Who would Mick Collins want to sell his image?

Michael Collins wiping his pal Harry Boland’s eye with Julia Roberts in between single handedly destroying the British intelligence network in Ireland with the assistance of a few chirpy Dublin gurriers undoubtedly enhanced his reputation.

Lots of people were anxious to cash in and there has been a bit of an industry founded on Collins memorabilia. Even Sinn Féin could not resist the temptation to flog various items including busts of Collins in his Free State army uniform although whether they still do is not certain.

Some “foundational Provos” expressed misgivings about the Shinners buying into a cult around the chap who after all was on the other side in the Civil War from which the current Sinn Féin traces its political ancestry.

Then again, they also sell lots of tacky stuff that turns a bob from their increasingly tenuous past association with men and women who most likely never envisaged that the result of their endeavours would be the revival of Stormont and the cementing of Partition, not to mention the demise of the “undefeated army” sometimes still seen on beer stained tee shirts.

Fine Gael not unnaturally took umbrage at this cultural misappropriation and this year are selling a commemorative pin which seeks to link their party with the Big Fellow.

They are on sounder ground given that Fine Gael did eventually, following some dalliance with lads in fascist chic clobber for a few years in the 1930s, emerge from the Free State side in the Civil War. Collins was after all on the same political side as the founders of both Cumman na nGaedheal and Fine Gael although even the first had not been formally founded prior to Collins’ death in August 1922.

So there is no more a formal link between Fine Gael as it is now and Collins, than there is between the current Sinn Féin and the Sinn Féin founded in 1905. And Fine Gael have not been slow in reminding the Shinners of their various historical amnesias.

All of that is of course pedantic and short of following the logic of the silly argument – to which I myself am contributing – to the reductio ad absurdum of another shooting rather than social media war, it all has little relevance really to the current political scenario here.

It is, however, worth perhaps conducting a bit of an intellectual mind experiment and posing the question as to whether – all the unseemly squabbling over his uncopyrighted likeness aside –  the Big Fellow himself would be happy to be currently associated with either Fine Gael or Sinn Féin. (I do not mention Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Greens in this context as you could equally interrogate the former’s connection to De Valera and Lemass; Labour’s spurious claim on James Connolly on the basis that he voted for an inconsequential motion in Clonmel in 1912; and the Greens, whose intellectual antecedents are probably some 19th century landlord who tried to persuade his starving tenants that broccoli would be a more sustainable crop than spuds.)

Nor ought the legacy of Collins revolve around the use of violence. The older I get the more I tend to Arthur Griffith’s view. Use it if necessary and unavoidable but do not make it into a matter of principle. The battle of ideas is more important than any physical battle and the decisive ones in Irish history have been won and mostly lost when the guns have been silent.


(Cover of Talbot Press edition, 1922.)

The main published source of Collin’s own ideas are found in a book entitled The Path to Freedom that was published in 1922. There are other examples from the records of the revolutionary Dáil Éireann including contributions to debates on the economy as well as departmental correspondence.

One thing that is clear is that Collins despite being a signatory to the Treaty did not envisage Partition as a long term let alone a permanent settlement of the national question. Those in Fine Gael and Sinn Féin who  would perhaps reference that in connection to Collins’ pragmatism in 1921 and 1922 as a rationale for their own subsequent attitudes towards Partition neglect the fact that Collins certainly did not envisage the separation of the 6 counties from the independent Irish state as lasting so long as they now do.

What he might have done had he lived in order to expedite national unity is of course an imponderable. What is more interesting is how Collins did envisage an independent Ireland.

In a speech made shortly before his death Collins referred to the “revival of our Gaelic civilization” based on “spiritual” and “intellectual” values, and there is no doubt but in common with most of the leaders of the Irish revolution he believed in that. The revolution had after all its intellectual foundations not only in the idea that Ireland ought to be politically independent but that this had its roots in our cultural identity.

Unlike those who like Daniel O’Connell believed that cultural identity ought best be abandoned so that Ireland might become a modern liberal democratic state, or those on the left who believed that Ireland only discovered its nationhood when the United Irishmen, like Mao, went among the peasantry, Collins knew the rich history of Gaelic civilization and its literary and intellectual tradition which had at one period played a key role in preserving the wider European Christian culture.

So he did not share in the banal “vision” that an independent Irish state would become just another modern state in which the characteristics of national identity were to be subsumed into a world order based on free market or socialist internationalism.

The National Collins22 Society | Chapter 5. BUILDING UP IRELAND (generalmichaelcollins.com)

The object of economic development for Collins was the use of national resources to better the lives of the people of Ireland. He was not an economic dogmatist but he did describe how he believed that might be achieved: “ … on co-operative lines rather than on the old commercial capitalistic lines of the huge joint stock companies. At the same time I think we shall safely avoid State Socialism, which has nothing to commend it to a country like Ireland, and, in any case, is a monopoly of another kind.”

Collins goes on in some detail – and recall that his position within the revolutionary government was Minister for Finance so he took all of this seriously – regarding how the economy should be based on domestic processing rather than raw exports, and the development of untapped national resources including minerals.

He also referred to the disproportionate amount of Irish capital that was “lying idle in banks” or invested through the London stock exchange instead of being used to invest in domestic industry. A problem that proved to be an enormous handicap on the Irish state after 1922 and eventually led to the dominance of the economy by multi-national capital.

There is of course no knowing what Collins might have become had he lived. Would he have been just another minister dressed like Charlie Chaplin packing the new administration with unionist financiers and merchants? Perhaps.

I would like to think that was unlikely but we shall never know and such speculation is pretty much pointless. So too is which political party can best lay claim to Collins as the icon of a sturdier more visionary and optimistic nationalism.

Pointless because not one of them could honestly claim to currently represent any such thing,

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