Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996): A Creation Myth

Posted: April 23, 2012 in politics, reviews
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Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins: A Creation Myth

There’s a reason why, at most college societies days, you will see Young Fine Gael giving out free DVDs of Michael Collins. The film is well-paced and visually appealing, and Neeson and others perform well. More importantly, from the YFG point of view, Jordan’s script is a total historical falsification which twists an episode in Irish history into a Hollywood shape. As such it is very enjoyable but ultimately a myth. Another piece might be written about the many details the script deliberately gets wrong- tanks in Croke Park, Broy beaten to death- but it would be a mistake to focus on aspects changed for dramatic or narrative effect. What the film doesn’t show is just as important, not to mention what it changes for political effect. Omission and falsification craft a compelling but mythical “origin story” for the Southern Irish bourgeois state from some of the raw materials left by history.

Here we have a film which includes the 1918-1923 period but which leaves out the fact that there were in these years four spectacular national general strikes. It fails to mention that entire towns, such as Limerick and Waterford, were briefly taken over and run by their Trades Councils as Soviets. This is not to mention the creameries, mills and other workplaces and institutions that were taken over by their workers and run independently, and just as well, without bosses.

A spectacular strike wave characterized the period. The military and the social movements of the time were very closely interconnected, with a strong IRA presence in a particular area escalating and being aided by class action. However, even relatively inactive areas for the IRA, such as Galway, saw very significant workers’ struggles.

You might object that a film specifically on Michael Collins doesn’t have to show these aspects of the national struggle. But the massive class movements in Irish society, north and south, were in fact more effective in the fight against the British Empire than was Collins’ counter-intelligence apparatus, important and all as that was. Also, obviously, the idea that the military and the social aspects of the period can be neatly sealed off from one another is wrong, especially in a revolutionary period.

A crucial aspect of Collins’ legacy, the partition of Ireland, is not dealt with except in a few scattered lines of dialogue on the Treaty. In fact, the Protestants of the North-East of Ireland only come in front of the camera once in the film. A gang of uptight Northern Irish detectives walk into Dublin Castle, walk out and get into a car- which promptly explodes. Is it a coincidence that the only airing Northern Irish Protestants get is in the same scene as a car bomb? These were moreover not a weapon of the Irish Republican Army at this time; they are associated with the Troubles.

This scene stands out as a direct reference to later events. However, the whole film might serve, less directly and not intentionally, as such a reference. According to the internal logic of this film, if the Provisional IRA of the 1970s had been led by someone of Michael-Collins-like calibre, they would certainly have won. If this film is a manual for a successful liberation struggle, what did the Provisional IRA of later years lack? They had car bombs, they had spies and counter-spies and they had teams of ruthless assassins. They had an urban guerrilla movement, a small terrorist minority, next to which the film leaves the heroics of the Flying Columns as a sideshow, at best.

Is there a difference between Neil Jordan’s IRA and that of the 1970s? It is hard to discern in this film. That is not to call Jordan an apologist for the Provisional IRA. “Collins would never be a proponent of contemporary terrorism as practised today,” stresses Jordan in his production notes. Jordan never really defines the differences between the terrorism of Collins and the terrorism of the early nineties. There are, of course, differences in tactics and strategy. However, the most important difference is the fact that Collins’ campaign of terror was backed up by, and sometimes came into conflict with, a mass social movement.

The Dáil, which was part of a developing dual power, a parallel government with courts and local administration in many areas, is in the film relegated to a cellar in which the cabinet is supposed to meet, implied to be somewhere in Dublin’s world-renowned “catacombs.” Meanwhile, the first signs of multiple, never mind dual, power, which reached its highest point with the Limerick Soviet of April 1919, terrified both Dáil Éireann and the British administration.

Many of the film’s falsifications are of a different kind. Is gives the impression that the Civil War happened because De Valera, Boland and Brugha were jealous of Collins. It shows us De Valera hiding in a barn in county Cork, shuddering and whimpering with guilt as he plots Collins’ death. These are examples, as Jordan admits, of his making assumptions which have little basis in fact. The marginalisation of the working class and its movement in favour of a terrorist minority is far less conscious because in this Jordan is aided by prevailing views on the period. A look at any leaving cert history book will tell a similar story to the one Michael Collins tells.

To return to the image of the Protestant detectives and the car bomb: what this scene does is introduce partition, the Troubles and the National Question, and just blow it up. In other words: the script simply can’t deal with the issue. The car-bomb reference to the Troubles draws a connection between the twenties and the seventies and impresses on us an essential, unchanging Northern Ireland. Up go the Protestants in smoke. They are not part of the story of the fight for Irish independence. Collins bears no responsibility for partition- it was inevitable.

On these points, a) the working class and rural labourers’ struggles and b) the problem of the partition, the film is silent. It gets away with this because on them mainstream history is likewise too often silent. Mainstream history is silent because the working class was made silent and Northern Ireland was sealed off.

It would be wrong to tell here the story of the Irish workers’ movement and of the tragic, frustrating inadequacies of the Labour Party throughout the period. This is after all an article about Michael Collins. Just to say: the most important elements of the War of Independence are missing from Michael Collins because they are missing or understated in the history books. In turn, this is the case because the leadership of the labour movement, cowed by De Valera’s slogan “Labour must wait,” submitted to nationalism.

The nationalist character of the movement in the South, allowed by the Labour movement, failed to excite the enormously combative Protestant working class of what thereby became Northern Ireland. The initiative passed to sectarian bigots. In the south Labour passed the initiative to two groups represented by De Valera and Collins, differentiated by “dominion status” and “external association,” two almost interchangeable proposals for the future of Ireland behind which rallied distinct social forces and classes, which remained the case until February 2011.

People today rightly make fun of the divisions between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the modern-day descendants of these forces. Commentators poke fun at 21st-century Fianna Fáilers criticizing Fine Gaelers for “taking a penny off the pension in 1924.” However, we risk forgetting that the Cumann na nGaedheal government of WT Cosgrave was one of horrific austerity. Between 1923 and 1927 Finance Minister Ernest Blythe cut government expenditure from £42 million to £24 million. The only exception to this general regressiveness was the hydroelectric station that was built on the Shannon- a project which also had its dark side in that it forced many people out of their homes without adequate compensation.

We can see the social attitudes of Cosgrave in a letter of May 1921:

“As you are aware, people reared in workhouses are no great acquisition to human society. As a rule, their highest aim is to live at the expense of ratepayers. As a consequence, it would be a decided gain if they all took it in their heads to emigrate.”

A state headed by the author of these words was the outcome of Collins’ struggle. But a quotation such as this cannot enter into Jordan’s film. Neither can the fact that this state consolidated itself on the basis of brutality toward striking workers- see the postal strike of 1922- and dozens of cold-blooded executions of its opponents. Michael Collins might as well have ended as it began: with the crushing of a failed, desperate rising in Dublin, with executions (though on a far greater scale), with repression and internment.

In Michael Collins, the Socialist leader and writer James Connolly is used for the sake of pathos. We see him wounded and unable to stand; he is tied to a chair and shot by a firing squad. It would be better if the film would listen to what Connolly had to say than to show us once more his martyrdom. We’d understand the War of Independence and Civil War much better if people paid half as much attention to Connolly’s politics as they do to his role in the “great heroic epic of failure” (an excellent line of Jordan’s) that was the 1916 Rising.

His contention that the propertied classes of Ireland “have a thousand economic strings in the shape of investments binding them to English capitalism,” and that therefore “only the Irish workers remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland,” is a prophecy. The working class and poor peasants, despite making up the ranks of the IRA and engaging in the mass struggles which achieved independence, failed to put any stamp on the state which emerged after independence. The small, weak Irish class of property and landowners led the “independent” state and… well, here we are.

That is why Jordan opposes the Provisional IRA and supports Michael Collins, without defining the distinction between the two. That is why partition is portrayed as inevitable. That is why the working class never enters any scene despite its spectacular role in the real-life events. That is why Michael Collins, the creation myth of the Irish bourgeois state, is a strange and incomplete story.


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