THE LAST KNOWN PICTURE OF MICHAEL COLLINS, 1922.

THE LAST DAY IN THE LIFE OF MICHAEL COLLINS

ON HIS LAST TRIP, MICHAEL COLLINS ARRIVED AT THE IMPERIAL HOTEL, IN CORK CITY, THE HEADQUARTERS OF THE FREE STATE ARMY IN THE AREA, ON THE EVENING OF 20 AUGUST 1922. HE WAS OFFICIALLY ON AN INSPECTION TOUR, HAVING VISITED POSITIONS IN LIMERICK THAT DAY. STILL, IT IS BELIEVED THAT, IN FACT, HE WAS ACTING TO PUT AN END TO THE CIVIL WAR AND WAS POSSIBLY ARRANGING TO MEET ONE OR MORE HIGH-RANK ANTI-TREATY OFFICERS.

ON THE EVENING OF 21 AUGUST, HE HAD TEA WITH HIS SISTER MARY COLLINS-POWELL AND HER SON, SEÁN, A STAFF SERGEANT IN THE NATIONAL ARMY. MARY WAS CONCERNED WITH COLLINS’S HEALTH, AS HE HAD A REALLY BAD COLD, AND SEÁN TRIED TO BE ADMITTED TO HIS UNCLE’S CONVOY BUT WAS TURNED DOWN. LATER ON THE SAME NIGHT, A NEUTRAL OFFICER, BELIEVED TO BE SEÁN HEGARTY, ARRIVED AT THE IMPERIAL HOTEL TO SPEAK WITH HIM. THEY HAD A LONG TALK, AFTER WHICH COLLINS PROMISED “NEWS” TO HIM AND STARTED A WRESTLING MATCH WITH HIM.

THE DAY OF 22 AUGUST STARTED EARLY FOR COLLINS. IT WAS TO BE THE LAST DAY OF HIS LIFE.

6:15: MICHAEL COLLINS AND HIS CONVOY LEFT THE IMPERIAL HOTEL FOR WHAT WAS OFFICIALLY A TOUR OF INSPECTION IN WEST CORK. THE ROUTE WAS SUPPOSED TO INCLUDE MACROOM IN MID-CORK, THROUGH NEWCESTOWN TO BANDON, CLONAKILTY, ROSSCARBERY, SKIBBEREEN AND BANTRY, RETURNING THROUGH THE ROAD OF KILMICHAEL BACK TO MACROOM AND CORK. THE CONVOY WAS COMPOSED OF A SCOUT MOTORCYCLIST, A LORRY (OR TWO, ACCORDING TO SOME AUTHORS) WITH SOLDIERS, A TOURING CAR WHERE COLLINS AND EMMET DALTON WERE TRAVELLING, AND AN ARMOURED CAR, THE SLIABH NA MBAN (SLIEVENAMON).

7:30 – THE CONVOY REACHED MACROOM, WHERE COLLINS HAD A MEETING AT CLOSED DOORS WITH FLORRIE O’DONOGHUE, LEADER OF THE NEUTRAL IRA. THEY HAD ALREADY MET THE DAY BEFORE WHEN O’DONOGHUE, WHO WAS ERRONEOUSLY UNDER ARREST IN THE TOWN, WATCHED COLLINS ARRIVING AND ASKED HIS WARDER TO WARN THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF. HE WAS PROMPTLY RELEASED AND HAD A TALK WITH COLLINS. IT IS BELIEVED THAT THEIR CONVERSATION WAS RELATED TO PEACE TALKS. WHEN SAYING GOODBYE, O’DONOGHUE WARNED COLLINS TO BE CAREFUL, BUT THE OTHER DISMISSED THE RISK.

9:00 – AFTER HAVING TROUBLES WITH THE CARS AND GETTING LOST ON THE BY-ROADS, COLLINS’S CONVOY STOPPED AT LONG’S PUB (NOW THE DIAMOND BAR) ON THE CROSSROAD OF BÉAL NA BLÁTH VILLAGE AND ASKED A MAN WHO WAS STANDING THERE FOR DIRECTIONS. BY CHANCE, THE PLACE HAD BEEN CHOSEN FOR A MEETING OF OFFICERS FROM THE 3RD WEST CORK BRIGADE, DUE TO TAKE PLACE LATER THAT DAY, IRONICALLY TO DISCUSS WHETHER THE BRIGADE WOULD REMAIN IN THE WAR OR WITHDRAW. THE MAN OUTSIDE THE PUB, DENIS LONG, KNOWN AS “THE DANE”, WAS A LOOKOUT. HE INFORMED THE FREE STATE CONVOY OF THE DIRECTION TO BANDON AND PROCEEDED TO TELL THE ANTI-TREATY MEN HE HAD RECOGNISED COLLINS.
LATE MORNING/EARLY AFTERNOON – THE CONVOY REACHED BANDON ABOUT 10 AM, WHERE COLLINS HAD A MEETING WITH LOCAL OFFICERS, AND HEADED TO CLONAKILTY, WHERE THEY HAD LUNCH. ON THE WAY, THEY HAD TO CLEAR THE ROAD OF BLOCKAGES WITH FELLED TREES.

MEANWHILE, IN BÉAL NA BLÁTH, THE ANTI-TREATY OFFICERS HAD A MEETING TO DECIDE WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE PRESENCE OF COLLINS IN THE AREA. AMONG THEM WERE LIAM DEASY, GENERAL OF THE 1ST SOUTHERN DIVISION, AND TOM HALES, COMMANDANT OF THE 3RD CORK BRIGADE, ALONG WITH SOME BATTALION COMMANDANTS LIKE JIM HURLEY OF CLONAKILTY – ALL THREE PERSONAL FRIENDS OF COLLINS. ÉAMON DE VALERA, WHO HAD SPENT THE NIGHT WITH DEASY AND WAS HEADING BACK TO DUBLIN, WAS ALSO PRESENT, WITHOUT VOTING RIGHTS. THEY DECIDED – ACCORDING TO HALES, “ON A DIVISIONAL ORDER”; ACCORDING TO DEASY, DUE TO A GENERAL ORDER TO ENGAGE ANY FREE STATE FORCES – TO PREPARE AN AMBUSH IN THE CASE THAT COLLINS WOULD RETURN FOR THE SAME ROUTE.

ANOTHER PERSON WHO ARRIVED LATER DURING THE DAY (AFTER THE DECISION) WAS TADHG O’SULLIVAN, QUARTERMASTER OF THE 3RD CORK BRIGADE, BROTHER OF THE FREE STATE ADJUTANT GENERAL GEARÓID O’SULLIVAN, AND A SECOND COUSIN OF COLLINS.

THE AMBUSH WAS SET ABOUT NOON A MILE FROM THE BÉAL NA BLÁTH CROSS, ON THE ROAD TO BANDON, WHERE A SMALL ROAD – A BOREEN – PARTS FROM THE ROAD ON THE WEST OVER A SMALL BRIDGE (CARROLL’S BRIDGE) AND RUNS PARALLEL TO IT FOR SOME 750 M UP TO ANOTHER ROAD HEADING WEST (AHALARICK BRIDGE). A CART CARRYING MINERALS WAS COMMANDEERED, HAD ITS WHEELS REMOVED AND WAS USED AS A BARRICADE ON THE ROAD. A MINE WAS BURIED ON THE GROUND NEAR CARROLL’S BRIDGE, ON THE BANDON ROAD – EDWARD O’MAHONY AND PATRICK TWOHIG, BOTH LOCAL AUTHORS, PUT IT ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF THE BRIDGE, WHILE OTHER SOURCES PUT IT SLIGHTLY ON THE NORTH SIDE -, AND ACCORDING TO SOME SOURCES, A SMALLER ONE WAS PUT ON THE ACCESS TO THE BOREEN. AT LEAST ONE WITNESS MENTION THE THIRD MINE ALSO ON THE LOWER ROAD. SOME 20 TO 30 FIGHTERS WERE READY ALONG THE UPPER ROAD, WHERE THEY HAD THREE SAFE ESCAPE ROUTES THROUGH FARM LANES (WALSH’S, LONG’S AND FOLEY’S).

LATER AFTERNOON – COLLINS’S CONVOY TRAVELLED FROM CLONAKILTY TO ROSSCARBERY AND REACHED SKIBBEREEN AROUND 4:00 PM, WHERE HE HAD A MEETING WITH OFFICERS FROM THERE AND FROM BANTRY. SINCE HE HAD ALREADY MET THE OFFICERS FROM BANTRY, THEY DECIDED TO GO BACK TO BANDON INSTEAD OF TAKING THE KILMICHAEL ROAD TO MACROOM. ON THE WAY BACK, THEY STOPPED AT COLLINS’S NATIVE SAM’S CROSS, WHERE HE IS SAID TO HAVE PAID A ROUND OF THE LOCAL CLONAKILTY WRESTLER BEER TO ALL THE MEMBERS OF THE CONVOY AT THE FOUR ALLS PUB, AND WHERE HE MET AN AUNT, SOME COUSINS AND HIS BROTHER JOHNNY. WHEN SAYING GOODBYE TO JOHNNY, COLLINS IS SUPPOSED TO HAVE SAID HE WAS GOING TO PUT AN END TO THE HOSTILITIES.

6:30 PM – THE CONVOY REACHED BANDON, WHERE COLLINS HAD A HALF-AN-HOUR MEETING AT CLOSED DOORS WITH THE LOCAL COMMANDANT, HIS FRIEND SEÁN HALES. MEANWHILE, 10 KM FURTHER NORTH, SEÁN’S BROTHER TOM HALES, IN BÉAL NA BLÁTH, HAD JUST MANAGED TO CONVINCE THE OTHER OFFICERS THAT COLLINS LIKELY HAD GONE THROUGH ANOTHER ROAD AND THEY SHOULD BETTER DISMOUNT THE AMBUSH. THEY PROCEEDED TO DISCONNECT THE MINE WHILE THE MEN STARTED TO GO AWAY TO NEIGHBOUR HOUSES TO TAKE A REST AND A MEAL, AND LEFT SEVERAL MEN BEHIND TO FINISH REMOVING THE SCENE. SOURCES DIVERGE ABOUT THE NUMBER OF MEN LEFT, BETWEEN FOUR AND TEN, BUT SIX IS THE MORE LIKELY NUMBER.
7:00 PM – THE CONVOY LEFT BANDON AND DECIDED TO TAKE THE SAME ROUTE THROUGH CROOKSTOWN TO GO BACK TO CORK.

THE REASON WHY THIS ROUTE WAS CHOSEN IS UNCLEAR. THERE WERE THREE OTHER ROADS TO CORK – THE MAIN ROAD THROUGH INNISHANNON, THE OLD ROAD THROUGH CROSSBARRY, AND THE KINSALE ROAD. THE LATTER WAS SURELY OPEN, AND WHILE SEVERAL AUTHORS AFFIRM THAT THE MAIN ROAD WAS IMPASSABLE WITH BARRICADES AND MINES, SEÁN HALES TOOK IT THE SAME NIGHT TO REACH CORK. SPECULATIONS ARE THAT COLLINS WAS GOING TO ANOTHER MEETING IN MACROOM, THOUGH IT IS NOT CLEAR IF HE WAS GOING TO MEET FLORRIE O’DONOGUE AGAIN.

7:15 PM – THE NIGHT WAS BEGINNING TO FALL, AND THERE WAS A MIST ON THE ROAD THROUGH BÉAL NA BLÁTH. THE LAST AMBUSHERS HAD GONE UP THE ROAD IN THE DIRECTION OF THE VILLAGE – ACCORDING TO AUTHOR MEDA RYAN, CARRYING THE MINE, OR ONE OF THEM – WHILE THE MEN LEFT BEHIND WERE FINISHING DISCONNECTING THE MINE AND ROLLING THE CABLES, THE CART STILL IN PLACE, WHEN A SCOUT GAVE A SIGN THAT A CONVOY WAS APPROACHING. JIM HURLEY AND TOM KELLEHER, THE OFFICER IN CHARGE OF THE PARTY, WERE ON THE ROAD, AND THEY RACED THROUGH CARROLL’S BRIDGE UP TO THE BOREEN JUST IN TIME TO HIDE FROM THE MOTORCYCLE SCOUT OF THE CONVOY. FEARING THAT THE MEN WERE STILL ON THE ROAD, IN A DANGEROUS POSITION, THEY FIRED A FEW SHOTS, KELLEHER AT THE MOTORCYCLIST, JJ SMITH, INJURING HIS HAND SLIGHTLY, AND HURLEY AGAINST THE TOURING CAR, SHATTERING THE WINDOW PANE AND HITTING THE CLOCK ON THE PANEL. THE OTHER MEN ON THE BOREEN THEN TOOK POSITION AND JOINED THE FIGHT.

COLLINS MAY HAVE SENSED THE ROAD WAS A PERFECT SPOT FOR AN AMBUSH. ACCORDING TO ONE OF THE SOLDIERS ON THE CROSSLEY TENDER, A FEW MINUTES BEFORE REACHING THE SITE, THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF TOOK HIS RIFLE FROM THE FLOOR AND PUT IT ACROSS HIS KNEES. ACCORDING TO EMMET DALTON, WHEN THE CONVOY WENT UNDER FIRE, HE SHOUTED AT THE DRIVER TO “RUN LIKE HELL”, BUT COLLINS DECIDED TO STAY AND FIGHT. IT IS, HOWEVER, UNLIKELY THAT ANY OF THEM COULD SEE THE BARRICADE AHEAD AS THEY WERE BEYOND A BEND ON THE TWISTING ROAD.

AT THIS TIME, THE CROSSLEY TENDER WAS RIGHT IN FRONT OF KELLEHER AND HURLEY, AND THE SOLDIERS WERE ENGAGING THOSE TWO WHILE TRYING TO TAKE THE CART OFF THE ROAD. THE OTHER AMBUSHERS WERE UP THE BOREEN NEAR LONG’S LANE AND ENGAGED THE MEN OF THE TOURING CAR AND THE ARMOURED CAR WITH ITS MACHINE GUN 250 M DOWN THE ROAD, WHERE COLLINS, DALTON AND THE DRIVERS FOUND COVER BEHIND A SMALL DITCH BY THE STREAM. THE ANTI-TREATY MEN COULD BARELY FIRE A SHOT WITH THE MACHINE GUN FIRE UNTIL THE LATTER “JAMMED” DUE TO AN UNEVEN BELT, AND THEY WERE ONLY ABLE TO FIRE A SHOT AT A TIME.

BY THEN, KELLEHER AND HURLEY APPARENTLY HAD MADE GOOD THEIR ESCAPE THROUGH WALSH’S LANE, AND THE SOLDIERS FROM THE LORRY HAD MANAGED TO REMOVE THE CART AND JOINED COLLINS, DALTON AND THE DRIVERS. HOWEVER, OTHER ANTI-TREATY MEN NEARBY, HEARING THE FIRE, WENT INTO THE FIGHT.

LIAM DEASY, FOR EXAMPLE, SAYS HE WAS SITTING WITH TOM HALES TO HAVE THEIR TEA WHEN THEY HEARD THE SHOTS AND WENT OUT WITH THEIR RIFLES. AMONG THESE WERE TWO SEPARATE GROUPS OF MEN TRAVELLING FROM CORK TO KERRY, OF WHICH AT LEAST ONE HAD A CLEAR VIEW OF THE AMBUSH SITE FROM THE OTHER SIDE AND JOINED THE ACTION. ANOTHER PERSON WHO RUSHED TO HELP THE AMBUSHERS WAS DENIS “SONNY” O’NEILL, A FORMER RIC AND BRITISH SOLDIER WHO JOINED HIS BROTHERS IN THE FIGHT FOR IRISH INDEPENDENCE. HE IS SAID TO HAVE ARRIVED FROM FOLEY’S LANE, ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE AMBUSH, FROM WHERE HE COULD HAVE FIRED FROM BEHIND.

AROUND 7:40 PM: THE SKIRMISH LASTED FOR ABOUT 20 MINUTES TO HALF AN HOUR. IN THE END, ALMOST ALL ANTI-TREATY MEN WERE GONE, AND THE FIRE WAS DYING. COLLINS WENT DOWN THE ROAD ON THE BANDON SIDE, COVERED BY THE CARS, POSSIBLY TO HAVE A BETTER LOOK AT THE SITUATION, AND ENDED UP GOING BEYOND THE BEND THAT EXISTED AT THE TIME ON THE SOUTHERN SIDE. IT SEEMS HE STOOD UP ON THE ROAD, AND A FEW OF THE WITNESSES CLAIM TO HAVE HEARD HIM SHOUTING THAT HE COULD SEE THE AMBUSHERS ESCAPING WHEN A SINGLE SHOT WAS HEARD. NO ONE ON THE PRO-TREATY SIDE CLAIMED TO HAVE SEEN COLLINS BEING HIT. STILL, AT LEAST THREE MEN ON THE ANTI-TREATY SIDE – INCLUDING SONNY O’NEILL AND TWO OF THE KERRYMEN, MIKE O’DONOGHUE AND BOBS DOHERTY – ARE SAID TO HAVE AIMED AT THE LONELY FIGURE ON THE ROAD AND “SEEN THE BIG MAN FALL”.

DALTON AND JOHN O’CONNOR, THE OFFICER IN CHARGE OF THE CROSSLEY TENDER, ARRIVED SOON AFTER TO FIND COLLINS LYING ON THE ROAD WITH HIS HEAD ON HIS RIFLE, WITH A GAPING WOUND BEHIND THE RIGHT EAR, DEAD OR DYING, WHILE THE FIRE RESTARTED AROUND THEM. DALTON GAVE THE FIRST AID THAT WAS POSSIBLE AND HELPED TO CARRY THE BODY TO THE ARMOURED CAR. IT WAS LATER TRANSFERRED TO THE TOURING CAR AND CARRIED TO CORK, WHERE THE CONVOY ARRIVED IN THE EARLY HOURS.

IT WAS ONLY A COUPLE OF HOURS LATER, WHEN THE PLANNED MEETING WAS ABOUT TO START, THAT THE ANTI-TREATY MEN HEARD WHO THEY HAD KILLED. ACCORDING TO LIAM DEASY: “THE MEETING WAS ADJOURNED IMMEDIATELY, AND MANY OF US LEFT WITH HEAVY HEARTS. TO THOSE OF US WHO HAD KNOWN MICHAEL COLLINS PERSONALLY, AND THERE WERE MANY, HIS DEATH WAS TRAGIC. TO TOM HALES, TADHG O’SULLIVAN AND MYSELF, WHO HAD KNOWN HIM INTIMATELY, OUR SORROW WAS DEEP AND LASTING.”

CREDIT: ADRIANA MOURA

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