The Path to Freedom - Speeches by Michael Collins

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9781907179860: The Path to Freedom - Speeches by Michael Collins
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FOREWORD by Mary Kenny When Michael Collins returned from London - with Arthur Griffith and the negotiating team - after signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, Collins himself was aware of two evident truths. One was that the Treaty terms were the best possible compromise the Irish signatories could have wrenched from Great Britain. Britain was still at the apex of the largest Empire the world had known, and King George V reigned over a quarter of the global map; while Ireland was a fledgling state emerging into independence. The British had threatened to return to the theatre of war in Ireland if no agreement had been reached, and Britain undoubtedly had the power of force majeure. Always an Irish patriot who honoured the Fenian tradition, Michael Collins was also a realist, in military and in practical matters, and knew that the country had to work with what it had - not yet a Republic, but a decisive step towards independence and the building of an Irish state. The second truth was that in signing the Treaty he had in all likelihood signed his own death-warrant. Winston Churchill watched Collins take up that pen and sign, and Churchill wrote afterwards: In all my life, I have never seen so much passion and suffering in restraint as I saw on Michael Collins' face that day.A" But still, Collins knew it was his duty to steward the Irish nation towards the foundation of statehood. Collins understood - as he makes clear in these fascinating pages - the difference between a nation and a state. The Irish nation could claim roots in antiquity, and a sense of continuity down through the ages: the Irish people had that sense of nationhood imbued in their spirit, and as soon as democracy had developed, had made their desire for independence clear. But if a nation is the spirit of a people, a modern state is a political construct: it has to be forged with a sense of mission, and a practical application of the possible. In these essays Michael Collins spells out some of his vision for the future of the country, as well as his analysis of the past. Had he lived - if only he had lived to lead and inspire for many more years! - his political thinking would have developed further, and more broadly. These essays, some written in the anguish of a civil war which he struggled so hard to avoid, and in which he saw his country torn apart while seeking to establish and defend democracy, liberty and stability - are in parts perhaps fragmentary, and not yet deepened by the experience of a longer period of historical reflection. Although he at one point propounds the traditional, and simplistic Fenian view that Ulster Unionism, or Orange politics, were England's manufactured resistanceA" to Irish nationhood (history would not now support that claim: I have seen the thick file of letters in the Royal Archives at Windsor, overflowing with a violent Ulster Unionism which the English were actually trying to restrain, and which reduced George V himself to tears), Michael Collins is nonetheless moving towards accepting what we accept today - the cultural pluralism of Irish nationhood. We must convertA" the Orangemen to their Irishness, he says, not browbeat them. Ireland, too, is a rainbow nation, and draws on many traditions, from vehement Ulster loyalism, to deeply-held Catholic absoluteism, and all these strains must be woven into the national heritage. In the magnificently eloquent Treaty debate (available online at Collins - and Griffith are clear about their sense of Irishness: reproached for parlaying with the Southern Unionists (mainly Irish Protestants from the 26 counties) Arthur Griffith declares - I met them, because they are my countrymen; and because if we are to have an Irish nation, we want to start with fair play for all sections and with understanding between all sectionsA" - a speech greeted with strong applause, and particular support from Collins. Michael Collins advances the traditional Fenian view, too, of Daniel O'Connell, whom he believed lacked the real stuff of leadership: but his judgement would surely have been nuanced by the perspective of fuller historical research, in which O'Connell has emerged as a cosmopolitan progressive, a supporter of the anti-slavery (and anti-racist) campaigns, a champion of Jewish as well as Catholic political emancipation - a man who greatly advanced the cause of people powerA" and democracy in his lifetime. Yet Michael Collins' overall vision is still inspiring: in an era which was regrettably moving towards economic protectionism, he sees the necessity for open trade with overseas markets, for investment and management, and for putting the national economy on a sound footingA" as a priority. He wants the arts, and music, to belong to all of the people, and not just to an elite. Interestingly, Collins says nothing about the role of religion in Irish life: he simply doesn't see it as part of the political remit, although, as his poignant letters to Kitty Kiernan show (published in Leon O Broin's sensitively edited In Great Haste), it is evident that privately, he was a man of faith, and regularly attended Mass or lit candles in London at Brompton Oratory and Maiden Lane during the Treaty negotiations (and faithfully followed thither by agents of British intelligence!) He wittily told the British that he'd have their spies converted into Papists before business was concluded: it had been supposed Michael hadn't noticed the shadows on his tail, lurking around at the back of the chapels. Indeed, one aspect of Collins' personality which is omitted, perforce, in this collection written in time of war is his wit. He had that great Cork sense of humour, as well as a famous generosity. These writings are nonetheless full of rewarding ideas and an incisive understanding, and we should all be grateful to Denis Lenihan, a wonderful man who, at his own expense, has tended General Collins's previously neglected grave at Glasnevin for the past thirty years. All who revere the memory and legacy of Michael Collins have reason to be grateful to Denis, who, in a quiet, patient and enduring way has performed a truly patriotic feat. Mary Kenny: August 2010 Mary is the author of Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy and Allegiance: a drama based on the encounters between Michael Collins and Winston Churchill 1921-22.

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