A conspiracy of bashful former comrades attempted to remove the stigma surrounding the shooting of Michael Collins

The historian Eoin Neeson, whose parents were Civil War anti-Treaty supporters, has written that the aim of the IRA men who laid the Co Cork ambush in which Michael Collins died was “to kill the enemy supreme commander or to catch, a legitimate act of war”.

After Collins was fatally shot in the Béal na Bláth ambush 100 years ago, some Republicans seemed keen to distance themselves from the assassination of the legendary leader or downplay the IRA’s role in his death.

Perhaps they were embarrassed by the shooting of the charismatic chief who had played a pivotal role in the fight for Irish independence?

While IRA prisoners in Portlaoise jail loudly applauded the news of Collins’ death, there were anti-Treaty Republicans – like flying squad leader Tom Barry – who respected Collins and regretted his death. Both he and IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch, who also expressed regret, accepted that it was the IRA that killed the Big Fellow.

So who fired the shot that killed Collins?

However, a conspiracy theory later developed to upset Republicans and shift the blame and stigma for Collins’ assassination onto the Free Staters.

Tom Kelleher, an IRA battalion commander, one of the IRA ambush parties, privately admitted that the IRA fired on Collins – but publicly denied the IRA’s involvement. Instead, he pointed the finger of distrust at members of Collins’ own convoy, fueling a conspiracy theory that persists to this day.

In his 1949 memoirs Guerrilla Days in IrelandTom Barry said that about 10 days after the ambush he “went to West Cork and interviewed the men who fired the shots, one of which ended Michael Collins’ life”.

But he also tried to clear the IRA of any premeditated attempt to kill Collins, stating that he wanted to “kill the duck that the IRA plotted and plotted and actually murdered Collins’ death in 1922”.

Barry claimed that a column from West Cork lay in ambush on the Bandon-Macroom road for “several days” to attack Free State troops who regularly used that route.

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The hat Michael Collins was wearing when he was shot

On that particular day, Barry wrote, the main column was withdrawn and a small rear guard fired “fewer than a dozen” shots “from nearly 500 yards away” at a convoy, and one of those “long-range shots” killed Collins. The IRA column only heard hours later that Collins had been killed.

Barry’s account was not supported by a report prepared by former IRA officer Florence O’Donoghue in 1964 after meeting in Cork with surviving members of the IRA ambush party.

It emerged that on the morning of August 22, 1922, Collins and his convoy were seen passing through Béal na Bláth, where senior IRA officers had gathered for a brigade and general staff meeting.

An IRA sentry at Long’s Pub (now Diamond Bar) recognized Collins in the convoy, and IRA officers decided to ambush the Free State Party on their return journey.

Contrary to Barry’s account, the clear intention was to attack the convoy in which the enemy commander-in-chief was traveling. A land mine was laid to target convoy vehicles – and if Collins’ touring car had been hit by the blast, he might not have survived.

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Tom Barry tried publicly to deny IRA involvement in the shooting

Also, the rear guard fired on the convoy from only about 150 yards, not the 500 years Barry had claimed.

IRA Chief of Staff Liam Lynch said in a memo it was “regrettable” that the “national situation” made the shooting of such leaders with a brilliant record “necessary”.

He praised the nine Republicans who attended the engagement, saying “it was a great feat from a military standpoint” as they faced machine guns and larger numbers.

So who fired the shot that killed Collins?

IRA man Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill’s name first appeared as a suspect in a 1988 RTÉ television documentary. The shadow of Béal na Bláth.

False narratives helped perpetuate a conspiracy theory

Former IRA intelligence officer Éamonn de Barra, who was interviewed for the documentary, described how Tom Kelleher told him the group would ambush when Denis O’Neill said: “I’m going to have one last shot at this guy ‘ and pointing to the spot on the street where Michael Collins was lying.

According to this version of events, the figure was only a blur in the fading light, and Kelleher apparently made the bizarre claim that O’Neill “did not intend to harm him,” but the bullet ricocheted off the road and struck Collins in the back of the head . The IRA only learned much later that it was Collins who had been hit.

Ironically, the same RTÉ documentary contains archive footage of a television interview with Tom Kelleher, who, contrary to his private admission that the IRA shot Collins, issued a public statement completely denying the IRA’s involvement and saying he believed that ” one of the British officers” with Collins shooting him dead.

This was an apparent attempt to blacken the name of Collins’ traveling companion and extremely loyal friend, Major General Emmet Dalton, who, like Tom Barry, had served in the British Army in the Great War before joining the IRA.

When Republicans split over the treaty, Dalton remained loyal to Collins.

In the clip, Kelleher says it is noteworthy that Collins “had four British officers guarding him”.

He continues, “That’s hard for me to believe.” Kelleher says he thinks “one of the four said, ‘We’re going to get him before we come back,’ and they got him. One of the four shot him, I think. The IRA definitely didn’t shoot him.”

The interviewer interjects, “How do you know the IRA didn’t shoot him?”

Kelleher replies, “I was there.”

Such false narratives helped perpetuate a conspiracy theory that Collins was assassinated by a member of his own party.

What did he do in the ambush group when he couldn’t use a gun?

In reality, it would have taken a very brave assassin to attempt to shoot Collins point-blank, given the presence of some of his most loyal and devoted shooters.

During the Béal na Bláth fight, members of Collins’ special forces unit, The Squad, Joe Dolan and James Conroy were in or near the armored car near which Collins was killed.

Another squadman, Seán O’Connell, was also nearby, reciting an act of repentance for the badly wounded leader.

More recently, it has been claimed that former British soldier Denis O’Neill was physically unable to fire the gunshot that killed Collins, as British records showed he had a 40 percent disability in his right arm.

So what was he doing at the ambush party if he couldn’t use a gun?

Some of those close to O’Neill, who died in 1950 after a pilgrimage to Knock, staunchly denied that he shot Collins, and it was even claimed that he left the scene of the ambush an hour before the firefight.

But in his military service pension file, released in 2014, O’Neill states that he was “involved” in the “engagement” at Béal na Bláth. He also states that he was a member of an active service unit during the Civil War and refers to participation in other engagements in Ballineen and Enniskean as well as in Bantry.

He also states that he was sent with others “to fire rifle grenades at an isolated enemy post at Bruff”.

That doesn’t sound like a man with a serious disability that would prevent him from using a gun, regardless of what’s on the medical chart.

It has also been suggested that the distance and fading light would have prevented an IRA sniper from hitting Collins, implying that he was shot by one of his own men.

Shortly after Collins was shot, the convoy’s motorcyclist, Lieutenant Smith, was himself shot dead, a bullet grazing his neck. This happened while he was helping to lift Collins’ body into the armored car.

Apparently there was at least one rifleman in the IRA group on the high ground who could handle the challenges of range and fading light.

Historians such as Eoin Neeson and Meda Ryan, who wrote books on the death of Collins, were convinced that Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill was the IRA man who fired the shot that killed Collins.

But still, conspiracy theorists unfairly target Emmet Dalton, who idolized Collins.

One of the most bizarre attempts to frame Dalton occurred in 1987.

An elderly Dublin pawnbroker, Joe Dalton, filed an affidavit with a solicitor, the late Larry Murphy, claiming to be Emmet’s nephew and stating that “Uncle Emmet” told him he had Collins “with him.” shot with a Luger pistol”. According to Murphy, Joe had IRA or Republican “tendencies”.

A copy of the affidavit is in the National Library Archives and is included in a recent scholarly study of Collins.

The problem is that County Monaghan-born Joe Dalton, who lived a frugal, reclusive bachelor’s life and died in 1988 at the age of 73, was in no way related to Emmet, and there’s no indication they ever met .

But he is still described as “nephew” in a library catalogue.

Sean Boyne is the author of Emmet Dalton: Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pioneer (Merrion Press, 2014)

https://www.independent.ie/opinion/a-conspiracy-of-shame-faced-former-comrades-tried-to-shift-the-stigma-of-shooting-michael-collins-41925391.html A conspiracy of bashful former comrades attempted to remove the stigma surrounding the shooting of Michael Collins

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