but in response to an upcoming book by the historian Eoin Neeson on the Civil War.
The seven men clearly had reasons to doubt that Neeson’s account would be to their liking; luckily for them, they had an ally, Sean Feehan, in the publishing house responsible who assured them that the book would not be published unless they “were satisfied that the part of it dealing with the death of Collins was in accordance with the facts” (p. 41).
As O’Donoghue gives us Feehan’s rank as that of captain, suggesting that they had been on the same side in the Civil War, it is probable that this was a case of one ex-solider helping another out. Neeson’s book was published two years later, in 1966, so evidently the finished product was to their satisfaction.
With the introduction done, we begin the narrative with the Anti-Treatyite officers in Cork learning of Collins’ presence in the area on the morning of 22nd August, followed by the decisions and actions that led up to it, and ending with them learning of Collins’ resulting death.
Excess details are absent, such as the fact that O’Donoghue was away from Bealnablath, where the other six men had met at the time to discuss the situation, as he had been previously detained by Free State solders, as part of which he met and conversed with Collins (Coogan, p. 404).
O’Donoghue possibly thought that including his own experiences would have distracted from the main narrative. Neither do we learn of the reaction of the Anti-Treatyite leaders to Collins’ death, perhaps because, again, it was considered irrelevant.
For all the reticence on some details, the account is keen to stress that the ambush was strictly business and nothing personal against Collins:
Statements which have been made to the effect that the Division and Cork No. 1 Brigade were aware of Collins’ intention to visit posts in Cork, and that a general order was issued to kill him and are without foundation and completely untrue. His presence in the South was known to the officers in the Division and of the 1st. And 3rd Brigades only on the morning of 22nd and no order had been issued by either of the commands. The ambush was decided on as part of the general policy of attacking Free State convoys. (O’Mahony, p. 42)
O’Donoghue does not tell us more about these ‘statements’ or who they were by; unsurprising, considering how he was attempting to squash the rumours. Nor does he tell us whether these rumoured orders to kill Collins were supposed to have been issued from senior IRA leaders, such as the Chief-of-Staff, Liam Lynch, or from the Anti-Treatyite officers on the ground at the time.
In the first full-length biography of Collins, Piaras Béaslaí was in no doubt that “the ambushers were aware of the identity of Collins, despite assertions to the contrary by members of the anti-Treaty Party,” the implication being that Collins had been a target (Béaslaí, p. 440).
Béaslaí’s book was published in 1926, and perhaps the seven men who would later meet in the Metropole had felt in no position to respond soon after being on the losing side. By 1964, when they learned of the historian Eoin Neeson’s upcoming book, they may have felt that enough time had passed for them to no longer take such talk lying down.
The issue of whether the ambushers had intended to kill Collins had been addressed before by Anti-Treatyite combatants: Tom Barry and Peadar O’Donnell. Neither had participated in the ambush – both being imprisoned at the time – and relied on information from those who had.
Barry’s stated reason for bringing up the subject of Collins’ death, jumping ahead of his narrative that otherwise ended at the Truce, was to “kill the canard that the I.R.A plotted and planned Collins’ death in 1922 and in fact assassinated him” – an indignity at the very idea shared in the 1964 and Deasy’s accounts.
According to Barry, the ambushers did not even know that Collins was in the convoy until hours after the event – a claim not even the 1964 and Deasy accounts make (Barry, p. 169).
O’Donnell described the ambush as “a chance happening” due to the main ambush party having already left, but does not comment on the issue of whether or not the ambushers knew who they were shooting at (O’Donnell, p. 17). This is possibly because O’Donnell did not consider the issue important enough. A major difference between the two earlier Anti-Treatyite accounts is that Barry idolised Collins, describing him as “an outstanding figure” and “a great son of West Cork” (Barry, pp. 168-8).
In contrast, O’Donnell took a more critical view, portraying Collins as conspiratorial and misguided, and consequently his account of Collins’ death is less emotive than Barry’s. Both Barry and O’Donnell agree in describing the ambushers as having lain in wait for several days prior, while the 1964 and Deasy’s accounts describes events as happening very quickly from when they first learnt of Collins’ convoy on the morning of the ambush.
Given the briefness of the time Collins was in the area for, it is unlikely that any Anti-Treatyite plans could have been formed against him as anything other than on-the-hoof. One might argue that the Anti-Treatyites could not have realistically expected to achieve much against the convoy, let alone pick off one man in particular. However, the account by O’Donoghue of the preparations and equipment used in preparing the ambush makes it clear that they were serious about inflicting as much damage on the convoy as they could:
A mine was laid and a mineral water lorry with one wheel removed was used as a road block. A farm butt was also placed as a road block on the bohereen running almost parallel to the road on the eastern side. (O’Mahony, p. 43)
Lynch later criticized Deasy for neglecting to use mines against an armoured convoy, unaware that the ambushers had tried to use just that (O’Malley, p. 193).
Regardless of whether there was any plan to kill Collins, the ambush planners could not have been naïve to the possibility of killing a senior enemy general, which Collins was. Targeting prominent enemies for assassination had been a feature of the IRA in the War of Independence, from the attempt on Lord French, and the planned ones on individuals as diverse as the Prince of Wales, Lloyd George, British cabinet ministers, Unionist MPs, and Sir Henry Wilson, whose assassination was carried out (Hart, pp. 198-9).
The orders issued by Liam Lynch in November 1922 to kill on sight certain persons in response to the shootings of imprisoned Anti-Treatyites – resulting in the fatal shooting of Sean Hales TD and the wounding of Pádraic Ó Máille TD – can be seen as a continuation of this assassination policy.
While the death of Collins ultimately brought the Anti-Treatyites no tangible benefits, the possibility that it would must surely have been considered, something O’Donoghue pointedly omits. Lynch certainly thought it would. In a memorandum to Ernie O’Malley, dated a few days after the ambush, Lynch lamented the necessity of Collins’ death but explained at length his belief that:
Collins’ death will probably alter [the enemy’s] outlook and affect his higher Military Command. Collins’ loss is one which they cannot fill. The enemy position from the point of military and political leadership is very bad – we are at present in a much better position if we continued to take advantage of it. (O’Malley, p. 135)
As the Civil War dragged on and the Anti-Treatyite position became increasingly untenable, Lynch’s attitude was that things would have taken a different course if only Collins had lived, but in the immediate aftermath his attitude had been a very different one (Ryan, p. 218).
An Accidental Ambush?
The description of the leading up to the ambush casts the participants in an oddly amateurish light. Having set up for the ambush, the party decided that it was unlikely that the convoy would return by the same route, and started to leave, only for the convoy to be heard approaching after all. A Cork No. 3 section which had been left to cover the withdrawal saw that:
The main party moving back towards Bealnablath cross-roads were in a ravine and in a very dangerous position. They could not have reached the cross-roads before the convoy overtook them. (O’Mahony, p. 43)
Having seen this, the men in the Cork No. 3 section opened fire on the convoy after hurriedly taking positions. In case we were in doubt over whether Collins was the target of the ambush, O’Donoghue assures that “conditions were such that it was not possible to get off an aimed shot” (O’Mahony, p. 44).
O’Donoghue lists some of the 20 to 25 members of the ambush party, men like Liam Deasy, Tom Kelleher and Jim Hurley, who were intimate with the techniques of ambush from their roles in the War of Independence. It was out of character for them to have been careless enough to allow the bulk of their force open to being overwhelmed by the same force they had planned to take by surprise.
The story does, however, offer the committee in the Metropole a chance to distance themselves from the consequence of the ambush, i.e. Collins’ death, without denying that they had taken part. While in the process of withdrawing from a fight, they had found themselves unexpectedly cornered, and the Cork No. 3 had had no choice but to open hostilities after all to save their comrades.
O’Donoghue’s account bears a certain resemblance in part to Tom Barry’s account of the Kilmichael ambush, where Barry claimed that he had chosen an ambush site that allowed for no line of retreat, something he made sure to inform his men about, in the Spartan spirit of with-your-shield-or-on-it (Barry, p. 42).
As military historian W. H. Kautt puts it: “it was recklessly irresponsible for a guerrilla leader to jeopardize his force in such a manner” (p. 103), which is at odds with Barry’s track record as a tactician.
But, as with O’Donoghue’s account of Bealnablath, such a mistake could allow for the Kilmichael ambush to have been justified on the grounds that to have retreated before the approaching British convoy without a secure line of retreat would have exposed his men to an unacceptable risk, and thus the ambush was as much self-defence as anything (Kautt, pp. 113-4).
Barry’s memoir had been published in 1949, and even if O’Donoghue had not read it by the time of the Metropole meeting, he would have had some familiarity with the material, having been an editor to an earlier draft (Morrison, p. 161).
It is possible that O’Donoghue, seeking to portray the Bealnablath ambush party as not fully responsible for their role in an action that resulted in the death of a revered leader, borrowed a narrative tactic from another’s work. This cannot be said for certain, as without access to the draft O’Donoghue saw we cannot tell how much it resembled the printed version or how much of it was retained. It would be strange, however, for O’Donoghue to not have read a published work that he had had some role in.
All sources – Béaslaí, Barry, O’Donnell and the collective 1964 account – agree that the ambush was the work of a minority from the main party, with the rest having already moved on. Lynch’s memorandum to Ernie O’Malley, based on the report Liam Deasy sent to him, numbers the shooters as nine, though other sources are less specific (O’Malley, p. 135). The argument that the rearguard was prompted by the need to protect their comrades, however, is unique to the 1964 account.
Deasy Gets His Word In
As O’Donoghue’s account was written by committee, it is impossible to know how much input any one of the seven had in it, but nine years later, in 1973, nine years later, one of them would publish his own version in Brother Against Brother.
As with the 1964 account, Liam Deasy was sensitive to how the ambush had since been portrayed, bemoaning how “a lot has been written about this ambush at Bealnablath by Irishmen who dramatised the action out of all proportion. Strangers also did not help in what they wrote, many of whom caused much pain” (Deasy, p. 80).
A particular rumour he wished to quash was of four Anti-Treatyite officers, including himself, staying at a pub the night before the ambush, presumably because it implied premeditation on the part of Deasy and the three others. Deasy is at pains to present himself as a curiously distant bystander to the whole affair, this despite his senior Anti-Treatyite position as O.C. of the First Southern Division.
Upon hearing of Collins’ presence in the area with his convoy, Deasy discussed the implication of this with Éamon de Valera. For those searching for any plot to assassinate Collins, this often means linking the ambush with de Valera’s presence in the area. Canon Cohalan of Bandon asked rhetorically in a sermon: “The day Michael Collins was killed where was de Valera?” – before asserting that de Valera was either directly involved in the ambush or knew those who were (Coogan, p. 427).
Four years after the ambush, Piaras Béaslaí sarcastically noted that “it is a remarkable coincidence that Mr. De Valera, on the same day, is known to have been on the road taken by Collins’ party, and not far from the scene of the fatal ambush. I am told by supporters of his that it was only an accident” (Béaslaí, pp. 433-4).
This suspicion has continued into recent times, where the 1996 film Michael Collins has Alan Rickman’s De Valera enticing Collins into an assassin’s trap under the pretext of peace talks. It is unclear as to whether any meeting between De Valera and Collins had actually been planned, though de Valera’s denial, and his point that Collins would not have bothered meeting the then-powerless De Valera anyway, is plausible (Coogan, p. 449).
This chimes in with Deasy’s description of De Valera’s earnest suggestions to end the war being shot down point-blank by Lynch (Deasy, p. 76). De Valera’s presence is corroborated in the 1964 account but with no elaboration (O’Mahony, p. 42). Neither Deasy nor the 1964 account take the time to defend De Valera against the accusations of complicity but then, they were not writing on his behalf.
During his discussion with De Valera, Deasy correctly guessed that Collins’ arrival would be seen by nearby Anti-Treatyite divisions as an intolerable provocation, prompting an ambush on the convoy. In this the narrative agrees with the 1964 one, which had the divisions set up the ambush even while their senior officers were meeting to discuss it, suggesting that the IRA divisions were fully capable of acting on their own initiative without waiting for orders. This has the benefit of distancing the Anti-Treatyite officers from the ambush, which is presented as a spontaneous action that was natural to the local conditions, and avoiding the question of who gave the definite order to arrange an ambush.
There is no mention of what Deasy’s opinion was on any of this, nor of any effort on his part to encourage or discourage a potential ambush on an important national figure. A feeling “that an ambush would be prepared” was apparently sufficient for a senior officer in the midst of a warzone to not do anything besides hold a meeting in the nearby town of Garranereagh (Deasy, pp. 77-8). This location is at odds with the 1964 account, in which Deasy had arrived at Bealnablath on the 22nd and remained there, the same place where four Anti-Treatyite officers would assemble later that day for a meeting.
The 1964 account does not say that Deasy had been one of these four, but the implication in the text is that he was, unless the O.C. First Southern Division as not thought to be worth inviting along. Deasy, however, would prefer to have his readers believe that he was in a different town – keeping his literal distance – having his own meeting, where he “attended to many urgent matters and weighed up the new situation in which we found ourselves” (Deasy, p. 78). Besides a report to Lynch on De Valera’s visit, we get nothing specific on what this weighing up involved – Collins’ presence must surely have been a topic of discussion, but we learn nothing more from Deasy.
With the weighing up presumably weighed, only then did Deasy travel to the ambush site near Bealnablath. He arrived in time to find the ambush party in the process of withdrawing due to the likelihood of Collins taking a different route. In the 1964 account, the order to withdraw “was made, probably by Deasy” (O’Mahony, p. 43); furthermore, Deasy was listed as one of the ambush party. In Deasy’s version, the withdrawal order was Tom Hales’, before Deasy had even arrived, and Deasy was a latecomer to the ambush party at best.
The point is explicitly made in the 1964 account that the ambush was triggered by the need of the rearguard party to cover the rest from being overtaken by the sudden arrival of the convoy. According to Deasy, most of the party were already in a pub for ten minutes when they heard the first shots from the ambush, and dashed back in time to let off a few shots of their own before the convoy retreated.
While the 1964 account seeks to distance the ambushers from their own ambush by means of self-defence, Deasy goes one further and places himself as barely on the scene at all. Deasy also contradicts the 1964 account’s insistence that the main party were exposed in a ravine and in danger of being cornered; according to him, they had already spent some minutes inside before the firing began.
Whether Deasy was purposely going against the 1964 account for his own evasive benefit, was remembering events differently than he had nine years earlier, or had wanted to include his version from the start but been overruled by the others in the Metropole, is impossible to say. There are many overlaps in narrative between the two accounts, but also are significant differences in Deasy’s sole version and these were part of the same desire to distance the subject from the same embarrassing event that had motivated the earlier account.
The death of Collins was regarded by many on the Anti-Treaty side as a tragedy, despite their opposition to him, and the embarrassment felt in the death of such a prominent national figure can be felt in the attempts by many to minimize their roles in the fatal ambush.
A document submitted by a group of members in the ambush party and transcribed by Florence O’Donoghue in 1964 is a prime example of this. As the reason for every source to have been written must be examined, the one here was to cast the role of a group of participants in a controversial event in the best light.
This was done in two ways: the first was to deny that they had intended to kill Collins specifically, and that the ambush had been intended as another run-of-the-mill action against an enemy; the second was to construe the ambush as the inevitable consequences of the ambushers suddenly finding themselves in danger of being ambushed in turn. This bears a certain resemblance to a similar ambush recorded by another, one whom O’Donoghue has already familiar with as an editor, raising questions as to whether he borrowed a convenient explanation for his own inconvenient ambush.
This pattern was repeated by one of the group, Liam Deasy, in his own version, published some years later, which distanced him from the ambush even at the expense of contradicting the account he had helped to write. This is not to say that O’Donoghue’s document is a ‘true’ or ‘false’ account, but that it was written with an agenda that must be taken into consideration when using it.
First posted on The Irish Story (10/06/2013)
O’Donoghue, Florence. Florence O’Donoghue papers M.S. 31, 305. National Library of Ireland.
Printed in the Appendix of O’Mahony, Edward. Michael Collins: His Death in the Twilight (Wicklow: M. Payne Printer & Publisher, 1996)
Also available online: Collins 22 Society – Michael Collins his Life and Times – Appendix 1 (accessed 17/03/2016)
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Michael Collins, 1996, The Geffen Film Company, USA. Distributed by Warner Bros. Directed by Neil Jordan.