JORDAN’S MICHAEL COLLINS FILM CRITICISED

Rebel Breeze introduction to critical videos:

This is an interesting criticism of the Michael Collins historical biopic 1996. Written and directed by Neil Jordan, the film begins with the end of the Irish 1916 Rising, has the longest part focused on the War of Independence (1919-1921) and ends not long after the start of the Civil War (1922-1923). The film starred Liam Neeson as Michael Collins and included others such as Aidan Quinn playing Harry Boland, Alan Rickman as Eamon De Valera, Stephen Rea as Ned Broy, Julia Roberts as Kitty Kiernan, Gerald Mc Sorley as Cathal Brugha and Brendan Gleeson as Liam Tobin.

The video from Foras Teamhrach presents its criticism using clips from the film while commenting and also comparative clips from other films, which is a useful way of presenting a challenging view. Unfortunately neither the name of the author of the commentary nor of the commentator (possibly the one and same) appeared on the Youtube link, only the company name and the comments function was disabled (perhaps understandably).

Most of the points are well made but there are some omissions which might usefully be added to the criticism.

The GPO surrender scene

The video criticism points out that showing only the GPO makes the Rising look much smaller than it actually was; despite the countermanding order which reduced the forces in Dublin by perhaps as much as two-thirds, the Rising was fought by four major garrisons on the southern and three on the northern side of the Liffey, with other smaller outposts and individual actions. However, the narrator says nothing regarding the historical inaccuracy of portraying the surrender as occurring at the GPO.

In fact, the GPO had been abandoned on the Friday and the Surrender took place on the Saturday, following a decision made in the 1916 Terrace in Moore Street and around 350 insurgents there were the first to surrender following the order. This matters not just from a point of historical accuracy but because there is a struggle (now approaching two decades) to save this area from property speculators and State and Dublin Council Planning Department collusion.

Portrayal of De Valera

One does not have to be a supporter of De Valera’s philosophy and actions to rapidly come to the conclusion that his portrayal in Jordan’s film is so inaccurate as to seem to be someone else. Every person who took up arms in 1916 to fight the British Empire showed courage and those who continued to actively oppose the British occupation during the intense years of the War of Independence showed even more courage in doing so.

Collins, of a much more ebulient character than De Valera, according to witnesses, was more inclined to exhibitions of temper and shouting than was De Valera, whose manner was generally in accordance with his studious appearance – contrary to his behaviour in the Treaty discussion scene of the film. As to another aspect, when we review the record of his actions in preparation for the Rising through to the War of Independence and on through the Civil War and the early years under the Free State, De Valera cannot reasonably be accused of lacking courage. The shivering wreck as which he is portrayed during the Civil War in Jordan’s film runs counter to the historical record.

There is testimony from one or two participants that at a period during his command of Boland’s Mill, De Valera had something of a breakdown. This, if it occurred, could have been as a result of fear or instead of lack of sleep, or of being overwhelmed by responsibility or a number of causes and if this alleged episode is what inspired Jordan’s depiction it was certainly unfair to use it to characterise De Valera at other times. There are many criticisms that can fairly be thrown at De Valera but lack of courage is not one of them.

Portrayal of Cathal Brugha

And likewise with the portrayal of Cathal Brugha. Some of Brugha’s military and political history may help in evaluating the portrayal of this man in Jordan’s film.

One of fourteen children empoverished by the death of their Protestant father, Brugha joined the Gaelic League in 1899 and quickly became fluent, soon changing his name from Charles Burgess to Cathal Brugha. He and Kathleen Kingston, also an Irish language enthusiast, married in 1912 and had six children. Brugha joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and in 1913, the year they were formed, he became a lieutenant in the Irish Volunteers and led a group of Volunteers to land the arms smuggled into Howth by the Asgard in 1914.

In the Easter Rising of 1916 Brugha was second-in-command at the South Dublin Union under Commandant Éamonn Ceannt, scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the Rising. Overlooked in the evacuation on Thursday of Easter Week and, being badly wounded, he was unable to leave. Bleeding from 25 wounds (some of which had penetrated arteries) he continued to fire upon the enemy and when Eamonn Ceannt led a group to investigate who was still firing he discovered Brugha singing “God Save Ireland” surrounded by his own blood and with his pistol still in his hands.

Brugha was not expected to survive which may have saved him from the execution parties and he was discharged from hospital in August 1916 as “incurable”. However he recovered in 1917 though left suffering pain and with a permanent limp and preferred to cycle than walk.

Already in 1917 from his hospital bed, Brugha began to seek out Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army people who were willing to join the new armed resistance group and it seems that he, more than any other, should receive the main credit for the initial formation of that which became the IRA.

Brugha was so respected in the movement that he was elected speaker of Dáil Éireann at its first meeting on 21 January 1919 and it was he who read out the Declaration of Independence in Irish, which ratified ‘the establishment of the Irish Republic’. He was also appointed temporary President, a position in which he remained until de Valera tok his place.

Far from being a bloodthirsty zealot as he is portrayed in the film, Brugha reduced Collins’ ‘Bloody Sunday’ assassination list considerably since in his opinion, there was insufficient evidence against a number of people named on the list. Then again, at the outbreak of the Civil War, a reluctant Brugha only joined the fighting on the Republican (Anti-Treaty) side in order to relieve the pressure on the Four Courts garrison. Cathal Brugha led a detachment in occupying a number of buildings in O’Connell Street and later, having got his men safely away or surrendered, was shot and mortally wounded in debated circumstances by Free State troops (which were under the overall command of Collins).

Brugha had, according to some opinions, alienated a section of waverers at the Dáil debates on the Treaty, by a personal attack on Collins and the way his persona had been elevated (a common problem, the deification of leaders). This was no doubt a tactical mistake but there had been ongoing conflict between both men for some time. Although both had been members, Brugha had left the IRB after 1916 in the belief that their conflict with the Volunteer leadership had damaged the Rising. Collins’ rank in the organisation was supreme in Ireland and it seems that Collins used this at times to circumvent or undermine decisions of the Dáil, where Brugha outranked Collins and which the former believed to be the repository of democratic decision-making.

Collins as a guerrilla war leader

All Collins’ many talents and contributions to the War of Independence aside, his representation in the film as not only directing the whole armed struggle but also as teaching rural people how to wage a guerrilla war is a complete distortion of history that could only be undertaken by a propagandist for Collins.

It was Brugha who began to pull the scattered elements of the armed struggle together and laid the foundations for what became the IRA. It was Robinson, Breen, Tracey and Hogan who began the armed resistance of the War of Independence in Tipperary on 21 January 1919 in which two paramilitary policemen were killed. And they did so without permission from GHQ in Dublin.

As to rural guerrilla tactics, these were such as had been used for centuries or developed in the struggle and were certainly not taught by Dublin. What was taught by instructors sent by Dublin was weapon use and maintenance and personnel disposition for ambushes, moving in extended order through countryside and securing a line of retreat. One of the chief instructors in this kind of instruction was Ernie O’Malley and, in West Cork, the young Tom Barry used his British Army experience and other learning to do the same. The order to create Flying Columns might have come from Dublin but had been advocated already by fighters in Cork, Kerry and Tipperary and it was they and others who developed them in the field.

Collins’ special contribution was in organising intelligence, counter-intelligence and the assassination squad (which turned out to be a double-edged sword) and also, to an extent, supply of weapons. His contribution was notable but it did not lie in initial organising of guerrilla war, much less in rural guerrilla instruction.

The role of women in the struggle

Women are underrepresented in this narrative, as is usual in Irish history and Republican and nationalist narrative. Where women are shown, apart from the brief appearance of Markievicz at the non-existent GPO surrender (when instead she was at the College of Surgeons!), they are objects of romance (Kittie Kiernan) or auxilliaries working for Collins’ intelligence department.

There was a great opportunity lost there to show the women in action during the Rising in the many roles they undertook, including firing weapons, or in keeping the flame lit after the Rising and in particular in commemorating the Rising a year later, organising demonstrations, pickets, and funerals.

The Croke Park Bloody Sunday massacre scene

The film shows the ‘Tans or Auxies shooting down people with machine-gun on the GAA ground. As far as we have been able to establish it was the RIC who did it, although of course the other two were auxilliary forces of the RIC. Thankfully they did not fire with a machine-gun (the Army had one outside the grounds and an armoured car, it seems but did not open fire) or the carnage would have been a lot worse. When one examines the casualty list of those shot, just like more modern British massacres in Derry and Belfast, it is clear that the shooting was mostly disciplined, i.e hitting males of military age. Showing that kind of scenario would in the last analysis not only be more historically accurate but also more telling of the intent and cold-bloodedness.

And what of the three tortured and murdered in the Castle that day, Peadar Clancy, Dick McKee and Conor Clune? Yes, we know, one can’t show everything.

Go raibh maith agat to the individual who sent the video links to this blog.

LINKS:

The critique video, Parts 1 & 2:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zor3VvE9vD8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbGWEZehuFI

Another view, not quite so critical: http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/michael-collins-review-nowhere-near-as-historically-inaccurate-as-we-once-supposed-1.2576150

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