When I was living at home in Bala in the sixties, there were several people who remembered the Irish prisoners at *Frongoch. One of them, whose father supplied food to the camp, related how he happened to be delivering food one day when a disturbance broke out among the prisoners. A guard standing nearby pointed out one prisoner in particular as one of the ringleaders, adding, with a few well chosen expletives, that Collins was always stirring things up.
Michael Collins certainly did stir things up and it was at Frongoch that the stirring began. It was here that he had the unique opportunity, courtesy of the British, to forge contacts with Irish nationalists from all parts of Ireland - contacts that would serve him well later on. It was here also that he began to formulate a new kind of warfare, the flying column and the hit - and - run ambush, which he would use to deadly effect in the war against the British; the war which would ultimately force them to the negotiating table, The tragic irony is that he himself would become a victim of such an ambush during the Civil War. Incidentally, it was at Frongoch that he started to learn not only Irish but also Welsh after being impressed by the self confidence of the Welsh in using their language, a confidence he felt that the Irish had lost.
Yet sadly, despite the importance of Frongoch in the Collins story, there is no mention of it in the new film of his life. This is a great pity, though, as the Director Neil Jordan points out, his brief was to make an artistic, not a documentary, film of Michael Collins. There is therefore some room for dramatic licence. Those who question the historical accuracy of some scenes have a point, but there is nothing here which can be said to detract from the overall impact of the film. This is an impressive piece of work. Neil Jordan has managed, with a limited budget, to squeese into some 150 minutes the story of one of Ireland’s most charismatic and controversial heroes; no mean achievement. This is not another ‘Braveheart’ with picturesque scenery and painted natives, neither is it a romantic view of Ireland’s struggle for independence. Rather, it is a powerful and sometimes horrific portrayal of that period between 1916 and 1922 when it seemed that all the ‘devils in Hell’ were let loose in Ireland. Atrocities were committed by both sides though the British-recruited ‘Black and Tans’ had the edge for sadistic brutality. Many a family was dissuaded from viewing the body of a ‘Tan’ victim.
Collins’ success against the British rested not only on the tactic of hit-and-run, but also on his cultivation of informers, particularly in Dublin Castle, the centre of the British administration in Ireland. Detectives such as Ned Broy, who incidentally, was arrested but not killed as the film shows, and Dave Neligan, provided Collins with valuable intelligence as to the intentions of the British, while ordinary men and women risked their lives to provide snippets of information. It was from these scraps of information that Collins was able to eliminate the so called ‘Cairo gang’ which had been sent to destroy him and his organisation. In retaliation the British attacked Croke Park where a game of Gaelic football was in progress. Fourteen people died and hundreds were injured in the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre.
What is astonishing to us today is that the British had no idea what Collins looked like, thereby enabling him to cycle around Dublin quite openly; this despite the fact that there was a £10,000 price on his head.
All the tension and the horror is portrayed vividly in the film with Liam Neeson giving a superb performance as Collins. There is Collins the playful noisy West Corkman; Collins the ruthless military leader on whose word a man would live or die; the sombre Collins who is forced to act against his friends during the Civil War. The death of Harry Boland portrays the sadness he felt at the deaths of many of his former comrades. His own death was to have a similar effect on the Republicans.
Alan Rickman plays Éamon de Valera and manages to give his character the sinister air of a cold, calculating politician. Undoubtedly Collins believed there was a plot against him of which de Valera and Cathal Brugha were the chief instigators. Part of the plot, he believed, was to send him to negotiate with Lloyd George knowing full well that the British would never accept a Republican or a united Ireland. Collins felt that he had gained as much as he could when he signed the Treaty and, though the Dáil, and later on the country, ratified it, de Valera and his supporters refused; a refusal which ultimately led to the Civil War.
Though brief, the Irish Civil War was a bitter and dirty affair. Collins, for all the hurt it caused him to see former comrades and friends like Harry Boland on the opposite side, pursued the Civil War with the same determination he had shown against the British. On August 22, 1922, at a place called Béal na mBláth (the Mouth of the Flowers), Collins was ambushed and killed. He was 31 years old.
One intriguing question concerning Collins’ death is the part de Valera played in it. The film seems to suggest that he was implicated and this has led to strong protest from the de Valera family. What is certain is that de Valera was in the area the day that Collins was killed, that he knew about the ambush, had tried to stop it, but failed. When he heard later that Collins was dead, eye witness reports describe him as ‘”utterly dejected and very upset”. Whatever the truth, as de Valera predicted in 1966, “ in the fullness of time history will record the greatness of Collins and it will be recorded at my expense.” This film is perhaps one such record.
The strong performances of Neeson and Rickman are equalled by Aidan Quinn as Harry Boland and Stephen Rea as Ned Broy. The only weak point is Julia Roberts’ performance as Kitty Kiernan for whose affection both Boland and Collins vie. Her inability to affect an Irish accent may be the reason for such a wooden performance.
A film on the life of Michael Collins was always going to be controversial, with accusations of giving support to the I.R.A. in the forefront of the argument for banning the film, a distinct possibility at one time. On the other side Collins is not seen as a hero, prominent Republicans would not view comparison with him as a compliment. Despite being the only Irishman to have conducted a successful war against the British, Collins is seen in some Republican circles as the great traitor who allowed Ireland to be partitioned. Considering the current political situation Jordan should be congratulated for having produced a balanced portrayal of his subject whilst retaining the dramatic impact. As we are reminded at the end of the film, Collins hoped that the gun would be taken out of Irish politics eventually.
That hope is yet to be fulfilled.
*Frongoch Internment Camp lay three miles to the north of the town of Bala in what used to be the old county of Merioneth (now Gwynedd), North Wales. It was housed in an abandoned whiskey distillery and was opened in 1914 to receive Germam P.O.W.s. Following the Easter Rising of 1916 the Germans were moved out and replaced by the Irish rebels who began to arrive at the beginning of June. By the end of the month over 1,800 were interned there. They were to stay there until the end of December of that year when the Government issued a general amnesty. Apart from Michael Collins other important figures there included Seán T. O’Kelly, later to become President of Ireland; Tomás MacCurtain who, as Lord Mayor of Cork in 1920, was shot by a party of R.I.C.s (Royal Irish Constabulary) - in the subsequent Coroner’s Court inquest a verdict of murder was brought against Lloyd George; Dr. James Regan who, as Medical Officer in the General Post Office in Dublin during the Rising, treated the wounded James Connolly - he later became Minister for Finance in de Valera’s administration; and Seán Russell, who, as Chief of Staff of the I.R.A., organised the bombing campaign in 1938. He died in a German submarine off the Galway coast in 1940.
For further information, see Frongoch: University of Rebellion by Seán O Mahony (1987) ond With the Irish in Frongoch by W.J. Brennan-Whitmore (1917).