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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 July, 2004, 09:05 GMT 10:05 UK
Examining Irish leader's youthful past
By Diarmaid Fleming
BBC Northern Ireland

Examination papers for the British civil service by Irish republican leader Michael Collins have been uncovered for the first time.

And they contain some surprising views about the British Empire from a man who fought to break its rule in Ireland.

Michael Collins sat the British civil service exam aged 15
Michael Collins sat the British civil service exam aged 15
A series of papers unearthed in the National Archives at Kew by historian Dr Brian P Murphy are being published in a booklet - Michael Collins: Some original documents in his own hand.

The newly published papers date from 6 February 1906, when 15-year-old Collins sat the British civil service entrance examination in Cork.

The following words are not those of Rudyard Kipling or a Victorian historian of the British Empire, but instead are those of Collins.

"Without a knowledge of history we could not tell how such an island as Great Britain came to be the greatest power on the face of the earth, how her small armies won the battles of Crecy and Agincourt, of Quebec and Plassey and how her fleets destroyed those of all the great European powers in the time of Napoleon, and how this general was in the end defeated by Wellington."

However, the historian says the papers will raise some eyebrows, given his apparent praise for the British Empire.

"There appears to be a marked discrepancy between the written word of Collins in these papers and the accepted version of his youthful formation," says Dr Murphy.

"One is forced to face the possibility that he may have deliberately written an essay which he did not believe in, but which he knew would be acceptable to the examiners."

Collins was a key IRA figure in the War of Independence
Collins, one of the most controversial figures in Irish history, fought in the 1916 Easter Rising against the British and on his release from prison, became the foremost nationalist guerrilla leader in the Irish War of Independence.

He ruthlessly dealt with opponents, leading a squad which shot dead 14 British spies in their beds on a Sunday morning in Dublin in 1920.

But he was a signatory to the treaty with Britain which brought about the partition of Ireland, creating the Irish Free State, an act which he prophesied was akin to signing his own death warrant.

He led the pro-treaty forces against the republicans opposed to partition in the bitter civil war which followed, and in which he lost his life in 1922, aged 31.

To many, his loss was a national tragedy and his legacy is still remembered and worshipped by nationalists today.

An essay in immaculate handwriting lists his favourite subjects in school.

"History forms a study not less interesting than a well-written novel by any of our first class writers.

"It records how some countries have been gradually rising higher, while some have been decaying," Collins writes, before going on to apparently eulogise the British Empire.

'A favourite subject'

"Geography is another subject I like very much, as it tells us where foodstuffs come from, the plants and animals that thrive best in different countries, the climate and situation of all countries, and the races of people that inhabit them.

"Geometry too would be a favourite subject of mine if I were free to use my time as I please, as it interests me very much, and as it is rather difficult.

"In perusal of these subjects and English Grammar, I would spend my time, at least the greater part of it, and when school days have passed away, if I had a good knowledge of them I could honestly say I had not spent my 'time in idle dalliance'," the youthful Collins concludes.

Dr Murphy says that the last phrase is an indication of coaching from teachers for the examination.

His booklet also publishes other papers, in which Collins reveals himself to be a fan of the metric system with a loathing for the Imperial system of weights and measures.

Collins, despite passing further civil service exams - with the caveat that he underwent dental treatment before being appointed - instead took a job in stock broking firm Horne and Company in Moorgate on moving to London in 1910, before his fateful return to Ireland in 1916.

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