Journalist and author Colm Connolly sheds some light on the photograph of Michael Collins believed to have been taken just before his death. The image, taken in August 1922, shows the Irish revolutionary leader in the back of a car, he was shot at at the village of Béal na Bláth, Cork.
It was recently reported that the image was found in the attic of the photographer’s niece and had been lost for decades. However, Connolly contests this discovery.
I would like to add some information for your readers concerning Michael Collins’ final journey.
As someone has already pointed out, the photo of Collins is not new. I used it myself in a television documentary ‘The Shadow of Beal na blath’, which I produced for RTE in 1989. It was subsequently printed in a book I wrote called ‘The Illustrated Life of Michael Collins’, published in the United States by Roberts Rinehart of Boulder, Colorado. It is the last known picture of Collins alive.
The photo is not flipped, as one of your readers has suggested – it is seen the correct way round.
The car itself, a yellow Leyland Thomas touring car, was loaned to Collins by an admirer. In the photo, Collins is furthest from the camera, with Emmet Dalton beside him. They are seen as they left Lees Hotel (now The Munster Arms) in Bandon after tea to head for Cork City via Bealnablath.
Collins now had fewer than twenty five minutes to live.
They were huddled into the collars of their greatcoats because, although it was August, it was a chilly evening, shortly before dusk, and a light drizzle had begun to fall. For the past week Collins had been suffering from a severe head and chest cold, bordering on pleurisy, and was in pain from a kidney infection. Both men also shared a green, tartan blanket laid across their knees as further protection from the cold.
The convoy was led by a motorcycle scout who was followed by an open-topped lorry carrying eight riflemen, two Lewis machine-gunners and two officers. Then came Collins and Dalton in the Leyland Thomas with a driver and co-driver. Bringing up the rear was a Rolls Royce Whippet armoured car, ‘Slievenamon’, which carried another officer and four men, including the operator of the Vickers medium machine-gun in its revolving turret.
When the convoy came under fire at Bealnablath, Collins and Dalton, carrying Lee Enfield rifles, jumped from Leyland Thomas and took up firing positions behind a low bank at the side of the road. Unfortunately, Collins ran back along the road to the armoured car to get a better view of the attackers and, when he again moved into the open, he received the fatal shot. The bullet entered his head on the hairline above his left eye and exited behind his right ear.
After the firing had stopped, he was lifted into the back of the Leyland Thomas to resume the journey, his shattered head resting on Emmet Dalton’s shoulder. The car broke down several times on that trip and, eventually, had to be abandoned, with Collins transferred to one of the other vehicles.
To re-enact the skirmish for my television documentary in 1989, the Army brought the ‘Slievenamon’ armoured car to Bealnablath, the first time it had returned to the fateful site since 22nd of August, 1922.
I also tried to locate the yellow Leyland Thomas for the documentary and, after many letters and telephone calls, finally discovered that in the late 1920s it had been fitted with gun racks and shipped to East Africa where it operated as a hunting car for safaris.
* Now retired, Dubliner Colm Connolly was a specialist correspondent and newscaster with RTE and, before that, a programme presenter on the BBC's Radio 4. He is the author of four books.