Michael Collins died 101 years ago. As we pass his death’s anniversary, it is worth reflecting on what the man who gave birth to modern Ireland wanted for it. Much attention has been given to Collins’ roles as a financier, spy, and revolutionary, however, those focus on Collins’ present-minded actions. Less has been said about his vision for a future Ireland.
In 1922, a collection of his writings and speeches was published under the title The Path to Freedom. Through these pages we get a glimpse of Collins’ vision for Ireland.
Much of the work can be summarized by this quote, “we are now free in name. The extent to which we become free in fact and secure our freedom will be the extent to which we become Gaels again.” Collins’ vision encompassed many aspects but ultimately related all these back to the Irish achieving 1.) an independent and 2.) revived identity.
Collins was very aware of Ireland’s ancient past and its sophistication. He saw the reconnection to that identity was paramount in furthering all the other goals as it would secure the Irish nation in a framework not subservient to British interests.
He wrote, “we can fill our minds with Gaelic ideas, and our lives with Gaelic customs, until there is no room for any other.” The prominence of Irish native culture at the exclusion of foreign cultures was paramount for him.
He suggested that “
the biggest task will be the restoration of the language. How can we express our most subtle thoughts and finest feelings in a foreign tongue? Irish will scarcely be our language in this generation, not even perhaps in the next. But until we have it again on our tongues and in our minds we are not free, and we will produce no immortal literature. Our music and our art and literature must be in the lives of the people themselves.”
Language was the first step and from it music, art, poetry, and literature would expand outwards from it. Together these cultural factors would revive an independent Irish identity that would secure freedom. These would then be fostered by other policies in the building up of a national education system, sports leagues, and military.
He would then go on to describe his vision for Ireland’s economic future and interrelate back to culture. He wrote, “economically we must be democratic, as in the past. The right of all the people must be secure. The people must become again ‘the guardians of their law and of their land’. Each must be free to reap the full reward of his labour. Monopoly must not be allowed to deprive anyone of that right. Neither, through the existence of monopoly, must capital be allowed to be an evil. It must not be allowed to draw away all the fruits of labour to itself. It must fulfil its proper function of being the means by which are brought forth fresh and fuller fruits for the benefit of all.”
Here we see a very nuanced perspective on the checking the extremes of the spectrum of economic thinking. This perspective certainly shows influences from the protectionism of Arthur Griffith, the social teaching of the Catholic Church, and the myriad of past Irish nationalist thinkers. These influences with Collins’ own original thought generate a unique model to follow. Neither neglectful nor over-indulgent but caring and measured.
He further wrote,
“the keynote to the economic revival must be development of Irish resources by Irish capital for the benefit of the Irish consumer in such a way that the people have steady work at just remuneration and their own share of control…How are we to develop Irish resources? The earth is our bountiful mother. Upon free access to it depends not only agriculture, but all other trades and industries. Land must be freely available. Agriculture, our main industry, must be improved and developed. Our existing industries must be given opportunities to expand. Conditions must be created which will make it possible for new ones to arise. Means of transit must be extended and cheapened. Our harbours must be developed. Our water-power must be utilised; our mineral resources must be exploited. Foreign trade must be stimulated by making facilities for the transport and marketing of Irish goods abroad and foreign goods in Ireland. Investors must be urged and encouraged to invest Irish capital in Irish concerns.”
Collins painted a holistic picture of Ireland’s future economy. One that would not sacrifice one sector for another but have all integrate and work together. It would seek to push new industries forward and invest in the creation of infrastructure to facilitate it. Additionally, Ireland would be connected to the global economy through its bountiful exports. It’s natural resources like in hydro-electric power or fossil fuels would be harnessed too. Finally, the Irish state would encourage the Irish financial sector to redirect its investments from Britain to native Irish enterprise.
Some specifics included addressing the legacy of British imperial economics sustained through absentee private estates and unproductive cattle ranches taking up land by breaking them up. Another was the warning of foreign finance and how it would bring with it “evils that we want to avoid.”
We see a clear line of thought starting with reviving and independent Irish identity, the priotitization of the Gaelic culture especially its language, the formation of civic institutions, and finally a robust sovereign and modern economic system.
Did Collins’ vision come true? While certainly we can say efforts were made to expand Gaelic culture and the economy progressed over the past 101 years but is that all to be said?
The Irish language is certainly not near where Collins would have hoped. Perhaps more government supports would have been necessary as he did stipulate. It’s hard to argue that the Irish haven’t punched above their weight class in artistic output but all that must be put with the asterisk of not in the Gaelic language. He probably would have been content with the success of the GAA.
The most glaring thing he would be upset about is the state of the Irish economy. The cattle ranches weren’t broken up. Industries never took off as they should have. Civic and economic infrastructure were neglected, best illustrated by the lackluster rail network of Ireland. The Ardnacrusha power plant was an amazing fulfilment of his 1922 work built a few decades after it. The expansion of off-shore oil and gas drilling would have also been supported by him. However, in the 21st century Ireland has neglected these natural resources and will soon become entirely dependent on the United Kingdom for natural gas for instance.
Collins chose to end his section on the economy with the warning against foreign finance. In this respect, he would be most disappointed with how Ireland had become subservient to foreign finance. Collins would have hated leprechaun economics and the IFSC. Collins didn’t see any need as Irish capital existed in Ireland to invest but those in control of that capital, namely the Irish banks, refused to sufficiently invest in Ireland. 101 years later, Irish banks continue to under-invest capital in Irish economic development compounded by the absence of a national central bank.
Modern historian Tim Pat Coogan wrote, “like Prometheus, Collins stole fire. Like Prometheus he paid for his feat and much of what he set about doing remains undone. But his name burns brightly wherever the Irish meet. Michael Collins was the man who made modern Ireland possible.” Perhaps, we should take what he made possible and finish what remains undone of his vision.