I was nowhere near the place where Michael Collins was assassinated, this week. Honest!
I had thought once that I might be giving The Big Fellow a send-off of my own in this, the week of the centenary of his assassination. I had imagined myself perhaps, in a packed Broadway theatre … or at least back in the hall in Clonakilty where you might get a middling house and pay the actors a middling wage.
But fate and perhaps a little prescience guided us otherwise. Our little band, me, Cillian MacNamara (lighting), actors Gerard Adlum, Cillian Ó Garbhaí, and later Ian Toner (accompanied by Colin Blakey’s tunes), parted amicably and we each moved on to other projects and lives, having spent a couple of years (2016-19) touring from Bandon to Bangalore with our version of Frank O’Connor’s version of the life of Michael Collins.
In truth, it was O’Connor as much as Collins who drew me into this reflection on war, leadership and aftermath. I was fascinated that O’Connor, a gauche boy soldier on the Anti Treaty side should choose to write in adulthood a biography of his erstwhile enemy and find redemption in so doing. The epilogue to our play, beautifully delivered by Gerard Adlum, had O’Connor reflecting ruefully on his own grimy Civil War traumas and the impoverished infant State where he now served as a librarian.
Collins appealed to me as a classic tragic hero who rises and then falls in the lonely valley to an epochal mix of his own flaws, the vengeance of enemies and the callous gods who planned his itinerary. O’Connor appealed to me as the artist who reflects on the futility of all this and finds in art, storytelling and myth his own truth.
I am now deeply immersed in and nearing completion of a collaborative work with performer/researcher Sharon McArdle on another Civil War figure, Dorothy Macardle, in whose book The Irish Republic – published around the same time as O’Connor’s biography – Collins is a mere irksome footnote. History is contested and constantly politically misused. More frighteningly, in this country and in Britain, it is misunderstood as Brexit and its legacy remind us.
The “Decade of Centenaries” was something of a contrivance by the Irish State to help us navigate the complexities of our nation’s difficult origin myths. Artists walk a tight rope, attracted by opportunities for funding but also for genuine research spaces, while wary of appropriation and assimilation into convenient commemorative narratives. I am uncomfortable with actual centenary events – be they of books by Joyce or the stray bullets of history – but I have gained much learning and creative understanding among outstanding artist colleagues, communities and academics this past ten years.
That is worth a quiet celebration today, at home, away from the centenary crowd.
Michael Collins was killed in an ambush in County Cork 100 years ago on this day.
See archive images and text for our past productions and tours of THE BIG FELLOW here.