(San Francisco, Calif.)

May 24, 1998, Mag. Sec., pp. 8-11


by Frank O'Connor

Editor's Note: The Great Irish Short Story Writer Frank O'Connor's THE BIG FELLOW: MICHAEL COLLINS AND THE IRISH REVOLUTION, Has Recently Been Reissued by Picador/USA in a New Edition That Is As Timely As This Week's Headlines. The Section Excerpted Below Deals with the Internecine Political Struggles Surrounding the Ratification of the Last Irish Peace Treaty in 1921.


The Treaty debate was a staggerer not only for the world but for Ireland, and not only for the Ireland of yesterday but the Ireland of today. The gigantic improvisation was at an end, and from behind the scenes walked not supermen, not geniuses, but Lilliput in person, the same Lilliput which it seemed had caught its death in the snowstorm of the Roscommon election; the little Ireland of shopkeepers, solicitors and priests, with its parochial vanities and affectations; the Ireland which had blackguarded Synge, scoffed at books, let [James] Larkin down, believed it was all settled in the Penny Catechism.

Imagine a long room with fifty or sixty people crowded at one end--the public; inside a barrier, on a low dais, with his back to the audience, the speaker; at his right [Michael] Collins, [Arthur] Griffith and [Kevin] O'Higgins; at his left, [Eamon] de Valera, [Austin] Stack and [Cathal] Brugha. The rest faced him out. The Speaker was [Eoin] MacNeill, big browed, small chinned, yellow like some of his own medieval parchments, with hair almost identical in tone with his face.

Griffith moves the ratification of the Treaty; the little, cool, stolid journalists who had laid it all down in penny papers that hardly anyone bought. It was the occasion of his life. Had he been a dramatic type he could have told them of many days and nights of desperation, ignored by England and Ireland, listening in restaurants to young men chattering and laughing while his diligent humourless mind pursued its endless train of thought. He could have told them of his poverty and of those offers which would have made a rich man of him had he chosen to accept them. But he had no time for passion, for heroics or self-pity. A big man from the heart out, this Mr. Griffith, with his granite face, his papers, his orderly dispassionate mind.

After [Sean] MacEoin had seconded him, [Eamon] de Valera proposed the rejection. His first words provided a characteristic nicety of thought. He cannot propose, he can only appeal, "I tell you words mean [something]," he continued passionately, "and in a Treaty words do mean something. They have meaning and they have facts, great realities that you cannot close your eyes to." And again, "[Charles Stewart] Parnell was asked to do something like this--to say it was a final settlement. But he said, 'No man has a right,' take the context and you know the meaning.'" It was a pity that de Valera did not take the context because in fact Parnell said neither.

Stack follows, Collins' one-time friend and now among his bitterest enemies. Dull, pompous, unutterably futile, the threadbare sentiments string themselves out. "This question of the oath has an extraordinary significance for me, for, so far as I can trace, no member of my family has ever taken an oath of allegiances to England's king."

After the luncheon interval Collins rises to speak. It is a good and manly speech, though not comparable with O'Higgins or [Piaras] Beaslai's, but Collins, as I have said, was neither speaker nor writer, he achieved style only under compression in his dispatches.

[Eskine] Childers, still worried--more deeply worried than ever, for it is not only that poor boy Collins who is now going wrong, but a whole country--delivers a prophetic speech which is remarkable because all its prophecies have been proved false. As in London he had warned the amused typists against the night life of a great city, he warns the deputies against the perils of empire; it is the same fatherly tone, and like most paternal prophecies it sees only danger and losses ahead. It is followed by another prophetic speech, remarkable because all its prophecies have come true; the first great speech of O'Higgins, still only an untried young politician.

After that the proceedings degenerate into a mildly comic squabble. Sean Etchingham, better known as "Patsy Patrick," rises. "A lawyer of repute has said that that agreement that is now presented to us is couched in the very same language that Lloyd George mesmerized Wilson with....The Free State, if you like, a bow window in the British Empire....England never made a treaty she did not break....He [Griffith] knows that I have read that in his writings in the UNITED IRISHMAN and elsewhere."

"One deputy from Galway said that faithfulness meant equality,"; expounds Joe MacDonagh. "Well, I think that faithfulness does not certainly go so far, for in the Catholic Catechism when you make an act of faith in God you do not claim equality with God."

"John Bull is not Almighty God," retorts Sean Milroy.

Professor [W.] Stockley's speech shows a style like a sieve; the ideas he seeks to sustain sink gently down like fine sands through the holes in the syntax. "Not even Mr. Gavan Duffy has said--in fact he has said the contrary--that the claim made--and I would like to say it with regard to my present intentions on this Treaty--that the claim made that representatives of the people are incidentally to lose their own identity as it were-- their own responsibility--and be no longer independent men because their constituents think something else--is, I think a claim that cannot be made, and I never heard it being so absolutely made to any assembly as this on behalf of any people." One wonders how many assemblies Professor Stockley had belonged to.

Miss [Mary] MacSwiney--whose three hours' flight of oratory, Mr. [J.J.] O'Kelly thought, put her "in the highest ranks of the greatest orators of our race"--interprets the situation far better. She makes it plain at least that the issue is rejection or civil war.

Mr. J.J. O'Kelly takes occasion to point out that much of the disunion has been caused by speaking English and, breaking into English, proceeds to create more of it. The whole cabinet, he thinks, has drifted from the high plane it previously held to a slippery slope; and he appeals to the contending parties to turn their gaze toward heaven once more, and, hand in hand, to assist each other toward "the exalted place to which our cause has been brought by untold sacrifice of blood and treasure."

Then in a noble speech Beaslai hit it off magnificently. He quoted Colum's "the poor Irish nation striving to be born." He saw in the Dail "a body of small people, dry formulists and politicians, without imagination. We cannot rise to a great occasion. We haven't the vision."

After this, one of the high spots of a disgraceful debate, there arose the airy, wandering Countess [Markievicz]. She gibed at Collins by suggesting that he might aspire to marry Princess Mary, a suggestion that made Collins see red. His over-chivalrous protest hardly went to the root of the matter; that surge of rage had come from the consciousness that Markievicz was showing the snob in her, and Collins, with his sharp class sense, was caught on the raw.

The countess, faltering, had said, "I have seen the stars." J.J. Walsh said he had seen America. "It costs me three pounds to get over and three pounds to get back. At any rate I have seen the continent of America."

"Faith unfaithful to England's king," said Mr. [Frank] Fahy, "cannot make us falsely true to republicanism. We are, as I have said, concerned with liberating our country from a dilemma and liberating a cat from a bag. The immense labour of the latter performance may give us some idea of the task before us."

Mr. [Alec] MacCabe, on the question of principle, read the Ten Commandments and challenged any deputy who had refrained from breaking them to stand up.

No wonder Collins, striding up and down the corridors of the National University, so often wore a moody and defiant look. No wonder that when one of the defenders of principle passed some slighting remark, he turned 'round with, "Blast you, anyway Ferran; you never did anything but introduce a spy."

On the sixth of January de Valera returned with a staggering proposal. "I resign," he said in effect. "Let us stop this futile debate. Re-elect me and I shall get rid of Collins and Griffith and face the English with Document No. 2." It took the other side some time to realize that he was trying to change the issue from Treaty versus Document No. 2 to Griffith versus de Valera. Collins, in a rage, spoke of Tammany Hall methods, and his friend [Harry] Boland, just back from America, was at his throat, though clearly the reference to Tammany Hall was not intended for him.

Seumas Robinson began promisingly. "In my own plain, direct, if not too lucid way I would like to fire a few shots at this Treaty--metaphorically speaking...To my mind this compromise has been lurking in the ante-camera of many a cerebrum for the past three years...." He went on to suggest that Collins was not really the hero he was cracked up to be and, when sidetracked by the speaker, who said this was as near not discussing the Treaty as possible, charged Collins and Griffith with having staged the final ultimatum and being guilty of high treason. He believed they should be grateful to him for saying so.

Collins' friend, [Gearoid] O'Sullivan, was dignified and treated the House to a disquisition on Irish civilisation which should "permeate and influence the life of every nation in the world"--though the occasion was scarcely propitious.

Paddy O'Keeffe said he had Irish aspirations in his veins. He spoke characteristically and well, though he repeated the amazing statement that all the misunderstanding was caused by the use of English, and then went onto speak English. "Don't tell me," he begged, "that the Munster Fusiliers, my own neighbors, didn't beat the Germans!" and in a striking phrase compared Ireland to "a bather perpetually in togs." But the best hit was in warning the Dail that they who were now taunting one another would soon be killing one another.

Brugha stood up at last, the stormiest of Collins' enemies. He had before him Robin's queries regarding Collins, asking what his rank was and if it could authoritatively be stated that Collins had ever fired a shot at any enemy of Ireland.

The dirt was out at last! The Speaker did not intervene. Collins welcomed the onslaught with a cheerful, "Carry on!" Brugha was out for fight. As happened always when he grew excited, he burst into Irish. "I'm going to say something now. I'm determined on it, and if I'm interrupted I'm cross and cranky. I'm no angel."

"No one would accuse you of it," Collins rapped out, in Irish too.

Collins, Brugha declared, was only a subordinate in the Department of Defense. The staff of that department had all worked patriotically and well--all but Collins! Collins alone had sought notoriety. He was made a romantic figure, a mystical figure, such as THIS PERSON is not.

Brugha's is a terrible speech. One can see the man in it; stunted, gnarled, ruthless, with a hate like an old man's hate. It created such an impression that two deputies who intended to vote against the Treaty voted for it by way of amends. It was listened to in dismay by Collins' worst enemies, in rage by his friends. And yet there is something not altogether unattractive about it. At least it is all out; there is no reserve, no restraint, no deception. One can see under all the perversion of feeling and fact the man's fundamental honesty and integrity.

It is a man, to use a phrase of AE's, acting from his own will and center. One cannot wonder that Collins continued to admire him.

Griffith's last words on the Treaty are the crowning achievement of his life; magnificent oratory. There is the same quality one finds in the high oratory--the quality of an oath. It is man calling on God to witness. He began by a reference to Brugha's attack on Collins. "He [Collins] was the man that made the situation; he was the man, and nobody knows better than I do how during a year and a half he worked from six in the morning until two next morning. He was the man whose matchless energy, whose indomitable will, carried Ireland through the terrible crisis, and though I have not now, and never had, an ambition about either political affairs or history, if my name is to go down in history I want it be associated with the name of Michael Collins...." Bitterly he went on to arraign some of the Republican members. "I have an arrangement of oaths here, seven different oaths taken by different members of this assembly to the King of England. These were the gentlemen who unsheathed their swords against the liberties of the people--these gentlemen sat on English benches--all of whom are going to vote against this Treaty because they will not take the oath. Ah! this hypocrisy that is going to involve the lives of gallant and brave men is damnable--the hypocrisy of the men who hung their flags out when the King of England came to Ireland, the men who received him, the men who fought in his army, the men who sat on his benches--the men who try to cut down the brave young men of Ireland--this is damnable hypocrisy....I was told, 'No, this generation might go down, but the next generation might do something or other.' Is there to be no living Irish nation? Is the Irish nation to be the dead past or the prophetic future?"

Then comes the end of the Great Talk--it had gone on for weeks--and the vote for which all Ireland was waiting. As it is being taken Collins rises up with a passionate cry. It is the voice of one on such a peak of emotion that he speaks already as if from the dead. At this moment he and Griffith are utterly at one. "Let the Irish nation judge us now and for future years!" he cries. The result: sixty-four for, fifty-seven against. The Treaty is ratified. The war is over. Already from without comes the wild cheering of the crowds. De Valera grasps at his last straw, and in their triumph the others, not foreseeing the infinite mischief it will produce, let him have it. The Republic remains until the people disestablish it. Collins babbles like a boy. What are we, he asks, but a majority party and a minority party?--there's nothing more between us. De Valera holds the same position as ever in his heart. And then--out goes the hand in a gesture his friends know well, a gesture of monumental power, a Roman gesture--"my hand and my heart too." The women at the back of the hall begin to sob violently, so suddenly does it release the spring of emotion. For a moment it looks as though de Valera will rise and take the proferred hand, but before he can do so, Cassandra shrieks. Miss MacSwiney is on her feet. The passion is still in the words, now colder than the clay of the slaughtered men. "Let there be no misunderstanding; no soft talk, no raimeis, at this last moment of the betrayal of our country; no soft talk about union; you cannot unite a spiritual Irish Republic and a betrayal worse than Castlereagh's because it was done for the Irish nation."

Collins, hurt and sulky, still begs for some basis of common action. De Valera has a last word of regret: "Five years of magnificent discipline in our nation. The world is looking at us now...." and weeps. In the hush the voice of Brugha says that "discipline will be kept in the army." No more.

When they meet again, Collins, still a boy, is begging for his committee--a committee to take over from the English. He is in a wild hurry, there is so much to do; a whole world of new experience waiting for them all and they waste time in talking.

But the opposition has had time to harden. It refuses to assist in the disestablishment of the living Republic. De Valera resigns and is proposed and seconded for the position of president--of the Republic, that is. It is another move in the game. The Republic must carry on until the people disestablish it (it is strange that no one questioned that theory), the president must obviously be a Republican because you cannot have a president subverting his own constitution; his cabinet of course must also be Republican in order to work with him; so that naturally makes it impossible for Collins, Griffith and [William T.] Cosgrove to be members! Meanwhile, the Provisional Parliament would sit elsewhere, and de Valera thought it would be rather helpful to it to have a rival government.

* * *

Frank O'Connor--the pseudonym of Michael O'Donovan--was born in Cork in 1903. Much of his early poetry, stories and translations was published in AE's IRISH STATESMAN. His many collections of short stories gained him a worldwide reputation as one of the masters of the form. He died in 1966.