It is the shot that a century later still echoes around Ireland as an unanswered question: who killed Michael Collins?
On this much, everyone agrees: a bullet to the head killed the revolutionary leader on 22 August 1922 near Béal na Bláth, a village in County Cork, during Ireland’s civil war. Who did it, and why, remains a source of controversy and speculation that now bubbles as strong as ever.
The upcoming centenary, and the discovery of new evidence about a suspect, have prompted historians, film-makers and forensic scientists to reinvestigate Collins’s death – with some calling for another autopsy.
“We should exhume the body and find out the nature of the wounds, otherwise we’ll be talking about this for another century,” said Paddy Cullivan, an academic turned film-maker.
Collins was a leader of the original Irish Republican Army (IRA), a guerrilla force that fought British forces to a stalemate during Ireland’s war of independence from 1919 to 1921. He signed a treaty with the British government that granted 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties de facto independence as the Irish Free State. IRA hardliners rejected the treaty, leading to a bitter civil war.
Collins was leading the provisional Irish government to victory over the anti-treaty side when his convoy was ambushed at Béal na Bláth. He dismounted and was firing back when he was shot and killed, aged 31.
An information vacuum opened up: there was no inquiry, no death certificate and the autopsy report was lost.
Most people accept one of the ambushers fired the fatal bullet, but there is dispute over the identity of the shooter and whether the shot was a fluke, a ricochet or the work of a skilled sniper given it was fired at dusk, in poor visibility, from more than 150 metres (490ft) away.
Lee Harvey Oswald, in contrast, was about 100 metres from John F Kennedy and needed three shots in bright sunshine to kill the US president.
There is also dispute over whether the anti-treaty leader Éamon de Valera, who was in the area at the time, knew of the ambush. Neil Jordan’s 1996 biopic, Michael Collins, depicted him as complicit. De Valera went on to lead Ireland as taoiseach and president.
Another version says Collins’s own comrades in the convoy fired the fatal shot, possibly in an alcohol-fuelled blunder since some had been drinking, or as part of a conspiracy by government figures to remove a rival. Yet another theory claims British intelligence orchestrated the killing to stop Collins subverting Northern Ireland, which remained under British rule.
The state broadcaster, RTÉ, has lined up detectives, academics, psychologists and the retired state pathologist Prof Marie Cassidy to examine the evidence in an upcoming documentary, Cold Case Collins.
In the 1980s a former IRA member endorsed longstanding rumours that the shooter was Denis “Sonny” O’Neill, a marksman who served in the British army during the first world war before joining the anti-treaty IRA.
But Cullivan recently combed German and British archives that said O’Neill returned home from the trenches with a 40% disability to his right arm, casting doubt on his assassin credentials.
Cullivan has made a documentary, The Murder of Michael Collins, that leaves the shooter’s identity unresolved. “It’s incredible that the most important man in Ireland at that time doesn’t get an inquest or a death certificate. The whole thing is beyond strange.”
Diarmaid Ferriter, a leading historian who has published a book on the civil war, Between Two Hells, said the murkiness around Collins’s death allowed myths to flourish. The nascent Irish state claimed his last words were “forgive them”, an unlikely story intended to exalt Collins’s life as a “tragic unfinished symphony”, said Ferriter.
“Classic propaganda. You want to depict your fallen leader as beyond pure, generous even in death. We forget the ordinariness of what happened. He was foolhardy to stop and return fire. There was drink taken. Mistakes made that seem obvious in retrospect.”
The historian doubts the theory that Emmet Dalton, one of Collins’s senior aides, killed his chief, accidentally or on purpose, and covered it up. “He must have been a hell of an actor to carry that lie. He was in awe of Collins and became a keeper of the flame.”
Ferriter said debate over the shooter’s identity distracted from the more important task of understanding a conflict that scarred Ireland. “There’s an awful lot of silence around the civil war, a lot of trauma internalised.”
The author Brendan Lynch is an outspoken critic who accuses Collins of provoking a murderous campaign against first world war veterans – as depicted in Lynch’s novel The Old Gunner and his Medals – and of diverting Ireland from a path to peaceful independence. “A man of violence and victim of his own pride. He left cover and was shot, simple as that. Lived by the sword and died by the sword. It’s not a popular opinion: it’s like casting aspersions on a saint.”