"Yerra, they'll never shoot me in my own county". Gen Collins' words to his close comrade, Emmet Dalton, prior to leaving for a tour of inspection of Free State troops in the Cork area. It was always going to be a hazardous and dangerous journey and despite protestations from Dalton and others, Collins was bullish in his insistance to carry out the inspection.
By July 1922, Collins had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the National Forces in a divided country. With the fall of strategic Anti-Treay posts in Munster, the Republicans were forced to retreat to the southwest where the new Commander believed they were "beaten as an open force". Never a desk commander, Collins resolved to move freely around the country and by the second week in August, decided to make a tour of inspection of the State military posts in the South. This trip however, was cut short by the death of Arthur Griffith, up until recently, President of the Dail.
On Friday August 18th, Collins announced his intention of reuming his tour of inspection of the south, despite protests from intelligence officiers concerning the dangers of such a trip.
It is clear that during this, the final week of Collins' life, he was not in a healthy state, as Frank O'Connor wrote:" He lived in it suffering mentally and physically. Though still full of enthusiasm, he found it hard to work".
Having arrived in Cork City on Sunday 20 August, The Commander-in-Chief met with his close friend, Emmet Dalton, Commander of the Cork region's Free State troops, in the military Headquarters that was the Imperial Hotel. It was decided here that Tuesday be spent on an inspection tour of thefull Command Area of West Cork. There was a notable improvement in Collins' conditiion as, with a vigour in his step, he sprang down the stairs of the hotel on the morning of Tuesday August 22. It was beginning of the last day of Michael Collins' life.
The convoy of vehicles to escort him westwards - whch consisted of a motor cycle scout leader, a Crossley tender armed with a Lewis machine gun and eight rifled men, a Leyland-Eight touring Car and an armoured car named Sliabh na mBan - waited as the young Commander mounted the Leyland. Before the convoy set off, Collins jotted ever precisely:" Left 6:15am - MacRoom, Bandon, Clonakilty, Rosscarbery, Skibereen".
The journey was an obstacle course of blown bridges and trenched roads. Having lost sight of the scout leader momentarily, upon reaching a crossroads near Bandon, the convoy asked a man outside Long's Pub for directions. Denny "The Dane" Long obligingly pointed out the route to Bandon.
Denny Long was in fact an IRA sentry to a meeting taking place inside the pub and on spotting the convoy and recognising Collins, he hurriedly hid his rifle behind the door of the pub. It wasn't long before he told the meeting what happened, and it was decided that Collins was part of an enemy force encroaching on Republican territory, and should therefore be ambushed.
The site chosen for the ambush was south of the Beal na mBlath crossroads, where an elkevated boreen overlooked the main road along which the convoy was to pass. Three mines were laid along the roadand some 37 armed Republicans were alotted ambush positions. The settled down to wait beneath a sultry sun until Collins would return. However, as light began to fade at 7:30pm, the men wondered if Collins was to pass again that evening. Commander Deasy, thinking that the convoy had stopped at a barracks forthe night, ordered that the mines be disconnected and the party disperse.
Meanwhile Collins's convoy was returning from the journey westwards. His presence in the towns caused a sensation with people turning out to wave and cheer the Big Fella on. Before leaving for the return journey back to Cork, he was warned twice that an ambush party lay in wait in the Beal na mBlath area. Indee, as one local postman surmised: "Collins is gone wesht, but he won't go easth". Collins, though, was typically dismissive and laughingly shrugged off the warnings.
By eight o'clock light was fading and a veil of mist shrouded the evening as the convoy of vehicles neared the valley of Beal na mBlath. The scoutrider, Lt Smith, led the convoy and as they entered the valley flanked by overgrown ditches, Dalton noted Collins picking up his rifle. As the sound of motorvehicles rattled the air, shots broke out from the few remaining Republicans in the valley. Dalton, experienced in ambush situations, yelled at the driver: "Drive like hell!". As Republicans scurried up a laneway, Collins countermanded: "Stop! Jump out and we'll fight them." With little experience of rural ambushes, Collins's order was naive, inpulsive and, as it tuned out, fatal.
The Republicans were in disarray. The scattering of men were not equipped, it seemed, to take on a convoy which included an armoured car and men of the calibre accompanying Collins. Meanwhile, the armoured car moved up and down the road several times, passing over the harmless disconnected mines. Gunner Jock McPeak kept up a heavy fire with the Vickers machine gun at the largely invisable enemy along the elevated laneway. The ambushers at this stage were not by any means out for victory, but were anxious that the convoy be intimidated into moving on.
For most of the convoy, Collins had been using the cover of the Crossley Tender with Republicans firing from the surrounding hills in front and behind him. The convoy was under fire by this stage for about 35 minutes. A lull in the firing hung in the air, but as some Republican gunfire broke the silence, Collins saw them retreating up from the site.
Collins reloaded his gun, jumped up abruptly shouting to his comrades: "Come on boys, there they are, running up the road". At this point Collins was in the open roadway with no cover, surrounded by some of the most experienced flying column men in the country. As he moved backwards to get a better view of the retreating men, a single shot rang out across the valley lacerating Michael Collins's head at the base of the skull behind the right ear. As he fell awkwardly to the ground, firmly gripping his rifle, Dalton - just yards away - heard him cry faintly: "Emmet!".
Just off the elevated laneway, to the back of Collins, Republican Sonny O'Neill - an ex-British army marksman - made off into the darkness. He had lingered for a last shot and instinctively felt he might have hit the tall officer. Meanwhile, on the road light and life were fading fast as Collins was dragged to shelter by Sean O'Connell under the covering fire of Dalton. Realising he was beyond human aid, both knealt beside the dying leader. As O'Connell whispered the Act of Contrition into his ear, Collins responded with a slight pressure of the hand.
Dalton attempted to cover the gaping wound. As he later recounted, "I had not completed my grievous task when the big eyes quickly closed and the cold pallour of death overspread the General's face." The Commander-in-Chief of the National Forces, Michael Collins, was dead.
On August 24, as the remains of Michael Collins lying in a decorative oak coffin were slowly brought to Glasnevin Cemetery, a nation mourned. The shooting has caused the history of Ireland to be changed irrevocably. With talk of peace, Collins's violent death had shattered all hopes of reconcilliation between the Free State forces and the Repoublicans. The real tragedy of Collins's death was that it took place during a Civil War, between former comrades-in-arms. Michael Collins's attempts to end this bitter struggle cost him his life and robbed the young and fledgling state of a promising founding father.
Collins is commemorated annually at this monument
in Beal na mBlath, which marks the spot where Collins was shot
The Lost Leader - Homepage
BIOGRAPHY: Birth of a Revolutionary | A Patriot Takes to the Stage | From Captive to Capturer
Peace Comes Dropping Slow | A Nation Splits | A Beal na mBlath |
DISCUSSION: The Film | The Books | The Allegations | News | Links | Author |
E-mails welcome to site author.
Carl O'Brien © 1998, 1999