Liam Neeson’s ‘morally repugnant’ IRA drama: Why the Michael Collins controversy rages to this day

Liam Neeson in Michael Collins
Liam Neeson in Michael Collins - AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

Endorsements for major films usually come from critics and broadcasters, but, ever so often, a higher power altogether can be called upon. Perhaps the apotheosis of this came when Pope John Paul II was said to endorse Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ with the words “It is as it was.”

Neil Jordan’s 1996 historical epic Michael Collins couldn’t command the infallible approval of the successor of St Peter – but it did have the next best thing. The former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, Garret FitzGerald, was sufficiently impressed by the film to offer a full-throttled endorsement of it in the Irish Times that September. The picture was a political hot potato, and for FitzGerald to say publicly “by any standards, the film is a triumph, and for many Irish people viewing it, is likely to prove a deeply moving experience” was money-can’t-buy publicity for the film.

However, according to Jordan’s new memoir Amnesiac, there may be a more complicated story behind the endorsement. Jordan claims in his book that he ran into FitzGerald and profusely thanked him for his comments, to which the politician replied: “That reminds me, I must send in an invoice, I still haven’t been paid.” Jordan asked, “By the Irish Times?” FitzGerald replied: “No, by Warner Bros.” On paper, this sounds like a wry joke, but Jordan has suggested in a new interview with the Guardian that he was “shocked” and that “I don’t want to besmirch the man’s reputation but that conversation is exactly as it happened.” (“There is no conceivable way he would have done such a thing,” Mark FitzGerald, the former taoiseach’s son, told The Guardian. “There wasn’t a pound note in his head.”)

There is an irony in the story emerging now, because Michael Collins is a film about the untrustworthiness of politicians and the shabbiness of their ideology; an evergreen theme, whether in 1996 or the present day. Yet Jordan’s brilliantly accomplished and thrilling account of the life of the early 20th Century Irish freedom fighter and his dealings with the politician Éamon de Valera, who became Taoiseach and later President of Ireland, was dogged with controversy before and after its release. Even today, it is difficult to view the picture on its own merits without understanding the social and political ructions that this particular slice of historical biography caused.

The brief but eventful existence of Collins, who died in 1922 at the age of 31, has been a source of fascination to historians and biographers over the past century. Nicknamed “The Big Fella”, he was only active for a few years, between the Easter Rising of 1916 and his assassination by persons unknown less than six years later. But during that time he was a major figure in Irish independence, as well as one of the key figures in the nascent IRA. Some would argue that Collins was a sincere man who longed for peace and a united Ireland, while others dismissed him as little more than a proto-terrorist.

Either way, he was a rich dramatic subject, and Frank O’Connor’s laudatory 1937 biography, The Big Fellow, only served to increase interest in him. Yet in Britain, Collins’s links with the IRA meant that he was a hugely controversial figure. A 1969 Play for Today drama about him, written by Brendan Behan’s brother Dominic, was nearly not broadcast, because of fears about political sensitivities at the time of the Troubles. It was only shown after David Attenborough, the-then Director of Programming at the BBC, took the decision to give the nod to the drama, on the grounds that it was an important subject that audiences should know more about. A docu-drama, Hang Up Your Brightest Colours, about Collins fared less well; made in 1973, it would not be broadcast for another twenty years, allegedly because its producer Lew Grade was fearful of the potential for political upset.

Still, if Collins was a bogeyman for many in Britain, he was a hero in the United States. What some Irish-Americans would call nostalgia for the “old country”, and others would call sentiment, has been on display for much of the twentieth century, and beyond. Many chose to emigrate to America during the Troubles, but a residual affection for Ireland remains key to many immigrants’ identity; witness the fuss made every year in cities like Boston and Chicago on St Patrick’s Day.

The reputation of Collins may be higher in the States than it is in the United Kingdom, but this is true of many Irish politicians. When President Clinton shook Gerry Adams’s hand in 1995 – to the dismay of the-then British Prime Minister, John Major – it gave Sinn Féin an international credibility that it had hitherto lacked, and when President Biden was asked by the BBC in 2020 to give them an interview, he responded “The BBC? I’m Irish”, before smiling and walking away.

Michael Collins was killed in 1922
Michael Collins was killed in 1922 - Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

With the potential, then, for serious American money to be invested by the nostalgic, there were numerous attempts to make a film of Collins’s life. The first was to be directed by Michael Cimino – applauded for The Deer Hunter and castigated for Heaven’s Gate – and to star Gabriel Byrne as Collins. When that project fell apart over budgetary concerns, it was resurrected by a post-Dances with Wolves Kevin Costner as a vehicle for him to star in and direct, and tentatively named Mick. Decades later, Costner was still hopeful that his Collins project might come to fruition, saying in 2020 that “I love the epic notion of Michael Collins. I’d still like to make that movie someday. I found him to be an incredible person that was compromised by politics.”

Yet many in Hollywood felt that it should be an Irishman who should direct a picture about Collins. And when Jordan, then riding high from the dual success of The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire, was asked about future projects, he was able to point them towards a script that he had written in the early Eighties. He told the Irish Times in 2016, “David Puttnam asked me to write a script about Michael Collins and Warners read it and they didn’t want to make it. It vanished into the vaults. Then after I made Interview with a Vampire they asked me, ‘What do you want to do next?’ And I said, ‘You have a script I wrote years ago.’”

Unusually for a film that was undeniably Irish in both subject and setting, Jordan was handed a considerable budget of between $25 and $30 million (The Crying Game had cost a tenth of that). He also assembled a starry cast which included Liam Neeson, then coming off the success of Schindler’s List, as Collins, Alan Rickman as de Valera, Jordan’s regular collaborator Stephen Rea as the double agent Ned Broy and Aidan Quinn as Collins’s right-hand-man Harry Boland.

Julia Roberts, Liam Neeson and Aidan Quinn in Michael Collins
Julia Roberts, Liam Neeson and Aidan Quinn in Michael Collins - Alamy

Because the film was felt to need both an American star and a love interest, Julia Roberts was cast in the role of Collins’s fiancée Kitty Kiernan, though she was singled out as the weak link upon release, due to her wandering accent. Yet Roberts has continued to praise both Jordan and the film, saying last year that “[it] was one of those films where I was constantly pinching myself… it was a wonderful time and [I made] great friends making this movie – it’s so beautiful to look at and so heartbreaking.”

Roberts is right. Jordan had the bold and daring idea of not making a stuffy historical biopic of a Great Man (like, say, Spielberg’s Lincoln) but a thrilling and violent gangster film, where the politics play second fiddle to the power struggle and where sudden death is the usual fate that most of the characters meet. Jordan’s film owed an explicit debt to The Godfather – there is a key sequence in which Collins has his enemies wiped out, cross-cut with him and Kiernan in bed together, that was clearly intended as a homage to Coppola’s picture – but it also made a complex situation come alive as cinema.

Production was, by Jordan’s account, a delight. “I loved making it,” he remembered. “They put all of Dublin at our disposal, so it was a way of recreating a city I remembered well from when I was young.” It premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion for Best Film and Best Actor for Neeson.

Rivalry: Alan Rickman and Liam Neeson in Michael Collins
Rivalry: Alan Rickman and Liam Neeson in Michael Collins - Maximum Film / Alamy Stock Photo

This early success should have sent it on to acclaim and glory, but, unfortunately, British and American critics objected to the film – albeit for entirely different reasons. In the States, de Valera was regarded as an important figure for his attempts to unify Ireland, and his negative presentation in the biopic did not land well. Roger Ebert, in an otherwise positive review, described Rickman’s performance as de Valera “as a weak, mannered, snivelling prima donna whose grandstanding led to decades of unnecessary bloodshed in, and over, Ireland.”

Although the picture does not explicitly suggest that the politician was responsible for Collins’s assassination, it certainly implies it. Jordan doubled down on this depiction in contemporary interviews, “If history gives you a villain, you can’t ask for a more fascinating individual.”

Yet the director – the self-described “most peaceful person you can imagine” – also released his picture at a very difficult time politically. Although the IRA had declared a ceasefire in 1994, not all of its members had received the message. Only two years later, when the film was released, there were two major bombings in England, one in London’s South Quay DLR in January and another in Manchester in June, to say nothing of continued violence in Northern Ireland. It may not have helped the peace process that the Sinn Féin politician Gerry Adams had said the previous year, when a member of the public in Belfast shouted “Bring back the IRA”, “They haven’t gone away, you know.”

It was in this context that a film that presented a man who many would have described as a terrorist was released, and, predictably enough, many newspapers and commentators were outraged. The Daily Mail didn’t pull its punches, calling it a “morally repugnant film glamorizing the IRA terrorist Michael Collins” which “sees the English solely as villains, conquerors and brutes” and provides “another excuse for the ethical lepers of Hollywood, arguably the most dangerous people on Earth, to propound yet more of their pro-terrorist fantasies.”

Jordan – who had presented the IRA in unflattering terms in The Crying Game – hit back, saying “I’ve never supported the IRA. I’ve loathed them for years”. He continued: “People tend to denigrate you if you dwell in any depth on issues of Irish politics in the Irish past. They’re scared of broaching these subjects, so they try to connect you to the IRA in some way. It’s a kind of smear.” Yet his comments were ignored by the more hysterical voices, especially on the right, who saw Michael Collins as representing an existential threat to the nascent peace process.

Even an unexpected endorsement from the Evening Standard’s ferociously pro-unionist film critic Alexander Walker – a man who was unafraid to tear films to shreds if he thought that they were politically dubious – could not stop the attacks on it. The newspaper columnist Eogan Harris called the film pernicious and historically inaccurate and said that he was “sickened” by it; his criticism may, or may not, have been dictated by the knowledge that he was to have scripted Costner’s stalled version of the biopic.

Tangled legacy: Neeson is excellent as the firebrand Irish leader
Tangled legacy: Neeson is excellent as the firebrand Irish leader - AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

Although the controversy led to raised awareness of the film in both the United Kingdom and America, it was not a box office success in either country, only just covering its production costs with a total gross of around $32 million. But it was a different story in Ireland, where it became the highest-grossing picture of all time there, easily out-earning Independence Day, and not until Titanic – another historical epic that attracted criticism for its historical liberties, but which also featured another doomed Irish icon – would another film earn more money.

Yet Jordan remained irritated about the wilful, even perverse way in which it was viewed upon release. “I was being accused of making some kind of apologia for political violence,” he said. “It had the [structure] of a crime movie and people misinterpreted that in certain ways… nobody seems to mention the amount of which we did get right.” He acknowledged that his presentation of de Valera was unfair, but justified it by saying, “I was never a fan. I grew up in de Valera’s Ireland. It was a fair portrayal of the broad political set of decisions de Valera made at the time.”

Since the release of Michael Collins, the spectre of the IRA and Irish terrorism in Britain has receded considerably. Yet if Jordan’s film no longer has the electric energy and even danger that it possessed on release, it still makes valuable and thoughtful points about the fine line between legitimate political aims and near-random violence that should make it invaluable viewing for any would-be politician.

And it is worth remembering that, historical liberties aside,the film was good enough for Garret FitzGerald to offer a glowing endorsement – whether or not he was swayed by anything other than the film’s undeniable excellence.