I had decided last year not to stray too far from home for my ’06 holidays, and I now feel very clever in light of increased airport security. Time to look about Ireland again, I decided, and follow some of my passions here. I’ve mentioned my interest in Memorials and Commemorations on Slugger several times in the past, and last week I took an enormous step for someone steeped in the traditions of Fianna Fail.
I went to Béal na mBláth and visited Michael Collins Memorial. For some reason, that visit has stayed with me, and has affected me very deeply. I dont know how many of you have been there, but it really is an eerie and atmospheric place. There is only one sign post on the main road, and after that, you just play a guessing game. I ended up in circles more than a few times and when all seemed lost, I pulled into a filling station and asked meekly for directions to Béal na mBláth. The bored shopkeeper pointed up to the sign and drawled in her most Corkonian cork… ‘sure arent you here and all?’ If they still ran a prize for dirtiest toilet in Ireland, this place would be a clear winner. The shop itself was haphazard, with crowded tables and laminated A4 sheets of newspaper selling for 15 euro. About a mile down the road, with no sign or warning or notice, a Cross stands on the left hand side of the road. A little gate, and a box for contributions. On the base of the Cross is simply ‘Miceal O’Coleain’ and his date of birth and death. It is so stark and lonely and plain, it is one of the saddest places I can ever remember being.
As we walked away I noted a green jeep and a few people cutting grass. I assumed them to be Council workers, but as we chatted, I found that they were from the Irish Army and the Collins Memorial is unique in that it is tended and minded by them, as he was their first Commander in Chief. That made me feel a bit better about the Big Fellow, until I asked how often they tended this special place. ‘Once a year, before the commemoration’.
The soldier in charge couldnt have been more helpful, and laid out the 3 most common scenarios for Collin’s death. He opined the most likely option, a ‘soldier shot’ from 80 yards. And Collins lay and bled to death, robbing us of a great man, soldier and statesman and perhaps someone who could have balanced the more extreme policies and ideologies of DeValera in years to come.
The soldier finished by telling me that this area of Cork is still bitterly divided over the Irish Civil War, and that it is a daily subject of discussion and debate. That part reminded me of my time in Knoxville, Tennessee, where the doctors and nurses spent lunch breaks every day rehearsing the same civil war battles and outcomes.
In one way, it made me feel better about ‘us’ here in Northern Ireland. We’re not so different after all. But, in another way, maybe we have to move a little forward before we allow ourselves the indulgence and luxury of the past.
In any case, spare a thought tonight for Michael Collins, shot dead on a lonely, winding and unforgiving road in Cork.