To say the least it was vulgar and for TV viewers who already pay a television licence fee, it was speculative to the very point of extortion. It demonstrated truly the depth to which our TV hierarchy will condescend to acquire profit, which will go to feed the salaries of very mediocre celebrity presenters and their researchers, former who publicly admit that they should qualify for pay equal to that currently enjoyed by professional footballers.
I am referring of course to the recent cheaply produced documentaries which attempted to ascertain Ireland’s greatest person. Viewers, invited to vote for their favourite candidate, were duped into being charged nine times the standard telephone rate to have their choice recorded. These cheap productions were then repeated for licence paying viewers, at least twice over the past number of weeks, again with viewers of these shows expected to pay 60c to vote by text or by calling a premium number, to register their choice for the ‘Greatest Irish Person’ in history. The rate charged was nine times the cost of texting Liveline, the radio show hosted by Joe Duffy.
Research for this programming was bad, with Biographical facts omitted in some cases. In the case of James Connolly, the foundation of the Labour Party was demeaned and in the case of the Irish revolutionary leader, Michael Collins, many important facts were suitably forgotten.
It was how they dealt with the greatest Irish man of them all, General Michael Collins, that vexed me mostly.
We here in Co.Tipperary are well versed with events at Béal na mBláth, (English Translation: Mouth of the Flowers) Co.Cork on that sad evening of August 22nd, 1922, so allow me to bring our TV hierarchy up to date.
Firstly, let me proclaim that Tipperary, as a county, has contributed more to our nations development and has more history per square mile to offer visitors, than any other county in Ireland. Regrettably, and despite no shortage of funding to those charged with marketing, we do not promote our historical assets to best tourism advantage.
When next you wend your way from Nenagh back towards Thurles, a small graveyard, which contains the fragmented ivy covered ruin of a small Norman Abbey, catches your eye, to the left and directly opposite Tyone Mill. To most passersby, this graveyard holds little significance in today’s world of celebrities, greedy power hungry politicians, bankers and spin doctors. Yet in this small graveyard lies the body of a man who once lived in our midst, keeping a guilty secret for some 28 years and indeed, if we believe those who knew him well, regretting his actions, right up until his death in 1950.
Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill
The man of whom I speak is Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill, the man responsible for the assassination of General Michael Collins on August 22nd, 1922, during the course of that fifteen to twenty minute gun battle at Béal na mBláth.
While historians continue to invent dubious conspiracy theories, mainly to sell their latest publications, it becomes more difficult to determine who fired the shot that took a most remarkable Irish man from our world. It is difficult to know, now, where truth ends and speculation begins, but sound logic and careful research points the blame clearly at the doorstep of Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill, the trained ex British army marksman and sniper, born possibly in Goggin near Bandon in 1888.
The group involved in this skermish of the 22nd consisted of Tom Hales, Jim Hurley, Dan Holland, Tom Kelleher, Sonny O’Neill, Paddy Walsh, John O’Callaghan, Sonny Donovan, Bill Desmond and Dan Corcoran. They had left their prepared ambush positions and were helping to clear the road and diffuse a mine before dispersing, when the noise of an approaching motorcycle and lorries were heard coming from the south.
As the anti-treaty forces retreated, a dum-dum bullet from an elephant gun, (latter was substituted by another rifle, by Sonny O’Neill, from a consignment of arms intended by Michael Collins to be sent northwards, to arm the Northern IRA,) entered the forehead of General Collins just below his left hairline. The bullet exited behind his right ear, removing part of his head, belying his own words “Yerra, they’ll never shoot me in my own county“. Embalmers later had to use several pounds of melted wax to fill in the space left by the bullet as it exited.
No one else lost their life on that fateful day and O’Neill was certain as he retreated that he had hit one of the pro-treaty forces. Unaware that the target he hit was Collins, O’Neill, on learning of Collins death the following morning, told James Kearney that he knew that it was him who had shot Collins, and Maurice ‘Moss’ Twomey from Clondulane, Fermoy, County Cork, Staff Commandant of the 1 Southern Division, also was aware of who was the assassin. Ten years later O’Neill would also relate a full account to a trusted female friend, Kitty Teehan.
Following Collins funeral, which saw an attendance of 500,000 mourners, the general feeling amongst O’Neill’s associates was that his life was now in danger if he remained in his native county of Cork, so O’Neill moved, arriving one night at the Paddy Ryan ‘Lacken’ homestead at Knockafune, Newport, and hiding out in a small remote house on Keeper Hill, where he continued to fight with local Tipperary Republicans against the Free State Army, until the end of hostilities. He would never return to his native county again.
About 1926 O’Neill took up residence, lodging at Rohan’s, Queen’s Street, Nenagh, Co Tipperary, where he met Mary Anne his future wife. He worked at the Tomkins Nursing home in the same street. A popular man locally, loving sports and in particular Greyhound racing, he was a founder member of the Fianna Fail Party in Nenagh and was elected to North Tipperary County Council.
Michael Collins devoted his life to honouring Ireland but Ireland has never properly honoured him. For 17 years, his remains lay in a simple plot in Glasnevin cemetery. In 1935, one of his former comrades, who had acquired money through a win in the Hospital Sweepstakes, bought a quarter of a ton of marble and both he and the Collins family fought for over four years, seeking permission to erect a simple cross over his burial plot.
The then Taoiseach Éamon de Valera finally relented, but with a number of stipulations. The cross was not to be of marble but rather limestone and should not cost more than £300. There was to be no publicity, just a simple inscription in Irish, which would be approved by Éamon de Valera himself. Only one relative, Collins brother Johnny, was allowed to be present at the memorial blessing ceremony. The blessing was indeed attended by his brother, with one priest, one altar boy, the foreman gravedigger and one other gravedigger who happened to be passing nearby the grave at the time.
In 1966 the then President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera stated: “It is in my considered opinion that in the fullness of time history will record the greatness of Michael Collins, and it will be recorded at my expense.”
Celebrity greed has once again prevented us from honouring ‘Ireland’s Greatest Person’ in history.