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The Gun and Irish Politics

Examining National History in Neil Jordan’s 'Michael Collins'


Raita Merivirta

In the 1990s, Irish society was changing and becoming increasingly international due to the rise of the ‘Celtic Tiger’. At the same time, the ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland also fuelled debates on the definition of Irishness, which in turn seemed to call for a critical examination of the birth of the Irish State, as well as a rethinking and re-assessment of the nationalist past. Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996), the most commercially successful and talked-about Irish film of the 1990s, was a timely contributor to this process. In providing a large-scale representation of the 1916-1922 period, Michael Collins became the subject of critical and popular controversy, demonstrating that cinema could play a part in this cultural reimagining of Ireland.
Locating the film in both its historical and its cinematic context, this book explores the depiction of events in Michael Collins and the film’s participation in the process of reimagining Irishness through its public reception. The portrayal of the key figures of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera comes under special scrutiny as the author assesses this pivotal piece of Irish history on screen.


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CHAPTER 3 The Soldier: ‘Everything’s possible if you wish hard enough’ 31


chapter 3 The Soldier: ‘Everything’s possible if you wish hard enough’ 1916 Easter Rising: Introducing the Characters Michael Collins opens with a prologue which frames the historical context of the biopic and marks it as an examination of the birth of the Irish state: At the turn of the century Britain was the foremost world power and the British Empire stretched over two-thirds of the globe. Despite the extent of its power its most troublesome colony had always been the one closest to it, Ireland. For seven hundred years Britain’s rule over Ireland had been resisted by attempts at rebellion and revolution, all of which ended in failure. Then, in 1916, a rebellion began, to be followed by a guerrilla war, which would change the nature of that rule forever. The mastermind behind that war was Michael Collins. His life and death defined the period, in its triumph, terror and tragedy. This is his story.1 The prologue sets the context of the action that follows, marking it, in Keith Hopper’s words, ‘as post-colonial history – a story of the nation told in retrospect by a sympathetic narrator/historian.’2 From the very 1 Michael Collins (1). 2 Hopper 1997, 22. The use of the word ‘colony’ in the prologue is in itself interesting. Britain and Ireland had formed a legislative Union, which had come into force on 1 January 1801. The majority of the Irish parliament had voted for the Union that abolished the Irish parliament. The Union ended only in 1921 with...

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