Collins Memorial Service, 2002
Each year, some type of commemorative service takes place on August 22 to honor the memory of Michael Collins. In times past, I have linked to articles provided by the Irish Times but, because this paper now charges a fee to read its archived pieces, I have chosen a different route. I had the absolute pleasure and honor of interviewing Caithia, a resident of County Cork, who attended the unveiling ceremony for the new statue that pays tribute to Michael. The following is a transcript of our correspondence that I have provided for the readers of this site. I have also provided, thanks again to Caithia, photos of the ceremony and the statue. Enjoy.
Q: Tell us about the day and the general atmosphere you sensed from the audience at the beginning of the ceremony.
A: The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 6:30 but being Ireland it did not begin until 7:00 Pm or a little thereafter. It was such a bright and sunny day which, considering it had been one of the darkest and wettest summer’s on record was a real blessing. The sun when it shines in Ireland is blazing. “Splitting stones” is the general expression for such weather. I arrived at 4:30 and there were already close to 100 people there. The statue was covered with a blue drape on all sides. It looked quite like a shower curtain with a metal frame supporting the fabric. Occasionally people would move aside the drape to have a wee glance and then, without exception, would move it reverentially back. The armoured car that escorted Michael Collins on that fateful day, (rather badly as it unfortunately turned out) was on display next to the statue. It is called the Slieve Bann which is Irish for White Mountain. There were two uniformed members of the Irish Army guarding it, so to speak, as they were spending most of the time joking around and generally enjoying the day just like the rest of us. It was a friendly and happy crowd. The Emmett Hotels is across from the statue which is diagonal from the John F. Kennedy Memorial Park. ( a bit of irony considering the means of both the great men’s death). People were coming in and out of the Emmett with glasses of refreshment. Children were laughing and running around. There were a great number of chairs set up in front and down the right side of the drape so myself and my friends took seats in the front. We could not believe our good fortune as we would have a perfect view of all of the proceedings. At about 5:15 I looked up from discussing history with an American couple who were seated in front of us when I noticed a group of about 10 to 15 people crowded around the corner of the street directly opposite us. I then noticed Liam Neeson was standing there looking around smiling at the crowd. Some children were clamouring for autographs which he cheerfully signed. I got up and moved across the street for a photo but Mr. Neeson was being led away, rather reluctantly from my point of view, into the Emmett Hotel. He disappeared with a small entourage and didn’t return until the ceremony began. The crowd continued to grow. At about 5:45 a battalion of the Irish Army elite forces marched into the square and formed a guard. Then a pipe and drum core marched from the town center towards the statue and the ever growing crowd. They played several standard Irish tunes. Then, unfortunately the soldiers told us we would have to move out of the seats. There were several groups of elderly and I stated, ”couldn’t they stay?” The soldiers said that the seats were reserved for the Collin’s family. There must have been 200 to 250 chairs set up and by the time the ceremony began they were all filled. A prolific bunch! I still got a great place standing in the front of the park right beside the seated members. By the time the first speaker began there were almost 8000 people and everyone well behaved. It seems, from overhearing conversations, that everyone was very proud that this moment had come.
Q: Tell us about the speakers. Were there any comments in particular that struck you as being especially poignant?
A: The ceremony began with the National Memorial Committee’s chairman Mr. Traolach O Donnabhain eulogizing Michael Collins or Miceal O Colien in the Irish, as the man who “changed the course of Irish history forever and , in the process, became a legend for champions of freedom everywhere”. Mr O Donnabhain went on to state how appalling that the lack of acknowledgement of the primary source of Ireland’s freedom had been neglected for so long. The crowd applauded in agreement. (Side note: the Irish Government would only contribute 20,000 Euros to its construction with private contributions of 80,000 making up the balance). The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern was supposed to show up for a speech but sent his Minister of Agriculture, Joe Walsh to say a few words. The crowd was polite but there were some comments made about the head of the Irish governments absence. Fine Gael is the traditional opposing party of Fianna Fail the majority party currently in Irish politics. Fianna Fail aligns itself with Eammon DeValera and Fine Gael with Michael Collins. It is symptomatic of Irish politics that, although Fine Gail did not exist when Michael Collins was alive, there still exists that tension between the “free staters” and the “republicans”. It is incredibly complicated and you almost have to be Irish to understand it but Fine Gael’s president, Enda Kenny spoke. The crowd loved him. He is very “Michael Collinsish” he looks and speaking style. He said, among other things, “Throughout his career, whether he was on the run, or as Minister for Finance or Director of Communications, he (was still) Michael Collins, the boy from West Cork who brought the British Empire to its knees.” There were loud cheers and long applause after his speech. Then Tim Pat Coogan spoke. He, of course, wrote what is considered the definitive biography of Michael Collins. His speech, unfortunately, was long and rambling and very unorganised. He used his time to expound on the Nice Treaty and how all of us should vote for it this time. (It was resoundedly defeated in the last referendum) This was the only speech that was met with some boo’s and loud comments, especially when he stated that “Michael, himself, would have wanted us to vote for it”. He then was interrupted by Mr O Donnabhain because he spoke past the 8:00 PM time when we were all going to observe 2 minutes of silence in respect for it being the time 80 years ago when Michael Collins was assassinated. After the silence, and it was remarkably quiet considering the size of the crowd, Liam Neeson got up to speak. He was very warmly received. His speech was very moving. He stated that “Mick” is “my hero”. And that he, when faced with a difficult situation asks himself, “what would Mick do?” He then told the crowd about his horrible motorcycle accident and how laying in his hospital bed for all those months “Dr. Collins” would come to him. Mr Neeson then became the title character he portrayed so well in the film of ‘Michael Collins’ “You were told to do one hour of physical therapy?-YOU WILL DO TWO-and be thankful for it!” The crowd roared with laughter and approval. He then said very humbly, “It is because of Dr. Michael Collins that I am able to stand before you today”. He then quoted Oscar Wilde, “It is tragic how so few people ever possess their souls before they die--nothing is more rare in any man that an act of his own” He continued, “Michael Collins was most definitely one of those few. From his early days as a boy in Clonakilty until the day he died he was his own man”. He then stepped down from the platform and pulled the cord exposing the statue of his, our, hero. Then the chosen representative of the Collins family, Ms Liz O’Sullivan, a grand niece of the man himself spoke of her pride. “Another important step in the process of restoring Michael Collins to his rightful position as a truly National hero has been accomplished. Later, in a television interview she added, with tears, “the way he is standing there…he will always be speaking to us, and we can always speak to him.” The ceremony ended with the surviving nieces of Michael Collins, Joan Bunworth and Nancy Hurley laying a wreath of olive leaves at the feet of the statue. A short prayer was then offered by an ecumenical group of clergy representing all of the religious faiths of Ireland. Then we all turned and faced the Irish flag flying in the middle of JFK Memorial park and sang Ambrain na Eireann, (The Soldiers Song), the Irish National Anthem. It was sung in the Irish.
Q: What did the statue look like after it was unveiled? Do you think it was a good representation of Collins? Do you think he would be pleased with it?
A: The statue itself is incredible in its likeness and authenticity. I say this without fear of blind subjectivity, it is the best statue of a person I have ever seen. The artist, Kevin Holland, is truly a genius. And, surprisingly, a very young man, considering this achievement. The pose was taken from a photo of Michael Collins as he was speaking to the people of Clonakilty a few months before his assassination. He is dressed in a suit, his preferred clothing, and he is gesturing using his right hand with his index and middle fingers extended together about to strike his upraised left hand. It was characteristic of Michael Collin’s speaking style. His mouth is posed as if words were issuing forth. He looks very handsome and passionate about what he is saying. It is very inspiring. However, having read everything I can about the man, he would probably be embarrassed by the statue. It is so real. He was not modest about his abilities but he was shy about his appearance and he didn’t even like his picture to be taken.
Q: Did anything go wrong? Were there any outbursts or serious disruptions from the crowd?
A: With the exception of the grumblings about the Taioseach not showing and a few comments during Tim Pat Coogan’s speech it was a very smooth and distinguished ceremony. This is remarkable in itself as the Irish are an impatient lot and there were a great many children there. I believe it was one of those human occasions when everyone knows how important it is and everyone remains on their best behaviour.
Q: What was the mood of the crowd after the ceremony?
A: It was very crowded trying to disperse. But although, for a while, we were all crammed together like sardines everyone was in a very good mood and cracking jokes. There was a community reception for Liam Neeson after the ceremony and even though it was supposed to be private everyone went. The reception went on for several hours and Clonakilty became one huge party way into the wee hours of the morning. When I left at about 2:30 am there were still people getting their pictures taken in front of Michael.
To view the photos in a larger size, click on the thumbnail. To view a short description, scroll your mouse over each photo.
Many, many thanks to Caithia for providing Sara's Michael Collins Site with her observations and photos!