There are few people in modern Irish history who loom larger than Michael Collins, “The Big Fellow” who more than any other individual is credited with winning independence for Ireland. In a matter of a few short years he emerged from the ranks of the Republican movement to become one of the key figures in the struggle against British rule. His early death as a result of an ambush in the subsequent civil war gave him the aura of a lost leader, laden with the possibilities of what might have been. In this book, Peter Hart seeks to penetrate beneath the many legends surrounding Collins in order to get at the truth behind this famous figure.
Faced with the stories and misconceptions about Collins’s life (many of which were of his own making), Hart bases his narrative on the extensive documentary evidence about his subject’s life. The Collins that emerges is not a great guerrilla figure but a master bureaucrat, one whose organizational abilities and work ethic were both the keys to his rise and his great contribution to victory. These skills were the product of his years in London, where he worked as a postal clerk and spent his free time in various Irish social organizations. His subsequent rise through the ranks of the Irish revolutionary leadership was aided by the loss of the top leadership in the aftermath of the Dublin rising in 1916. The loss of most of the senior leadership created opportunities that Collins exploited to the fullest, gaining positions of authority in which his managerial talent ensured a flow of money, supplies, and (most critically) intelligence to the members of the IRA in the field.
Hart’s achievement in uncovering the real Michael Collins from the layers of myth that built up over the years is impressive, providing a truer assessment of his role in Irish independence than any previous biography. His detective work on Collins’s time in London is especially exemplary here, illuminating a part of his subject’s life often overshadowed by his subsequent achievements. People seeking the Collins of legend would be better off watching Neil Jordan’s hagiographic depiction, but for those wanting to discover the true Michael Collins, this is the book to read.