Why is it that the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland would get himself involved in such minutiae in 1939 on the brink of World War II?

Great moments in history are not always the result of grand dreams or personal heroism. Oftentimes the crucial turning point is determined by the character of the person involved. His or her own sense of rightness or honor motivates the decision or initiates the action.

On 31 July 1939, a certificate of authorization was signed by Eamon de Valera. A certificate for what? The document put into writing the exact dimensions and words that were to be allowed to be inscribed on the tombstone of Michael Collins in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Why would the Taoiseach of a country involve himself with such details while the world teetered on the brink of a global war? Collins had been in his grave for seventeen years. What was there to fear? 

Quote: “It’s my considered opinion that in the fullness of time history will record the greatness of Collins and it will be recorded at my expense.”

- Spoken by Eamon de Valera as cited in Michael Collins by Tim Pat Coogan, p. 432

The press was not permitted to attend the erection of Michael Collins’s tombstone. Only his nephew, Johnny, along with a priest and altar boy were officially allowed to be present. The foreman of the cemetery’s gravediggers, who had heard of the occasion, made his way over to the plot along with a passing gravedigger. The latter, noting the absence of a crowd, reporters, or photographers, remarked, “Poor Mick, I’ve tended his grave since ’22 . . .”

And thus no grandiose speeches were delivered, and no deluge of floral arrangements showered the gravesite. Only the words of a common man bespoke the esteem with which Collins was held by his countrymen.

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* Originally published in July 2019. Updated in 2023.

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