Who killed Michael Collins? Mystery remains 100 years on from murder of most famous Irishman in the world

Paddy Cullivan is an historical entertainer and writer of The Murder of Michael Collins. 

M News – 15 August

“He’s Ireland’s most important historical figure and the subject of blockbuster movies and hundreds of books.

At the time of his death on August 22, 1922, he was the most powerful and famous Irishman in the world.

But as we mark his centenary this month, two questions remain unanswered. Who killed Michael Collins? And why is his death shrouded in such mystery?

I have put years of research into my historical one-man show The Murder of Michael Collins.

I’ve read every book, pored over military archives and spoken to countless historians and specialists.

Far from clarifying anything – the circumstances around this terrible event are more strange and inexplicable than I thought.

Collins was only 31 when he was shot in the head during an ambush at Beal na Blath in West Cork.

Just two months into the Irish Civil War, the death of Collins reverberated around the world.

With others, he fought Britain to a stalemate as the IRA’s director of intelligence. He negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty from which a 26-county portion of Ireland, the Free State, would get a measure of freedom for the first time in 700 years.

He had been Sinn Fein minister of finance and president of the Provisional Government of Southern Ireland. When he died he was commander-in-chief of the National Army.

His reason for being in his home county of Cork in August 1922 was to meet the anti-treaty leadership to broker a peace deal to end the Civil War.

His heavily-armed convoy included a motorbike, a Crossley Tender lorry with a Lewis machine gun, the open-top yellow Leyland 8 car Collins was travelling in and an armoured car with another machine gun.

His bodyguard escort numbered 25, the ambush party numbered five to 10 men.

Yet he was the only fatality, out on the open road by himself, supposedly firing his rifle at the retreating attackers – none of whom saw what happened.

His bodyguard took six hours to make the hour-long journey back to Cork.

His body was brought to Shanakiel hospital where a Matron Eleanor Gordon saw signs of a second wound in his back.

Every newspaper around the world had full details of the ambush in their first editions the next morning, defaming him as foolhardy and claiming his last words were ‘Forgive them’. In my view, an impossibility with a head wound that killed him in a tenth of a second.

He was shipped back to Dublin and buried within days, the Government cabinet reconvening under WT Cosgrave and soon starting the notorious policy of executions that would have sickened the fallen hero. But the mystery doesn’t stop there.

March 1922: Irish politician and Sinn Fein leader Michael Collins (centre) and Gearoid O’Sullivan (right) at the ceremony to launch the Irish Free State at Dublin. (Image: Walshe/Topical Press Agency/Getty Image)

The most powerful man in the country received no investigation into his death.

There were no inquests allowed in Cork by order of Emmet Dalton, his second-in-command and travelling companion that fateful day.

The autopsy performed by Oliver St John Gogarty went missing, rumoured to have been destroyed by fire with other sensitive documents in 1932.

Incredibly, Collins doesn’t even have a death cert. And where is his rifle?

His Webley revolver auctioned for €72,000 in 2009 yet his rifle has never turned up.

The hat in Collins’ Barracks museum, claimed to be his, is way too small and features a deliberate rip in an area far from where he was supposedly hit. The car he was in was immediately shipped back to the Leyland factory in England, cleaned, reupholstered and sold to a big game hunter in Kenya within the month.

There isn’t a single bit of forensic or ballistic evidence from the ambush –not one bullet.

Because of that lack of evidence, a host of theories and rumours have filled the vacuum to become the “official story” of what happened.

All accounts of Beal na Blath are based on hearsay and conflicting reports.

Dalton contradicted himself constantly over the years, denying drink was involved then privately saying alcohol was taken.

He was suspected of shooting Collins at close range based on his previous and subsequent involvement with British intelligence.

(Image: Getty)

He also promoted the ridiculous but dominant theory for 50 years that a ricochet was responsible for Collins’ head wound, absolving either side from responsibility. 

Later the finger pointed at ambusher Sonny O’Neill, always referred to as a “trained marksman and sniper” though there is zero evidence of this.

A British Army cavalryman, German records find he was wounded and captured in the First World War leading to a permanent 40% disability in his right arm – hardly an advantage for a skilled assassin. In the 1980s documentaries and books pushed the O’Neill theory, all based on the testimony of someone who wasn’t there.

This is the crux of the matter – the people who ‘saw’ what happened to Collins weren’t at Beal na Blath, those who were there saw nothing.

We can’t trust verbal accounts as they all contradict each other.

We can only come to one conclusion – we don’t know who his killer was and a new inquiry must take place. This will involve exhuming Collins’ body from Glasnevin and doing a proper forensic analysis.

Only then can we assess the ballistic evidence and draw a conclusion as to the manner of his death. The authority to do this lies with the State alone, not family members or political parties who claim ownership of him. Taoiseach Michael Martin has already ruled out a State inquiry. He attended the commemoration at Beal na Blath with Tanaiste Leo Varadkar yesterday.

This in itself is a historic occasion as the two Civil War parties will join in remembering Collins for the first time.

But I believe the Taoiseach is wrong. Not only is ruling out a State inquiry and forensic analysis against the basic principles of crime-solving, it is unfair to those tarred by the rumours that grew out of this mystery.

Who would most want to find out what happened to Collins? The Big Fella himself of course – someone whose brilliance, organisational genius and detail-oriented focus would demand answers. He deserves the truth.”

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