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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 4 The Statesman: ‘I signed my death warrant’ 91


chapter 4 The Statesman: ‘I signed my death warrant’ Collins versus de Valera One of the reasons I found this story so interesting is because it’s almost like Cain and Abel. These huge historical events were always rooted in personality and char- acter. Through these two characters of de Valera and Collins you can explore those mythic themes.1 While Collins and Boland have been busy organising the deadly campaigns in Dublin, de Valera has been spending his time since the arrest of the Irish cabinet in England’s Lincoln Jail. Dressed as an altar boy, de Valera is shown helping a priest serve mass in prison and seizing the opportunity to make a mould of the priest’s key by pressing it to a candle.2 As Keith Hopper points out, even though the scene is based on historical events, it serves to under- score de Valera’s ‘Catholic piety and Machiavellian cunning.’3 De Valera is presented as a scheming man who nevertheless sticks to traditional values and the Catholic Church, in direct contrast to the seemingly more modern Collins who, though going through bouts of anxiety about the killings he orders, is not portrayed as a religious man. Catholic iconography is present in Michael Collins – like in most other Neil Jordan films – but notably it is not associated with Collins. The camera offers a glimpse of a statue of Virgin Mary in the chapel where some of the young members of Collins’s Squad pray before they go on their missions, but Collins himself...

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