With the one-hundred-year anniversary of the tragic death of Michael Collins upon us, tributes and discussion are flowing from all political directions, from organisations who couldn’t be more dissimilar in terms of ideology and political history. Indeed, Collins remains a towering figure for many people and most political groups on this island want to claim at least some of his legacy, or in the case of our ruling class, appropriate him for their ends. We all know the well told stories of Collins’ life, his involvement in the Easter Rising, his leadership in the War of Independence and most controversially, his signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It is beyond the scope of this essay to look into biographical details or to give judgement on the aforementioned treaty, there are essays and works aplenty regarding such topics.
In this essay I shall look at Collins’ seminal but at times neglected work The Path to Freedom published in 1922. The work is, for the most part, a reply to Éamon de Valera and to broader anti-treaty sentiment. This does give the text a polemical edge that may be off-putting to some but we are instead going to look past this aspect and focus on the strong positive vision that resides in the text. It is easy to say what you are against but it is another thing entirely to say what you are for, in a way that is coherent and attainable. Collins achieved this in The Path to Freedom and proved himself to be not just a great military tactician and organiser but also an intellectual of serious calibre. While he may lack P.H. Pearse’s poetic touch, Collins truly had an equally far reaching and astute mind. I shall focus on the final sections of the book, appropriately called ‘Distinctive Culture’, ‘Building up Ireland’ and ‘Freedom within Grasp’. In these chapters Collins displays remarkable economic insight and strikes a balance between idealism and practicality that is rarely achieved.
The chapter titled ‘Distinctive Culture’ begins:
For the last hundred years or more Ireland has been a nation in little more than in name, Britain wanted us for her own economic ends, as well as to satisfy her love of conquest.
What strikes one about this comment is that, a hundred years on, it is still true and if anything, even more true than when it was written. Indeed, Ireland and Irishness are now just another brand for the Globalist order. A parade on Saint Patrick’s Day is as deep as any understanding of Ireland goes. Economically there is no strength in Ireland, we are at the mercy of foreign powers and capital. Our people are educated to merely serve faceless entities that don’t really know or love them and are at times hostile to the interests of the Irish people. While our current political satraps are happy with this state of affairs, Collins himself put his mind into the past to find an answer to the problem. This was not mere nostalgia for Collins, he looked to the past to find that true Irish character and way of life that had been perverted by centuries of foreign rule:
The pertinacity of the Irish civilisation was due to the democratic basis of its economic system and the aristocracy of its culture. It was the reverse of Roman civilisation in which the state was held together by a central authority [….] but not being rooted in the interests and respect of the people themselves, [Roman civilisation] could not survive.
The contrast here between the Romans and the ancient Gael is significant. Collins is not just showing off his historical understanding. Rather he is making a subtle but clear challenge to the idea that the Roman State represented the political apotheosis of the ancient world. It is indisputable that the Gaelic Brehon Law had all the complexity and diligence of Roman law, it could even be said that it had many superior aspects. Rome needed a strong central authority to implement its law, its emperor a god man of sorts, whereas Brehon law survived for millennia within a far more decentralised system. Consider how the conversion to Christianity barely affected the Brehon Laws, such was their perfection for the Irish character whether pagan or Christian. What Collins gives us here is self-confidence. We had a political and economic system that was distinct from the British or Roman, and in truth more suitable to our needs. Collins tells us that it is within our grasp to have it again but what did he mean by a democratic basis for the economic system?
We today understand democracy to mean ‘one man, one vote’ in relation to choosing political representatives but what is a democratic economy? Indeed, every relatively free market of exchange is a democracy of sorts. People ‘vote with their wallets’ as the saying goes but Collins is actually touching on something much deeper here than a banal capitalist talking point. Democracy means literally the ‘rule of a people’ or demos. We cannot make an abstraction out of ‘the people’, there is no ‘people’ in the world but more accurately there are Irish people, English people, German people, etc. A true democracy of any meaning must be the rule of a particular people and not an abstract concept. For us, this is what Collins means by democratic economy in a parallel sense. He envisioned an economy that actually suited the local character of his people, not a vulgar capitalism nor a degenerative communism but rather a system that was literally of the people. Both from the Irish people and for the Irish people:
We must have a political, economic and social system in accordance with our national character. It must be a system in which our material, intellectual and spiritual needs and tastes will find expression and satisfaction. We then grow to be in ourselves and in what we produce and, in the villages, and towns and cities in which we live and in our homes; an expression of the light which is within us.
Collins continues this economic theme in the next chapter ‘Building up Ireland’. While Collins certainly wished to embrace a modern economy, he wanted to make a clear break from the vulgar industrialisation that had accompanied England’s modernisation:
That object is not to be able to boast of enormous wealth or of great volume of trade, for their own sake. It is not to see our country covered with smoking chimneys and factories. It is not to show a great national balance sheet, nor to point to a people producing wealth with the self-obliteration of a hive of bees.
Ultimately, Collins wished to avoid the extreme wealth inequality we see today, where one group slaves and toils away, while another group reaps the rewards in luxury. Collins desired that ‘Irish labour shall be free to play the part which belongs to it in helping to shape our nation’. Here he touches upon, though does not fully develop, the conflict between labour and finance capital, which is the handmaiden of our current massive wealth gap. Collins instinctually knew that Irish labour must at all times hold a privileged position in Ireland. As well as this, Collins understood the importance of national productive power, though he doesn’t use that particular term. Significant parts of the text call for the development of infrastructure, water-based power plants and of course agricultural power. Collins rightly attested to the wealth of natural resources that the Irish people have under their feet, if only that national genius could be directed to the building of national productive power.
What strikes us here is the remarkable consistency found in Irish Nationalist thought. Collins appears to be in complete agreement with his older mentor Arthur Griffith (whose centenary also falls this year). Griffith himself wrote and spoke much on the development of Ireland’s productive power, basing his ideas on the economic theory of List. He wrote in 1917:
I reject that so-called political economy which neither recognises the principle of nationality nor takes into consideration the satisfaction of its interests, which regards chiefly the more exchangeable value of things without taking into consideration the mental and political, the present and the future interests and the productive powers of the nation.
We see similar ideas in the lectures of Isaac Butt and in the writings of Pearse. Though Pearse was not concerned too much with economics, he clearly wished to develop the Irish people’s mentality and character through a nationalist education system. Such consistency only lends more evidence to the reality of the Irish spirit, that so many great men came to such similar conclusions. It must always be remembered that Marxist socialism was usually alien to the thoughts of these great men. Though some of our nation’s heroes may have dabbled in leftist theory, the general trend of thought was always towards a nationalist protectionist economy.
If economics dominate The Path to Freedom it is by no means an armchair analysis. Collins himself was Minister for Finance and in his time had economic successes. In April 1919 the Irish government needed financial injection and it was Collins himself who organised the details, the advertising and even the collection of money for government bonds. A remarkable feat whilst still in the midst of leading the War of Independence. Indeed, the first attempts of the nascent Irish government to raise funds fell flat, and British intelligence believed that the newly declared independent Ireland would collapse due to lack of finance. It was Collins who turned the tide on this. Just as he had been a fantastic organiser of military men, it seemed Collins could also organise the economy of a state that was by all accounts an underdog. It was in fact the success of these bonds among the Irish people that led to Lloyd George declaring the first Dáil an illegal institution. Truly then as now, money seems to greatly motivate the enemies of Ireland.
In conclusion, I simply cannot go into every comment or insight that Collins writes in The Path to Freedom, lest this essay turn into a book itself! I have focused on only one aspect, the economic. In truth there is a wealth of ideas, historical context and planning in the text. I encourage all nationalists to read it. They may not agree with every point, in fact it is certain that they won’t. Rather, it should give us an opportunity to create and engage with a positive vision for Ireland. Collins signposts a way forward for us, however imperfectly, and we are grateful to him for his sacrifice. He fought for Irish freedom like no other, we may not see his like again. I want to finish with a final quote from The Path to Freedom:
We are free to remedy these things. Complete liberty – what it stands for in our Gaelic imagination – cannot be got until we have impregnated the whole of our people with the Gaelic desire. Only then shall we be worthy of the fullest freedom.
The National Party agrees wholeheartedly, and this task shall be undertaken by a new nationalist generation.
This article was submitted by a National Party member. If you would like to submit an article for publication on the National Party website, follow this link.