Michael Collins (1890-1922) was the military leader of the IRA during the Irish War of Independence, Minister for Finance in the provisional government set up by Dáil Éireann in 1918, and chief negotiator of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. He was killed by a group of his former comrades at Béal na mBláth during the Irish Civil War that followed.
Born in Clonakilty, Co. Cork in 1890, Collins was from an early age an Irish patriot, West Cork being an area strongly associated with Fenianism and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Collins also encountered the writings of Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, at an early age. Sinn Féin and the IRB did not share the same aims at the time, although both organisations believed that Home Rule, being pursued by the Irish Parliamentary Party, was an inadequate solution to "The Irish Question".
In 1909, while working in London, Collins was inducted into a cell of the IRB. Returning to Ireland in 1916, he was appointed as a staff officer in the Irish Volunteers. This organisation had experienced a schism with the outbreak of World War I: its official leadership, under John Redmond, had called on its members to enlist and fight with the British against the common enemy. Although the majority of members did enlist, much of the organisation, was under the influence of the nebulous IRB, and a significant minority stayed behind to agitate for independence.
This agitation was to culminate in the disastrous Easter Rising of 1916, in which the Volunteers, together with the Irish Citizen Army and using weapons secured from Germany, took over several major buildings in Dublin for a period of about a week. Collins was part of the force occupying the GPO, along with Padraig Pearse and James Connolly, two of the leaders of the rebellion. When the uprising was supressed by British forces, its leaders were executed for treason, an action now widely seen as the turning point in the Irish quest for independence. Although the supporters of the rising represented a minority of the Irish people, the British response to it quickly swayed the support of the general populace towards its aims. In this sense, the rising served Pearse's aim of spurring the Irish towards independence through "Blood Sacrifice".
Collins, however, took a different lesson from 1916. He developed the opinion that the British could not be defeated militarily on their own terms, and that further exercises along the lines of the Easter Rising would be foolish. He also believed that any future action would have to involve a much higher degree of organisation. However, he was not immediately in a position to do anything about this, as he was interned along with the rest of the Volunteers in Britain. In December 1916, however, he was released from Frongach camp in Wales, and returned to Ireland. He quickly became active again in the IRB and the Volunteers. It was obvious, however, that Sinn Féin had gained the most political capital from the rising and its aftermath. Although it had played no part in organising the rebellion, the British had chosen to describe it as a "Sinn Féin Rebellion", presumably in the hope of discrediting the organisation. This had the opposite effect, and the forces of Irish Nationalism began to coalesce in the Sinn Féin party.
Collins was involved in securing victory for Sinn Féin candidates in a number of by-elections, and then struck a deal with Griffith to have Eamon de Valera, the one surviving leader of the 1916 rising, elected as president of the party. Sinn Féin had been transformed from a party whose main aims were self-suffiency and dual monarchy, into a party demanding "international recognition of Ireland as an independent Irish Republic", with close links to the IRB and Irish Volunteers. Collins became leader of the IRB when its president was arrested in 1918. He was involved in agitation on all fronts, chiefly in the anti-conscription campaign which became the focus of Irish resentment against the British. At this time he was also developing an extensive intelligence network, infiltrating British Intelligence in Dublin Castle with double agents like Ned Broy. He was also preparing Sinn Féin for an electoral campaign in the forthcoming British general election.
This election, when it came in 1918, was a triumph for the party, who won the vast majority of seats in Ireland. Its elected candidates then refused to take up their seats in Westminster, and in 1919 formed an independent parliament in Dublin, Dáil Éireann. Collins was appointed Minister for Finance, but continued to be responsible for the military wing of the independence struggled. As he put it himself, he was also Minister for Mayhem.
Although well-prepared for conflict, Collins, with his keen grasp on the importance of propaganda, had hoped that the British would strike first in reaction to Sinn Féin's effective secession. However, on the same day as the first Dáil met, a group of Volunteers under Dan Breen attacked a police station in Soloheadbeg, thus firing the first shots of the War of Independence. Collins' stategy was to pursue a guerrilla war, taking maximum advantage of his forces' familiarity with the countryside, and sympathy among the general populace. He immediately moved to undermine the police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, whose members were mostly Irish, forcing the British to introduce Auxhiliary forces from Great Britain, including the infamous Black and Tans.
Collins' forces, now known as the Irish Republican Army, fought a bitter campaign against the British, and indeed those Irish who remained loyal to Britain. Atrocities mounted on both sides, with the low point being the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1920. Collins' intelligence network allowed him to score demoralising coups against the British, including the assassination of senior officers and intelligence agents. Throughout the struggle, Collins was the most wanted man in the British Empire, and yet was able to cycle around Dublin openly, as the British did not have enough reliable information to identify him.
In May 1921, a further general election confirmed Sinn Féin's support among the Irish people, and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George offered de Valera peace talks in July. A truce was declared, and the provisional government sent envoys to negotiate a settlement. Crucially, de Valera was not part of the delegation, which was led by Collins and Griffith. Knowing that the IRA could not hold out against a renewed British campaign, Collins agreed to a compromise treaty which he saw as a "stepping stone" to Irish independence. However, we was keenly aware that some of its provisions would not satisfy those who had fought for the republican ideal, and on signing he made the fateful comment, "I have signed my own death warrant".
The terms of the treaty were bitterly divisive, especially those that required representatives to the new Irish parliament to pledge an oath of allegience to the British Monarch. Although it was ratified by Dáil Éireann, and later by the Irish public in a referendum, de Valera led a significant minority in the Dáil who refused to accept it under any circumstances. De Valera and others resigned, and Collins was elected Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State. He set about creating the apparatus of government, and transforming the IRA into the regular army of the new entity.
A significant minority of the IRA, however, were vehemently anti-treaty, and resolved to continue the struggle for a republic, this time turning upon their former comrades. De Valera was prevailed upon to lead the die-hards, and civil war ensued. This conflict was bloody and ultimately pointless, but the divisions it created persist to this day. Although the "Free Staters" defeated the "irregulars", the conflict resulted in the death of many patriots on both sides, including Collins' former best friend and ally, Harry Boland, Arthur Griffith and, on August 22nd 1922, Collins himself. Returning from a tour of inspection in West Cork, his convoy was ambushed while passing Béal na mBláth, and Collins was shot dead.
Biographical details with the help of http://www.michaelcollins.com/