On 22 August 1922, Michael Collins, Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State, was shot dead in an ambush at Béal na Bláth, County Cork. The person who fired the shot that killed him has never been conclusively identified.
Thirty six years after the shooting, its memory still resonates in this slander action involving local personages from the interestingly named village of Kilbrittain, with the barrister nephew of none other than Collins himself joining in the fray with some impressively incisive cross-examination…
From the Irish Examiner, 17 December 1958:
“SLANDER ACTION ARISING OUT OF MICHAEL COLLINS DEATH
Damages of a halfpenny with no order as to costs were awarded in a slander action in which the death of General Michael Collins was recalled in the Cork Circuit Court before his Lordship Judge Neylon, S.C., yesterday. The action concerned a reputed allegation that a Kilbrittain man had fired the shot which killed the head of the Provisional Government at Beal na Blath. In his summing up, the Judge said he was quite satisfied that the plaintiff in the action had nothing to do with the shooting.
The plaintiff in the case was Cornelius Crowley, Co Council labourer, Kilbrittain, and the defendant was John Howe, Howe’s Strand, Kilbrittain, farmer.
STATEMENT OF CLAIM
The statement of claim set out that the defendant had spoken the words ‘Of course you know, he (meaning the plaintiff) had shot Michael Collins.” The defence was a denial that the defendant had made the statement alleged or any statement which could have the meaning as alleged, or that the plaintiff had suffered damage.
Mr. Howe was defended by Mr. Sean Collins, a nephew of the late Michael Collins. He was instructed by Messrs. PJ O’Driscoll and Sons, solicitors. Mr. G McCarthy (instructed by Messrs. R Neville and Co, solrs, appeared for the plaintiff.
Opening the case, Mr. McCarthy described his client as a well-known Old I.R.A. Brigade captain, whose name had been a bye-word for courage and bravery. He had been a friend of the late General Michael Collins, whom he had known very well. At the time of Collins’ death, he had been at Ardagh, Lifford, Co Donegal, and had neither hand, act or part in that killing. Mr. Crowley was not a man who would kill a former comrade and leader. A man of humble station, he had appreciation and regard for his association with Collins. The defendant was a large farmer.
The Sunday Express had published, in February 1956, an article about Collins. Mr. McCarthy continued, and in the course of that it had been alleged that Mr. Crowley had shot and killed Collins. Mr. Crowley had taken action and the case had been settled on the basis of the publication of an apology by the Sunday Express in that paper and in the Cork Examiner and the payment of damages to Mr. Crowley. In spite of this, rumours still spread, and some said the Express had not defended the case because it lacked proof. Some time afterwards a statement was made which was reported to Mr. Crowley by Mr. Maurice Roche. Mr. Crowley went to his solicitor, the late Mr. Neville of Bandon, who wrote to Mr. Howe, saying it had been reported to Mr. Crowley that he (Mr. Howe) had alleged Mr. Crowley had shot Collins. There had been no reply to that letter. His client now wanted to clear his name in this court.
JOINED IRA AT 17
Replying to his counsel, the plaintiff in evidence said he lived in Kilbrittain and now worked with the Forestry Department, having previously worked with a farmer and the County Council. He had joined the IRA at the age of 17 or 18 and had risen to become a sectional commander, getting back the rank of captain later. He had been a member of Tom Barry’s Flying Column. He was in every jail in Ireland – Mountjoy, Camptown, Macroom Castle, even this courthouse. He had known General Michael Collins and his family very well. Their home had been about 14 miles from his. About the time of the Treaty, he had been in Donegal.
Mr. McCarthy BL- Who sent you there?
Mr. Crowley – Michael Collins, Lord have mercy on the man. I was in Fermoy Barracks when I got the order to go there. That was before the double-shuffle started.
Mr. McCarthy BL – What double-shuffle?
Mr. Crowley – Before the two groups broke up – before the Civil War. I call that the Double Shuffle.
Mr. McCarthy BL –What took you to Donegal?
Mr. Crowley – Michael Collins organized a group to go there – men from Cork, Limerick and Kerry, to go up to the Border.
The plaintiff continued to say that he had been in Ardagh, Donegal, when he heard about Collins’ death. He had not had hand, act or part in that death, and he would be the last to say he had.
A copy of the Sunday Express containing the article about Michael Collins had been sent to him by a man in Dundalk, and he had subsequently got more of them. The article stated that he had shot Collins.
Mr. McCarthy BL– Is that false?
Mr. Crowley –Certainly, it is. How could I? I was in Donegal.
Mr. McCarthy BL– Did you bring an action and was that action settled?
Mr. Crowley – I did. It was settled in a kind of way at a later stage.
The Sunday Express, he added, had withdrawn everything, and published an apology in their paper and in the Cork Examiner, and apologised in court. In spite of this, the talk that he had killed Collins continued. Living all alone, he still feared for his personal safety while the rumours persisted.
Having told Mr. Collins at the opening of the cross-examination that he was well known as ‘Coneen’, the plaintiff was asked if anybody in the village of Kilbrittain really believed he had anything to with the death of Michael Collins, and he replied, ‘They must, or they would not challenge me about it.’
Mr. McCarthy BL– Can you name one person who believes it?
Mr. Crowley – Mr. Howe said it.
Mr. McCarthy BL – Somebody told you Mr. Howe had said it.
Mr. Crowley –That is right.
Replying to further questions, the Plaintiff said he had met Collins in the Four Courts when it was the Garrison of the Irregulars. This was before the signing of the Treaty. He had been in Letterkenny at the time of the signing. On his way to the North, he had called to the Four Courts and met Collins who had an armoured car there.
Asked by Mr Collins BL if he had got £1000 from the Sunday Express the plaintiff replied ‘I did of course, and wasn’t I entitled to it?
Mr. Collins – Did you buy many a good man a pint in the pubs of Kibrittain with the £1000?
Mr. Crowley – Would you blame me if I did?
Mr. Collins – Is the thousand nearly gone now?
Mr. Crowley – That is my business.
Mr. Collins – Is Mr. Howe to be your next replenisher?
Mr. Crowley – There is no harm in that.
Maurice Roche, postman, stated that he had a conversation with the plaintiff. We spoke about the fishing in the stream, and I said to him that a few days previous that that Father Cahalane and I were looking at the flood, and John Howe came along and said, ‘How is Coneen going on or how was he enjoying the money he got from the paper, was it all gone?’ or something to that effect. We were all in good humour and, as far as I remember, Howe said ‘Sure. I suppose he shot him alright.’ I then possibly made the remark Mr. Crowley was not there at all, and Howe said he was there that day or around that place and He (Howe) believed because Jack Roche had told him, and he did not believe Jack Roche could tell a lie. Jack Roche is a well-known character in Kilbrittain. I understood ‘him’ to mean Michael Collins.
Mr. Collins – Did you tell a different story to Mr. O’Driscoll, the solicitor in June?
Mr. Roche – It was the same story, with the exception of one item ‘I suppose he shot him alright.’
Mr. Collins then read a statement alleged to have been made by this witness to Mr. O’Driscoll. In this, the following passage occurred.
‘Howe said something about ‘He was there alright’. I would not say Howe said, ‘He shot him.’’
Mr. Collins – Did you say that last June?
Mr. Roche – Mr. O’Driscoll asked me did Howe said, ‘he shot him’ and I said, ‘I do not say he said it definitively.’
The defendant, Mr. Howe, on entering the witness box, explained to his lordship that he had been shellshocked in the First World War, leaving him with a certain disability in movement. Recalling the conversation at the fishing bridge, he began by saying that the name of Michael Collins had never been mentioned, nor the shooting of him ‘because everybody knows Crowley never shot him’.
According to Mr. Howe, ‘Roche said something about fishing, and he mentioned Con’s name. We were all full of good spirits. I said, ‘Of course he was in the ambush’ and I was joking when I said it. I cannot be quite certain about it because it is very hard to remember things when you joke.’
Mr. Collins BL– You know it is alleged you said he shot him all right.
Mr. Howe – There is not a word of truth in that. I am definite in that.
Rev David Cahalane, who appeared on subpoena from both sides, said his recollection of the conversation at the fishing bridge was rather vague. To the best of his knowledge, Crowley’s name had come into the conversation, and Mr. Howe passed a remark, ‘Mr. Crowley was there all right.’ The remark was made in a jocose way and there was no malice in it.
JUDGE’S SUMMING UP
Giving judgment, his Lordship said.
I am satisfied that nobody believes that the plaintiff had anything to do with the shooting of Michael Collins. I am certain that the people in the area from which the plaintiff comes, do not believe it. There is not the slightest doubt about that, not only that but when the journal in England published that he did, he took action, settled the case for £1000 – a fact which was known all over the place – and the apology was published in that paper and in the Cork Examiner which circulates locally. A stronger proof of the fact that the person had withdrawn the accusation and that nobody had anything to do with it, I cannot imagine.
Apparently, a person has to be very careful in dealing with the likes of the plaintiff. He seems to be very thin skinned. Having got £1000, he was out for another thousand in the same easy fashion. I am satisfied whatever words were spoken were spoken in a jocose fashion. I have not the slightest doubt that it would be far wiser for Howe to say nothing about him. There was no ill intention, and it was not taken by either party who heard the jocose remark to be made seriously.
In these circumstances it is hard to see why public time and money should be wasted on hearing this action. Mr. Crowley wants his character cleared and to have it known he was many miles away. I suppose he is entitled to have it cleared. I award a half penny damages and make no order as to costs.”