At left, Michael Collins and Eamon DeValera enjoying a chat and at right, Liam Neeson and Alan Rickman as their film counterparts after the Easter Rising.
His relationship with Eamon DeValera is perhaps the most talked about, most hypothesized one Michael Collins ever had. It is difficult if not impossible to know all of the intricate twists and turns their tumultuous friendship took, particularly as Michael's life neared its conclusion. What we can examine a bit more effectively is the impact the split between Ireland's Two Fellows had on each man and on Irish society of the time. In Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State, Tom Garvin discusses this split in his article, "Dev and Mick: The 1922 Split as a Social Psychological Event." First Garvin addresses the modern image of each man:
"With the publication of Tim Pat Coogan’s biographies of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera the reputations of the two men, each in his own way a mythic figure in Irish political culture, began to undergo a sea-change. This process was considerably accelerated by the release in 1996 of Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins. Jordan, for dramatic purposes, heightens a contrast in personality between Collins and De Valera which indeed existed in reality. Collins is presented as the brave and resourceful man who fought the British to a standstill between 1917 and 1921, De Valera as the man who prematurely tried to convert a guerrilla campaign into one of open, conventional warfare and who expressed himself as uneasy at the ‘murderous’ image which the republic’s cause was getting in the foreign media. By rejecting the draft Treaty sight unseen in December 1921 Dev brings the house down around himself and everyone else. The film portrays Mick as the honest man, Dev as close to being treacherous. De Valera’s mythic status in Irish culture has changed for the worse because of the work of Coogan, Jordan and a flotilla of often unread historians. In an almost symmetrical way Collins’ mythic status has been enhanced at De Valera’s expense. So far so good. Jordan’s film is excellent, but it is a film, not a documentary and no one can ask a film to be a documentary; its values are those of drama, not those of historical science."
Neil Jordan's biopic does indeed portray DeValera as scheming, crafty, underhanded, and, yes, close to treacherous. Michael, on the other hand, is the simple, straight-speaking, shoot-from-the-hip country lad turned remarkable revolutionary. Depending upon politics, some will see this as a completely fair and deserved characterization on both sides; others certainly will not. It is highly important in either case to remember Garvin's words of caution that Michael Collins is a movie possessing dramatic elements, not a documentary. Second, Garvin examines the personality differences between DeValera and Collins, both in terms of actual and perceived distinctions:
"It almost looks like a product of central casting. Collins, extrovert, one of the boys, secularised by London living, good-looking, popular with women and with an unrivalled range of acquaintances, in contrast to De Valera, solitary even when among his boyhood pals, aloof from men and women alike, around priests during his adolescence and young manhood, ascetic, scholarly in a narrow ‘academic’ way, his social experience confined to Ireland: the Jolly Jock versus the Solemn Swot, the businessman versus the teacher, or even the nineteenth century versus the twentieth century. This would be (obviously!) to caricature the two men; Collins had a well-read, practical intelligence combined with a marked administrative talent, and De Valera’s strange mixture of the philosophical, the impractical, and the cunning have become familiar to millions. Both were conventionally religious, but Dev was pious in a way that Collins was not. Dev was trusted by priests as one of their products; Mick was trusted by lay men, women and children. Collins, having left school at sixteen, was a self-confessed auto-didact, and a gifted one, whereas De Valera received further education of a narrow, if rigorous kind, and was, perhaps, not as innately gifted. My guess is that Collins was brighter, and De Valera knew this and feared for his career in the face of Collins’ meteoric rise after 1916."
DeValera was the career politician, the statesman. Collins was the warrior, the realist. DeValera left Ireland to campaign in America for many months and upon his return, he was not at all thrilled to find that Michael was widely regarded as the man who actually ran the independence movement, period.
"In America de Valera had been treated right royally; in Ireland Michael had been a desperate man on the run. De Valera had returned with his ideals intact; Michael was a hard-headed realist and pragmatist. De Valera had retained sentimental views of Ireland and the Dail entertained sentimental views of its Chief. Now the sentiment was about to be rudely shattered on both sides" (James MacKay, Michael Collins: A Life).
In fact, when DeValera arrived in Ireland in 1921 after eighteen months in the US, he had an outburst over Collins' popularity. It was witnessed by Tom Cullen and Batt O'Connor, the two boys who'd been sent to pick him up:
"DeValera asked how things were going. ‘Great! The Big Fellow is leading us and everything is marvelous,’ said Cullen with a broad grin, which vanished at de Valera’s reaction. ‘Big Fellow! Big Fellow!’ He pounded the guard-rail with his clenched fist and spat out, ‘We’ll see who’s the Big Fellow…’" (James MacKay).
The Anglo-Irish Treaty only served to divide the two men to a bitter level. DeValera's policy shifted from open to closed immediately after Collins put his signature on the Treaty.
"De Valera, who had claimed earlier not to be a doctrinaire republican, immediately became one—narrow, intensely resentful that the Treaty had been signed without his leave, dogmatic and over-subtle" (Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, A History of Ireland).
"[During the Treaty debates in the Dáil] Griffith pointed out that, in the correspondence between de Valera and Lloyd George that had proceeded the negotiations, ‘not once was a demand made for the recognition of the Irish Republic.’ De Valera countered by attacking the oath of allegiance" (Fry).
Garvin speaks candidly on the rift caused by the Treaty:
"Dev later realised, and said in private, that the Treaty was far better than he had made it out to be in 1922, but he never fully admitted it in public. This particular lie of silence has cost us even more in damage to our political tradition."
Without relying heavily on gossip and guesswork, there is little that can be said about the relationship shared by Collins and DeValera. Painting the picture of DeValera as the tyrannical chief and Collins as the naive worker bee does nothing to assist anyone in understanding Irish history. Moreover, it feeds the habit of making vast oversimplifications that has plagued and continues to best Irish affairs, e.g. summarizing the conflicts in Northern Ireland as nothing more than Catholic versus Protestant.