As a young child, some of my most vivid memories are of attending Beál na mBláth, the annual commemoration to mark the death of Michael Collins. I can clearly remember my maternal grandfather polishing his old IRA medals, his suit being taken out of the wardrobe, the long drive to a remote place in the middle of the countryside, the army standing in lines of honour, sitting on rocks jutting out from the long grass and waiting while he had long conversations with former comrades. Even then as an eight or nine year old I was aware of the significance, solemnity and history of the event. To hear the last post always sent a shiver down the spine and made the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. To see the veterans standing to attention as they listened closely to that year’s speaker was always inspiring.
On Sunday last the 22nd of August the 90th anniversary of the death of Michael Collins was commemorated at Beál na mBláth in West Cork. This was the first time that a sitting Taoiseach has given the oration and in many ways marks the significance of the event. Last Friday I attended the official launch of a commemorative book which the Beál na mBláth committee have published gathering together reports, extracts and exact texts of all orations given at the event over the years. The large attendance at the book launch and the large turnout for the commemoration suggests that Collins continues to hold an attraction for many people. Some consider him the greatest Irishman who ever lived. Such a grandiose title I believe would not have sat well on the shoulders of Collins as he sought neither fame nor fortune from his deeds or actions. Instead I think Collins would have wanted his ideals and principles to continue to influence and shape modern Ireland.
It is important that we continue to remember and respect the legacy of Collins and those who fought longside him initially in the GPO of 1916 but later on as well in the War of Independence and those who fought on either side of the Civil War. The men and women who fought for the deliverance of a nation lived through harrowing and turbulent times. There were and continue to be many unsung heroes of that era but the history pages record our depth of gratitude to them. In remembering Collins we are in effect remembering them as well. It is easy to focus in on the Hollywood style treatment of Collins but we should take an opportunity to reflect on who he was and what he represented. In the words of historian ATQ Stewart; " even the most grotesque subversions of history cannot outdistance the true facts of the story, of a country boy who became the first urban guerrilla, laid the foundations of a state and then negotiated its independence, was chairman of its Provisional Government, then commander in chief of its armed forces when it was plunged into civil war—all this before dying at the hands of his fellow republicans at the age of thirty-one."
The mythology of Collins it seems was born before he died. It is as strong now as it was then. It was not born out of an absence of other capable leaders or visionaries but emerged from respect, loyalty and fidelity of one man for the ideals of an emerging nation, a belief in the capability of the citizens of the nation and a love and protection for colleagues. Michael Collins embodied all that we would like to be ourselves and he embodied all that was needed for an emerging state. The legacy of Collins would not and could not have continued to the present day if the foundations upon which the State he helped to create were not solid and true. Collins would not have accepted the credit for establishing those foundations himself as he always credited the people of Ireland as being the driving force behind liberation and the creation of the new state. As he said only shortly before his death; “The nation would make the government, not the government the nation.”
Collins had high hopes and expectations for the country he helped to found and liberate. In his own words, “the freedom, strength, and greatness of the nation will be measured by the independence, economic well-being, physical strength and intellectual greatness of the people. A new page of Irish history is beginning. We have a rich and fertile country – a sturdy and intelligent people. With peace, security and union, no one can foresee the limits of greatness and well-being to which our country may not aspire.”
The depth and diversity of opinion represented by the speakers at Beál na mBláth has continued to live up to the challenge set by Collins. Each year the committee carefully and diligently select one person to give the annual oration. Without fail these individuals have always delivered a speech which has resonated with the audience and caused them to reflect and ponder not only on the life and legacy of Collins, but more importantly on how the State has evolved, how Collins has helped shape and influence that State as well as providing a commentary on current and future affairs of the State. The Commemoration Committee has to be congratulated for not always staying within the narrow political fold of Fine Gael but for taking the courageous step of reaching out to other political viewpoints and cultures. Former Presidents, Ministers, MEPS, as well as leading academic, cultural and philosophical heavyweights such as Mary Robinson, David Putnam, Ed Walsh, Tim Pat Coogan, John A Costello, Garret Fitzgerald, Alan Dukes and Brian Farrell amongst others have all delivered the keynote speech. Brian Lenihan, who gave the oration shortly before he died will in time be seen as a true act of generosity and healing which Collins would most definitely approved of.
As we enter into what is being labeled as a decade of national commemorations, it is important that we are mindful and respectful of other seminal events that occurred on the world stage around this time as well that had a bearing and an influence on the development of this fledgling state. We should take a broader perspective on our history and place the emergence of the nation in the socio-political landscape that was happening in Europe and the world. I truly hope we can have a balanced encompassing debate in the coming months and years up to 2016 and beyond. Our national and local commemoration of the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, The Civil War, the burning of Cork and other events should be a real and meaningful opportunity to have a societal discussion on where we are as nation, where we would like to be and to identify the necessary steps to get there.
The modern nation is very different to that fought for almost a hundred years ago but it is crucial we understand our past to shape our future. Collins and those of his generation would have wanted it that way.
Lord Mayor of Cork - Cllr. John Buttimer