Michael Collins is widely regarded as the most charismatic political leader in the history of twentieth century Ireland. His premature and violent death was deeply mourned at the time and has been regarded by many historians since as an irreparable loss for the newly independent nation.
Collins was born in Clonakilty, County Cork. After joining the civil service, he moved to London in 1906 and worked there in the post office and in a stockbrokers` firm and at the Board of Trade. Quickly developing a keen interest in Irish politics among exiled nationalists, he joined the Gaelic League and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He became convinced that independence could only be achieved by force. Aware that a rising was being planned, he returned to Ireland and served as aide to Joseph Plunkett in the GPO during Easter week. Afterwards he was interned at Frongoch, north Wales, released at Christmas 1916 and came back to Ireland. Immediately he set about the rebuilding of the IRB. In 1917, he was elected to the executive of Sinn Féin and was returned as an MP for the party as the representative for both South Cork and for Tyrone at the general election in December 1918. Meanwhile he came effectively to control the re-formed Irish Volunteers. When Dáil Éireann was established in January 1919, he was appointed Minister of Home Affairs and in April Minister of Finance. In this role he organised the Dail loan which financed the republicans’ alternative government.
During the Anglo-Irish war Collins played a vital part in co-ordinating the IRA`s military campaign. His undercover network especially in Dublin was renowned; his ‘squad’ eliminated the British government’s intelligence sources in the city. He was a reluctant Sinn Féin delegate during the Treaty negotiations. Together with Arthur Griffith, he dominated the Irish representatives and extracted most of the concessions secured from Lloyd George. Revealing his instinctive pragmatism, he regarded the settlement as a ‘first step’ towards obtaining a 32 county republic and played a vital part in gaining Dail ratification of it. In January 1922, he was appointed Chairman and Minister of Finance of the provisional government which was responsible for the establishment of the Irish Free State. Over the following months he played a decisive role in devising a constitution, creating security forces and appointing a civil service.
While Griffith regarded civil war with the Treaty’s opponents as inevitable, and wanted to crush the enemy as quickly as possible, Collins sought to avoid conflict with former comrades and acted as a restraining influence. The delay gave his government time to prepare its forces and improved its moral position, as it was evident that the conflict had been forced upon it. When war began, Collins became Commander-in-Chief of the Free State Army and helped lay down the military strategy which enabled the pro-Treaty troops to emerge triumphant.
Collins was shot dead at Béal na mBláth County Cork on 22nd August 1922, whilst on an inspection tour of Munster and searching for a basis for peace. There has been much speculation regarding what Ireland would have been like had he lived. This emphasises his view of the Treaty as a stepping-stone, his progressive social views and his potential to reunite a divided republican movement. Undoubtedly the pro-Treaty side lost its most inspiring leader.