Michael Collins makes for an easy hero – good-looking, vibrant, devil-may-care, intelligent, ruthless, brilliant, passionate, loyal… what’s not to love? But he was petulant, too, and careless, and unpredictable and argumentative and arrogant and single-minded. It’s why he appeals to so many people – he’s loved for his flaws as much as his finer traits.
When Collins was buried in 1922 following his fatal ambush at Beal na mBlath, friend and foe wept. And in his dying – gun in hand and bullets whizzing past – the legend that had mushroomed during the War of Independence was cemented for eternity.
The bane of the British Empire fell in full bloom, which was a tragedy but also a blessing for those who like to wear their spectacles rose-tinted. He died so young that there was little time for his reputation to be tarnished or for people to grow out of love with him.
Collins’ death was due in a large part to his disregard for his own safety, but also a result in no small degree to two brothers, who took opposite sides in the Irish Civil War that erupted following the treaty which ended the War of Independence.
Tom and Sean Hales, from Ballinadee in Co Cork, personified the cleavage within the country in 1921. Sean, a brigadier-general and TD, felt the treaty should be supported and that later, at a time more advantageous, it should then be broken – just as the British themselves had broken countless treaties down through the centuries.
Such an argument held no truck for Sean’s younger brother, Tom, who had been brutally tortured by British soldiers during the War of Independence.
Captured alongside fellow IRA officer Pat Harte, Tom was beaten, had a fingernail torn out and was threatened with being blown up. Harte was so badly tortured that he subsequently had a nervous breakdown and ended up in an insane asylum.
As a result of his treatment, Tom had no time for anything to do with the British, treaties or otherwise.
The brothers took opposite sides in the fighting that followed, and their story is told by historian Liz Gillis in her book, The Hales Brothers and the Irish Revolution. Fate would see to it that both men would be pivotal in what would turn out to be the final hours of Ireland’s most charismatic leader.
On 22 August, 1922, Michael Collins, the Free State army’s commander-in-chief, travelled in convoy through Beal na mBlath (“The Mouth of Flowers”), in West Cork. He was touring the area, meeting with troops, and his next port of call that day was the Munster Arms Hotel, in Bandon, where he would talk with Sean Hales.
Collins’ column stopped at Beal na mBlath for directions to Bandon. Unfortunately, the man they asked happened to be a member of the anti-treaty IRA. Plans were subsequently set in motion to mount an ambush upon Collins’ return from Bandon. Tom Hales lead the ambush party.
The events of that day are woven into Irish history. Sean Hales later said that he advised Collins not to travel through Beal na mBlath. Imagine the scene… one brother warning Collins not to go there, and the other one lying in wait.
Collins, ‘The Big Fella’, ignored the advice, just as he ignored advice to speed through the ambush once it was launched. Instead, he ordered his convoy to halt and engage the enemy, with Collins himself taking a rifle and striding along the road in pursuit of his attackers.
The self-assuredness of youth… Collins – the meat in the Hales brothers’ sandwich – was the only casualty that day. A bullet wound to the back of the head put paid to one of Ireland’s greatest sons and spawned countless musings as to how the nation would have fared with Collins at its head.
Before the end of the year, Sean Hales (32) would join his leader in death. He was shot in the back on 7 December as he mounted a jarvey at Dail Eireann. Tom Hales survived the Civil War, and died in 1966.
The Hales brothers’ falling-out was replicated in families around the country. Both their dilemma and Collins’ fatal journey inspired characters and scenes in my new novel, Patriots’ Blood.
Trying to capture the past can be difficult, but trying to capture an iconic moment that shaped a nation can fill one with trepidation. I hope I did justice to these momentous events. Whether I succeeded or not remains to be seen, but it was certainly fun trying.
You can judge for yourself with this extract from Patriots’ Blood…
They waited all through the afternoon and into the evening. Some of the men departed for short periods to eat in local farmhouses or at a pub further down the road. Brennan walked the length of the ambush site, studying the road below and looking for an escape route once the job was done. There was a path close by, running perpendicular to the road, which would allow for a quick escape. He’d be able to work his way back towards Crookstown quickly and get his motorbike, for which he’d managed to scrounge a few gallons of petrol from the IRA men. Satisfied with the terrain, Brennan sat down and cleaned the Mauser. Then, he ate from his tins, munching on some bread given to him by the Irregulars and listening to the chit-chat of O’Neill and the three other men who sat close by amongst the scrub.
Brennan watched with approval as O’Neill checked over his Lee Enfield rifle. By the way he handled the weapon it seemed like he knew what he was about. Still, they waited. The evening light was beginning to fade and a thin mist began to fall. Brennan considered calling it quits for the day, but then thought of the company he’d have to keep at the nearby castle and a slight shudder ran over him. He’d hold on where he was a while longer.
One of the men stretched and yawned. ‘Where the hell is this blasted convoy? It’s near eight o’clock. The day’s almost gone and there’s no sign of them.’
‘Maybe they decided to stay in Bandon for the night,’ offered up another.
Almost in answer to the query, the shrill blast of a whistle rang in the air.
‘Hmm, that’s Tom. Looks like it’s off for tonight,’ said O’Neill. Brennan could hear Hales down on the road ordering the main group of men to clear the area while the mine was carefully removed and dismantled.
About a dozen men took the road south, while others headed towards the village. A few stragglers helped reload the crates of bottles onto the dray. Brennan grabbed his knapsack and prepared to leave, but halted when he noticed a commotion down on the road. Then he heard it: the sound of engines approaching. Suddenly, things began to happen very fast. Men scattered over roadside fences. A moment later, a motorcycle outrider approached with a Crossley tender following, after that was a staff car, followed by an armoured truck with a turret machine gun. No sooner had the outrider swept past than there was a rapid volley of fire from the men by the roadside.
The soldiers in the Crossley laid down heavy fire on the attackers as the staff car pulled up, its windscreen shattered. Brennan saw two figures leap out and take cover behind a mud bank. They were joined by a couple of other soldiers as the armoured car began to let rip with its machine-gun. Brennan ducked low behind the fence as clumps of earth were ripped up by the spitting bullets. The sleepy country road became alive with the crackle and chatter of gunfire.
Try as he might, Brennan couldn’t get a shot off such was the onslaught from the armoured truck. The firefight raged for about twenty minutes all along the road. He could see Irregulars moving away from their positions, making their retreat, probably already out of ammo. Hales had mentioned that the men only had about ten rounds each. Brennan didn’t care. He wasn’t going anywhere if Collins was within hitting distance.
Things grew quiet as the heavy fire from the armoured truck stopped, to be replaced by the sound of single shots coming from its turret.
‘Must be a jam of some kind,’ muttered O’Neill, who was crouched close by.
The light was fading fast and it was getting harder to pick out targets. Brennan peered over the fence and saw one of the officers from the staff car, armed with a rifle, dash towards the armoured truck, his open greatcoat swaying as he moved. The man sheltered there and took pot shots at his attackers. Brennan fired back but only managed to dent the truck. Then the officer spotted the Irregulars who were retreating up the path.
‘Come on boys! They’re running up the road!’ he called, excited.
The man was tall and broad – a big fellow – with a commanding presence. Brennan was not one to be easily fazed, but his heart pounded when he realised who it was. Even in the dim light, he knew that down below, in front of him, gripping a rifle, stood Mick Collins himself.
Brennan fired, but Collins moved at that very moment, his attention focussed on the retreating enemy. Then, he was running, out from the cover of the armoured truck and around a bend in the road, chasing the Irregulars. Brennan watched him stop in the middle of the road, to fire at one of his fleeing attackers.
Now was his chance. Up on the hill, Brennan raised the Mauser, took aim and fired. Beside him, O’Neill had started to retreat, pausing to fire as he went. Collins’s head snapped back as a round struck him and then he fell face down on the road.
Brennan knew he’d hit him. The sense of satisfaction was overwhelming. In that instant, all the noise dissipated and he drank in the scene. O’Neill had gone, fleeing up the path the other Irregulars had used, and for a moment it was just The Watchman and The Big Fella.
The Staters had yet to realise their leader had fallen. Brennan couldn’t help himself. He clambered down to the road and dashed over to the body. Ragged gasps were coming from Collins, his body giving short spasms as he still clutched his rifle. Brennan nodded, satisfied. The Dum-Dum had done the job: a large hole was visible at the base of the skull. He knew there’d be no surviving such a wound.
Patriots’ Blood will be available on Amazon soon. You can check out reviews for other books in the Liam Mannion series here.