Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Death of Michael Collins (Part Two)

Following the earlier post on this topic, here I reproduce the words of my Great Uncle Emmet, Major General in the Irish Free State army at the time of the creation of the State of Eire in the 1920s. Emmet was with Collins on August 22nd 1922 and soon after wrote his own short account of the events of those days. His typewritten manuscript, the final page of which is shown in the picture here, has been used as source material in several accounts of those times, but since it is a rare opportunity where world events collide with family history, I take the liberty of including it in this blog.

There is another, subtle and ulterior, motive related to the development of my own doctoral research into the effects in Management Education of Critical Reflection using family-of-origin input. In this instance, for Emmet and also his younger brother Charlie (my grandfather) the extraordinary events of their youth created ripples that are still felt in the family several generations later.

So, back to Emmet's story:

"It was now about a quarter past seven and the light was failing. We proceeded along the open road on our way to Macroom. Our Motor Cyclist Scout was a bout 50 yards in front of the Crossley Tender which we followed at the same interval in the touring car, and close behind us came the armoured car. We had just reached a part of the road which was covered by hills on all sides. The road itself was flat and open; on the right we were flanked by steep hills on the left of the road there was a small 2 ft bank of earth skirting the road. Beyond this there was a marshy field bounded by a small stream and covered by another steep hill. About half way up this hill there was a road running parallel to the one we were on but screened from view by a wall, and a number of trees and bushes. We had just turned a wide corner on the road when a heavy fusillade of machine gun and rifle fire swept the road in front of us and behind us, shattering the wind-screen of our car. I shouted to the Driver "Drive like Hell" but the Commander-in-Chief placing his hand on his shoulder said "Stop. Jump out, we will fight them." We jumped from the car and took what cover we could behind the little mud bank on the left side of the road, it appeared the greatest volume of fire was coming from the concealed roadway on our left hand side. The armoured car backed up the road and opened a heavy machine gun fire at the Ambushers. General Collins and I were lying within arm's length of each other. Another Officer who had been on the back of the armoured car, together with our two drivers, was several yards further down the road to my right.

General Collins, I, and the Officer who was near us opened up fire on our seldom visible enemies, with rifles. About fifty or sixty yards further down the road and around a bend we could hear that our machine-gunners and riflemen were heavily engaged. We continued this fire-fight for about twenty minutes without suffering any casualties, when a lull in the enemy's fire became noticeable. General Collins jumped to his feet and walked over behind the armoured car, obviously to obtain a better view of our enemy's position. He remained there firing occasional shots, using the car as cover. Suddenly I hear him shout "There they are running up the road." I immediately concentrated on two figures that came in view on the opposite road.

When I next turned round the Commander-in-Chief had left the car position and had run about fifteen yards back up the road, dropped into the prone firing position and opened up on our retreating enemies. A few minutes had elapsed when the Officer in Charge of our escort came running up the road under fire, he dropped into position beside me and said "They have retreated from in front of us and the obstacle is removed; where is the 'Big Fella'?" I said he is all right - he has gone a few yards up the road, I hear him firing away." Then I heard a cry "Emmet, I am hit." The two of us rushed to the spot, fear clutching our hearts. We found our beloved Chief (and friend) lying - motionless in a firing position, firmly gripping his rifle across which his read was resting. There was a gaping wound at the base of his skull behind his right ear. We immediately saw that he was almost beyond human aid; he did not speak.

The enemy must have observed that something had occured which had caused a cessation in our fire because they intensified theirs. O'Connell knelt beside the dying but conscious Chief, whose eyes were open and normal, and he whispered into his ear the words of the Act of Contrition; he was rewarded by a slight pressure of the hand. Meanwhile I knelt beside them and kept up bursts of rapid fire, which I continued whilst O'Connell dragged the Chief across the road and behind the armoured car. Then with my heart torn with sorrow and dispair [sic] I ran to his side. I gently raised his head on my knee and tried to bandage his wound, but owing to the size of the wound this proved difficult and I had not completed my sorrowful task when his eyes quietly closed and the cold pallor of death covered his face. How can I describe the feelings that were then mine, kneeling in the mud of a country road not 12 miles from Clonakilty with the still bleeding head of the Idol of Ireland resting in my arms. My hear[t] was broken my mind was numbed, I was all unconscious of the bullets which still whistled and ripped the ground beside me. I think that the weight of the blow would have caused me the loss of reason had I not observed the tear-stained face of O'Connell distorted with anguish.

We paused for a moment in silent prayer and then noting that the fire of our enemies had greatly abated and that they had practically all retreated, we two, with the assistance of a third Officer who had come on the scene, endeavoured to lift the body on to the back of the armoured car. It was then that we suffered our second casualty, the recently arrived Officer being shot in the neck. He, however, remained on his feet and helped us to carry our precious burden around a turn in the road under the cover of the armoured car.

Having transferred the body of our Chief to the touring car where I sat with his head resting on my shoulder, our sorrowful little party set out for Cork.

The darkness of night had closed over us like a shroud. We were silent, thinking with heavy hearts of the terrible blow we would soon deliver to our unfortunate country and to the Irish people throughout the world. We had left Cork City that morning - confident and contented - intent on improving the machinery of the only possible representation of the Government that could bring peace to a sorely-tried long-suffering people. We had with us the man to whom the people of Ireland had entrusted their welfare; the man who had risked his life so often in their interest; the main who was loved by his friends and respected by his enemies. Our day had been a succession of triumphs. And now, at its close, like a bolt from the sky, fight had been forced upon us. We had fought with success - but our victory was nothing in the immensity of our loss. He was gone.

We had suffered the loss of a generation - we lost what the contrition and remorse of a nation cannot restore. The country had lost its leader - the people had lost their Idol - the Army its Chief .... and his intimate friends had lost the "Big Fella."

What an end for Michael Collins. Shot dead in an Ambush. Killed by his own Countrymen in his own Country - near his own home. Killed by the mean he fought and suffered with - the men he had been so proud of - and in the country he had loved to call his birthplace.

* * * * * * * * *

We reached the City. It was midnight, still, dark and silent - a fitting tribute to our little Procession. The thought struck me that those poor people had gone peacefully their nightly rest, all unconscious of the calamity that had befallen them. Some, perhaps, with cherished remembrance of the strong smiling face they had yesterday cheered in the streets.

To myself I thought, what an awakening tomorrow will bring - what bitter sorrow will overwhelm this poor city ere the sun has reached its zenith. Michael Collins was dead.

[signed] J Emmet Dalton, 23/11/22"


Eats Wombats said...

A very sad story indeed, and a terrible tragedy for Ireland. In my first (summer) job I worked for a man who knew the Big Fella (to take orders from). That's going back a few years of course.

I never expected to find an original bit of history on a business school blog. There's no wikipedia page for Emmet Dalton and you could do worse than cross post this material there.

He was an impressive man. I can never forget his extraordinary account of the shelling of the Four Courts at the start of the civil war.

It's a minor quibble but the Irish Free State was created in the 1920s not the "State of Eire" (but Saorstat Eireann--in Irish). Eire is simply "Ireland" in Irish and has not been synonymous with a (unitary) state.

I dare say you'll have read At Swim Two Boys but I'll commend it anyway just in case. It's full of wonderful turns of phrase I recall from my childhood and a richer picture of Dublin in the 1920s than the official green one that was painted later.

Chris Dalton said...

Thanks for the comment. I, too, had noticed that Emmet has no Wikipedia page, so it might be an interesting and worthwhile project to start one. I've been trying to get hold of a copy of the documentary made by Irish tv in the 1970s, for which Emmet was interviewed at length.

Thanks for the correction on terminology. Being born and raised in the UK (with a brief spell in Sandycove as a small child) I have a typically fuzzy hold on some aspects of Irish history.

Thanks, too, for bringing up At-Swim-Two-Birds (I assume you mean this one). I read it as a young man and it impressed me then.

Eats Wombats said...

This is a late reply, sorry. No, I meant At Swim Two Boys. The title is a hat tip, of course, but it is a WONDERFUL read and if you knew Sandycove and have a feel for the landscape and the language you are in for a treat.