Portrait of an Assassin
Terrorist-hero Michael Collins stirs up reel-life memories for one Irish-American lad
Agnes, Peter and James Francis "Frank" Freyne
It wouldn't be far off the mark to suggest that Tom Collins — or at least Vodka Collins — is far better known on this continent than the hero of director Neil Jordan's new film, Michael Collins. In fact, few people in this country — including Irish-Americans — could tell you whether Jordan's flick starring Liam Neeson is based on fact or fiction. I must be one of the lucky ones.
You see, "The Big Fellow," as Michael Collins was known in his prime, has been a big part of my life from the day I was born. The arrival on the big screen of the Irish terrorist-hero, 74 years after his assassination, opens flood tides of memory for me. The film hits Vermont cinemas next week. Its much-anticipated arrival in Ireland next month is already tearing at the scars of the Emerald Isle's darkest secret.
My link to Michael Collins is my dad. Until he passed away in 1974 at the age of 73, James Francis "Frank" Freyne was a hardworking certified public accountant. Even on Saturdays he'd wear a white shirt. He loved Jackie Gleason and Groucho Marx on our black-and-white television, and he read The New York Times religiously. And even after the Vatican II changes in the Roman Catholic liturgy, he continued to kneel and say the rosary during mass. He was too old, too Irish and too set in his ways to change.
There was absolutely nothing in my father's orderly appearance or his manner that disclosed his youthful occupation: a cold-blooded killer. My father, you see, worked for the real Michael Collins, commandant of the Irish volunteers who fought for independence from Britain. In the Dublin of 1920-21, murder was the name of the game.
But that evidence of my father's mysterious past was always nearby, on a bookshelf in our living room. There was the volume my father had given his bride, Agnes, on their wedding day in 1948. No, not a book of romantic poetry, but a book of history most bloody: John McCann's War By the Irish. The hand-written inscription read:
The writer was thru
some of the episodes
told in his book and
knows many of the
They were brave men
and loyal comrades.
Not your typical wedding present.
As Jordan's movie will show us, the time was 1916-1923, and the cause was freedom. Unable to defeat the British occupying forces in pitched battle, Collins devised new tactics for the nascent Irish Republican Army. He ran the IRA's clandestine intelligence operation that outgunned the Queen's men and beat the British Secret Service at its own game.
Rather than play by the rules, Collins made up new ones. Tiny Ireland against mighty Britannia wasn't a fair fight to begin with, so Collins decided he wouldn't fight fair. The tactics he developed earned him the title, "father of guerrilla warfare"; his disciples have spanned the gamut from China's Mao Zedong to Israel's Yitzhak Shamir. In fact, Shamir so revered Collins that he took the code name "Micail" during Israel's war for independence in the late 1940s.
Key to Collins' operation was the bravery of dozens of teenage farm boys from the countryside who came to Dublin to carry out his orders. And those orders were de facto death sentences for policemen in the ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary, undercover British intelligence officers, as well as traitors, informers, spies and members of the not-so-regular British forces, the Black and Tans.
Now a popular draft pint served at your local watering hold — black Guiness stout resting on top of golden Harp lager beer — the original Black and Tans were, my father often noted, "thugs recruited out of British jails and paid a pound a day to kill Irishmen." They earned a special place in the hearts of the Irish for their savagery: burning villages and murdering priests, bishops and mayors. Torture was their favorite sport, and Collins' IRA teen squad matched them each step of the way.
My father rarely spoke of his early years carrying out the orders of Michael Collins, and when he did it was in hushed tones that invariably caused his eyes to glisten. Never once, despite my childish nagging, did he reveal the secret oath he took at his IRA initiation. He went on to earn a reputation for his work with a .45 — a reputation that survives to this day in his native County Kilkenny. One local farmer told me a few years back, "Your father is a fecking folk hero around here." That man, the same age as myself said he'd been raised on tales of the daring deeds of James Francis Freyne and the "jobs" he did for Michael Collins in the War of Independence and in the Civil War that followed. His telling gave me shivers.
In 1957, when I was just a lad of seven, James Francis Freyne took his American family back to Ireland. He'd been away for 30 years. The visit was an endless eye-opening procession through farmyards, overgrown cemeteries and dreary back streets in Dublin. We even visited prisons — where James Francis was treated like royalty: Dublin's Kilmainham Jail, where he'd spent seven months in 1921 awaiting execution; Mountjoy Prison, where we were led by armed guards to pray at the graves of his former comrades.
We also visited Michael Collins' modest grave in Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery. Most of the people papa knew from the old days now rested beneath the unmanicured tombstones.
My mother drove as I listened from the backseat, alongside my older brother and sister, while my father remembered aloud the people and deeds of 35 years earlier. He knew the city of Dublin like the back of his hand — by street address as well as by who got shot where, and by whom. He spoke of old "jobs" that required taking men out "for a ride" on the Bull Wall — the four-mile-long sandbar in Dublin Bay — and giving them a minute to say the Act of Contrition before carrying out his orders.
In damp flats on Dublin's working-class south side, I drank Orange Crush soda (Coca Cola hadn't yet taken hold) as my father reminisced about "the Troubles" over tea and whiskey with white-haired men and their neat, aproned wives. In reverent tones they'd solemnly recall the fellow from County Cork named Michael Collins, the man who made Ireland free, the man they'd have followed straight to hell if asked to. And always, the mention of his name brought tears to their eyes. "God rest his soul," they'd say, and a long silence would follow.
My most vivid memory is of being led to the quiet cobblestone street near the River Liffey where my uncle, the first Peter Freyne, drew his last breath. James Francis recounted the events of that morning on April 11, 1921. He had laid out the battle plan, simple and deadly. My father's IRA operated in street clothes — it was, after all, a guerrilla war. In the morning rush hour, on bicycle and on foot, they mixed in with the throng of workers heading to work at the stockyards and dock area along the Liffey. Suddenly, they peeled off and approached the front door of the Hollyhead Hotel — the officers' kip of the hated Black and Tans.
With me by his side, dear old dad walked up to the big, soot-covered door of the now-abandoned hotel. He described how he gave three cracks to the brass knocker. As the mustachioed sergeant major slowly pulled the door open, my father squeezed three rounds from his revolver into the man's chest.
Simultaneously, the Tans on the upper floors returned fire, and a 20-minute battle ensued. As reinforcements arrived, the IRA men hightailed it for the nearby cattle yards. All but Peter, that is, who dashed down the side street next to the hotel, straight into the line of fire of the Tans' machine gun at the rear. With a price on his head, James Francis didn't dare atted his brother's funeral back in Kilkenny.
Heady stuff for a seven-year-old.
That particular raid signaled a new strategy for the IRA. The attack was so daring it even made page two of The New York Times. The bolder daylight raids were designed to win the PR battle and show the world the IRA's strength. A month later, on May 25, more than 100 IRA of the Dubln Brigade hit the Dublin Customs House in the most daring raid yet of Ireland's War of Independence. This wasn't just a band of young hoodlums anymore. This was insurrection.
The seat of British rule on the bank of the Liffey held all the tax records of Britain's last colony. The IRA men darted inside carrying five-gallon cans of paraffin and torched the place. The fire burned for five days, leaving the Customs House gutted. But the operation didn't run precisely according to schedule. They were three seats behind, and British regulars surrounded the building before the raiders could escape. Five were killed, 12 wounded and 70 captured, my father among them.
Lacking modern fingerprint technology, the British never knew exactly whom they'd captured. All had aliases and alibis. My father's phony documents indicated he was a carpenter by the name of George Lewis. Off they went to Kilmainham Jail. Death seemed certain, but in December Irish negotiators led by Collins struck a deal with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. A truce was signed and the Irish Free State was established. But then a worse horror emerged: a bloody civil war.
James Francis signed on with Collins and joined the Free State Army as a commissioned officer. Within a two-month period, from December 1921 to February 1922, he went from his dank, unheated prison cell to wearing the uniform of a 21-year-old brigadier general in charge of the new army's Kilkenny barracks.
Civil wars are always the worst, and Ireland's was no exception. IRA comrades who'd fought together months earlier were now killing each other. On one side was Collins, who'd negotiated the treaty that partitioned Ireland as it exists today — the Irish Free State comprised all but six counties in Northern Ireland, where a Protestant majority held sway.
On the other side was Eamon de Valera, son of an American sea captain who, like Collins, had fought in the ill-fated Easter Rising in 1916. De Valera refused to go along with the treaty. He wanted the whole island to be free of Britain, or nothing at all.
More than once I heard my father say his greatest regret in life was that he "didn't put a bullet in that bastard's head." He lamented all the suffering, sorrow and death that followed, ripping asunder the very soul of Ireland.
One night during the Civil War, dad said he'd received a tip at the barracks that de Valera was in a nearby town. Instantly he gave the order to move in. But James Francis and his men arrived just minutes after de Valera made his getaway — the tea cups were still warm. Had they gotten there in time, Irish history might have been greatly altered.
The great tragedy was that Collins, not de Valera, was killed in the Civil War. His death so shocked the Irish psyche, however, that many say it sped up the resolution of the conflict. And ironically, when it was over and the free State Army claimed its triumph, who rose to the top but de Valera?
Fifteen years later it was Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera who delayed for years the request of Collins' heirs to erect a Celtic cross over his grave. Petty beyond belief, he kept the stone's dimensions small and even determined what the inscription could say.
Eamon de Valera later became president of Ireland and headed the dominant Irish political party, Fianna Fail ("Soldiers of Destiny"), a conservative Roman Catholic, status quo party that ruled Ireland with a tight fist for half a century. In 1966, on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, President de Valera candidly said, "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."
Americans see the present Irish conflict as one between Catholics and Protestants in the North. Most of them are clueless when it comes to the Catholic vs. Catholic split in the South. They have no idea that for the seven decades following the murder of Michael Collins, the fulcrum of Irish politics has been rooted squarely on the bloody turf of the Civil War of 1922-23.
In Ireland, everyone knows where their neighbors lined up, and who did what to whom, for generations back. But the good Catholics of de Valera's Ireland kept it all under wraps. For the better part of the 20th century, it's been the one subject decent Irishmen and women wouldn't dare raise in polite conversation.
In his poem "Easter 1916," William Butler Yeats gave the Easter Rising an enduring refrain: "a terrible beauty is born." Now, 80 years later, Ireland's darkest secret is out in the open. With Michael Collins, the movie, a terrible beauty is reborn.
Michael Collins, starring Liam Neeson, Julia Roberts, Alan Rickman, Aidan Quinn and Stephen Rea, opens October 25 at Hoyts Cinemas in Burlington.