With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, a bitter Civil War erupted in Ireland between the Pro-Treaty and Anti-Treaty forces. As Commander-In-Chief of the Free State Army, on the 18th of August 1922, Michael Collins announced his intention to inspect the State military posts in the South, having previously returned from earlier inspections to attend Arthur Griffith’s funeral. His colleagues advised him not to go, as he would have to travel through deep IRA territory yet he joked that “no one will shoot me in my own county.” He was proven wrong as 4 days later, he was killed in an ambush at Beal na mBlath.
At 6 am on the 20th of August, Michael Collins left Dublin on route to Cork. He was suffering from possible pleurisy. He reached Limerick around midday where he visited Thomas Malone an Anti-Treaty prisoner in Marlboro Prison. He left Limerick and travelling via Mallow, he reached Cork city around 8.30am. He was staying in the Imperial Hotel, and spent that evening and all of the next day with Emmet Dalton and his staff, discussing the problems of the area, inspecting military posts and interviewing people. He visited relatives and friend in Macroom and also spent time with his sister Mary and her children in Cork city. That night, in the hotel, he met Joseph Derham, a neutral friend in the Civil War, whom he befriended while in Frongoch prison.
At 6.15 am on Tuesday 22nd August, Michael Collins began the last day of his life. He along with Dalton set out in a convoy, headed towards Bantry. They were seated behind two drivers in the back of a Leyland Eight touring car. The convoy was headed by a motorcyclist scout, followed by a Crossley tender carrying ten men under Sean O Connell. This preceded the touring car and the Rolls Royce Whippet armoured car, the “Slievenamon” came last.
The convoy was stopped at the entrance to Clonakilty by felled trees. They helped remove the trees and stopped to drink a pint in “The Four Alls.” This was the heart of Collins homeland, and he met his brother Johnny and other family and friends. After lunch, the convoy drove to Roscarbery and Skibereen. While in Skibereen, Collins visited the proprietors of the Eldon Hotel, the Quinns.
On route to Bandon, they stopped outside Longs Pub, in the vicinity of Beal na mBlath, to ask for directions, and Denny Long directed them to Bandon. Denny Long was actually a member of the anti-treaty forces, and was acting as a sentry for an IRA meeting taking place either inside the pub or in a nearby farmhouse. There is some evidence which suggests that de Valera may have been among them. He notified those attending the meeting of Collins’s convoy, and it was decided that an ambush would be organised by Tom Hales, in case the convoy returned the same way.
A mine was armed and a beer bottle cart was commandeered and placed across the road on the Bandon side of Beal na mBlath, to obstruct Collins’ convoy. 22 to 37 rifle men were positioned along an elevated boreen overlooking the main road where Collins would possibly return. The hidden ambushers settled down to wait for the convoy’s return and remained there throughout the day. At 7.30pm, believing it to be too late for Collins to return, Commander Liam Deasy and Tom Hales sent all but six men to the pub and disarmed the mine. These six remained in position. Meanwhile, the Free State convoy had left West Cork at 4.30pm and was travelling towards the ambush site on route to Cork City.
At the sound of the convoy’s motor engines, warning shots rang out from the few remaining Irregulars. The republicans rushed to their positions and Jim Hurley fired at the touring car shattering the windscreen. The scout and Crossley Tender continued around the bend to remove the barricade. Dalton yelled to “Drive like Hell!” but Collins shouted “Stop! Jump out and we’ll fight them!” This proved to be a badly calculated decision. Dalton and Collins jumped from their car while the Slievenamon backed up the road and opened fire on the hidden ambushers. According to Dalton, he and Collins took cover behind a mud bank on the left of the road, and Dolan, who had jumped from the back of the armoured car, was several yards away. They kept up a steady fire for around 20 minutes on the hidden attackers. There came a respite in the enemy fire and Collins used this to move behind the armoured car.
Meanwhile the Crossley Tender and its men were engaged in fire with the returning Irregulars 50 or 60 yards away, just around the bend. John McPeak was the machine gunner on the “Slievenamon”, and unfortunately this machine gun jammed causing a lull in the firing on the IRA. They used this to run up the road away from the car. It was here where Michael Collins made the decision which cost him his life. He shouted “Come on boys! There they are, running up the road!” He moved from the cover of the “Slievenamon” out in to the open, to get a clearer shot at the retreating republicans. He managed to get off a few shots before stopping to reload. A single shot rang out, as a bullet hurtled towards Collins lacerating his head at the base of his skull, just below his right ear.
O Connell and Dalton turned to find Collins lying face down, with his head covered in blood. O Connell whispered the Act of Contrition in to his ear which was rewarded with a slight pressure to his hand. Dalton kept up a steady fire while O Connell dragged Collins to the shelter of the car. Before the task of bandaging his wound had been completed, Michael Collins died in Emmet Dalton’s arms.
With the help of Lieutenant Smith, the motorcyclist scout, they endeavoured to lift his body to the car. This was when Smith was shot in the neck. His wound was not fatal and he managed to continue helping Dalton and O Connell carry the body to the armoured car. The heart broken convoy took off towards Cork with the fallen hero’s head resting on Dalton’s shoulder.
They stopped at a church in Cloughduv for the Last Rites to be performed but Father Murphy saw Collins and walked away. The convoy moved on and later stopped at Sacred Heart Mission Church, near Cork, where a priest finally administered the Last Rites. Collins’s body was taken to Shanakiel Hospital and on the following day, was transferred to a boat called “Classie,” where he made his final journey to Dublin.
There is no consensus to who fired that fatal shot, historians have researched this matter extensively but have come to no definite conclusion. Dozens were subject to suspicion and some even suspected Dalton. Many members of the Anti-Treaty forces, such as Tom Hales and Bob Doherty, were also suspected. John McPeak, the machine gunner of the “Slievenamon,” also endured suspicion after he later joined the republicans. There is also an unsupported theory that De Valera himself ordered the attack. The most scrutinised suspect was Sonny O Neill, an Irregular who maintained he had shot him yet some claimed he was not even engaged at this time.
On the 24th of August, Michael Collins body lay in Glasnevin cemetery as thousands of mourners paraded past to pay their respects to “The Big Fella”. His death was the climax of the Civil War, as the government was now more determined than ever to end the violence. The Free State had lost both Collins and Griffith and the burden of leading the new state through these troubled times fell to William T. Cosgrave. He set about restoring law and order.