Happy St. Patricks Day. A Review of “Big Fellow-Long Fellow a Joint Biography of Collins and De Valera” by T Ryle Dwyer

Big Fellow, Long Fellow. A Joint Biography of Collins and De Valera: A Joint Biography of Irish politicians Michael Collins and Eamon De ValeraBig Fellow, Long Fellow. A Joint Biography of Collins and De Valera: A Joint Biography of Irish politicians Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera by T. Ryle Dwyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great bargain on Kindle this book brings us a look at the biographies of Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera, with a focus on their actions between the Easter Rising of 1916 and the assassination of Collins in 1922. This piece of Irish history has been covered extensively, and while this book does an excellent job of covering these two giants of Irish history there was not a lot of “new” material. Many years ago I read the Tim Pat Coogan books on Collins and De Valera, and I still consider his viewpoint on both to be persuasive. This book, in the main, is reflective of the Tim Pat Coogan view, which was largely pro-Collins. The author attempts to compensate a bit with a more balanced look at the end of the book at the legacies of both men, both positive and not so positive.

I bought the book with a clear bias in the direction of Coogan, which is to say I am strongly on the Collins side of this long disagreement. This book did not change that perspective. The author lays out the some of the key elements, on the Irish side, in the Anglo-Irish “war” that Michael Collins had such a prominent role in. Collins, through multiple portfolios in the Dail government (Minister of Finance, Director of Intelligence) and through the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was truly the operational leader of the Irish resistance to British rule in Ireland. Although Collins incurred some criticism for the publicity he received, especially after the split with De Valera, his role as the military leader of the Irish effort cannot be minimized. (The man who won the war) The history of the Irish War of Independence is one of surprising success, with the Collins strategy of guerrilla engagement with the British enabling the Irish to impose a punishing burden on the British for their continued presence in Ireland. The British had a massive operational and resource advantage, but the Collins strategy largely negated that British superiority. While there were clearly some differences in approach in this period between Collins and De Valera those differences were, in my view, on the margins. The book covers this period well, and for those interested gives a fair assessment of the war, and of the relative contributions of each man. It is, of course, what happened when the British sued for peace that creates the controversy that goes on to this day.

Much of the focus, correctly, has been on the London peace conference convened to attempt to come to terms that would end the conflict and bring the Irish some form of independence from Britain. But before that conference the Irish did send a delegation to London to lay the groundwork for the ultimate discussions. That delegation was headed by Eamon De Valera, who had multiple private meetings with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The Irish delegation did not include Collins, who was quite put out by his exclusion. De Valera left that conference without the benefit of anything closely resembling terms, refusing to even carry the written British offer with him back to Ireland. Upon his return De Valera jousted with hard liners in the Dail who insisted that any agreement must uphold the principle of an Irish Republic.

“‘We have done our best,’ de Valera replied, ‘and I have never undertaken to do more than my best.’ ‘We have proclaimed a Republic in arms,’ Brugha reminded him. ‘It has been ratified by the votes of the people, and we have sworn to defend it with our lives.’ ‘The oath never conveyed any more to me than to do my best in whatever circumstances might arise.’ ‘You have accepted a position of authority and responsibility in the Government of the Republic,’ Brugha said striking the table with his fist. ‘You will discharge the duties of that office as they have been defined. I do not want ever again to hear anything else from you.’”

Dwyer, T. Ryle. Big Fellow, Long Fellow. A Joint Biography of Collins and De Valera: A Joint Biography of Irish politicians Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera . Gill Books. Kindle Edition.

The book shows multiple examples of De Valera expressing great flexibility on the issues of British acceptance of an Irish Republic, and on the issue of partition. It would make his later actions so much harder to justify.

“Having publicly indicated his willingness to compromise, he went even further in the following days when the Dáil met in private session. In the course of a rather rambling discussion on 22 August, he told deputies to realise that if they were determined to make peace only on the basis of recognition of the Republic, then they were going to be faced with war, except that this time it would be a real war of British reconquest, not just a continuation of limited military coercive measures ‘in support of the civil police’ to force some people to obey the law. In short, he was saying the War of Independence had not been a real war at all.”

Dwyer, T. Ryle. Big Fellow, Long Fellow. A Joint Biography of Collins and De Valera: A Joint Biography of Irish politicians Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera . Gill Books. Kindle Edition.

De Valera’s unwillingness to head the Irish delegation to the London Peace Conference, and his designation of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith as members has been viewed by so many as a cynical move designed to create distance between himself and what he knew a successful outcome might look like. The discussions and dis-agreements between the Irish and the British on the conference itself were telling, and led to a post treaty argument by Collins that truly put De Valera in an awful light.

“The second point at issue involved recognition of Irish sovereignty. ‘Our nation has formally declared its independence and recognises itself as a sovereign state,’ de Valera wrote, in accepting the initial invitation to the Inverness conference. ‘It is only as the representatives of that State and as its chosen guardians that we have any authority or powers to act on behalf of our people.’ It was the publication of this letter which prompted Lloyd George to cancel the conference.”

Dwyer, T. Ryle. Big Fellow, Long Fellow. A Joint Biography of Collins and De Valera: A Joint Biography of Irish politicians Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera . Gill Books. Kindle Edition.

De Valera, in stating that the Irish recognized themselves as sovereign in advance of the conference, brought on a cancellation by Lloyd George, who was not willing to give that ground up in advance of the conference. De Valera was forced to withdraw that position in order to get the British to agree to the conference, and he did so. That of course led to the Collins observation that:

“‘The communication of September 29th from Lloyd George made it clear that they were going into a conference not on the recognition of the Irish Republic, and I say if we all stood on the recognition of the Irish Republic as a prelude to any conference we could very easily have said so, and there would be no conference,’ Collins later contended. ‘What I want to make clear is that it was the acceptance of the invitation that formed the compromise. I was sent there to form that adaptation, to bear the brunt of it.’”

Dwyer, T. Ryle. Big Fellow, Long Fellow. A Joint Biography of Collins and De Valera: A Joint Biography of Irish politicians Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera . Gill Books. Kindle Edition.

The book covers the cynical ploy of De Valera refusing to head the Irish delegation, the cynical and destructive way that De Valera treated the agreement brought home by the Irish plenipotentiaries from London, his refusal to accept a loss when the Dail accepted the Treaty, and his actions and statements that helped to incite the Irish Civil War, which led to the assassination of Collins. The book honestly gives De Valera’s actions no justification, showing his inconsistencies, his ego driven desire to substitute the ludicrous “Document Number Two” for the Treaty when there was no substantive difference between the two, and his foolhardy rhetoric on the treaty, including his “wade through Irish blood” speech.

The author correctly points out that De Valera ultimately proved Collins point that the Treaty was a “steppingstone” to Irish freedom by entering the Free State Government (years after the Collins assassination) himself, assuming the reigns of a government that he had long maintained was an illegitimate perversion of the goal of an Irish Republic. Collins main argument for the Treaty ultimately was borne out by his most bitter antagonist.

De Valera did some truly outstanding work in moving the “Free State” apparatus to an Irish Republic, and his many years of service to the cause of Irish freedom can never be minimized. He was a political giant with an enormous will, but his failures on the Treaty, and his responsibility for the inciting of the Irish Civil War, shall remain a blight on his record, in my view. Collins, like most political leaders, had a healthy menu of faults, many of which the author covers. His military leadership of the government forces in the civil war has, in many quarters, never been forgiven. But the author correctly points out that some of the “faults” that are attributable to Collins stemmed from his desire to avoid the armed conflict with many of his old comrades that a civil war would bring. His desire to keep reaching for political compromise was cited as a weakness, and perhaps it was. Collins was willing to go the extra mile to try to avoid the conflict that ultimately cost him his life. This book was a fair look at two giants of Ireland, and if you have a desire to learn some of this history then this book is a fine vehicle.

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