It can seem difficult if not impossible at times to distinguish fact from fiction when speaking of Michael Collins. He is all at once part hero, part scoundrel, part legend, part enigma, part god, and part icon, depending on the political leanings of the speaker. While there are varying accounts on Michael's accomplishments and his legacy, some agreement can be found regarding his physical appearance, physical health, temperament, mannerisms, and habits. This section will explore Michael Collins the man.
Michael's Physical Appearance
Michael is generally described as being 5'10" or 5'11" in height, with brown hair and grayish hazel eyes. His build was sturdy and strong. His nose was prominent and he had a square jaw that gave his face a noble, commanding presence.
From James MacKay's Michael Collins: A Life:
"Above average height—five foot eleven, in fact—he was powerfully built and somehow gave the impression of being much taller than he really was. He had a broad face, a jovial peasant’s face, framed by tousled dark brown hair and divided by a long, finely chiseled nose above a generous mouth. His most distinctive feature was his eyes, deep-set and wide apart. Even in repose, there was a genial, good-natured twinkle in them. When he laughed, which was often, they gave his face a crinkly effect; when he was angry, they flashed with fire and struck terror in the beholder, but within seconds they would dance and twinkle good-humouredly again. He had a frank expression and a steady, penetrating gaze which those who had something to hide would find extremely disconcerting; but most people who ever met him would fall immediately under his spell. ... An immediate impression of Michael up to this time was of someone younger than his years, boyish charm is an attribute that recurs frequently in contemporary descriptions of him. … This burly, barrel-chested young man possessed a deep voice, described variously as gruff or gravelly, a bear-growl of a voice; yet it could become soft and husky when occasion demanded. It was a voice that readily betrayed the fire, the passion or the emotion of the speaker. He had the true Celtic temperament, a man who was easily moved to tears, but with the inner strength not to mind showing his feelings. For all his height and bulk, he moved with the grace of a ballet dancer. He held himself erect and strode purposefully, with a jaunty, slightly swaggering air. He had one mannerism, a toss of the head to shake back the mop of hair that fell across his brow."
"...Oliver St. John Gogarty, the prominent Dublin surgeon, writer and Nationalist sympathizer...would later describe Michael as possessing ‘the quickest intellect and nerve that Ireland bred.’ For such a big man, he moved with the natural grace of a ballet dancer. Gogarty also noted that he had beautiful hands like those of a woman, and a smooth skin ‘like undiscoloured ivory.’"
From Margery Forester's Michael Collins: The Lost Leader:
"A sturdy, fair little boy, he took after his father in looks. Later, his hair would take the dark brown, almost black in some lights, sheen that predominates in the south of Ireland: the colour of the reed beds when the wind bends them. His eyes were grey with hazel flecks in them. The squarely-set jaw gave promise that later its owner might prove a very determined young man indeed. He laughed most of the time, flew into rages and out of them again as suddenly. If he thought anyone else had been hurt he wept bitterly."
From Rex Taylor's Michael Collins:
"Physically Collins’ presence was commanding. He stood five feet ten inches in height but looked taller because of his build. He had an upright, easy, natural stance; wore trousers with a cross pocket into which he thrust his hand. A falling lock of dark hair which he tossed backward continually gave a hint of his boundless vitality and this vitality he was able to communicate instantly to others—not by any affectation but rather by the easiness of his manner. It is often remarked that Collins seemed to explode into a room rather than enter it in a normal way and, with his entrance, he appeared to communicate his dynamic energy to those present. His walk was not the sedate or steady pace of the scholar and the thinking man—it was a rolling, jaunty walk, in the style of a man of confidence; and the confidence which Collins possessed, in relation to his ability, was a completely alert sense-cohesion. His features were mobile, every emotional change clearly showing there. Boyish-faced, frank and open in expression, a touch of lustiness, or perhaps coarseness, showing there; eyes small for his size and grey in colour; brown the colour of his hair. More than any other physical feature, the mouth betrayed his feelings: normally a sulky mouth, ill-humour was visible in the lips pressed tightly together and thrust out. His handwriting, in the clearness of the script, plainly showed his early civil-service training; and showed, too, in the firmness of line, the strength of his character. He had a rich, chuckling voice, in texture a light baritone, a very clear distinctive voice, a voice which one recognized, even among a crowd, as belonging only to Collins."
From Desmond Ryan's Michael Collins:
“Towards noon the door opened and Michael Collins swept out at the head of a small party, a rifle beneath his arm, his Cork accent vibrating. He and his men vanished into the network of lanes behind the hall. Tall and wiry, his jaw aggressively a-tilt, grey-blue eyes burning, Michael Collins vanished, the words floating back behind him: ‘We died for England from Waterloo, To Egypt and Dargai; And still there’s enough for a corps or a crew, Kelly and Burke and Shea.”
Michael's Physical Health
In his youth, Michael was generally the picture of great health. However, in his late twenties, a bout with the flu that turned into pleurisy left him prone to catching colds. Closer to the end of his life, Michael unfortunately developed a weak stomach and had to eat very bland foods.
"Through the summer of 1918 Michael pursued his various activities with the manic intensity of a demented leprechaun. He was now twenty-seven and at the peak of physical fitness; but he could not go on indefinitely punishing his rugged constitution with such demanding work that often kept him at his desk right through the night, railing constantly against ‘all the hours we waste in sleep.’ It was at this time that he stopped smoking and all but gave up alcohol, insisting that he would be a slave to nothing. In October he succumbed to a dose of Spanish influenza which turned into a bad attack of pleurisy from which only his incredible stamina saved him. Michael, who had never had a day’s illness in his life until then, at first refused to leave his desk, and it was only when he collapsed in great pain and a high fever that he agreed to retire to bed. After a short while he felt better, so he struggled into his clothes and prepared to go out on his bicycle. Joe O’Reilly, alarmed at his chief’s condition, tried to talk him out of it, but Michael ranted and raved like a man possessed and Joe quailed before the onslaught. He said no more as Michael feverishly buttoned up his overcoat and rode off; but Joe set off after him at a discreet distance. Michael’s progress was decidedly erratic and, as luck would have it, he collapsed outside the police station in Store Street. Joe pedaled furiously towards his chief but already Michael was groggily picking himself up and staring in a daze at his bicycle whose pedal had been broken in the fall. When he clapped eyes on his subordinate he eye him truculently. ‘Here, Mick,’ said the youth. ‘Take my bike. I’ll bring yours.’ With great difficulty Michael got his leg over the saddle and rode off unsteadily, but he frequently turned to glower at his faithful henchman who was doing his best to keep up on a machine which had lost a pedal and whose saddle had been adjusted for Michael’s long legs. At Cullenswood House Michael had so far forgotten the pleurisy in his anger that he threatened to shoot O’Reilly if he kept following him like that whereupon he fainted again and fell off the bicycle. Joe dragged Michael to the curb and dashed off to the nearest pub for a tot of whiskey to revive him. Somehow he managed to get Michael to the house of MacDonagh’s widow where the stricken leader was put to bed. Michael made a very bad patient, alternately cursing those who ministered to him and cracking boisterous jokes. He cursed everyone roundly when the doctor was summoned; reluctantly he agreed to take the mustard bath prescribed but only if Joe alone gave it to him. Twenty-four hours later, Michael was responding to treatment sufficiently to begin hollering for his clothes. He had important work to do, vital engagements to keep; but O’Reilly, in desperation, hid Michael’s trousers and even went to Volunteer Headquarters to get written orders from Mulcahy confining the Adjutant-General to bed. The Chief of Staff, however, doubted whether any order from himself would have the slightest effect. When Joe returned, he found Michael out of bed, pacing up and down with a blanket round his shoulders. When Joe came into the room Michael grabbed him by the throat. ‘It’s my trousers or yours!’ he growled. Later that day Michael set off on foot for a meeting at Cullenswood House. Joe recalled that he had more than the usual jauntiness in his stride, as if to say ‘I’ll show you I can walk.’ … By sheer willpower alone Michael overcame pleurisy although it would have a debilitating effect on him for some time and leave him prone to colds."
(Regarding Collins' health in 1922)
"The stomach pains from which he had suffered intermittently over the previous three years now became much more frequent, reducing him to a bland diet of curds and whey, when he bothered to eat at all. He also seemed to lurch from one cold to another. Superficially, his physique was as magnificent as ever, but long hours, overwork, lack of sleep and exposure to the damp, cold weather inevitably took their toll."
Michael's Temperament, Personality, & Disposition
Michael is known for being boisterous, loud, bullish, moody, fastidiously clean and well-groomed, efficient, hard-working, bossy, brusque, and an all-around walking contradiction.
From J. J. Lee's "The Challenge of a Collins Biography" found in the anthology Michael Collins and the Making of the Irish State:
"It was precisely because Collins combined in himself a cluster of personality types and behaviour patterns, from the man of action to the contemplative, from the solider to the politician, from the bureaucrat to the self-publicist, from the impulsive to the calculating, from the charmer to the tough, from the sensitive to the ruthless, from the conspirator to the statesman, that he was so formidable a personality."
From Peter & Fiona Somerset Fry's A History of Ireland:
"Collins was exuberant and noisy, with a taste for horseplay, but also businesslike and methodical, with a genius for detail. He was to become the first rebel leader in Irish history to be a brilliant organizer."
From Edward Norman's A History of Modern Ireland:
"Collins was a man of violent impulse who liked nothing so much as to tumble his colleagues on the floor and to bite their ears in playful affection."
"A tongue-lashing from Michael Collins was a terrifying experience. It cowed many, but left others sullen and resentful. Magnified in scale as well as time, this abrasive quality would make for Michael many enemies."
"Someone with such an amount of nervous energy, who drove himself to the very limit of endurance, was a hard taskmaster to those who worked with him. He bicycled furiously round Dublin on his ancient Raleigh, charging like a whirlwind into the offices of his colleagues, or bounding up the stairs three at a time. The way Mick Collins charged around like a bull in a china shop, assessing the situation in a twinkling and barking out decisive orders, had a startling effect on subordinates. Half a century later veterans of the Anglo-Irish conflict would wryly recall the superhuman activities of the restless Adjutant-General. The word that came most readily to lips in describing him was ‘magnetic’: ‘You became aware of his presence, even when he wasn’t visible, that uncomfortable magnetism of the very air, a tingling of the nerves.’"
"He was a difficult room-mate, always first to be up early in the morning and stamping around the room disturbing the others and hauling them out of bed. All the while he would be talking animatedly, perhaps bouncing the latest ideas (which had come to him in the night) off his long-suffering bed-fellows. He had a temperament impatient of all restraint, even that imposed from within, ‘exploding in jerky gestures, oaths, jests and laughter; so vital that, like his facial expression, it evades analysis.’ Michael’s words and actions, taken separately, might be commonplace, but the vibrancy and ebullience of the man was infectious. He exuded an aura of confidence that inspired others to tackle assignments more readily; they felt safer and stronger and more fearless when he was around. Not everyone responded to his charismatic presence; there were some who considered him arrogant and insolent, stiff-necked and rude."
"He (Michael) went to inordinate lengths to provide comforts for the Sinn Fein prisoners; he even noted the particular brands of tobacco they smoked and made sure that they got them regularly. When he could not get the brand that Austin Stack preferred he sent poor Hannie on a hunt round all the tobacconists of West London for it. On one occasion Joe O’Reilly, at Michael’s behest, asked solicitously after a sick relative of the Chief of Staff. Momentarily the adamantine mask slipped and Brugha’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Mick is so kind,’ he sobbed. ‘He thinks of everybody.’"
"Orderly in everything, he habitually used a fountain pen and abhorred a pencil. He would never use one himself and he became tetchy if anyone addressed a letter to him in pencil. What annoyed him most of all was letters signed with a rubber stamp. He ran a tight ship in his various offices and had an absolute fetish for punctuality. Woe betide the person, regardless of rank, who was a second late; Michael would greet them at the door, swinging his pocket-watch ominously in his hand and glowering furiously."
"He invented nicknames and diminutives for friend and foe alike: Beaslai, Brugha and Mulcahy would become Piersheen, Cahileen and Dickeen, though not always to their faces. He had a genius for repartee and the stories of Michael’s witty one-liners are legion. Underneath the humour, however, there was a roughness and sometimes the comradely banter turned to merciless teasing. Joe O’Reilly was often the butt of this cruel humour, but so too was Tom Cullen. ‘Schoolboyish jokes and bubbling high spirits made him an uncomfortable companion. After a time one grew to expect nothing but the unexpected from him, in word and act.’ Late at night the tension of the day would be released in the sort of boisterous high-jinks for which he was notorious at Stafford and Frongoch (Gaols)."
"Mrs. (Moya Llewelyn) Davies’ first impressions of Collins were of a rather pale, heavily-built young man who smoked incessantly and was given to bombastic utterances."
"A man who rejoiced in his own strength, of mind as of body, he could show ruthless self-control. In these early years of hard work and danger he was a heavy smoker. Suddenly he stopped. He explained to his sister Katie: ‘I was becoming a slave to cigarettes. I’ll be a slave to nothing.’"
"His favourite saint was St. Paul. ‘I know him fairly well,’ he wrote, observing that he carried a relic of that apostle of many perils in his pocket. It was no mere sharing of tribulation that attracted him to the saint, however. ‘You see he had the divine saving grace of not having been always good,’ he wrote. … Collins had always been a lover of Peter Pan; the eternal boy in himself was fascinated, perhaps even a little envious of him."
“Michael Collins bent over his heaps of documents, sometimes with furrowed brow and again with transient flashes of mirth in his lively and kindly eyes. Sometimes he swore loudly and sometimes he sighed. He knew himself that he was a hard and exacting taskmaster, yes, a difficult man to work with in some moods, like a volcano one minute, with outstretched hand and apology five minutes later, when his sense of justice erupted to reproach his outbursts. Comely, too, energetic and wiry frame, strong and pallid features on which was stamped unusual determination, and in his searching gaze will and a suggestion of force in reserve.”
"From 1917 to the Truce of July, 1921, the most ‘wanted’ man in the whole of Ireland walked and cycled about the streets of the city; and remained free. Strangest of all facts in regard to the hunt for Collins is that once seen he was remembered for a long time afterwards, so striking was his physical appearance. Again, he had certain very noticeable mannerisms: that toss of the head, for instance. But chameleon-like, with his companions, though without any tricks, he merged with the company he was in; and when alone, walking or cycling, he wore the air of perfect innocence that almost always goes unnoticed. He never impersonated, never went in disguise; the secret of his continued freedom lay in a rigorous self-control which shunned recklessness. Collins was, if anything, the direct opposite to the man as portrayed by journalists and writers in search of a story. The ‘dare-devil,’ the ‘laughing glamorous gunman,’ never existed in the person of Michael Collins. The real Collins was a man with work to do; a fastidious, methodical go-getter; and an exacting, sometimes tyrannical, task-master to those who worked under him. The most lethal weapon ever carried by Collins was a fountain pen. At the other extreme, it has been stated in print, that he was not a man of mystery. If we are to accept this statement as fact, it is to give the lie to many of Collins’ actions; and to disprove what he himself wrote in his letters, notes, and diaries; also, it will insinuate that many of those who knew him deliberately cultivated a legend. But there is nothing of the legend concealed in his writings; nor is there in this statement by a former close acquaintance of his: ‘…He was a very difficult person to really know.’"
"In 1921 a visiting American journalist cabled his editor: ‘No interview with Collins. Did not find the man. Found a god.’ The fact is: Collins was not a god; but he was a great man. His presence and his influence enlivened the Irish scene. He was adept at blowing away the cobwebs of inertia; he was ever thrusting for action."
"A County Cork upbringing was obvious in the abrupt way in which he spoke, though his voice was that of a West Corkman as distinct from those of Cork City where the voices go up and down. He could speak for an hour without notes in an easy and relaxed manner. As a speechmaker he was forthright in expressing himself and although he left much of the speechmaking to those possessed of silvery tongues and the ‘die-for-Ireland’ flag-wavers, he could, when the occasion demanded it, give ample proof of his abilities as a speaker. The way of his career was divorced from the platform and from public speaking and his personal preference was for the more subtle ways of conspiracy and man-to-man contacts—a boy of the back-room where the real power lay. He was of a normally happy, if sometimes serious, disposition, acutely aware of the responsibilities which were his yet supremely confident in his ability to cope with them. Judged by any standard, the outstanding feature of his character is that of humanity. He was recognized as being the most humane of men."
"Kevin O’Brien (no relative), who knew Collins well in those days, comments…: ‘A later realization as to the quality of Collins’ character prompts me to write and say that, even in his London days, his earlier days, he had any amount [of] personality. His character was such that I, at least, found him to be absolutely dependable. There was nothing of selfishness in him. A certain air about him—call it magic if you will—drew many of us into his company. We used to say that he was “game,” that he shirked nothing, and this was certainly true of him. But he was never reckless with his gameness. As one facet of his character I particularly recall an occasion when, after Michael had been in a boisterous mood, he went suddenly silent. He had a book of poems in his hand. He started to read aloud and we started to laugh. He went white with temper, stormed and raved at us. We only laughed the more. He then lunged out at me, and I was so full of laughter, I could do no more than fall over helplessly. He struck me—I have the mark today. We parted on the worst of terms. At five o’clock the next morning, my mother…was awakened by someone knocking at the door. It was Michael. Overcome with remorse at what he thought had been a cowardly blow on his part, he had been unable to sleep, and so had come round to my home to apologize to me.’"
"In Frongoch (Gaol)—as at Stafford—Collins contrived to make a good personal appearance. He was essentially a clean-shirt man, always fastidiously neat and tidy, his face never showing any trace of blue chin or even the beginnings of a beard. For this almost super-human effort of cleanliness in the conditions of internment, he became the butt, much to his disgust and rage, of the other internees, who invariably looked like brigands. ‘D’you pull ‘em out Mick?’ they jeered at him, referring to his lack of hairy growth of face and chin. No doubt Collins had thought the matter over, coming to a conclusion that the lack of growth represented a slur on his masculinity. For this reason, he sought to enforce a certain show of bombast on the other prisoners, many of whom early came to know that lack of hairs on Collins’ features did not also mean a lack of strength."