When Michael Collins signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, he prophesied that he was signing his own death warrant.
n August 1922 he was ambushed and killed by anti-Treaty forces at Béal na Bláth, Co Cork. This year marks the centenary of his death. Collins was a quintessential freedom fighter: physically impressive, charismatic, and the author of his own destruction.
In On Another Man’s Wound (1936) Ernie O’Malley described Collins as he knew him: “He was tall, his shoulders were broad; his energy showed through rapid movement. A curving bunch of hair fell on his forehead; he tossed it back with a vigorous head twist… Collins seemed to establish his personality quickly in the mind of his visitor; he was hearty, boisterous or quiet by turn.” Unlike Cathal Brugha, who “neither cursed, smoked nor drank. Collins was an adept at all three.”
Collins’ short but hugely significant life did not incline itself to material possessions. Those that remain are highly collectible and, like fragments of the True Cross, exceedingly difficult to verify. Often, their provenance depends on a story. Witness, a pair of bright blue slippers with a wolf’s head stitched on the toe caps, now in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland.
The slippers were donated by Bridget O’Connor in 1958 and came from a safe house owned by her husband. The wolf slippers, which are considered authentic Collins memorabilia, are a size 9. The “Big Fella” had small feet. He also had more than one walking stick.
In September 2021, Michael Collins’ walking stick, with letter of provenance, sold at Bloomfield Auctions in Belfast for £52,000 (€60,500).
This March, another of Collins’ walking sticks, also with letter of provenance, sold for £21,500 (€25,000). In the same sale a Smith and Wesson revolver, reputedly used by Collins when assisting De Valera’s escape from Lincoln Prison fetched £9,000 (€10,700) and a lock of his hair sold for £18,000 (€21,400). It was said to have been kept by Collins’ former fiancée Kitty Kieran.
This is by no means the strangest piece of Michael Collins memorabilia around.
Stuart Purcell, auctioneer, was once offered a swab used to mop up Collins’ blood when he was admitted to hospital following the fatal shooting at Béal na Bláth. “It was kept by a nurse and passed down through her family,” Purcell says. “It was about as clean a line of provenance as I’ve come across. But I wasn’t going near it.”
Items that can be definitely certified as having belonged to Collins are very rare. One of these, a copy of Thom’s Official Directory, 1922 (Lot 585: est. €3,000 to €4,000) is going under the hammer at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers’ Christmas Rare Books & Collectors’ Sale, which takes place at the Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, Dublin on December 6 and 7.
The volume was especially bound for Collins in full red Morocco, gilt and with his name “M. O’Coileain” in gilt letters on the front cover. The sale also includes a blackthorn shillelagh (Lot 577: est. €3,000 to €4,000) reputedly presented to Michael Collins and then given to his niece.
“If you had a photograph of Collins holding that shillelagh, it would be worth tens of thousands,” George Fonsie Mealy explains.
Likewise, a pocket seal (Lot 586: est. €2,000 to €3,000) engraved with the letters MC in reverse and a shaped agate handle. Would Collins have used a pocket seal? It’s possible. He was a man of action but also, having worked as a postal clerk in London, a precise and efficient administrator.
“The most intriguing things in the sale are the manuscripts,” George Fonsie Mealy says. “Collins was very careful in his letter writing. He had a great way with words.”
They include a statement of accounts for the Treaty Negotiations (Lot 584: est. €3,000 to €5,000), typed with notes in Collins’ hand, and a revealing letter of January 19, 1920 (Lot 581: est. €4,000 to €6,000) written by Collins on official paper of the Irish Volunteers General Headquarters Dublin. The letter is addressed to “A Chara” and asks whether: “there was any one in the office which you left whom I might get approached… I would of course get this done very carefully… your name will not come into the thing in any way”. That’s how business was done.
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