This oft-quoted statement is a testament as to how diverse a society’s perception of historical figures can be. Different world leaders, especially revolutionaries are often portrayed in different respects, according to the ideological prism one uses to analyze the life of the world’s greatest men and women. Mao Zedong, for example, will always be remembered by the majority of the Chinese population who lived through the years prior to the 1949 Chinese revolution as the leader of a people’s movement that liberated Chinese society from a semi-feudal and semi-colonial system ruled by bourgeois compradors and big landowners under the auspices of foreign imperialism.
He is also remembered by some sections of Chinese society as a ruthless dictator who insisted on an experimental utopian social system that led to the deaths of millions of his people due to hunger and famine. In contemporary history, on the other hand, Arab nationalists and anti-imperialists view the legacy of Saddam Hussein as a triumph of the repudiation of American intrusion into Arab soil, while American conservatives view his reign of terror as one of the most dastardly regimes the world has seen in the last fifty years. Nonetheless, it is this historical ambivalence that the life of Michael Collins as an Irish revolutionary shall be analyzed in this paper, especially on questions as to whether he can be considered a villain or a patriot.
Michael Collins was an Irish revolutionary who fervently sought the independence of Ireland from the “illegal occupation” of England, and led one of the bloodiest armed struggles against the British Empire. Collins came to the fore during the Easter Rising, which was one of the first attempts for centuries of British rule that militant Irish republicans sought to win Irish independence by force of arms. It must be understood that the armed struggle which was started during the Easter Rising and continued on even by the Irish Republican Army until recent past was a reaction to the timid parliamentary politics that was being espoused by the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond.
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This party was seen by many militant republicans led by Michael Collins as a capitulating force and utterly incapable of leading the Irish people in the path to independence. As such, the Easter Rising was hatched and implemented by throngs of Irish revolutionaries which sought to grab the reins of political power from the British in the lightning fashion of an urban insurrection by seizing buildings in Dublin and cordon-off the city to surmount a violent counter-attack from British security forces, notwithstanding guerilla attacks at British soldiers – a tactic that was mastered by Collins through his flying columns.
As expected, the British forces soon after counter-attacked and they were decisively able to quell the rebellion in a week, with the leading members and cadres of the Irish republican movement arrested and even executed by the British. This foolish tactic of political violence was premised on the theory that the bloodletting of the leaders and members of the republican movement would soon after inspire the struggle of a thousand-fold more people.
While this tactic of violence had a definite shock-value both to the British Empire and the Irish public, it was very costly to the Irish republican cause because it lost much of its respected leaders, especially John Connolly, the head of the Irish armed socialist movement that inspired much of the forces to wage armed struggle against the British Empire. In all of these, and even to the events leading to the signing of the Peace treaty between the Ireland and England, Michael Collins can be considered a patriot as he knew at what historic moment the necessity of armed struggle beckons, alongside his other comrades in the Irish republican movement.
By supporting the armed struggle, no matter how ill-advised their insurrectionary tactic was, Collins recognized that Irish political power and national sovereignty can never be attained by simply waging a peaceful parliamentary struggle against the British crown, as the Empire will never hand over sovereignty of rich Irish lands on a silver platter. Instead, it must be forcibly taken through violent means.
Nonetheless, it is only in Collins’ role prior to the peace treaty that he can be considered a patriot as he capitulated to the might of the British Empire when he acceded to the treaty and abruptly ended hostilities between the warring nations. Many in the radical sections of the Irish Republican Army saw the signing of the treaty and Collin’s support for it as a betrayal of the Irish revolution, especially to the Irish martyrs who only wanted to witness an Ireland that had its people as its sovereign and not the English throne. For this, Collins was assassinated during the Irish Civil War, dying in the same violent manner as the armed struggle he valiantly espoused in the years after the Easter Rising.
On the other hand, it can somehow be said that Collins model of political violence is comparable to the theory of armed struggle by Che Guevara, particularly his foco theory. Che Guevara believed that a single guerilla force, no matter how small, carrying out armed revolution in any country is capable of spreading like wildfire and inspiring the masses to join the revolution.
Both of them believed in the necessity of guerilla warfare as the most effective tool at systematically reducing the strength of the enemy, especially an enemy with almost unlimited military resources fighting against a revolutionary movement with meager resources. It must also be said that both revolutionary leaders repudiated the grabbing of political power through an urban insurrection as it opened revolutionary movement and its supporters to the heavy weight of a counter-attack by enemy forces which might be utter detrimental to the revolutionary cause.
In all of these, though, it must be reiterated that despite the faults and failures of Michael Collins, especially when he capitulated to British forces instead of seeing the Irish revolution to its fruition, his life as an Irish patriot and hero can never be discounted. He lived at a concrete historical moment which challenged him and many other Irishmen to stand up against a mighty empire and determine their own destiny as a people.
Castaneda, J. (1998). Comandante: The life and death of Ché Guevara. Vintage Publishing.
Fox, R.M. (1943). The History of the Irish Citizen Army. Dublin: James Duffy & Co.
Hopkinson, M. Green Against Green, the Irish Civil War, pp.83-87
Kostick, Conor & Collins. (2000). The Easter Rising. Dublin: O'Brien Press
Townshend, C. (2005). Easter 1916: the Irish rebellion. London: Allen Lane.
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