What would Michael Collins have become? Democrat or autocrat, moderniser or traditionalist?

Evidence indicates Collins was a man of his time who shared prevailing values of 1922

If he had lived, what would Michael Collins have done? The question has more than a whiff of the parlour game about it, but for a century now there have always been those willing to ask and answer.

Few have wondered, at least with the same intensity, about the Irish civil war's other casualties. What would Arthur Griffith have done? What would Rory O'Connor or Liam Lynch have achieved if they had lived? Maybe the persistence of the question in his case is another measure of what sets Collins apart.

The sense of Collins as the ‘lost leader’, as Margery Forester’s 1971 biography termed him, was strong from the moment of his death. Patrick McCartan, a reluctant pro-Treatyite, wrote that with Collins’s loss ‘Ireland’s one hope’ was gone. The persistence of that sentiment has sustained, what JJ Lee has called “our own silent assumptions” about Collins.

But in our ‘silent assumptions’ we seem to set some important realities aside. We tend to overlook how quickly the gaps are filled, how those missed are nonetheless replaced. And Collins was replaced remarkably quickly and relatively easily for Lee’s idea that “none except Collins was irreplaceable” to hold.


The speed with which the provisional government reneged on much of what seemed fundamental to Collins's approach in 1922 was striking, whether immediately instituting the principle of collective cabinet responsibility in the face of his more idiosyncratic style, or divesting itself sharply of the commitments he had made to undermine the new Northern Ireland.

We can, as John Regan does, interpret this change as "a conscious reaction to Collins's style of leadership", an undoing of the "dictatorial powers" which, Regan argues, Collins had assumed as head of the provisional government and commander-in-chief of the national army combined. Indeed, Regan argues that "if no crisis followed his death, it may well be because by 22 August 1922, Collins was the crisis".

Alternatively, we can read what followed Collins in a much more benign light: the speed with which his policies were overturned might instead suggest that the machine was more powerful than the man, that he was only ever the sum of the systems and organisations that he had helped to put in place. The team proved more important and durable than the star.

Even though Collins had concentrated considerable amounts of power within himself in the months before he died, we overestimate him and underestimate the structures and his colleagues at our peril. One of those colleagues, Michael Hayes, contrasted "when Parnell died in 1891 . . . it took nearly 10 years to appoint a successor" with "our situation, in 1922, all-important replacements were accomplished in as many hours". While he has seemed the obvious inspiration for much of what passed for the revolution, he was bound to, and depended on, all those people who kept the cogs of that revolution turning.

But a Collins out of context can be put to more useful ends. What Collins would have done becomes a measure of what might have been. He would have ended the Civil War, undone partition, made the state prosperous, liberal, secular: insert the phrase or prejudice of your choice. A parallel, idealised Ireland with Collins as high priest of your own chosen progress underpins most certainties about what he might have done.

Malleable ghost

In the records of Dáil and Seanad Éireann we find his imprimatur sought for a myriad of things, from compulsory tillage in the late 1930s to a criminal justice Bill in 1981. The use of him to these and many other ends suggests that Collins’s ghost was malleable enough to champion any cause, but it also reveals a century’s long reluctance to grapple with what Collins had believed.

He helped us in our evasions, in our neglect, presenting himself as a realist who acted rather than an idealist who thought and talked. Writing to Kitty Kiernan in late 1921, he put it plainly: "I'm on the side of those who do things, not on the side of those who say things. And that's that!" Although building a coherent picture of Collins's world view is hampered by the fact that he was not given overmuch to philosophical reflection, he left enough to suggest some answers.

Collins’s formation was wholly typical of separatist activists of the period. He believed, without equivocation, that the Irish were a separate nation and because of this they had a moral entitlement to self-governance. When he considered contemporary Ireland, however, what Collins thought he saw, far too often, was “English civilisation”: “the horizon of our people has become bounded by the daily newspaper, the public house, and the racecourse”. The “biggest task”, he wrote, was the “restoration of the Irish language . . . until we have it again on our tongues and in our minds we are not free”. All of this was second-hand thinking. He was repeating ideas that had become orthodoxy within his milieu.

The tendency to represent Collins as a lost moderniser ignores the evidence of just how strong the ‘Gaelic Romantic’ strain of thought was within his mental make-up. When Collins imagined the Ireland that he dreamed of, like de Valera, he saw an idealised version of his rural upbringing. In Frank O’Connor’s words, he was “a man possessed of a boyish loyalty; a vision of whitewashed cottages, of old people sitting by the fire, of horses outside the forge on a summer evening”. De Valera lived long enough for the term ‘frugal comfort’ – the state he associated with the ideal version of that life – to become the subject of derision. If Collins had lived his equivalent might have been ‘fair comfort’ or, a little more optimistically, ‘moderate luxury’, terms he used in the essay Building up Ireland: Resources to be Developed.

Once free, he assumed, Ireland would prosper because the land was abundant with ‘natural resources’ while the purpose of economic activity would be to achieve “the higher things in which the spirit finds its satisfaction”. There is no mistaking the parallels with de Valera’s famous speech of 20 years later about “the Ireland that we dreamed of . . . the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit”. It is impossible to tell whether Collins would have pursued this ideal any differently from de Valera. There are, however, signs of the language of protectionism, tillage and self-sufficiency, borrowed from Arthur Griffith, that would sit at the core of Fianna Fáil’s economic approach from the 1920s through to the 1950s.

Social relations

Interpreting Collins’s attitude to social relations in the new Ireland involves considerable conjecture, though we do have some evidence. A critic of unrestrained capitalism, he asserted in 1922 that what “we must aim at is the building up of a sound economic life in which great discrepancies cannot occur. We must not have the destitution of poverty at one end, and at the other an excess of riches in the possession of a few individuals.” “Economically,” he insisted, “we must be democratic,” But he was no social revolutionary. Instead of unfettered capitalism or socialism the “keynote of Irish revival”, he proposed, “must be development of Irish resources by Irish capital for the benefit of the Irish consumer in such a way that the people have steady work at just remuneration and their own share of control”. He offered few specifics as to how this would be achieved though, like many at the time, he saw enormous potential in the co-operative movement.

Collins was again entirely typical of southern nationalists in his incomprehension of northern unionists. “The tendency of sentiment in the northeast, when not interfered with, was national, and in favour of freedom and unity,” he wrote. This led him to assert that, once the British were gone, unionists could be won over. It was, he maintained, a matter of time before the ‘northeast’ learned to “revolve in the Irish orbit and get out of the orbit of Great Britain”.

This certainty was underpinned by an apparent confidence that the Boundary Commission would "deprive 'Ulster' of Fermanagh and Tyrone" and in these circumstances "union is certain". The only question was: how soon? Persuasion, politics, economics and time would bring about unification. That, at least, was his public position.

In parallel, and despite signing peace pacts with Sir James Craig, prime minister of Northern Ireland, on January 21st and March 30th, 1922, he sanctioned a policy of military activity along and across the Border. Shortly before his death, Collins's cabinet colleagues were moving to shut down any further provocative actions and instead impose "a policy of peaceful do-nothingness", a phrase coined by Kevin O'Shiel, a legal adviser to the provisional government. Whether and how quickly his colleagues would have succeeded in achieving that policy shift if Collins had lived is open to speculation.

If the young Collins was not anti-clerical then he certainly held that the clergy had no business meddling in politics. As a mature politician his attitude toward bishops’ interventions in politics tended to vary, depending on whether that intervention served his purposes or not.

Some have speculated that Collins would have created a more secular Ireland than that which emerged under Cosgrave and de Valera. This seems doubtful. If Collins had lived, there is little reason to think that he would have proved any less pliable in the face of the forceful clerical and lay Catholic lobbies of the 1920s. If nothing else, the pragmatist in Collins indicates otherwise, although sparse evidence from the Dáil record suggests that Collins was impatient with sermonising and was prepared to resist, at least to some extent, calls to use parliament as a force for social control.

So, why do so many still look to Collins as the lost leader who would have shaped a very different Ireland? Much of the answer reflects our different dissatisfactions with what independent Ireland seemed to become, and our own need to imagine an alternative. Given his evident abilities, his pragmatism and his capacity for change, he is an obvious choice. But Collins, the champion of a different, better Ireland, begins to look rather more threadbare when his beliefs and thought are examined. He had hopes and aspirations for an independent Irish Free State but these were informed by assumptions that were widely shared rather than constituting any distinctive philosophy for the future. Collins was a man of his time and he shared the values of the revolution that produced him.

Anne Dolan is associate professor of history at Trinity College Dublin. William Murphy is associate professor of history at Dublin City University. Together they are the authors of Michael Collins: the Man and Revolution (2018)