Professor Joe Lee in his peerless work “Ireland, 1912- 1985: Politics and Society” passes a rather brutal judgement on Michael Collins last and fatal tour of Cork in 1922: that in embarking on it Collins was behaving like a “cowboy” rather than as the head of government that he had become following the death of Arthur Griffith.
This journey will always be shrouded in controversy. Coogan provides some evidence that suggests that he had a peace initiative in mind. Others, drawing I believe on testimony from Desmond Fitzgerald, argue that Collins was seeking to secure funds from War of Independence days, which, if they fell into anti-treaty hands, could have spelt out a truly protracted Civil War.
However whatever the justification or otherwise of the tour of Cork Collins has I think been unfairly criticised, not least by Emmet Dalton, a senior Free State general and his touring car companion, for his decision to halt his convoy in Beal na mBlath once he came under fire rather than try to run the ambush.
Dalton was a decent, brave and shrewd man, clearly devastated by Collins death, which, most ignobly, several of the attacking party tried to blame him for in succeeding years. Perhaps some of this clouded his subsequent judgement of the events of that day.
Dalton was an experienced soldier from the battlefields of France in the First World War. He also fought in the 1916 Rebellion – on the side of the British. After the First World War he joined the IRA and fought in the independence war in Dublin, perhaps most notably in the effort to break Sean McEoin out of Mountjoy prison. In the Civil War he was instrumental in the suppression of anti-treaty forces in Dublin and the planning of taking Cork from the sea which led to the anti-treaty collapse in Munster.
By any measure Dalton had vastly more combat experience than Collins whose principal experience of battle before Beal na mBlath was Dublin during Easter Week 1916. However Dalton probably had less experience of the sort of guerrilla operations conceived by Collins and Richard Mulcahy during their time in prison in Frongoch and executed by them in their respective roles as Director of Organisation and Chief of Staff of the IRA.
One of the principle trainers of volunteers in the early days of the independence struggle was Dick McKee, Collins’ close friend. The sort of tactics they espoused were outlined by the likes of Ernie O’Malley and Tom Barry in their memoirs of the period.
At Beal na mBlath, using tactics typical of the War of Independence, the road was blocked with a brewer’s dray and the road strewn with broken bottles. A mine was also set in the road and Coogan notes that Tom Hales, who commanded the anti-treaty unit, only lifted this a few minutes before Collins’ convoy arrived.
It is not credible to presume that Collins had no knowledge of the sort of tactics that McKee was training or that Tom Hales, his pre-Civil War friend, would typically employ. In other words he must have believed that keeping moving towards the road block at Beal na mBlath would put the convoy in greater danger than halting and using the superior firepower of the convoy’s armoured car to drive off the attackers and buy them space to clear the roadblocks.
The choice cost him his life, but perhaps his life would have been lost anyway along with several of his party had he followed Dalton’s advice and proceeded through the ambush under fire and with the tyres of the vehicles shredded.
Collins remains a compelling historical figure in my view not just because of his historical achievements but also because he was something rare in military leaders. Like, for example, General Bill Slim of the British 14th Army in Burma during the Second World War, or the US Civil War Generals George Thomas and Joshua Chamberlain, he jumps from the pages of history books as a decent and generous human being, and as such his loss still resonates. But, in spite of some impressive scholarship in recent years, his career still, perhaps, has some secrets to give up.