Working with a film: Michael Collins

The film is about historical events in Ireland starting from 1916, but the film is also a good opportunity to dig into the roots of “The Troubles” and Irish history in general.

Snipers in Dublin during the Irish Civil War (NTB scanpix) Snipers in Dublin during the Irish Civil War (NTB scanpix)

Cast of main characters

Liam Neeson (Michael Collins)

Aidan Quinn (Harry Boland)

Stephen Rea (Ned Broy)

Alan Rickman (Eamon de Valera)

Julia Roberts (Kitty Kiernan)

Written and directed by Neil Jordan


Before watching the film

Form the class into groups to briefly research events and names in Irish history to give pupils a better background for understanding the movie. Each group makes short five- to ten-minute presentations of what they have learned from their research.


Group 1

“The Troubles”

Look into this part of Irish and British history and present a brief overview of the conflict, what connections it has to the events in 1916 and 1921, and what the situation is in Northern Ireland today.


Group 2 and Group 3

Irish history

The Irish and the British have been in conflict for centuries. What are the roots of this conflict? Some search phrases/names to get you started:

  • 16th and 17th century plantations
  • Great Irish Famine
  • Oliver Cromwell
  • 1660s Navigation Acts

One group can give a brief overview of Irish history before 1916 and the other group can focus on Irish/British relations.


Group 4 and Group 5


The events in the film cover the period 1916–1921 in Irish history. Search the net to learn more about history and politics at this time in Ireland. Some possible search phrases:

Each group can choose which events they want to present to the rest of the class.


Group 6 and Group 7

Specific historical events and people the film is about

  • The Easter Rising
  • Irish Civil War
  • Eamon de Valera
  • Michael Collins
  • James Connolly
  • Irish Republic
  • General Post Office Dublin

Each group chooses three of the above phrases/names to research and present in class.

Your presentations can be a talk, or a wall poster that you explain in class, a drama presentation etc. The choice is yours.


Explaining a few things

A few references in the film may seem confusing at first so we help you with them here.

G men – If you look this term up you might find that the given definition is: FBI agents. In literature from the early and middle 20th century you will often see this name used for FBI agents. But in Ireland the name derives from a division of the Dublin Metropolitan Police's (DMP) – "G division". Their agents working for the British administration were called G men.

“The Castle” – This is Dublin Castle, the building from which the British administration ruled Ireland until 1922. It was heavily fortified and also served as a military garrison.

Brief – As it us used here: a specific instruction or responsibility as for example, “his brief was to strengthen the army.”


Watching the film

We suggest you watch the whole film through without breaks before talking about it.


General discussion questions

Form groups of four and work with at least one question from each of the following headings:


The plot is a straightforward chronological depiction of important events and the story of Michael Collins in this period of Irish history. One special event depicted in the film occurred on November 21, 1920, Collins' squad killed 18 British intelligence agents (known as the "Cairo Gang"). In response, Auxiliaries (soldiers from the British side) drove to Croke Park (Dublin's GAA football and hurling ground) where a match was being played and shot into the crowd. Fourteen unarmed spectators were killed and 65 wounded. This day was called Bloody Sunday (the first Bloody Sunday).

After Ireland has gained a restrictive independence from the United Kingdom, there is a split between Irish politicians, with Michael Collins on one side supporting the agreement as the best possible start towards independence, and the De Valera side, which feels the agreement does not go far enough. One thing is left open to discussion near the end of the film.

1)      Does the director seem to suggest that Eamon de Valera had a hand in the assassination of Michael Collins?

2)      The love triangle, Collins, Boland and Kitty can be called a sub-plot in the film. Is this an important part of the film?



1)     Use the information you gained from the class presentations on Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins and read up on them some more. How true are these two characters to what you can read about them in history sources?

2)    How do we learn about characters in this film? Here is a list of some of the ways character can be portrayed:

  • The way they dress
  • Their actions
  • Their reactions to others
  • Others’ reactions to them
  • What they say (dialogue)
  • What others say about them
  • Facial expressions
  • Body language
  • Symbols (something is focused on that reflects the type of person the character is meant to be, e.g. virgin/white, freedom/bird)
  • Lighting (for example, if shown in shadows and darkness the character may take on an evil, non-trustworthy air)
  • Camera angle (looking at a character top down often makes him or her look small, perhaps even guilty, while a camera looking up at the character often provides a positive air, showing strength)


Choose one of the main characters and discuss how he or she is presented through some of the techniques mentioned above.

3)      One critic wrote the following about the actress playing Kitty Kiernan: “played by Julia Roberts (yikes!)”. What is the critic implying?

4)      From what the film has shown you about the man Michael Collins and the events of this time, why do you think he was assassinated?


Historical accuracy

1)      The director has taken some liberties with historical events.

  • He has introduced the armoured machine gun vehicle (or tank) in the scenes depicting the stadium massacre when in fact the Auxiliary soldiers scaled the walls of the stadium and held the spectators there most of the day with their rifles.
  • One character, Ned Broy, is a composite of two historical figures: Ned Broy, who was a double agent in the police, and Dick McKee, who was Commandant of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA. Broy survived the war, but McKee was tortured and shot.

    Does it matter if the facts are not quite right, is the director justified in making such changes in his attempts to inform and entertain?


2)      This user comment has the following to say about Michael Collins: “The film is biased, it is entertainment and not a history lesson. All the major events are there, but there is a horrible bias from the director. I don't like DeValera or what he stood for, but what was hinted at the end in this movie is a travesty. If such a thing is true, you have to prove it, you can't slyly hint at it. There are other insidious things such as mortars and car-bombs which are clear reference to the 1970s-90s Northern conflict. Such weapons did not exist in 1916. To me this is an oblique way of implying that the Provos [Provisional Irish Republican Army] are somehow the legitimate heirs of the IRA in 1916 which of course they are not.”

Choose scenes from the film and watch them again. Can you find other examples where the film could be accused of bias?



1)     How would you describe the atmosphere of the film? What effect does the atmosphere have in the film?

2)     What is the effect of the opening and final sequences of the film where Joe O'Reilly is talking to Kitty?

3)      What does the social setting tell us about the situation in Ireland at this time?

4)      What impression does the director give the audience when he uses actual newsreel footage within his film? Is this effective? Give reasons for your answer.



Even though the film has scenes of brutality, censors in Ireland gave it a rating that allowed children accompanied by an adult to watch the film. The censor said: "because of the subject matter, parents should have the option of making their own decision as to whether their children should see the film or not". Do you agree or disagree? Give reasons for your answer.


Writing a review

1)  Read the (adapted) excerpts from three reviews on the film. Write a brief text in which you explain which of the reviews you prefer and why.

2)  Write your own review for the international student magazine Perceptions.


Review 1

Neil Jordan, ably assisted by Liam Neeson, sculpts the triumphs and defeats of the "Big Man" (Michael Collins) into a noisy, bloody and mostly entertaining semi-biography. Collins is portrayed as an everyman (unknown enough to walk the streets safely) who happens to realise that fighting the British on their own terms is suicide. Thus, with De Valera away in prison, Collins is able to take the IRA in hand and bring the British Government to its knees, enough to make him an Irish hero. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with triumphant rebel forces, the removal of the greater enemy allows previously hidden strains and disagreements to flourish. This is most apparent between the passionate, pragmatic Collins and the manipulative, idealist De Valera. By focusing on the political and social struggles tearing Ireland apart at the time, Michael Collins illuminates both the man and the scars which criss-cross the fabric of Irish society.

Because of this hero-worship, Michael Collins is fundamentally dependent upon the performance of Neeson. Luckily he is superb, externally a simple, straightforward man, underneath a complex, smart and politically astute figure. The emotional nuances of Collins are beautifully shaded by Neeson, revealing just how much he cares for his country and countrymen. Accompanied by some rapidly-paced and exciting action sequences, a splendid portrait of the times emerges.

Michael Collins is fine when it sticks to broad strokes across the canvas of history, illustrating how the use of violence as a last resort has been perverted into the first resort today. The problem with "dramatising" history is that the audience knows that some scenes have been made up, but not which ones, hence the entire film lacks a fundamental veracity. However, despite this bluntness, Michael Collins does manage to make you root for the charismatic scapegoat that is Collins.

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997


Review 2

The film opens with the death of Collins in 1922, then jumps back to the Easter Uprising of 1916, which Collins participated in, and follows him as he leads the Irish Republican Army (not the IRA as we know it today) through the bloody skirmishes that led to his negotiation of the treaty with Britain in 1921 that created the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It's great soap opera, really.

It is with Kitty Kiernan that my one problem with Michael Collins arises. Kitty Kiernan must have been an extraordinary woman to love both these unusual men, and for both Collins and Boland to be so taken with her, but we learn nothing at all about her. What was so wonderful about her that Collins and Boland both fell for her? Why did Kiernan love either of these men doing their best to get themselves killed?

Unfortunately, Michael Collins treats as given that a man -- or men -- will love a woman simply because she is beautiful. There are enough scenes of Kiernan standing around trying to look supportive that Jordan must have intended for the viewer to accept as fact that Kiernan was a major player in the lives of both Collins and Boland, yet he allows her to be merely a cardboard standup.

Not so the relationship between Collins and Boland. There's more "romance" in their friendship and comradeship than between either of them and Kitty. When Boland abandons Collins for De Valera's camp, the new rift between Boland and Collins seems more hurtful to both men than when Kiernan finally chose Collins over Boland.

But this is nothing new for pop culture. Men's stories -- whether they're about wars or football or rearranging the power tool collection -- are perceived as historically important and universally appealing, while women's stories are just chick stuff.


Review 3

Serious salesmanship is in order for Michael Collins, on and off the screen. The film itself works eagerly to emphasize the frankly entertaining aspects of its story. Picturesque romance, virtuoso cinematography and sloganeering dialogue (''I hate them for making hate necessary!'') all threaten to turn Michael Collins into Mr. Jordan's least daringly idiosyncratic effort. But his passionate enthusiasm for his subject survives this film's sugarcoating.

Played with great magnetism and triumphant bluster by Liam Neeson, the film's Michael Collins easily lives up to his nickname. ''The big fella,'' as he is sometimes called here, thunders through Ireland on a mission that Mr. Jordan describes unflinchingly: to fight by any means necessary against English occupation. ''We won't play by the rules, Harry,'' Collins tells Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn), his close friend and associate among the Irish Volunteers, the secret force organized after the Easter Uprising of 1916. ''We'll make our own.''

Beautifully shot by Chris Menges with strong visual drama and a sense of moody grandeur, Michael Collins makes Dublin the stately backdrop for its mounting acts of sabotage. Without pulling punches about his sympathies, which are entirely with Collins and the Volunteers, Mr. Jordan imbues the film with wrenching intimations of tragedy in the making. ''You will have to do the shooting,'' Collins tells his men, as history moves them toward bloodshed. ''Don't expect it to be pleasant.'' In a film that unabashedly invokes religious imagery in a political context, one fighter is seen praying in church just before a deadly attack.

Michael Collins winds up with a private soap opera and a sometimes detached view of the political events to which he contributed. In this realm, Alan Rickman plays the prim Eamon de Valera as a chilling counterpoint to Mr. Neeson's robust, roaringly good performance as Collins. In a small but vital role, Stephen Rea stands out as a pivotal character stirred by patriotism and by Collins's fiery and charismatic advocacy of his cause.