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File in focus: ‘Ancient and Modern Warfare’ – an essay by Michael Collins

23.05.08 Document of the month   Online exhibitions  

In December 1904, Headmaster John Crowley at the Clonakilty National Boys School set his class a timed English composition test, among his students was Michael Collins. Written in a very neat black ink script, the 14 year-old’s 481 word essay was titled ‘Ancient and Modern Warfare’ (ref. NAI, 2010/73).  We have no idea of Mr Crowley’s lesson plans, but it is clear from Collins’ composition, that the boys were studying poetry and discussing current affairs (see here for a transcript of the essay).

The young Collins discusses the development of weaponry since primitive times and his sentence ‘the instruments of war are deadlier and the number of men disabled tremendously large’ demonstrates an awareness of the growing brutality of modern warfare. Collins attended the school for three-years while studying for his Civil Service exams, joining in October 1903, just months after Irish Soldiers started returning home from South Africa after fighting in the Second Boer War (1899-1902). He also refers to the tensions between England and Germany at that time, hoping that their ‘mutual fear of annihilation’ will prevent them from engaging in conflict. He concludes his essay by quoting the last sentence of this couplet from Tennyson’s poem ‘Locksley Hall’, capturing the idea of a post-violent and post-revolutionary world.

Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d

In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world

The accompanying letter (pictured above) is from Collins’ older sister Katie Sheridan who appears to be sending the essay to Mr Morris in July 1932. The note hints at hard times and is tinged with sadness when she says that she couldn’t part with any of her brother’s personal letters to her (see here for a transcript of the letter). Katie Sheridan was a school teacher, so it is not surprising that she concludes the letter making a comment about her younger brother’s spelling. Also on display is a diary entry where Collins notes having written to Katie on Sunday 13 April 1919.

The essay has been carefully repaired by our Senior Conservator and is currently on display in our Michael Collins Diaries (1918-1922) exhibition in the foyer of Bishop Street.