“What Might Have Been”: A St. Patrick’s Day Special Interview

“What Might Have Been”: A St. Patrick’s Day Special Interview

Sunday, March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, and many American cities will play host to parades for Irish Americans to celebrate their heritage. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we recently spoke with Sara Causey, host and resident blogger at thecon-sara-cy theories podcast, to discuss two prominent historical figures who capture the imaginations of the Irish and Irish Americans alike.

You’ve written previously about Michael Collins, who is still something of a controversial figure in Irish history. Why is that?

I’ve been interested in the life and legacy of Collins for many years. Depending upon one’s politics, I suppose, Michael Collins may be viewed as an unrelenting firebrand for Irish freedom or as a devil who tried to wrest independence from the British in the wrong ways. Paradoxically, when Collins tried to work for peace amidst a brutal civil war in Ireland, he was condemned by some for compromising too soon. So I think there’s a complicated legacy that would be very difficult to categorize in a cut-and-dry manner.

Why do you think there’s a remaining interest in Collins after all this time?

That’s a great question. Collins was killed in 1922 and yet, here we are, more than 100 years later discussing him. Author Tim Pat Coogan has compared Collins to the mythological figure of Prometheus: someone who tried to accomplish great things, but who also pays the ultimate price for his efforts and whose long-term goals remain undone in many respects. Collins was instrumental in paving the way for Irish independence. At the same time, when we think of Northern Ireland, we often immediately remember The Troubles and this bloody, violent struggle that lasted for decades. I mention that because Michael Collins was involved in negotiating the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which separated Ireland into two parts. The six counties in the north remained property of Great Britain and became Northern Ireland. Gerry Adams (the former leader of Sinn Féin), for example, has been an outspoken critic of this Treaty and has sought its repeal. In Collins’ defense, he is quoted as saying that once he arrived at the negotiating table, it was clear that the British had no intention of offering Ireland its full independence. There’s historical debate as to whether Collins was “set up” in going to those negotiations and that he would bring home a sort of poisoned chalice, but that’s a separate, difficult topic for another time.

Collins was also quite young in all this, wasn’t he?

Yes, absolutely. In 1996, Neil Jordan released his biopic of Michael Collins and Liam Neeson played the title role. Neeson’s performance is outstanding, but he was 43 or 44 at the time, so it belied the reality that Collins was only 31 when he was killed. I’m not even sure I had my head screwed on straight at the age of 31. Laughs. Let alone to work on freeing a nation from the grip of an empire on which the sun never set. During his 20s, he was active in the independence movement and became the Minister of Finance in the Dáil Éireann. This is another subject that’s up for debate, but many consider Collins to be the inventor of modern urban guerrilla warfare. I think the grasp that he had on military matters is pretty incredible, especially given his young age. At the time of his death, he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Irish National Army, which I think is quite an accomplishment.

In one of your blog posts, you wrote: “Feel free to stop me when this story sounds an awful lot like a prominent one from American history that I talk about often. A man of war becomes a man of peace . . . he challenges the status quo . . . he goes into hostile territory in an open vehicle . . . he doesn’t survive the trip . . .”  This is a clear reference to John F. Kennedy, yes?

Indeed, it is.

There’s a similar long-lasting fascination with JFK.

Aside from Collins being Irish and Kennedy being an Irish American, I think one clear comparison you can draw is the sense of “what might have been.” Had Collins lived how would Irish history be different? Could he have maneuvered around the Anglo-Irish Treaty, or perhaps had it repealed and avoided The Troubles altogether? Had Kennedy lived and won a second term in 1964, how would American history have been different? Would the Cold War have thawed, and would we have avoided the Vietnam War? The detractors laugh at such things, but Sergei Khrushchev, who was the son of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, was quoted as saying that if Kennedy hadn’t been murdered, “we would be living in a completely different world.” Senator Ralph Yarborough, who was part of the motorcade that day in Dallas when JFK was killed, was quoted as saying that in his opinion, if Kennedy had lived, we would not have had the Vietnam War. With both Michael Collins and JFK, there’s an enduring sadness because they were murdered violently in the prime of life. However, there’s also room to remember the contributions they made in spite of that brevity.

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