The fact that Alex Ferguson has a professed lifelong interest in Michael Collins tells us a thing or two about how this towering figure continues to fascinate our history.
In the many years he has led Manchester United to extraordinary heights, the manager has spent some of his free time pursuing his passion for Irish history.
The 1916 uprising and the years of the War of Independence were his main focus. Perhaps the fact that he grew up in Glasgow – a city dominated by Catholics and Protestants – sparked his interest.
But Ferguson, who is little known for his sentimentality, is just one of many who remain fascinated by the “what ifs” surrounding Collins’ short life.
The fact that he was gunned down “by one of his own” in his prime has led to a century of pondering what might have been.
Some say Collins is overrated, while others insist the new Irish state has lost someone who would have been a much-needed visionary and shape-breaker in its early years. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.
Could Collins really have done more than keep the show going had he been the Taoiseach in the impoverished 1920s?
Supporters of William T. Cosgrave and Cumann na nGaedheal argue that despite his restrictions and those of his party, they got the new independent 26 counties up and running.
Of course, what has been dubbed the Irish Free State survived financially and thrived – despite the naysayers in the British establishment and elsewhere.
Still, in those early years, there was a stifling caution about doing it on your own. The accounting credo has all too often become an end in itself. Would Collins’ pushy, energetic personality have made a big difference in the role of Cosgrave? Probably not.
An all-powerful Catholic Church, a peasant-dominated electorate, and a pervasive lack of funds meant enthusiasm for the grand gesture was low. Risk takers found it nearly impossible to break a consensus of conformity.
However, the formative influences that shaped Collins’ personality remain fascinating – particularly the early years he spent in London working for the post office. He enjoyed big city life and its cultural offerings. But going to the British capital and building a future was never an option for him.
Rather, like so many Irish revolutionaries of the day, he was drawn to a sort of romanticized view of Gaelic Ireland.
But their idealism was soon overshadowed by a grim reality. If there was to be a new dawn for a new country, it had to be fought for. Social and economic issues and the determination of a million Northern Unionists to forge their own way were not prominent in the minds of Collins and many of his contemporaries.
Maybe that’s understandable. Almost overnight, their overwhelming goal — immersed in tough life-and-death decisions — was gaining independence in whatever form.
Collins has clearly cut a swathe in his leadership and organizational skills. Most importantly, he had an all-important X-Factor. Tall and imposing, photographs from this period suggest a mischievous grin cloaking a steely grimace. When adorned with military attire, it contributed to an aura of imposing authority.
Image wise it was ideal for an age of burgeoning mass communications, be it the remarkable growth in newspaper readership or the availability of Pathe news.
And then he was cut down in the prime of his life. No wonder there has been a tension between man’s reality and the legacy of myth for over a century. Each generation tries to use what it did and didn’t do to reconcile its own politics.
Perhaps this weekend at the memorial service in Béal na Bláth was no different. But it was also moving to watch the participants.
Memories of the fallen leader soothed the old civil war division. And so the body language of Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar suggested that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are getting closer than ever.
Even after all these years, the Big Fellow still casts a long shadow.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/collins-commemoration-shows-fianna-fail-and-fine-gael-moving-closer-than-they-have-ever-been-41935466.html Collin’s memoir features Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael becoming closer than ever