Paddy Cullivan, who brings his The Murder of Michael Collins to The ICC in Hammersmith, told David Hennessy there is no evidence to support any of the prevailing theories about how Ireland’s rebel leader died and his body should be exhumed for long overdue answers.
More than one hundred years since Michael Collins was shot dead, historical entertainer Paddy Cullivan brings the story of the death of Ireland’s first Commander-in-Chief to the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, the area where Collins lived as a young man.
The Murder of Michael Collins is described as an audio-visual spectacular that sees Paddy trying to unravel the truth of what happened on 22 August 1922 at Béal na mBláth, Co. Cork.
Michael Collins is Ireland’s revered leader of the War of Independence. He negotiated Ireland’s liberty from Britain although his treaty which conceded the six counties angered many and led to the Civil War which he would die in.
Collins was making a trip to Bandon, Co. Cork inspecting areas recently regained from anti-treaty forces when his convoy was ambushed.
Known as ‘The Big Fellow’, Collins had survived a number of attempts on his life in the weeks leading up to his death and had been advised against making the trip.
He is reported to have said something like, ‘They won’t shoot me in my own country’ in response to such pleas.
It is also said that when the convoy started receiving fire from anti-treaty forces, Free State Commander for Cork Emmett Dalton told the driver to ‘drive like hell’ but Collins defiantly said, ‘No, stop and we’ll fight them’.
Many believe Collins was killed by a bullet fired by Denis ‘Sonny’ O’Neill who they say was a former British Army sniper.
Such details have been repeated for almost 100 years now,while other theories abound, but Paddy says there is no proof to back up any of the prevailing theories surrounding the slaying of the then Chairman of the Provisional Government and Commander in Chief of the National Army.
In fact, very little is actually known for sure about that day as no two accounts are the same and even accounts from the same side differ.
The Murder of Michael Collins sees musician, writer and comedian Paddy Cullivan challenge many ideas about what happened to Ireland’s revered leader.
Cullivan says the death was covered up and that the body should be exhumed.
Paddy Cullivan told The Irish World: “There is no evidence as to what happened at Béal na mBláth.
“We have no idea until we actually exhume Michael Collins and have him examined.
“And if it turns out it was ‘Sonny’ O’Neill from a distance and it makes total sense that way, I’m absolutely happy to accept that.
“But until we do that job of exhuming him, we will never really know what happened.
“I go through all of the theories.
“One of them was the ricochet theory, how it was a lucky ricochet. That’s like winning the Euromillions.
“The theory of ‘Sonny’ O’Neill, this marksman and sniper.
“I’ve done a huge amount of research and I can’t find any evidence he was ever a marksman or a sniper.
“I go through Emmett Dalton. I’m basically bringing people through the weeds.
“The title’s very controversial.
“Anti-treaty Republicans would say, ‘It wasn’t a murder. He was legitimate target in a civil war and he was taken out in an ambush’.
“But for me, the biggest problem with it all is the cover up. The cover up by the Free State afterwards points towards something nefarious happening. Not just an accident or a stray bullet or a lucky sniper but something more nefarious because- Why would you cover it up to such an extent? There was no inquest, no inquiry, no autopsy.
“He doesn’t even have a death cert.
“The lack of curiosity on both sides is quite strange and that’s why I call it a murder mystery.”
Would exhuming his body really be of benefit a century on? “If we even had an entrance wound, an exit wound, we may know the provenance of the bullet that killed him.
“The problem is we don’t have any ballistic or forensic evidence from Beal na Blath. It’s all gone.
“The car he was in ended up in Kenya a month later.
“There were no witness statements taken, but anyone who said anything was contradicted by somebody else.
“Emmett Dalton contradicted himself consistently over numerous years.
“And that’s what leads me to go, ‘You have to do something to actually try and answer this puzzle’.
“It’s important to try and solve this and the only way to do that is to exhume and measure the wounds because we don’t have any other evidence.
“Otherwise, we’re just dealing with ‘he said, she said’ and the half-remembered musings of people from many years ago.
“But also, a member of the Collins family said to me, ‘You know, I wish we could stop talking about his death and start talking about his life’.
“And that’s another reason why I’d like to see him exhumed, because we’ll be talking about Béal na mBláth for another 100 years if we don’t try and solve this.
“I would rather we knew what happened to him and then we could concentrate on the great things he did.
“His humour, his intelligence, all of these things are so important, but they are overshadowed completely by his death.”
Michael Collins’ killing has remained contentious as 100 years on, no one knows who fired the bullet that killed him.
“People get very angry about this subject.
“What I’m trying to say to them is, ‘You can have your opinion all you want about Michael Collins but there’s no actual evidence except he said, she said’.
“That’s not to say we can’t believe people for what they say but then when everybody says something completely different, that’s even more mysterious.
“I go through what the newspapers said, it’s really fascinating. You know, the fact that he kept firing and said four or five different things even though he was killed in a tenth of a second.
“Bizarre counterfactual stuff goes on like that.
“I’ve had messages from people saying, ‘You know this is what happened’.
“And I go, ‘I’m terribly sorry, I don’t know. I cannot say definitively what happened’.
“You can surmise all you want. You can have an idea and guess as much as you like, but it’s still only a guess.”
Collins has been portrayed onstage and screen by Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson and his own great great grandnephew Michael Fassbender.
But Paddy believes cultural representations do not do the man justice.
“I think he’s been done a disservice. I think we’ve simplified him.
“We’ve mythologized him.
“There is the idea that he was kind of a walking saint and in love with Kitty Kiernan only.
“He’s a far more complex character than that.
“That’s what I try and bring to people.
“And by the way, to make it clear, none of this is to defile the memory of Michael Collins.
“I’m a huge admirer of him.
“What I think defiles the memory is to present a false history of Michael Collins, and not to find out what happened to him.
“That’s why I’m passionate about it: Because I’m a huge fan of the guy.
“But you also have to look at Collins warts and all.
“You can’t just have him being like a mantlepiece martyr which the Irish love to have.
“We have to look at him warts and all and understand what a complex character he was if we’re ever to really understand him.”
Paddy looks into the story that Collins had a secret son in London.
“There were quite a few controversies.
“There was a fella going around in the late 1930s saying he was Michael Collins’ son.
“I do look into it. I’m not saying he did (have a son).”
Paddy sees many similiarities between Michael Collins and the assassination of JFK.
“The parallels are extraordinary between JFK and Michael Collins, take autopsies or missing autopsies. The car he (Collins) was in goes missing, JFK’s car gets cleaned up right away even though it’s full of evidence.
“And Michael Collins is our JFK moment because remember, he was the leader of the country.
“When he died, it was front page news all over the world.
“It’s extraordinary the level of cover up and the lack of investigation into what happened to Michael Collins, seeing as he was the most famous Irishman in the world and our leader.
All produced and presented by Paddy himself, The Murder of Michael Collins was first a huge hit online.
“Think of it as one of those murder mystery podcasts that people like but live onstage.
“I call it historical entertainment.
“Here’s the funny thing. People don’t know the history.
“They think they know it and that’s why I open with the three minute reminder showing the cliched life of Michael Collins that we know.
“And then the rest of it is all new information for a lot of people.
“They come away quite shocked, quite moved.
“I even had a descendant of Michael Collins, a grandniece at my show last night in Letterkenny and she was quite impressed.
“She thought it was fascinating.
“But again I’m not here to insult the memory of the man.
“I’m here to present a far more real vision of him because I’m passionate about finding out what happened to him.
“When you have something that’s been covered up and as mysterious as this, I think it does us all a service to try and expose ourselves as much as we can to alternative versions of these histories.
“Everybody has their own interpretation of what happened. What I’m trying to say is you can’t know what happened. It is impossible. You have to tear all the debris away from your mind and kind of really look at it with new eyes. And that’s hopefully what I’m doing, bringing people a fresh perspective.”
Paddy has already taken The Murder of Michael Collins around Ireland to positive reviews. The Irish Times called it ‘mesmerising’ and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald described it as ‘hard history with a light touch’.
Michael Collins lived in Hammersmith for nine years and worked as a clerk in the post office on Blythe Road.
Does it mean a lot to Paddy to bring the show to London and specifically Hammersmith as Michael Collins spent time there? “Very much so because the whole first chapter of the piece is called The London Friends of Michael Collins.
“I go through his life in London which was very, very interesting.
“He’s living there for ten years yet it’s part of his life we don’t know a lot about but to me, it’s pivotal in the story because it shows how effective he was as what I consider to be a super spy.
“He moved over in 1906 when he was 16, and in 1909, he was sworn into the IRB by the head of the London IRB, Sam Maguire.
“And from 1910 onwards, he’s mixing with his sister’s friends who were all very much high society.
“One of the things I point out is that he befriends Moya Llewelyn Davies whose husband Crompton Llewelyn Davies is kind of the head of his department at the post office where he works but is also best friend and election agent for David Lloyd George.
“So in 1910, eleven years before they face each other at the negotiating table, Collins is kind of marking Lloyd George. He’s only two heartbeats away from him.
“At the same time, he’s living with the Irish community in London playing GAA.
“He joined the London Volunteers, started rifle training in London in 1914, was hanging out at GAA clubs but he’s also mixing with high British society.
“A lot of people think of Collins as being a kind of a simple West Cork guy who through hard work and intelligence brought the British to the table.
“But actually, he’s more like James Bond.
“The life he was living was quite extraordinary.
“It means his tentacles could stretch right into the British establishment and know how they think.
“It’s very interesting and this is all happening years before 1916.
“And the funny thing is Collins liked London and he had great friends there.
“It’s never the British people that are the trouble for Ireland because the British people are great and as far as I’m concerned, are treated as badly by their own leaders as the Irish ever were.
“It’s always the British establishment I’m pointing the finger at.
“It was the establishment that Collins was trying to defeat, not the British people themselves.”
The Murder of Michael Collins returnss to The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith on Friday 15 September from 8pm.
Paddy Cullivan also brings his The Murder of Wolfe Tone show to the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith on Saturday 16 September from 8pm.
For more information and to book, click here.