Saturday, July 05, 2008

First-hand account of the death of Michael Collins (Part One)

My brother and I like to surprise each other with hitherto undiscovered family artifacts and memorabilia. I've written a little before about the extraordinary sailing by four young Irishmen in the summer 1950 of the 36-foot gaff-rigged yacht the Ituna from Dublin to New York. My father being a member of that crew, architecture students with none too much sailing experience between them. Skip back another Irish generation and there are also tales to tell. Both my grandfather and great-Uncle were intimately involved in the Irish War of Independence (1917-1921) and ensuing Civil War, and both served alongside Michael Collins, who famously outwitted the mighty British military intelligence machine and infamously died in a minor Civil War skirmish in the countryside near his home town in 1922.

Great Uncle Emmet Dalton, an experienced army officer who had fought for and been decorated by the British in the Great War, had become one of Collins' closest and most loyal military commanders, and it was he who accompanied the 'Big Fellow' on the tour of the south. This, and a number of first-hand accounts of the ambush, have been published in various books and websites. But I was amazed when my brother showed up with Emmet's own typewritten version of the events of that day, set down just three months later. The account is preceded by a handwritten note, which I am attaching. I know it's not strictly part of the remit of this blog, but I figure enough of you will have heard of the story or seen the biopic of Collins' life for it to have its own historical interest.

The cover note reads:

"The death of Micheal O'Coileain.

I dedicate this, my first little work to my youngest brother Pat, hoping that when he witnesses the improvements in Ireland's welfare, he will occasionally allow his mind to dwell upon the memory of my dearest friend.

J Emmet Dalton

23rd Nov. 1922"

The script that follows this reads:

"The war which had been forced on the people of Ireland by the Mutineers from the I.R.A. had been in progress for two months, and Cork had been captured by forces under my Command. We had been in occupation two weeks when upon the evening of the 20th of August I received an unexpected visit from General Michael Collins, Commander-in-Chief of the Army. He had been on a visit to General O'Duffy at Limerick, and, with an escort of three Officers, twelve men and a 'Whippet' armoured car, he had motored from Limerick to Cork. Most of the route he had taken was in occupation of bands of Irregulars and had not up to then been entered by Army Troops. He had two objects in visiting my Area, the first being to inspect the Military Organisation in the Area and to appreciate the difficulties of the Military problem with a view to giving his advice, and in order that he might more easily render the necessary assistance from General Headquarters, having seen for himself the position.

His second object was of a civil nature. In his capacity as Chairman of the Provisional Government, and Minister of Finance, he was anxious to make every effort to recover some of the thousands of pounds that had been extorted from Banks by the Irregulars prior to their retreat from the city. The stolen money was Excise duties belonging to the Customs and Excise Department, and it amounted to £120,000. They obtained the money by capturing the Official Collector, retaining him, and under threat of force, making him sign the cheques which, of course, the Banks honoured and paid.

Upon his arrival in Cork City at 8.30 P.M. on Sunday the 20th August, General Collins complimented himself and my Officers upon the success of our expedition. He then arranged interviews with his relatives and friends in the City. On the morning of the 21st, he, accompanied by me, inspected various Military Posts in the city, after which he interviewed several prominent citizens, including the Managers of the Various Banks, in connection with the stolen money. In the afternoon we motored to Macroom where he inspected the Garrison and the Military posts. Then, owing to the fact that the escort armoured car was not running satisfactorily we found it necessary to return to Cork.

He spent two hours in interviewing his friends in the city before retiring he arranged to devote the entire following day to a tour of inspection of the Command Area, as far as Bantry.

At 6.15 A.M. on the morning of the 22nd our little party left my Headquarters (The Imperial Hotel) to commence our tour. The convoy consisted of, and advance Motor Cyclist Scout Office, followed by a party of two Officers, eight riflemen and two machine gunners with one Leis Machine-gun, mounted on an open Crossley Tender. The next car was an eight-cylinder touring car with a light racing body, this car had two drivers in front, and in the back were General Collins and myself. Our first halt was Macroom, but because of the extraordinary amount of bridge destruction and road obstruction that had been participated in by our retreating enemy, it was necessary for us to take a round-about route, entailing much delay, consequently we made only a hasty inspection, picked up a guide and headed for Bandon. Here General Collins spent some time discussing the position with the officers of the Garrison before proceeding to Clonakilty. About three miles from Clonakilty we found the road blocked with felled trees. We spent about half an hour clearing the road under the guidance and instruction of, and with the assistance of, General Collins himself. He used a cross-cut saw and a heavy axe with tremendous energy and satisfactory results.

Having cleared the road we proceeded into the town of Clonakilty, which is the home town of General Collins. He interviewed the Garrison Officer and had conversations with many of his friends, all of whom were delighted to meet him. We had lunch in a friend's house in the town before setting out for Rosscarbery. About three miles from Clonakilty we halted at a hamlet in the vicinity of Sams Cross, which the home of the Collins'. Here the General was welcomed by his brother Sean and several of his cousins. We spent about a half an hour with these friends discussing domestic affairs, before we proceeded on our journey.

A peculiar circumstance of this journey was, that practically every relative the General had was encountered and spoken to.

Having reached Rosscarbery we consulted with the Officer in charge of the Garrison before proceeding to Skibbereen where again, in the ordinary Military way, General Collins consulted with the Garrison Officers, listening to their complaints, giving them advice and assuring them on the further co-operation from the Army Authorities.

Owing to the fact that it was now about 5 o'clock it was decided not to proceed to Bantry, but to return to Cork by the road which we had taken. We passed through the towns of Rosscarbery and Clonakilty, then to Bandon where we delayed for half an hour, whilst the General was conversing with several of his friends and two of his cousins who had just returned to the town with the Flying Column. One of the Officers who came from the locality remarked to the Commander-in-Chief that our escort was very small, and that the country we would pass through was much frequented by bands of Irregulars. His remark was greeted with a confident smile and General Collins said "Where you can go, we can also go." However, it was soon obvious (to me) that he had carefully noted the remark because he said to me when we were starting off "If we run into an ambush along the way we will stand and fight them." Just outside the town of Bandon he pointed out to me several farmhouses which he told me were used by the lads in the old days. He mentioned to me the home of one particular friend of his own, remarking "It is too bad he is on the other side now because he is a damned good soldier." Then he said "Don't suppose I will be ambushed in my own County."

I will add the concluding part of Emmet's account in the next instalment. The picture of the car is Emmet and Michael Collins at the back of the convoy.

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