Michael Collins could lay reasonable claim to be both the father of modern guerrilla warfare and one of the principle founders of Irish democracy. The fact that he achieved so much before his tragically early death at the age of 31 makes his story all the more remarkable.
I first read this book shortly after it was published in the 1990s. Rereading it in 2012 I was struck by the breathtaking scale of the achievement in the writing: drawing on the accounts of members of Collins’ Intelligence operation Coogan provides a detailed and compelling account of the intelligence war. In addition he provides a gripping account of the peace initiatives that led to the Truce and a facinating description of the negotiations that led to the Treaty. Probably the piece de resistance of a book that is overflowing with extraordinary detail is his account of Collins’ Northern policy: here Coogan wields a wealth of evidence to present a powerful argument that when other so called Republicans were preoccupied with silly disputes over the presence of the Oath of Allegience to the Crown in the Treaty, Collins was, for good and ill, marshalling all his political, diplomatic and military skills in a desperate effort to achieve a united Ireland.
In this book Coogan draws on a wealth of published and unpublished sources and interviews with participants in the War of Independence and Civil War, many personally known to him in his distinguished career as a journalist and editor, to produce the outstanding extant biography of Collins that catches both his personal humanity and historic achievements. In the process his also produces one of the best single volume introductions to this period of Irish history: a gripping narrative relating to how Collins, with a small group of committed revolutionists and patriots, initiates a guerrilla war, breaks the power of British secret service in Dublin and then, at enormous personal cost, turns the military victory into the political achievement of a democratic Irish state.
Collins remains a compelling figure because of both his historical achievements and legacy, and because, in spite of his engagement in some brutal warfare, he remains a recognisably sympathetic and humane person through it all. This book demonstrates all of this and illuminates some of the the great controversies of Irish and British history in the process. The result is quite simply one the best historical biographies available about anyone. It is a veritable tour de force, stunning in the breadth and depth of its scope and utterly gripping.