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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 5 Back to the Future: A View of the 1990s 131


chapter 5 Back to the Future: A View of the 1990s Michael Collins: The Lost Leader It is my considered opinion that in the fullness of time history will record the great- ness of Michael Collins, and it will be recorded at my expense. — Eamon de Valera, President of Ireland, 19661 It is this statement at the end of Michael Collins more than anything else that reveals Jordan’s politics in the film. As Jordan has explained, he ‘grew up under the Ireland of Eamon de Valera and […] wasn’t too happy about that.’ He has also given reasons for this: The death of Collins extinguished a certain thing in Irish public life because the Free State […] came to be dominated by a very rigid authoritarian view of Irishness. The Catholic Church was given a special place in the Constitution and was given command of all sorts of areas of Irish public life, education being one of them, and it became quite a repressive country.2 The conservative Free State government of the 1920s laid the groundwork for this ‘Ireland of Eamon de Valera’ which was eventually made possible by de Valera’s re-entering the Irish Dáil in 1927 with his new Fianna Fáil party. From 1932 to 1959 he dominated Irish society and politics. After winning the elections in 1933, de Valera declared the programme of his party: ‘Ire- land united, Ireland free, Ireland self-supporting and self-reliant, Ireland speaking her own tongue and through it giving to the world the ancient...

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