Notes by General Michael Collins, August 1922
After a national struggle sustained through many centuries, we have today in Ireland a native Government deriving its authority solely from the Irish people, and acknowledged by England and the other nations of the world.
Through those centuries—through hopes and through disappointments—the Irish people have struggled to get rid of a foreign Power which was preventing them from exercising their simple right to live and to govern themselves as they pleased—which tried to destroy our nationality, our institutions, which tried to abolish our customs and blot out our civilization,—all that made us Irish, all that united us as a nation. But Irish nationality survived.
It did not perish when native government was destroyed, and a foreign military despotism was set up. And for this reason, that it was not made by the old native government and it could not be destroyed by the foreign usurping government. It was the national spirit which created the old native government, and not the native government which created the national spirit. And nothing that the foreign government could do could destroy the national spirit.
But though it survived, the soul of the nation drooped and weakened. Without the protection of a native government we were exposed to the poison of foreign ways. The national character was infected and the life of the nation was endangered. We had armed risings and political agitation. We were not strong enough to put out the foreign Power until the national consciousness was fully re-awakened. This was why the Gaelic Movement and Sinn Féin were necessary for our last successful effort.
Success came with the inspiration which the new national movement gave to our military and political effort. The Gaelic spirit working through the Dáil and the Army was irresistible. In this light we must look at the present situation. The new spirit of self-reliance and our splendid unity, and an international situation which we were able to use to our advantage, enabled our generation to make the greatest and most successful national effort in our history. The right of Ireland as a nation under arms to decide its own destiny was acknowledged.
We were invited to a Peace Conference. With the authority of Ireland’s elected representatives negotiations were entered into between the two belligerent nations in order to find a basis of peace. During the war we had gathered strength by the justice of our cause, and by the way in which we had carried on the struggle.
We had organised our own government, and had made the most of our military resources. The united nation showed not only endurance and courage but a humanity which was in marked contrast with the conduct of the enemy. All this gave us a moral strength in the negotiations of which we took full advantage.
But in any sane view our military resources were terribly slender in the face of those of the British Empire which had just emerged victorious from the world war. It was obvious what would have been involved in a renewal of armed conflict on a scale which we had never met before.
And it was obvious what we should have lost in strength if the support of the world which had hitherto been on our side had been alienated, if Ireland had rejected terms which most nations would have regarded as terms we could honourably accept. We had not an easy task.
We were faced with a critical military situation over against an enemy of infinitely greater potential strength. We had to face the pride and prejudice of a powerful nation which had claimed for centuries to hold Ireland as a province. We had to face all the traditions, and political experience, and strength of the British nation. And on our flank we had a section of our own people who had identified their outlook and interests with those of Britain. It may be claimed that we did not fail in our task. We got the substance of freedom, as has already been made real before our eyes by the withdrawal of the British power.
And the people approved. And they were anxious to use the freedom secured.
The national instinct was sound—that the essence of our struggle was to secure freedom to order our own life, without attaching undue importance to the formulas under which that freedom would be expressed. The people knew that our government could and would be moulded by the nation itself according to its needs.
The nation would make the government, not the government the nation. But on the return of Ireland’s representatives from London, Mr. de Valera, who was then leader of the nation, condemned the Treaty in a public statement, while supporting similar proposals for peace which he described as differing ‘only by a shadow’. But he, and all the Deputies, joined in discussing and voting on the Treaty, and after full discussion and expressions of opinion from all parts of the country, the Treaty was approved. And Mr. de Valera declared that there was a constitutional way of solving our differences.
He expressed his readiness to accept the decision of the people. He resigned office, and a Provisional Government was formed to act with Dáil Éireann. Two duties faced that Government: To take over the Executive from the English, and to maintain public order during the transition from foreign to native government; and to give shape in a constitution to the freedom secured. If the Government had been allowed to carry out these duties no difficulty would have arisen with England, who carried out her part by evacuating her army and her administration.
No trouble would have arisen among our own people. And the general trend of development, and the undoubted advantages of unity, would have brought the North-East quietly into union with the rest of the country, as soon as a stable national government had been established into which they could have come with confidence. Mr. de Valera, and those who supported him in the Dáil, were asked to take part in the interim government, without prejudice to their principles, and their right to oppose the ratification of the Treaty at the elections.
They were asked to help in keeping an orderly united nation with the greatest possible strength ever against England, exercising the greatest possible peaceful pressure towards the union of all Ireland, and with the greatest amount of credit for us in the eyes of the world, and with the greatest advantage to the nation itself in having a strong united government to start the departments of State, and to deal with the urgent problems of housing, land, hunger, and unemployment.
They did not find it possible to accept this offer of patriotic service. Another offer was then made. If they would not join in the work of transition, would they not co-operate in preserving order to allow that transition peacefully to take place? Would they not co-operate in keeping the army united, free from political bias, so as to preserve its strength for the proper purpose of defending the country in the exercise of its rights? This also was refused.
It must be remembered that the country was emerging from a revolutionary struggle. And, as was to be expected, some of our people were in a state of excitement, and it was obviously the duty of all leaders to direct the thoughts of the people away from violence and into the steady channels of peace and obedience to authority.
No one could have been blind to the course things were bound to take if this duty were neglected. It was neglected, and events took their course. Our ideal of nationality was distorted in hair-splitting over the meaning of sovereignty and other foreign words, under advice from minds dominated by English ideas of nationality; and, led away, some soon got out of control and betook themselves to the very methods we had learned to detest in the English and had united to drive out of the country. By the time the Árd Fheis met the drift had become apparent.
And the feeling in favour of keeping the national forces united was so strong that a belated agreement was arrived at.
In return for a postponement of the elections, the Anti-Treaty Party pledged themselves to allow the work of the Provisional Government to proceed. What came of that pledge? Attempts to stampede meetings by revolver shootings, to wreck trains, the suppression of free speech, of the liberty of the Press, terrorisation and sabotage of a kind that we were familiar with a year ago. And with what object; With the sole object of preventing the people from expressing their will, and of making the government of Ireland by the representatives of the people as impossible as the English Government was made impossible by the united forces a year ago.
The policy of the Anti-Treaty Party had now become clear—to prevent the people’s will from being carried out because it differed from their own, to create trouble in order to break up the only possible national government, and to destroy the Treaty with utter recklessness as to the consequences. A section of the army, in an attempt at a military despotism, seized public buildings, took possession of the Chief Courts of Law of the Nation, dislocating private and national business, reinforced the Belfast Boycott which had been discontinued by the people’s government, and commandeered public and private funds, and the property of the people.
Met by this reckless and wrecking opposition, and yet unwilling to use force against our own countrymen, we made attempt after attempt at conciliation. We appealed to the soldiers to avoid strife, to let the old feelings of brotherhood and solidarity continue. We met and made advances over and over again to the politicians, standing out alone on the one fundamental point on which we owed an unquestioned duty to the people—that we must maintain for them the position of freedom they had secured.
We could get no guarantee that we would be allowed to carry out that duty.
The country was face to face with disaster, economic ruin, and the imminent danger of the loss of the position we had won by the national effort. If order could not be maintained, if no National Government was to be allowed to function, a vacuum would be created, into which the English would be necessarily drawn back.
To allow that to happen would have been the greatest betrayal of the Irish people, whose one wish was to take and to secure and to make use of the freedom which had been won. Seeing the trend of events, soldiers from both sides met to try and reach an understanding, on the basis that the people were admittedly in favour of the Treaty, that the only legitimate government could be one based on the people’s will and that the practicable course was to keep the peace, and to make use of the position we had secured.
Those honourable efforts were defeated by the politicians. But at the eleventh hour an agreement was reached between Mr. de Valera and myself for which I have been severely criticised. It was said that I gave away too much, that I went too far to meet them, that I had exceeded my powers in making a pact which, to some extent, interfered with the people’s right to make a free and full choice at the elections. It was a last effort on our part to avoid strife, to prevent the use of force by Irishmen against Irishmen.
We refrained from opposing the Anti-Treaty Party at the elections. We stood aside from political conflict, so that, so far as we were concerned, our opponents might retain the full number of seats which they had held in the previous Dáil. And I undertook, with the approval of the Government, that they should hold four out of the nine offices in the new Ministry. They calculated that in this way they would have the same position in the new Dáil as in the old.
But their calculations were upset by the people themselves, and they then dropped all pretence of representing the people, and turned definitely against them. The Irregular Forces in the Four Courts continued in their mutinous attitude. They openly defied the newly expressed will of the people. On the pretext of enforcing a boycott of Belfast goods, they raided and looted a Dublin garage, and when the leader of the raid was arrested by the National Forces, they retaliated by the seizure of one of the principal officers of the National Army. Such a challenge left two courses open to the National Government: either to betray its trust and surrender to the mutineers, or to fulfil its duty and carry out the work entrusted to it by the people. The Government did its duty.
Having given them one last opportunity to accept the situation, to obey the people’s will, when the offer was rejected the Government took the necessary measures to protect the rights and property of the people and to disperse the armed bands which had outlawed themselves and were preying upon the nation. Unbelievers had said that there was not, and had never been, an Irish Nation capable of harmonious, orderly development. That it was not the foreign invader but the character of the Irish themselves which throughout history had made of our country a scene of strife. We knew this to be a libel.
Our historians had shown our nationality as existing from legendary ages, and through centuries of foreign oppression. What made Ireland a nation was a common way of life, which no military force, no political change could destroy. Our strength lay in a common ideal of how a people should live, bound together by mutual ties, and by a devotion to Ireland which shrank from no individual sacrifice. This consciousness of unity carried us to success in our last great struggle. In that spirit we fought and won.
The old fighting spirit was as strong as ever, but it had gained a fresh strength in discipline in our generation. Every county sent its boys whose unrecorded deeds were done in the spirit of Cúchulainn at the Ford. But the fight was not for one section of the nation against another, but for Ireland against the foreign oppressor. We fought for that for which alone fighting is really justified—for national freedom, for the right of the whole people to live as a nation. And we fought in a way we had never fought before, and Ireland won a victory she had never won before.
The foreign Power was withdrawn. The civil administration passed into the hands of the elected representatives of the people. The fight with the English enemy was ended. The function of our armed forces was changed. Their duty now was to preserve the freedom won—to enable the people to use it, to realise that for which they had fought—a free, prosperous, self-governing Gaelic Ireland.
Differences as to political ideals such as remained or might develop amongst us—these were not a matter for the army, these were not a matter for force, for violence. Under the democratic system which was being established by the representatives of the people—the freest and most democratic system yet devised—the rights of every minority were secured, and the fullest opportunity was open for every section of opinion to express and advocate its views by appeal to reason and patriotic sentiment.
In these circumstances, the only way in which individual views could be rightly put forward by patriotic Irishmen was by peaceful argument and appeal. The time had come when the best policy for Ireland could be promoted in ways which would keep the nation united—strong against the outside world, and settling its own differences peacefully at home. To allow such a situation to develop successfully required only common sense and patriotism in the political leaders.
No one denied that the new Government had the support of the people. Of all forms of government a democracy allows the greatest freedom—the greatest possibilities for the good of all. But such a government, like all governments, must be recognised and obeyed.
The first duty of the new Government was to maintain public order, security of life, personal liberty, and property. The duty of the leaders was to secure free discussion of public policy, and to get all parties to recognise that, while they differed, they were fellow-citizens of one free State. It should have been the political glory of Ireland to show that our differences of opinion could express themselves so as to promote, and not to destroy, the national life.
The army had to recognise that they were the servants and not the masters of the people—that their function was not to impose their will on the people but to secure to the people the right to express their own will and to order their lives accordingly. All this might indeed appear obvious to all patriotic persons. But with the removal of the pressure of the English enemy, the spirit of order, and unity, and devotion to Ireland as a whole was suddenly weakened in some directions. The readiness to fight remained after the occasion for fighting was gone.
Some lost grasp of the ideal for which they had fought and magnified personal differences into a conflict of principles. The road was clear for us to march forward, peaceful and united, to achieve our goal and the revival of our Gaelic civilization. The peace and order necessary for that progress was rudely broken.
The united forward movement was held up by an outbreak of anarchic violence. The nation which had kept the old heroic temper, but had learnt to govern it so that violence should be directed against the national enemy, and its differences should be matters of friendly rivalry, found itself faced with a small minority determined to break up the national unity and to destroy the government in which the nation had just shown its confidence.
They claimed to be fighting for the nation. That might be possible if there were any enemies of the nation opposing them. There are not. Resolved to fight, they are fighting, not against an enemy, but against their own nation. Blind to facts, and false to ideals, they are making war on the Irish people. To conceal this truth they claim to be opposing the National Government which they declare to be a usurpation. In view of the elections this is absurd enough. No one can deny that the present Government rests on the will of the people, the sole authority for any government. And what was the usurpation they complained of? Simply that the Government refused to allow authority to be wrested from it by an armed minority.
If it is not right for a National Government to keep public order, to prevent murder, arson, and brigandage, what are the duties of a government? But it is not the fact that they have directed their fight against the National Government and the National Army. It was against the Irish people themselves that they directed their operations. The anti-national character of their campaign became clear when we saw them pursuing exactly the same course as the English Black and Tans.
They robbed and destroyed, not merely for the sake of loot, and from a criminal instinct to destroy (though in any candid view of their operations these elements must be seen to have been present) but on a plan, and for a definite purpose. Just as the English claimed that they were directing their attack against a ‘murder gang’, so the irregulars claim that they are making war on a ‘usurping’ government. But, in reality, the operations and the motives in both cases were, and are, something quite different—namely, the persecution and terrorism of the unarmed population, and the attempt by economic destruction, famine, and violence, to ‘make an appropriate hell’ in Ireland, in the hope of breaking up the organised National Government and undermining the loyalty of the people.
And of what is it all the inevitable outcome? Of the course to which the unthinking enthusiasm of some was directed when they were told repeatedly that it might be necessary to turn their arms against their brothers and to wade through Irish blood. But the true nature of the whole movement has now demonstrated itself so that no one can doubt it.
A tree is known by its fruits—we have seen the fruits. The Irish people will be confirmed in its conviction that those fruits are deadly. They will have no sympathy with anarchy and violence. The Irish people know that true Irish nationality does not express itself in these ways. They know it is the Government, and not those who call themselves Republicans, who are upholding the national ideal.
The tactics of disruption and disorder were anti-national in paralysing the energies which were needed for building up the new Ireland. Worse still, their violence and the passions it aroused have broken up the united concentration on the revival of our language and of our Irish life. Worst of all, their action has been a crime against the nation in this—that the anarchy and ruin they were bringing about was undermining the confidence of the nation in itself.
So far as it succeeded it was proving that our enemies were right, that we were incapable of self-government. When left to ourselves in freedom we could show nothing of the native civilization we had claimed as our own. The Black and Tans with all their foreign brutality were unable to make of Ireland ‘an appropriate hell’. The irregulars brought their country to the brink of a real hell, the black pit in which our country’s name and credit would have sunk, in which our existence as a distinct nation, our belief in ourselves as a nation might have perished for ever.
If they had succeeded in destroying the National Government, and reducing the country to anarchy, the greatest evil would have been, not that the English would have come back, that would indeed have been terrible enough, but that they would have been welcomed back, that they would have come not as enemies, but as the only protectors who could bring order and peace.
For hundreds of years we had preserved our national hopes. We were on the point of achieving them, but when the real test came the national consciousness lapsed in the minds of some whom the nation had trusted. The wrong done was not merely to the material prospects of the nation but to its soul. The calamity was unnecessary. There lies the wrong to the nation. A simple acceptance of the people’s will! That was all that was asked of them. What principle could such an acceptance have violated? All further measures necessary will be taken to maintain peace and order.
We have to face realities. There is no British Government any longer in Ireland. It is gone. It is no longer the enemy. We have now a native government, constitutionally elected, and it is the duty of every Irish man and woman to obey it. Anyone who fails to obey it is an enemy of the people and must expect to be treated as such.
We have to learn that attitudes and actions which were justifiable when directed against an alien administration, holding its position by force, are wholly unjustifiable against a native government which exists only to carry out the people’s will, and which can be changed the moment it ceases to do so. We have to learn that freedom imposes responsibilities. This parliament is now the controlling body. With the unification of the administration it will be clothed with full authority.
Through the parliament the people have the right, and the power, to get the constitution, the legislation, and the economic and educational arrangements they desire. The courts of law, which are now our own courts, will be reorganised to make them national in character, and the people will be able to go to them with confidence of receiving justice. That being so, the Government believes it will have the whole force of public opinion behind it in dealing sternly with all unlawful acts of every kind, no matter under what name of political or patriotic, or any other policy that may be carried out.
The National Army, and the new Irish Police Force, acting in obedience to the Administration, will defend the freedom and rights of the Nation, and will put down crime of whatever nature, sectarian, agrarian or confiscatory. In the special circumstances I have had to stress the Government’s determination to establish the foundations of the state, to preserve the very life of the Nation. But a policy of development is engaging the attention of all departments, and will shortly be made known. We have a difficult task before us. We have taken over an alien and cumbersome administration.
We have to begin the upbuilding of the nation with foreign tools. But before we can scrap them we must first forge fresh Gaelic ones to take their place, and must temper their steel. But if we will all work together in a mutually helpful spirit, recognising that we all seek the same end, the good of Ireland, the difficulties will disappear. The Irish Nation is the whole people, of every class, creed, and outlook. We recognise no distinction. It will be our aim to weld all our people nationally together who have hitherto been divided in political and social and economic outlook. Labour will be free to take its rightful place as an element in the life of the nation.
In Ireland more than in any other country lies the hope of the rational adjustment of the rights and interests of all sections, and the new government starts with the resolve that Irish Labour shall be free to play the part which belongs to it in helping to shape our industrial and commercial future. The freedom, strength, and greatness of the nation will be measured by the independence, economic well-being, physical strength and intellectual greatness of the people. A new page of Irish history is beginning. We have a rich and fertile country—a sturdy and intelligent people.
With peace, security and union, no one can foresee the limits of greatness and well-being to which our country may not aspire. But it is not only within our country that we have a new outlook. Ireland has now a recognised international status. Not only as an equal nation in association with the British nations, but as a member of the wider group forming the League of Nations.
As a member of these groups, Ireland’s representatives will have a voice in international affairs, and will use that voice to promote harmony and peaceful intercourse among all friendly nations. In this way Ireland will be able to play a part in the new world movement, and to play that part in accordance with the old Irish tradition of an independent distinctive Irish nation, at harmony, and in close trading, cultural, and social relations, with all other friendly nations. In this sense our outlook is new. But our national aim remains the same—a free, united Irish nation and united Irish race all over the world, bent on achieving the common aim of Ireland’s prosperity and good name.
Underlying the change of outlook there is this continuity of outlook. For 700 years the united effort has been to get the English out of Ireland. For this end, peaceful internal development had to be left neglected, and the various interests which would have had distinct aims had to sink all diversity and unite in the effort of resistance, and the ejection of the English power.
This particular united effort is now at an end. But it is to be followed by a new united effort for the actual achievement of the common goal. The negative work of expelling the English power is done. The positive work of building a Gaelic Ireland in the vacuum left has now to be undertaken. This requires not merely unity, but diversity in unity.
Each Irish interest, each phase of Irish life, industrial, commercial, cultural, social, must find expression and have a voice in the development of the country, partly by the government, and partly by co-operation and individual effort. But they must express themselves and use their influence, not in hostility to one another, but in co-operation.
And in furthering their special aims, they must do so in the light of the common ideal—a united, distinctive Irish nationality. And there must be, to reach this ideal, and particularly so at this moment, allegiance to and support of the National Government, democratically elected. At least to the extent of assisting it to restore and maintain peace and public order, rights of life and property according to law, freedom for all individuals, parties, and creeds, to express themselves lawfully. This is why we claim that the measures to restore order which we have taken are not repressive. They are seen to be carrying the liberative movement to completion, clearing away the debris in order to lay firm and solid the foundations on which to build the new Ireland. Those who are restoring order, not those who tried to destroy it, are the preservers of Irish nationality.
Fidelity to the real Ireland lies in uniting to build up a real Ireland in conformity with our ideal, and not in disruption and destruction as a sacrifice to the false gods of foreign-made political formulas. The ideal is no good unless it lights our present path. Otherwise it is but a vain sentiment, or misleading will-o’-the-wisp.
We can all be faithful to what is our national ideal—the Ireland of poetic tradition, and the future Ireland which will one day be—the best of what our country was, and can be again, and the perfect freedom in which it alone can be the best. It is because this ideal is not a fact now, that we must be faithful to it, and our faithfulness to it consists in making it a fact so far as we can in ourselves and in our day.
Accepting the freedom which we have here and now is to recognise facts and is to be faithful to the national ideal as taking the best practical means to achieve as much as we can of the ideal at the moment. We grasp the substance of freedom, and are true to Ireland in using that freedom to make an actual Ireland as near to the ideal one as possible. We have not got, and cannot get now at the moment, (certainly cannot get without sacrificing the hope of things more important and essential for our true ideal)—the political Republic.
If we had got it, we should not necessarily be much further forward towards our true goal—a Gaelic Ireland. We must be true to facts if we would achieve anything in this life. We must be true to our ideal, if we would achieve anything worthy. The Ireland to which we are true, to which we are devoted and faithful, is the ideal Ireland, which means there is always something more to strive for.
The true devotion lies not in melodramatic defiance or self-sacrifice for something falsely said to exist, or for mere words and formalities, which are empty, and which might be but the house newly swept and garnished to which seven worse devils entered in. It is the steady, earnest effort in face of actual possibilities towards the solid achievement of our hopes and visions, the laying of stone upon stone of a building which is actual and in accordance with the ideal pattern.
In this way, what we can do in our time, being done in faithfulness to the traditions of the past, and to the vision of the future, becomes significant and glorified beyond what it is if looked at as only the day’s momentary partial work. This is where our Irish temperament, tenacity of the past, its vivid sense of past and future greatness, readiness for personal sacrifice, belief and pride in our race, can play an unique part, if it can stand out in its intellectual and moral strength, and shake off the weaknesses which long generations of subjection and inaction have imposed upon it. Let the nation show its true and best character: use its courage, tenacity, clear swift intellect, its pride in the service of the national ideal as our reason directs us.