This is a transcript of an excerpt from the talk given at the 'Enemy Commanders: Britain's Greatest Foes' speaker day on 14 April 2012.
We’ve all heard of the saying, ‘Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’
As we’ve seen, Collins certainly had the courage to attempt to change the situation in Dublin. He was helped in this task by the fact that the nexus of British administrative, political and military power was to be found there, and remained so even after it was apparent that such centralisation was playing directly into the hands of the Republicans.
He also had the wisdom to know that there were places he could not completely control (ironically, most of all his home county of Cork - location of the IRA’s best field commanders and most active rank and file) and the serenity not to try… though he did what he could.
A great commander must, of course, have the imagination to think differently, and to think big. Examples of both characteristics are to be found in Collins’s direction of the Republican struggle after 1917. Of the latter, one can cite his plan to kidnap members of the Cabinet in the streets of London; the attempted, and almost successful, assassination of Lord French, the Lord Lieutenant; and the, it has to be said, utterly counterproductive killing in London of Field Marshal Henry Wilson.
Of the former, one can cite his decision to locate his headquarters for intelligence work in Store Street, literally a stone’s throw from Dublin Castle – a fine illustration of the adage that the closer you are to danger, the further you are from harm.
As mentioned above, while he was certainly careful not to take unnecessary risks or to go out of his way to court danger, he was mindful of the propaganda value to be had from a dramatic gesture that could be undertaken with measured risk.
Probably the best example of this - and the one I think that first established his ‘Pimpernel’ reputation - was his appearance in Dublin’s Mansion House one evening in May 1919 during a reception for a visiting high-ranking American fact-finding team. This happened only a couple of hours after the venue had been exhaustively searched by a large police and army contingent, who’d been reliably informed of his presence there. He had indeed been present in the building during the whole of the raid, having secreted himself for three hours, in great haste and with no little discomfort, in a tiny, dirty and virtually inaccessible cranny at the rear of the building.
For the same man to appear two hours later inside the same venue - which was still surrounded by Crown forces - immaculately dressed and coiffured, did not just afford merriment to Republican supporters, it amounted to open mockery of the efficacy, and thus the majesty and credibility, of the Crown government in Ireland. And no government can afford to be so mocked.
Few human beings, given the choice, opt to take the most difficult path to any goal. And Collins, to repeat, for the most part avoided complications or risk if he could. But he also recognised that daring, applied sparingly and intelligently, could produce otherwise unobtainable boons. And thus it was with the night he spent in the headquarters of the Dublin Metropolitan Police Detective Branch, courtesy of one of his police moles.
During the course of the night he was able to inspect at leisure their extensive collection of intelligence files on Republicans, including his own. This was the experience that convinced Collins of the need to destroy not just the files, but the human capacity to generate and use them, and the human sources that filled them. And thus was born The Squad.
The execution of spies and informers was one of the most brutal and brutalising aspects of the Irish War of Independence. Albeit it was no different in this respect to similar executions in other life-and-death national conflicts. Collins understood only too well that the more secret the organisation, the more devastating the impact of the informer. And he understood even better that his scalp, above all others on the Republican side, was the one prized by the British.
The consequence was a campaign of killing informers, utterly ruthless in conception and execution. He created a deadly calculus in which the informer now for the first time had to factor in the possibility of not being around to spend his reward money. The result was progressively higher rewards, but progressively fewer informers.
That said, as a proportion of total casualties, the ratio of civilians to combatants killed in the Irish War of Independence was high. Albeit it should be remembered that conventional warfare in the 20th century has its own truly appalling record when it comes to civilian casualties.
In their day the four other towering figures we have considered today inflicted shocking military defeats on the British. But Collins and, of the five, Collins alone did something far more significant, far more profound – something that goes to the very heart of successful guerrilla warfare. To repeat, it is not that he inflicted a military defeat on the British – he didn’t. But what he did do was to force the British - who refused to concede the obvious political solution of self determination and who preferred to seek a military victory in a war that Collins made unwinnable - he made the British inflict unconscionable acts on the Irish.
In so doing the British inflicted a shameful spiritual defeat on themselves – a self-inflicted wound deeper than anything that the other four finalists could manage, and one which lasted for many, many years, as we can see from that film.
To sum up, Collins was a great guerrilla commander. But that’s not the prime reason why I believe he should win today’s award, but rather because he was a great commander who was simultaneously Britain’s greatest enemy. He defeated, or at least he challenged, not just Britain’s interests but Britain herself, not so much by what he did to Britain, but what he forced Britain to do to Ireland.
This is why I sincerely believe that, notwithstanding the fact that he finds himself in august company today - and notwithstanding the fact that there may be people in the audience who, for good reason, would feel disinclined to vote for an Irish Republican - I believe that you should vote Michael Collins number one as Britain’s greatest enemy commander.
Gabriel Doherty is a College Lecturer in the School of History, University College Cork, whose teaching and research interests lie in the field of modern Irish history, with a particular specialism in the area of the Irish revolutionary period from 1912 to 1923.
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