On August 22, 1922, on a lonely road outside Cork City, the general commander of the Irish Army, Michael Collins, was shot dead in an ambush by IRA forces. He died in his home county, among his own people, with his dream of Irish unity unfinished and undone. 

His death was a disaster. He was about to end the Irish Civil War when he undertook the trip to Cork from Dublin which led to his death. 

Collins had consulted with senior figures on both sides, with the exception of Éamon de Valera, who had kicked off the war by refusing to accept the treaty which gave 26 counties to the Irish Free State, while six counties remained in Northern Ireland. 

Despite the people voting in a free and fair election for the Collins plan to accept what was on offer from the British and deal with the issue of Northern Ireland later, de Valera still refused to accept the treaty. 

Michael Collins. (Getty Images)

Michael Collins. (Getty Images)

There is no question that if Collins had not died, Irish history would have been changed utterly. 

He was a remarkable leader. Only 32 when he was assassinated by persons unknown, it would have been Collins, and not de Valera, who dominated the Irish political scene well into the 20th century. 

The British had been very careful in who they executed after the 1916 Easter Rising. Killing the top layer of leadership such as James Connolly and Patrick Pearse, and leaving the country in the hands of de Valera, a man whose flawed thinking and deep ability to bear a grudge would bedevil Irish politics, was a clever move by the British. 

There was also the fact that de Valera’s right-wing Catholicism, and his complete embrace of the Catholic Church, proved disastrous for Ireland well into the 20th century. Indeed, its impact is still felt today. 

Collins was not that kind of man. He would have never fought the Civil War if the treaty had been defeated. 

In fact, it is likely he would have brought both sides together and avoided the vicious war that tore Ireland apart. 

Michael Collins in October 1921. (Getty Images)

Michael Collins in October 1921. (Getty Images)

We can only wonder what JFK would have achieved for America, or his brother Robert, or Martin Luther King, if they had been allowed to live. It is safe to say that the United States would have been a far better place with those men in leadership positions. 

Such is the case with Collins, the greatest leader Ireland had ever produced. His killing at the age of 32 was a catastrophic event for a very young free state desperately reaching for republic status free of Britain. 

*Originally published in the Irish Voice in August 2022. Updated in August 2023.