Michael Collins, soldier and politician who is a leading figure in the struggle for Irish independence in the early 20th century, is shot and killed in ambush at Béal na Bláth, County Cork, on August 22, 1922.
In August 1922, the Irish Civil War seems to be winding down. The Irish Free State has regained control of most of the country and Collins is making frequent trips to inspect areas recently recovered from anti-Treaty forces.
His plan to travel to his native Cork on August 20 is considered particularly dangerous and he is strenuously advised against it by several trusted associates. County Cork is an Irish Republican Army (IRA) stronghold, much of it still held by anti-Treaty forces. Yet he seems determined to make the trip without delay. He has fended off a number of attempts on his life in the preceding weeks and has acknowledged more than once, in private conversation, that the Civil War might end his life at any moment. On several occasions Collins assures his advisors that they will not shoot him in his own county.
On August 22, 1922 Collins sets out from Cork City on a circuitous tour of West Cork. He passes first through Macroom then takes the Bandon road via Crookstown. This leads through Béal na Bláth, an isolated crossroads. There they stop at a local pub, now known as the The Diamond Bar, to ask a question of a man standing at the crossroad. The man turns out to be an anti-Treaty sentry. He and an associate recognise Collins in the back of the open-top car. As a result, an ambush is laid by an anti-Treaty column at that point, on the chance that the convoy might come through again on their return journey.
Shortly before 8:00 PM, Collins’ convoy approaches Béal na Bláth for the second time. By that time most of the ambush party has dispersed and gone for the day, leaving just five or six men on the scene. Two are disarming a mine in the road, while three on a laneway overlooking them, provide cover. A dray cart, placed across the road, remains at the far end of the ambush site.
Shots are exchanged. Collins, who suffers a head wound, is the only fatality. Almost every other detail of what happens is uncertain, due to conflicting reports from participants and other flaws in the record.
Some of the most disputed details include how the shooting starts, what kind of fire the convoy comes under, where the ambushers’ first shots strike, where Collins is and what he is doing when he is hit, whether anyone else is wounded, whether the armoured car’s machine gun is fully functional throughout the engagement, who moves Collins’ body, and who is nearby when Collins falls.
Many questions have been raised concerning the handling of Collins’s remains immediately following his death. Among them are the inordinately long time the convoy takes to cover the twenty miles back to Cork City, who searched his clothes, and what became of documents he is known to have been carrying on his person.
Collins’s body is transported by sea from Cork to Dublin. He lay in state for three days in Dublin City Hall where tens of thousands of mourners file past his coffin to pay their respects, including many British soldiers departing Ireland who had fought against him. His funeral mass takes place at Dublin’s Pro Cathedral where a number of foreign and Irish dignitaries are in attendance. Some 500,000 people attend his funeral, almost one fifth of the country’s population at that time.
No official inquiry is ever undertaken into Collins’s death and consequently there is no official version of what happened, nor are there any authoritative, detailed contemporary records.
An annual commemoration ceremony takes place each year in August at the ambush site at Béal na Bláth, County Cork, organised by The Béal na mBláth Commemoration Committee. There is also a remembrance ceremony in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery at Collins’s grave on the anniversary of his death.