For years the most frequently stolen street sign reported by Cork Co Council was for Béal na Bláth, the urban area of west Cork where General Michael Collins was assassinated during the Civil War.
The regular thefts – which infuriated the council – were prompted by a voracious worldwide market among collectors and Irish pubs for all things ‘big fella’.
It was an early indication of the incredible fascination with all things related to Michael Collins
Today, General Collins has bequeathed an incredible economic and commercial legacy to his homeland – a legacy that, in tourism terms at least, will culminate over the next two weeks as Cork and Ireland mark their centenary.
A veritable mini-industry based on the life and legend of Michael Collins has developed throughout Rebel County.
There are Collins History Trails, Heritage Walks and special museum exhibits, while several books, films and documentaries have been made about his life.
“Big Fella” t-shirts sell like hot cakes at local festivals, while mini statues of Collins, most in the striking pose, were photographed as he died in August 1922, just 10 days before his own death , dating back to Arthur Griffith’s funeral, are popular in gift shops.
Thousands of visitors flock to see his ancestral home outside of Clonakilty, while the Imperial Hotel in Cork – where Collins spent the last two nights of his life – has given the room in which he stayed a major refurbishment, giving it a 1920s appearance returned.
Collins’ grave at Glasnevin in Dublin is one of the most visited in the entire cemetery, with flowers regularly laid for his birthday, anniversary, Christmas and even Valentine’s Day.
The IRA commander was just 31 when he was shot.
But in his short life he had taken part in the 1916 Easter Rising, became a key figure in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was Director of Intelligence for the IRA during the Revolutionary War, was credited with developing guerrilla warfare tactics that are still studied in military academies today , helped negotiate the Free State Treaty. After the civil war broke out, he urged the Free State to defeat the military challenge to its authority by those who had lost the democratic vote in the Dáil on the treaty.
As Finance Minister of the Free State, he also helped put the young state on a solid financial footing.
Historian and author Lieutenant Colonel (Rtd) Dan Harvey said the legend of Michael Collins was easy to understand given its “Lost Leader” connotations and conspiracy theories surrounding the circumstances of his death.
“Neil Jordan’s 1996 historical epic, MichaelCollinswas responsible for introducing the true story of the ‘Lost Leader’ to new generations of Irish youth and indeed to a worldwide audience who otherwise may not know or appreciate his role in Irish history,” he said.
In terms of tourism, Michael Collins is now a “cheap fund”.
“The film, starring Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts, was a huge success and created a demand for more knowledge about Collins that needed to be met.
“There are now strongly Collins-themed museums in Clonakilty, the Michael Collins Centre, the Kilmurry Independence Museum and the Cork Military Museum in the aptly named Collins Barracks.
“Sites with links to Collins across West Cork now attract historians, tourists and even school groups, while there are walking trails, tours and history walks.
“I think the central question is what could have been if the potential of this enormously energetic man had not been curtailed.”
Lt Col Harvey – his new book Car bombs and barracks breakers out in September – served as military adviser on the Irish war film The wind that shakes the barley which was filmed in West Cork and covered many of the Civil War issues Collins faced.
Lt Col Harvey is also one of the experts featured in RTEs Cold Case Collins Program to be aired on August 24, which aims to use modern forensic and pathological techniques to explain the circumstances of his death.
For some, Michael Collins almost has an aura of John F. Kennedy—a young man who dies a violent death in a robbery
his country with seemingly limitless future potential.
Patsy Murphy sells t-shirts at markets and festivals in Cork.
“You will be amazed at how many Michael Collins t-shirts we sell, especially to tourists. It’s almost like he’s Ireland’s equivalent of Che Guevara.”
The Imperial Hotel has always prided itself on its connection to the Big Fella.
Owner Allen Flynn used the Covid-19 lockdown to order a full refurbishment of Room 115, where Collins spent the last two nights of his life.
The refurbishment gave the room a 1920’s decor and the work was carried out in full consultation with the Collins family who have been very supportive of the hotel over the years.
“It’s a very fitting tribute to Michael Collins. I think the big man himself would be happy,” he said.
Not surprisingly, the room is one of the most desirable in the hotel.
Mr Flynn said interest in all things Michael Collins had increased in the run-up to the centenary of his death.
The hotel already had a bronze bust of Collins and will soon unveil a new portrait of the general.
“A number of American historians interested in Irish history would have inquired about the room.”
Mr Flynn also noted that the Imperial, one of Ireland’s oldest hotels, has ties to Charles Dickens and President John F Kennedy, but its association with General Michael Collins “would be one of our favourites”.
Signposts are now being erected across West Cork advertising the ‘Michael Collins Trail’ while numerous museums have special exhibitions dedicated to the ‘Big Fella’.
The Independence Museum in Kilmurry, just 2 miles from the ambush site, opened a special exhibition about Collins called ‘The Local
Kilmurry Historical and Archaeological Association (KHAA) chair Mary O’Mahony said the area wanted to highlight its connection to events of great historical importance.
“It (the exhibition) aims to provide a balanced view of how the ambush affected people in this community,” she said.
“We will also remember two local volunteers, William Harrington and Patrick O’Mahony, who died fighting in Limerick in July 1922.”
A centenary edition of Michael Collins – His Death in the Twilight by the late Edward O’Mahony is re-released as a fundraiser for KHAA, which runs the museum and common room on a volunteer basis.
As a young man, Edward O’Mahony was fascinated by the day that “the most important man in Ireland was allowed to be isolated and killed” and the reluctance of the old IRA men he knew to ever speak
The last known photograph of Michael Collins was taken leaving Lee’s Hotel (now the Munster Arms) in Bandon on the morning of August 22, 1922.
It was taken by 18-year-old Agnes Hurley from Mallowgaton, who always carried her boxing camera with her.
Her photo adorns the cover of the newly published book.
The next day, Agnes and her brother and sister were taking freshly harvested wheat to be ground at Howard’s Mill in Crookstown when they came across a collar on the ground at the scene of the ambush, which Agnes also photographed. “They went onto the road that runs parallel to the site and found nine spots where men were leaning against the fence and also firing bullets,” said Mim O’Donovan, Agnes’ niece, who donated the photos to the Cork City and County Archives in 2012 .
Over the next few weeks, tourists, historians and just the curious can use bus groups and walking tours to follow the final steps of the IRA commander.
Next Sunday, August 21st, the largest event ever held in Béal na Bláth will mark the centenary of the death of the man widely credited with spearheading victory in the Intelligence War against Crown forces during the Revolutionary War.
In a historic first, both Fianna Fáil’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Fine Gael’s Tánaiste Leo Varadkar will make speeches – a symbolic gesture of solidarity between the leaders of the two Irish political parties, who trace their lineage to the schism over the Treaty.
A full military honor guard will be on hand, the area has been generously upgraded by Cork Co Council and even ‘Sliabh na mBan’, the armored Rolls Royce car that accompanied Collins on his inspection tour of West Cork, will be on hand be.
The portraits of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera now hang in the Taoiseach’s office at Leinster House
A decade before his own death, Eamon de Valera sensed the legacies of the future.
When asked about Collins, he famously said, “It is my considered opinion that history in the fulness of time will record the greatness of Collins, and at my expense.” A shrewd and ruthless politician, de Valera was unmistakably right .
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/hes-almost-our-che-guevara-from-michael-collins-t-shirts-to-tourist-trails-our-fascination-with-the-big-fella-endures-41911669.html “He’s Almost Our Che Guevara”: From Michael Collins t-shirts to tourist trails, our fascination with the Big Fella continues