As President Higgins prepares to address the 2016 Michael Collins commemoration at Béal na mBláth, UCC history graduate and modern Irish history buff Pauline Murphy looks back at the tribal politics that marred commemorations in the 1930s.
Michael Collins is remembered annually at his place of death in Béal na mBláth, on the Sunday nearest to his date of demise. This year that falls on Sunday August 21. The 2016 event will see history in the making, as President Michael D. Higgins will give the main oration, the first serving president to address the annual commemoration.
The first ever commemoration at Béal na mBláth took place 12 months after Michael Collins succumbed to an assassin’s bullet there. In 1923 Richard Mulcahy led Free State troops down the narrow dusty road to a small wooden cross marking the spot where The Big Fella had been shot down. Floral wreaths were laid, mass was delivered by an army chaplain and Mulcahy gave a short oration. The event ended with a volley of shots fired by the troops; coming just three months after the end of the Civil War, the Free State army was intent on putting on a show of strength in the quiet West Cork countryside.
The following year saw government forces up the ante by replacing the simple wooden cross with a large limestone one. The Free State army commissioned this memorial cross, after it purchased some roadside land in Béal na mBláth.
On August 2, 1924 the Michael Collins Memorial Cross at Béal na mBláth was unveiled to a large crowd. General Eoin O’Duffy and Chairman of the Free State government, W.T. Cosgrave, were guests of honour, tasked with the duty of the official unveiling. A large contingent of troops marched to the monument followed by a motorcar covered in black crepe paper and carrying floral wreaths.
Over the years this minor road, cutting through the ‘mouth of the flowers’, gradually widened as the trees and bushes were cut back to accommodate an annual pilgrimage to the site of Irish history’s most infamous ambush.
But not all pilgrims brought a sense of decorum to this sacred spot.
In the early 1930s Béal na mBláth witnessed the forces of fascism when Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts made this rural roadside monument a place to gather in large numbers. The same man who had helped unveil the monument in 1924 was by then a self-styled ‘Irish Mussolini’. O’Duffy and his right wing organisation, the Army Comrades Association (ACA), commonly called the Blueshirts, used Béal na mBláth as a symbolic goading stick to provoke De Valera and Fianna Fáil.
1932 saw the tenth anniversary of the death of Michael Collins marked with a commemoration addressed by Richard Mulcahy, the same man who had addressed the first commemoration in 1923. However O’Duffy took over proceedings the following year when he led members of the ACA to Béal na mBláth in August 1933.
Fianna Fáil cracked down hard on Blueshirt activity. De Valera, in his unique totalitarian way, ordered a ban on numerous public meetings and rallies organised by O’Duffy’s group. De Valera even targeted the Blueshirts through their choice of clothing when he tried push a bill through the Oireachtas banning the wearing of all uniforms (excepting the national army), but the bill failed to pass.
That same year Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice P.J. Ruttledge ordered a ban on army participation at Béal na mBláth commemorations. Fianna Fáil Minister for Defense Jerry Cronin only lifted the ban in 1972, in time for the 50th anniversary of Collins’ death.
As O’Duffy was heading to Béal na mBláth in August 1933 he stopped off in Bandon town to address a meeting of a local branch of the ACA. This gave the government ample time to place a ring of 50 civic guards around Béal na mBláth and when O’Duffy arrived with his fellow Blueshirts, they were prevented from entering.
On September 2, 1934 the Blueshirts turned up to Béal na mBláth in their thousands, including 3,000 ‘Blueblouses’, the women’s wing of the organisation. They marched and gave the raised arm salute when passing the monument.
The last real Blueshirt extravaganza at Béal na mBláth took place on August 30, 1936 when thousands again gathered to march, make speeches, say prayers and give the fascist salute.
In the autumn of 1937, O’Duffy’s Blueshirts returned to Béal na mBláth but in smaller numbers. They gathered at the monument with a depleted sense of worth after their disastrous trip to Spain to fight alongside fascist dictator General Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
Blueshirt membership rapidly declined and O’Duffy’s movement was consigned to history. However such right wing associations had damaged the reputation of the Béal na mBláth commemorations and it would take many decades before the annual event was seen as open to all political creeds.
Since the 1990s, more mainstream speakers have been invited to give the annual oration, thus seeing off tribal ownership of Irish history. On August 21 an Uachtarain na hEireann will without doubt deliver a fine speech for the 94th anniversary of Collins’ death.