Last Updated 08 May 2020

Michael Collins: The Motion Picture

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Michael Collins: The Motion Picture

The motion picture Michael Collins provides a mini-biography of Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins from the time of the weeklong Easter Uprising from April 24 to April 30, 1916 until Collins' death on August 22, 1922. The movie provides detailed information about Collins from relative obscurity at the Easter Uprising to become Minister of Finance in the Irish Republic and Director of Intelligence for the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

During the Easter Uprising, Collins had learned well that attempts at conventional warfare by the loosely organized, volunteer army would provide for nothing but failure against the professional British Army and the Black and Tans (essentially thugs and guns for hire used by the British to fight in Ireland using techniques of random violence and terror. After spending two years in prison for his participation in the Uprising, he returned to Dublin determined to continue the fight against the occupation by British troops and to fight for an Irish republic.

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Collins reorganized the IRA so that it did not make the mistakes that had been made during the Easter Uprising. He refused to attack large targets such as the Government Post Office that had been attacked and briefly held during the uprising. He viewed as having little importance because they were difficult to defend once they had been captured. It was difficult to provide supplies or reinforcements to these besieged sites and they really had little military value. Instead Collins created groups of "flying columns" consisting of three or four men who seemed to appear out of nowhere, quickly attack their small targets, and quickly disappear. This urban guerrilla warfare targeted specific targets or individuals and effectively achieved results. He emphasized the need to have as much information about the targets as possible, "to know what they had for breakfast" as he is quoted in the motion picture. With this information the IRA was able to plan more carefully and execute their missions with few losses. Since the time of Michael Collins, rebel forces, revolutionaries and terrorists throughout the world have used similar urban fighting techniques.

Collins' tactics worked sufficiently well that the British Government took notice not only of the IRA, but Collins in particular. A large reward was put on his head. Winston Churchill organized a special squad consisting of the best of the British security forces. Their mission was to find Collins and put an end to his career with the IRA. This squad, as well as other British soldiers, faced this difficult task with a major handicap: they did not know what Collins looked like. Instead of hiding somewhere in the country, he lived in Dublin and traveled freely throughout the city. Since none of the British would have expected him to appear in public, they ignored him when he rode bicycles, walked, or used public transit under the very eyes of the British, the British backed Black and Tans, and the official Dublin police force. Collins organized an elite squad of his own men, "The Twelve Apostles," to counter the specialized British. The Twelve Apostles were successful and killed many of the British squad members and undermined their efforts.

In 1921 ?amon De Valera, the President of the so-called Irish Republic returned from a tour in the United States he was furious toward Collins because of the guerrilla campaign he had launched and drastically affected the British interests. When the British declared a truce and indicated a willingness to talk, De Valera sent Collins to London to negotiate a treaty. According to the movie De Valera was aware that the British would never accept an Irish Republic so he sent Collins who would fail and come under attack from the Irish people who were stubbornly insisting that they should fight until the British recognized the Irish Republic.

The negotiations went as De Valera expected. Collins returned with a treaty that established an Irish Free State, but did not recognize Ireland as a democracy and provided for a partition of Ireland in the northern counties. Discussions about the treaty were heated. When put to a vote of the people, the Irish population voted to accept the terms of the treaty. De Valera and his cronies refused to accept these results and renewed the fighting, this time in a civil war between both sides that had fought against the British. De Valera and his men returned to the countryside and began to train new, mostly younger men, to fight against Collins and the Irish Free State. During a visit to Cork where Collins hoped to meet with De Valera, Collins was assassinated.

Whether or not Michael Collins was a villain, a hero, a patriot, or a traitor depends on a large number of variables. Throughout his life and after his death he was called all of these things, sometimes by the same the same people. The British thought he was a villain and a traitor to the King. In Ireland Collins was considered a patriot and a hero until he returned from the peace conference in 1921 with the disputed treaty. At this point the country seemed almost evenly split. Many saw him as a traitor to Ireland while others viewed him as a successful statesman who had finally brought peace to Ireland so they could develop their own democratic government.

It is worth noting that in the 1950s and 1960s Che Guevara used techniques similar to those Michael Collins advocated. In Argentina, Cuba, The Congo, and Bolivia Guevara used guerrilla hit and run techniques. In Cuba using such methods allowed the rebels to defeat and harass the Cuban troops led by Batista. Guevara wrote a book on guerilla tactics called Guerrilla Warfare. According to Guevara, the perceived (either real or not)inequalities were the driving cause for guerrilla tactics. Such warfare should be engaged in only when it is clear that the government in power was not legitimate. This is analogous to Collins' and other IRA members perceptions that the government in Ireland established by and supported by the British was illegitimate. In Ireland, once Collins was able to negotiate a treaty that established a new, Irish led government, he thought the time for guerrilla warfare was over (Clark).

In Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla Carlos Marighella provides an introductory book about guerrilla tactics. He points out that this warfare is an aggressive act. "It is a tactic of attack and rapid withdrawal, by which we preserve our forces. "It is a tactic that aims at the development of urban guerrilla warfare, whose function will be to wear out, demoralize and distract the enemy forces, permitting the emergence and survival of rural guerrilla warfare, which is destined to play the decisive role in the revolutionary war" (Marighella).  This is precisely the technique Collins used. When the IRA fought the British under Collins, they caused damage and killed with minimal losses. When De Valera returned and launch a more conventional attack 78 men were killed in the battle and there was nothing really gained Guerrilla warfare has again and again show itself to be effective .

It is interesting just how quickly military leaders seem to forget just how effective guerrilla warfare can be. Such warfare played an important role in the American Revolution, The American Civil War, the Indian Wars and the Vietnam War. The military seemed to have learned little or nothing by this and continues to train their men in the tradition of more conventional warfare. In the more recent incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the government tried to force the war into this same conventional style but were unable to do so. Consequently when the troops first arrived, they were injured or killed by suicide bombers, ad hoc explosives and sudden and quick guerrilla attacks. United States troops were clearly not prepared to deal with such tactics. One wonders why military leaders fail to recognized this; perhaps the reason is that such tactics cannot be easily taught in military theory classes or plotted on a graph. Such tactics are fluid and organic; responses to such warfare must also have these traits.


Clark, J. (1988) "Che Guevarra: Fundamentals of Guerrilla Warfare."  Global Security Org Retrieved March 2, 2007 form the World Wide Web:
Marighella, Carlos. (June 1969). Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. Fundamentals of Guerrilla Warfare."  Global Security Org Retrieved March 2, 2007 form the World Wide Web:
Woolley, S. (Producer) ; Jordan, N. (Directory). (1996). Michael Collins [Motion Picture]. Burbank, CA.: Warner Brothers.

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