Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Song Lyric of the Day (Black 47, on Michael Collins)


“We fought against each other, two brothers steeped in blood
But I never doubted that your heart was broken in the flood
And though we had to shoot you down in golden Béal na Blath
I always knew that Ireland lost her greatest son of all.”—Larry Kirwan, “The Big Fellah,” performed by Black 47 on their Home of the Brave CD (1994)

Like their song “Bobby Kennedy,” the tribute by Black 47 to Michael Collins examines, with vast historical awareness that matches its songwriting craft, a legendarily tough, surprisingly vulnerable leader struck down before he could fulfill his potential. And, as with RFK, the fate of Collins’ country was altered fundamentally when “The Big Fellah” was ambushed on this date in 1922.

Those of Irish descent are likely to look at both Collins and Kennedy with a mixture of Celtic romanticism and Greek fatalism. Both men died much too soon—RFK at 42, Collins a decade younger. And both had seemingly courted death by brushing off warnings by aides to be more careful.

The Béal na Blath allusion in the song comes from Gaelic: “Mouth of Flowers.” It beckons with all the soft seductiveness of death itself in its early stages. Indeed, the Irish revolutionary leader, now commander-in-chief of the National Army of the new Irish Free State, couldn’t conceive that this valley in the county that he called home would contain people in any way hostile to him.


Two lines from “Bobby Kennedy” could be inserted, almost as appropriately, into “Big Fellah”: “Don't get mad, just get even/Keep on going though your heart is bleeding.” The reference is obvious in the song about Kennedy—Bobby’s searing sorrow over the assassination of brother Jack—and, in Collins’ case, it applies to someone he regarded as close to a brother: his comrade in arms Harry Boland. They split over the free state issue, but when Collins heard of Boland’s death in the Irish Civil War, he burst out weeping at the news.

The loss of two men so young and full of life as Kennedy and Collins, along with tumultuous struggles that engaged them at the time of their deaths, may account as much as any other factor for the conspiracy theories that flourished after their deaths. You can take your pick who wanted Bobby dead: the Mafia, the Teamsters, LBJ, etc. Such was Britain’s longstanding spying on the Irish that many Collins partisans believed he had been set up by the British Secret Service. Probably the most vivid demonstration of a different line came from a Catholic priest in Cork who delivered a stinging sermon about de Valera's part in the unfolding events: "There was a scowling face at a window looking out over that lonely valley and de Valera could tell who it was."

RFK and Collins have also inspired countless ruminations on what might have transpired, both for themselves and their countries, had they not been struck down by bullets. Bobby, his partisans think, would have kept the Democratic Party from fracturing into the “New Politics” factions that championed his opponent in the primaries, Gene McCarthy, and the old guard of labor unions and blue-collar ethnic groups. Thus, he would have defeated Richard Nixon for the Presidency in November 1968. He would have pulled America out of Vietnam more quickly, and, of course, there would not have been a Watergate.

With Collins, the speculation is based on less wishful thinking. He would have sought, far more than the old boss who had become his opponent over Ireland’s treaty with Britain, Eamon de Valera, to ameliorate divisions between Protestants and Catholics. Just as crucially, the onetime Minister of Finance for the Irish revolutionary movement had far-reaching, specific development ideas that would have steered the nation away from both socialism and laissez-faire capitalism. In short, Ireland would not be afflicted with what became its characteristics over the next four decades dominated by de Valera, according to Tim Pat Coogan’s 1992 biography of Collins, The Man Who Made Ireland: “Bitterness, cynicism, disillusionment, emigration, censorship, clericalism and stagnation.”

The image here comes from John Lavery’s painting Michael Collins (Love of Ireland), in the Dublin City Gallery, Hugh Lane.

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