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The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth? Paperback – November 15, 2013
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About the Author
A lecturer in history and social anthropology, S M Sigerson has been active in NGOs, community groups, and electoral politics, through life. Since the 1970s, the author has devoted on-going in-depth study to the subject of secretive interference in lawful political activity, including politically-motivated killings. Eleven years’ intensive research went into the preparation of this book, including first-hand acquaintance with places, people and culture connected with Collins' life and times. This is the first author to approach the enigma of Collins' fate, armed with this unique range of experience.
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The central concern of the book turns on what actually happened that day at Béal na Bláth. With admirable persistence, Sigerson returns time after time to examine the proceedings from different angles. But her exhaustive, reiterative examination can lead to no more a firm conclusion than that all the witnesses disagree about everything that matters, and agree only on a few things--such as that the sun did indeed set that day. Throughout, the author laments that there was never an official inquest into the death of Michael Collins. The Provisional Government simply accepted the assertion that Collins had been shot by anti-treaty IRA forces (or maybe shot by accident via a ricochet), and never systematically took depositions from witnesses, nor secured physical evidence. This is an important and valid point: I think that Sigerson is right to call this lack of an inquest a failure, and I agree that the present Irish Government should hold such an inquest. I think the chance of definitive new findings is small, but they would at least be admitting that a mistake had been made in not holding the inquest in the first place. Then again, who knows what might emerge from some archive previously classified as secret.
It is beyond the scope of this review to examine all the details presented by Sigerson about what may--or may not--have happened on that day. They do make interesting--sometimes jaw-dropping--reading. For instance, there is the curious figure of Jock McPeak, the gunner at the Vickers machine gun in the armored car that formed the centerpiece of Collins' escort. When asked about the anemic volume of fire put out by his gun that day, McPeak explained that he had somehow mislaid his loader. The Vickers is a crew-operated weapon, with a normal complement of two men: a gunner and an assistant gunner-loader. In this case, the loader's duty would have included placing loose shells in empty belts, because McPeak set out with only 2 loaded belts. Of course, anything McPeak says could be taken with a grain of salt--if one remembers that he deserted and stole this very same armored car a few weeks after the incident, and sold it for scrap (or so he says). This also put beyond reach a key piece of physical evidence from the scene of the assassination.
One thing Sigerson makes abundantly clear is that it's harder to tell who was the more incompetent: Collins' Free State escort or the anti-treaty IRA forces who ambushed him. Indeed, the IRA will hardly use the word "ambush", and admits to, at best, firing a few desultory rounds in the general direction of the Free State soldiers. Really, they were just stopping at the pub for a few glasses of stout; the fact that both Michael Collins, his escort, and Eamon DeValera were in the immediate vicinity was entirely nugatory. As for the escort, one hardly needs to look beyond their Table of Organization. As Sigerson says, "The convoy was bristling with officers: one Commander-in-Chief, one major general, one commandant, three captains, two lieutenants and one sergeant. Nine out of twenty-five." And the sergeant was in fact a driver. No wonder these guys acted like the Keystone Kops when they ran into a spot of trouble--you can't organize a bucket brigade with that many officers and no non-coms.
I found this book interesting, with much useful background on the life and death of Michael Collins. In fact, I recommend that you read it if you are interested in Collins. So why do I only give it three stars? The problem with THE ASSASSINATION OF MICHAEL COLLINS is that, in a case where the testimony is so conflicting and the facts so jumbled, the author feels compelled to make accusation and assertions that she does not support with facts or valid argument. I suppose that it was not satisfying enough for her to spread her hands and say, "In the end, we just don't know", and to call for further inquiry. However, it is a serious matter to level accusations at a man, to all but say that he fired the fatal shot--and to do so without evidence and to buttress this accusation with false statements. Sigerson accuses General Emmett Dalton of the Free State Army of being the key member of a putative British Secret Service operation to kill Michael Collins. Dalton was indeed accompanying Collins when the latter was shot, but there is no shred of evidence that Dalton killed Collins, or was party to his killing. Sigerson does make some startling assertions about Dalton's background which indeed might give one pause: "Reputedly, Dalton's British Army service in World War I was with the intelligence corps. Army sources now confirm that, in World War II, he was with British Army intelligence again".*
Now, if Dalton was a British spook before he joined Collins and the Irish Free State Army, and if he was employed as a spy by them again in the Second World War, one IS inclined to at least question where the man's true loyalties lay. However, Sigerson gives no authoritative sources to substantiate her claims about ANY connection between General Dalton and any British secret organization. According to public sources (yes, Wikipedia), Dalton served in the 48th Infantry Brigade, 16th Irish Division during World War I, and was decorated for his fighting at the Somme. During World War II, he was making movies. (Interestingly, one of his later credits was THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD.) Such an accusation, without proof, is a marked flaw in any book that purports to be historical.
*This quote is derived from my Kindle version of the Sigerson book. Kindle tells me that it is located on "page 173 of 412".
I had heard of Michael Collins before reading The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth? but did not know the full extent of his truly fascinating story. The focus of this nonfiction work is the death of this enigmatic historical figure, but Sigerson wisely realizes that to achieve a wider audience she must preface the story with an introduction to its main character. My Dad upon finishing this deeply researched piece of non-fiction called me. “Is this true?” he asked, “It’s like a Dateline mystery!” Sigerson doesn’t sensationalize the case instead chooses to present the evidence and allow readers to draw their own logical conclusions.
Thankfully for this reader and my father, Sigerson lays out the political climate and historical backdrop of the time in a way that is easy to follow. The notes section at the end of the book features a list of 285 references to aid those of us not so familiar with the personality or the case. In the Kindle edition, it was easy to click back and forth and this extra gem fleshed out the case while reading. If you are not familiar with Collins, his life or his death, you will have the information to enjoy this work of nonfiction at hand and may even want to look further into the life of this influential, historical figure.
The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth? was beautifully written and credibly presented. There are no answers, but there are bigger questions raised and ideas put forth to question what likely generations of Irish schoolchildren have learned as a fact. If you’re a history buff or a mystery lover, you’ll enjoy reading The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth?.
One difficulty of the book is that Irish politics were so extraordinarily complicated before, during, and after the Great War. It makes me think of Syria today. A comprehensive account of the people and parties involved in Ireland's effort to achieve home rule may lie beyond the capacity of any book on Irish politics, but tracking names of politicians, military leaders, schemers, factions, causes, affiliations, and assassins - on the Irish side as well as the opposing British side - is a job. A glossary of all these items could help readers maintain clarity about the back story.
As an introduction to the murky world of the Irish revolution against British power, this book offers an excellent account.