Collins, de Valera and the Fight for Irish Independence
S 2020


          Is Irish history a special taste?  Not of general interest to PLATO members? Our vote is “No.”  It’s an object lesson in the creation of a people’s independence.  The oppression of the Irish by Britain lasted 750 years.  Beaten down, essentially dispossessed in their own country, treated as savages and infidels, they finally rebelled, managed to free themselves from the English and asserted control of their own destiny in 1919.  Without significant weaponry or foreign assistance, they relied on skilled leadership and commitment.

            The two principal leaders of that rebellion were Michael Collins ("Big Fellow") and Eamon de Valera ("Long Fellow").  They came from different backgrounds, had different life experiences and very different skill sets, but both came to believe that only violence could free Ireland from English rule.  And they prevailed where others had failed.

Despite their alliance to gain that independence, rather than settle in to enjoy it, Collins and de Valera led their respective followers into a brutal civil war, with consequences (including the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland)  which have lasted until today.  When the civil war ended, Collins was dead and de Valera was the political leader.  And he remained the principal Irish political leader into the 1950’s.  And the legacy of the rebellion and civil war led to the more recent “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. 

              This is a fascinating story of how the Irish fought for independence, how the English yoke was finally thrown off, the civil war, the creation and operation of the Irish Free State, de Valera’s career as its political leader and the military, social and political aspects of all of them.  We will start with a summary of what English rule meant, the failed rebellions of 1798, 1803 and 1916 and the 19th century movements to assert Irish political participation, cultural pride and land reform.  We will then move to the events leading to the successful rebellion, civil war and the creation of a nation. 

Many myths have grown up around these events. Among our tasks are to try to separate the myths from the realities, to take an objective view of the events themselves, to honestly appraise both Collins and de Valera, to see how the events of almost 100 years ago still galvanize emotions and to see how their respective attitudes and actions still play out today.  These events raise questions about whether the rebels were justified in forsaking peaceful methods to achieve independence in favor or violence, whether the violence of the civil war was justified, and to what extent the egos of the leaders influenced their actions.


Weekly Topics

1.  Background, including geography, early history, tribal society, St. Patrick & the Catholic Church, Strongbow & the Norman conquest

2.  British occupation, including suppression of Catholics, Penal Laws, Ulster settlement, rebellions of 1798 and 1803, Act of Union, Famine

3.  Post Famine 19th and early 20th centuries, including O'Connell, Young Ireland and Sinn Fein

4.  Parnell and attempts at land reform and home rule and cultural revival

        Play: "Cathleen ni Houlihan" by Yeats

        Novel:  "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by James Joyce  (short exerpt)

5.  Biography of Michael Collins through 1915

6.  Biography of Eamon de Valera through 1915

7.  1916 Rising, roles of Collins & de Valera,  rise of Sinn Fein

           Play: "The Plough and the Stars" by Sean O'Casey

            Film:  "Ryan's Daughter"

            Yeats poems:  Easter 1916; Sixteen Dead Men; The Rose Tree

8.  British reactions to 1916 Rising, Preparation for Rebellion

9.  1919 Rebellion: Leaders, Orders, Personnel, Outcome

            Play:  "The Shadow of a Gunman" by Sean O'Casey

            Story: "Guests of the Nation" by Frank O'Connor

10. Peace negotiations and Treaty

11.  Civil War: Reasons, Fighting, Personnel, Outcome

            Play: "Juno and the Paycock" by Sean O'Casey

            Film: "The Wind that Shakes the Barley"

12. Assassination of Collins:  How & Why and Effects

            Film: "Michael Collins"

13. Creation of the Irish Free State, including roles of politicians, Church, parties

14. Creation of Republic of Ireland, 1937 Constitution, continuing divisions, retrospective look at Collins & de Valera and their respective                     legacies


The core book will be “Big Fellow, Long Fellow,” a dual biography of the lives and times of Collins and de Valera by T. Ryle Dwyer.  (Collins has long been referred to as the “the big fellow” and de Valera as “the long fellow.”)   There are several individual biographies and many books and other writings about the events and the periods.  In addition, there is available to SDG members a good library of books on Irish history and issues.  For example, we have a book with transcripts of 250 radio shows on Irish history, some of which can be easily copied and distributed for individual topics.

In addition, there are movies to watch and plays, stories and poems to read which illuminate the subjects and offer more personal views of the society in which these events took place and the individuals who were affected by them.  Those who have seen the move “Michael Collins” have some sense of the character and importance of both Collins and de Valera.  Those who have seen “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” have some sense of the intensity of the civil war.  The plays and stories and poems are indicated above.  The plays of Sean O'Casey are classics showing the effects of the 1916 Rising, 1919 rebellion and civil war on ordinary Dubliners.

Finally, there are podcast platforms which have many podcasts on our subjects.  These platforms include: The Irish History Show, The History Ireland Show, The Irish History Podcast and Glucksman House Ireland.