Ladies and Gentlemen, Colleagues, Distinguished Guests, Friends:
It is an enormous honour to be invited to deliver this oration at this hallowed spot and I would like to thank the Collins-Griffith Commemoration Society and the Glasnevin Trust for their kind invitation. It is to the credit of these organisations that year in, year out, an opportunity is provided for us to gather to honour the two great founding fathers of our State, reflect on their achievements and, critically, challenge ourselves on how their lives and sacrifices can inform the work of re-imagining our republic today. Since 1923, the Commemoration Committee has organised an unbroken series of annual commemorations at Glasnevin Cemetery in memory of General Michael Collins and President Arthur Griffith.
I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank members of the Collins and Griffith families – whilst Irish people feel a great sense of collective ownership and connection with these two titans of our history, events like today also have a deep personal meaning for your families and, over one hundred years on, continue to stir feelings of both pride and pain as we remember the loss of two men whose lives ended far too early, within a few short days of each other.
I would also like to acknowledge the voluntary work of the members of the Collins 22 Society who week after week, come hail or shine, tend to the grave of General Collins and ensure that it is looking its best all year round.
Michael Collins was just 31 when he was assassinated in an ambush at Beal Na Blath. Major General Emmet Dalton upon hearing the words “Emmet, I’m hit” together with Commandment Sean O’Connell ran to his aid. In the words of O’Connell; “How can I describe the feelings that were mine in that bleak hour, kneeling in the mud of a country road, not 12 miles from Clonakilty, with the still bleeding head of the Idol of Ireland resting on my arm.” On the 28th August 1922, 500,000 people lined the streets of Dublin for the funeral of our hero, Michael Collins. The funeral cortege was said to be six miles long. At the graveside oration given on this spot General Richard Mulcahy in describing the tsunami of grief that had followed Collins’s death, said “our country is to-day bent under a sorrow such as it has not been bent under for many a year. Our minds are cold, empty, wordless, and without sound.”
Arthur Griffith was a mere 50 years when he died suddenly, due in no small part to overwork and exhaustion for Ireland. Whereas Collins spilled his blood for Ireland, Griffith spilled his sweat and both made the ultimate sacrifice to enable the foundation of our country, our now Republic, which is today one of Europe’s most successful and longest continuing democracies. The writer Ronan McGreevy chronicled how four months before his death, Griffith sent a chilling note to his wife on April 15th, 1922, from Sligo. “In case of anything happening to me, all that I possess to go to my wife. Let a sum of £50, however, be provided for my sister. I hope she will be looked after. Let the people stand firm for the Free State. It is their national need and economic salvation.”
Griffith and Collins died 10 days apart from each other. The cumulative blow to the fledging Irish State represented by both their deaths was truly enormous.
Today Collins and Griffith provide a focal point for this act of remembrance and as such focal points, it is important that we also see them as standard bearers of a larger movement; a movement that won our sovereignty and self-determination.
Across this graveyard lie men and women who made unthinkable sacrifices, in life and in death, in the cause of Irish freedom. Whilst many are household names, many more are not – but they were and will always remain brave patriots who, in small and big ways, contributed to the business of nation building.
It is perhaps particularly important this year, 100 years since the conclusion of the Irish Civil War that we remember the many lives lost in that conflict.
Those of us in the Fine Gael tradition, take pride in the sacrifice of the National Army during that period, a contribution which was recognised with the recent opening of a monument here in Glasnevin. Principally through the work of historians such as James Langton and his ground breaking book “The Forgotten Fallen” we as a society have been able to fully recall and remember the Civil War dead.
We must also remember too those who did not share the Collins and Griffith view on the treaty and who too gave their lives believing they were fighting for the cause of Ireland at a time when brother turned on brother and countless friendships and communities were torn apart by violence and atrocities.
In eulogising or memorialising Michael Collins we face an immensely challenging task. Which Michael Collins are we calling to mind? Is it Collins, the soldier and revolutionary – a man who returned home to serve in the 1916 rising, who brought comrades together to train in its aftermath and who as Director of Intelligence helped to bring the very sustainability of British rule in Ireland to an unprecedented juncture. Or Collins, the administrator, a man who ran a revolution through letters and the postal system, with a legendary command for detail. Or Collins, the statesman who served as our first Minister for Home Affairs and Finance, whose political career in 5 short years took him from his constituency of Cork South to negotiations in Downing Street and all too briefly, the Chair of Ireland’s Provisional Government.
Perhaps his many roles and contributions are perhaps best summarised in his own words that “People who are very busy are never so busy that they cannot do something extra”. Indeed, it is through these many different guises, at his various roles in the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Dail Eireann and the government, that Collins furthered the cause of Irish freedom. Therefore, it is not possible or most useful to view him through any one lens and this ambiguity of role and responsibility was often managed by him, with extraordinary skill, to maximise both his impact and influence.
Collins was above all a doer – he believed in action or as he put it himself in a letter to Kitty Kiernan “I’m on the side of those who do things, not on the side of those who say things.
Despite a century passing, it is both incredible and a testament to his lasting impact that when we think of Michael Collins, including when young generations do, we don’t necessarily think of a purely historical figure who we hear about just through books or school or television. For many of us, Michael Collins feel much more familiar and closer than that.
Most of us have a story or some sense of local or family connection to the man we know as “The Big Fella”. Indeed, in my own hometown of Greystones, it is a source of great pride that he stayed in our town the evening before travelling to London for the treaty negotiations, receiving the last rites in the town prior to taking the train to what was then Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) to board the ferry there. It is this sense of familiarity, which has only been enhanced since his life and work was popularised on the big screen and re-examined as part of our decade of centenaries.
Perhaps this sense of familiarity and closeness, is a recognition of another reality. Michael Collins is more than just a human figure in our history, he has come to embody and become an enduring symbol of all that we are proud of in our past and hope for in our future. We commemorate Michael Collins, the man, the Statesman, the patriot, the founding father but we also acknowledge and appreciate beyond words, the most powerful tool he has passed to future generations – the ability to self-determine, to be free and to chart our own course and our own future. That is a major part of the legacy, of the impact, of the enduring connection to this day and for every future day with General Michael Collins.
It is not uncommon for politicians and media commentators to appropriate the writing and speeches of Collins to show support for any number of contemporary issues and causes.
In my own view, perhaps we serve him best when we see him within the context of the times he lived. Napoleon famously said “To understand the man you have to understand what was happening in the world when he was 20”.
The world Collins encountered in his formative years, was in many respects very different to the world we live in today. The world was dominated by a small number of large empires, our country legally and politically formed part of the United Kingdom and the British Empire, and was almost wholly reliant on an agrarian economy with low life expectancy, poor literacy and prevalent poverty. Concepts such as the freedom of small nations, human rights, universal suffrage and the peaceful transfer of power were yet to emerge or were heavily contested. Disputes between nations were nearly always settled through violence and war.
In this context, Michael Collins fought to establish an independent Ireland built in the form of a republican democracy. Whilst today the idea of our republic may seem inevitable, it was nothing less than a revolutionary concept in the world in which Collins reached adulthood.
A committed republican, who shared the thoughts and ideals which were prevalent amongst Irish nationalists of his generation, he was not a prisoner to idealism or afraid of compromise. His ability to negotiate, not just in terms of the Treaty, but in his day-to-day engagements across organisations, political issues and military disputes helped to turn revolutionary ideas which were far from a certainty to a reality which we all enjoy and benefit from to this very today.
I think it is worth reflecting for a moment or two on what to me was one of Collins’s enduring characteristics – his fulsome regard for and defence of democratic values. In his book “the Path to Freedom” Collins wrote “Of all forms of government, a democracy allows the greatest freedom – the greatest possibilities for the good of all. But such a government, like all governments, must be recognised and obeyed. The first duty of the new government was to maintain public order, security of life, personal liberty and property. The duty of the leaders was to secure free discussion of public policy, and to get all parties to recognise that, while they differed, they were fellow citizens of one free State. It should have been the political glory of Ireland to show that our differences of opinion could express themselves so as to promote, and not to destroy the national life.”
It is perhaps no surprise that the celebrity of Collins, a man once referred to as “The Most Wanted Man in the World”, with a bounty of £10,000 on his head, captures our imagination and much of our attention. Yet no recollection of the establishment of the Irish State, can be complete without due deference and remembrance of Arthur Griffith.
Griffith understood, more than most that a nation can never be truly independent or enjoy self-determination unless it enjoys true economic independence. He believed in developing the Irish economy to ensure the sovereignty of the Irish Nation and perhaps our own generation knows all too well the bitter truth of this fact and the pain and reduction of independence when economic sovereignty is undermined and put at risk.
Indeed my generation continues to pay a high price for past economic mismanagement – they see it on their pay slip and they see it in the impact of the lost years of investment, the opportunity cost of an economic crisis and also the impact of what was then the collapse of key sectors of our economy including construction which needed to be rebuilt almost from scratch. So true independence can never be fully realised if a country is not economically sound. Some current day political leaders would do well to reflect on this important fact. We have come too far to go back to an era of economic populism and mismanagement. Fine Gael will and must pursue policies to heal the scars borne by this generation from the economic crash.
Griffith is often criticised for his economic protectionist instincts and even blamed in some quarters for the direction of the Irish economy in the early decades after independence however he is unfairly served by this narrow reading. As we mark 50 years of Ireland’s membership of the European Union, we should remind ourselves that it was Griffith who first advocated that Ireland’s economic future was not best served by reliance on Britain alone but by looking to other states, particularly other small states, within Europe.
Griffith was in many respects, one of the great intellectuals of the republican movement. Often referred to as the last Young Irelander, and a fierce supporter of Parnell, his thinking on constitutional concepts are closely aligned to the ultimate treaty settlement which enabled successive governments to take office and step ever closer to the republican model which Griffith was ultimately committed to.
Often mistaken as a pacifist, Griffith was prepared to take whatever actions were required to defend the best interests of the Irish people, democratically expressed at the ballot box following the treaty negotiations.
That his grave is marked by an unfinished pillar is not just symbolic of his life and the cutting short of his work but rather should be seen as a challenge to every generation of Irish people – a call to action – to work to complete the unfinished and unending work of building this republic. The challenge of harnessing the freedom his generation strived and sacrificed for and putting it to work in the interests of our people today and the challenges and opportunities of our time.
In Collins’s speech to the Dail during the Treaty debate he famously asked Deputies to not simply ask “whether the dead men would agree with it” but “whether the living approve of it”. Perhaps that is our task today – in remembering the contribution of these two great Gaels we must ask ourselves how we too can contribute to re-imagining an Ireland which works for all of our people.
100 years of progress
We as a people, we as a country, we a collection of communities have over the last 100 years worked tirelessly and together to deploy the great gift given to us by Collins, Griffith and their contemporaries – the ability for a nation to create its own future. The freedom to achieve freedom– not just territorial freedoms – but civil, political, social and economic freedoms. And collectively, this country can be proud of much of the progress it has made. Full employment, access to education, advancements in health outcomes, the right to love whoever you love, the concept of a social floor, membership of the European Union, policing by consent, peacekeeping overseas, a country at the cutting edge of science and technology, an enduring democracy which is the envy of many and, most vitally, one of the most successful peace agreements in the world. So to those who talk Ireland down for their own political gain, we will not fall for your trap, we will not pander to your negativity, we will not let you disregard the achievements enabled by the great generation we honour today and the generations which have come after.
But of course a refusal to allow people talk this country down is in no way contradictory to the acknowledgement of the need to do more and the massive challenges and opportunities we face today. In fact, it is complimentary because the successes to date of this country inspire us, encourage us and convince us of our ability to face up to and overcome any challenge of our time.
Now is the time to build a new social contract – one which renews our promise as a Republic. One which balances rights and responsibilities.
One which meets the legitimate expectations of our time and generation. That if you work hard and play by the rules, the State will play its part too.
One that respects that your hard-earned money you pay in tax must be linked to the delivery of the services that you and your family need now and into the future.
One which recognises the need to create true equality of opportunity – that no matter who you are, where you live or what your parents did before you, you can reach your full potential.
One which removes any remaining barriers to access to education at all its levels, or to employment.
One which ensures home ownership is brought back into the reach of all who need it.
One which realises that we must pass this earth on to the next generation and not shirk that challenge no matter how difficult it is.
And one that values community, neighbours, decency and kindness and that recognises the ingenuity of the Irish people is our greatest national resource and harnessing it is key to our collective future.
In politics, in public life, in a Republic challenges never disappear they just change. And this generation must and will step up, be bold in its leadership, its vision and its policy to build a country that works for all who call it home.
Because, thanks to Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith we have the ability to self-determine our future.
The United Ireland Party
Griffith and Collins never saw the Treaty negotiations as the final word on the future of Ireland and its unity. In the words of Parnell who went before them, “No man has the right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country- thus far shalt thou go and no further.”
We now live in a country and on an island which has an enduring peace agreement and contained within it a framework which could, by democratic majority see Ireland united again.
It is often forgotten by others that the full name of the Fine Gael Party is Fine Gael – The United Ireland Party and as we embark on our second century of independence the work of uniting people continues.
It is a legitimate political aspiration which I passionately believe in to see Ireland reunited. No one party in this Republic has a monopoly on that aspiration.
But sloganeering is not a policy and in isolation can offend. In fact, sometimes those who portray themselves as the most committed, can through their actions and inaction end up driving people on this island further apart. A united Ireland cannot be just about geographic unity, it must be about hearts and minds. It must be about people. It must be about inclusion and respect. You don’t unite Ireland by uniting one community and alienating another. You plan a shared island. You work together.
Today we work so closely together on this island on so many issues – cancer patients in Donegal going to Altnagalvin for treatment, life-saving heart operations for children from Belfast taking place in Dublin, apprenticeships to build homes on an all-island basis, students from Limerick studying in Derry.
Rising sea-levels, global pandemics, great technological shifts are ignorant or at least agnostic to geography or emblem.
So we keep at it – the Collins vision – the freedom to achieve freedom. The stepping stone. The building of relationships, learning about each other and our perspectives and traditions.
We live in times of uncertainty, challenge and often worry. As we stand at the grave of Michael Collins, we mourn his loss, the loss of Griffith, the loss of so many of the great generation in times of division.
But we also, recall the words of George Bernard Shaw in a letter to Collins sister, Hannie, “My dear Miss Collins, don’t make them make you miserable about it, how could a born soldier die better than at the victorious end of a good fight, fallen to the shot of another Irishman a damned fool but all the same an Irishman who thought he was fighting for Ireland. I rejoice in Michael’s memory and will not be so disloyal as to snivel over his valiant death so tear up your mourning and hang up your brightest colours in his honour.”
Friends, the best days for this country, for our Republic are yet to come.