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The leader who signed his own death warrant

Michael Collins leaves Downing Street during the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations (Getty)

In the late autumn of 1921, Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and their team of four others travelled to London to engage in talks with the British government about what we might now call a kind of “Irexit” – Ireland withdrawing from the United Kingdom.

It followed a bitter Anglo-Irish war and a gradual realisation by both sides that politics would have to replace fighting.

The “treaty talks” – as they came to be known – were tough. Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Lord Birkenhead represented the might of the British Empire, facing across the table a small group of Irish rebels with no experience whatsoever of government.

The negotiating authority, the power and the control were heavily weighted on the side of London, and Michael Collins was sometimes in despair about the terms offered: a more limited form of independence than the Irish hoped for, with Westminster still in control of the Atlantic ports and aspects of foreign affairs, insisting on an oath of allegiance to the Crown, and acceptance of the partition of Ireland.

Collins knew he was “signing his own death warrant” by putting his name to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, but he put a brave face on it. Back in Ireland he told the people that this wasn’t what was sought, but it was “the freedom to achieve freedom”. Little by little, Ireland would be able to assert her own sovereignty. As he predicted, he was killed in the subsequent civil war, but his description was prescient: the treaty would indeed turn out to be “the freedom to achieve freedom”.

Almost a century later, we could say that Theresa May is treading a similar path, and some of what she says is not dissimilar from Collins’s thinking. Her deal with the EU is not the full Brexit that the majority voted for: it is a compromise that allows the country to move forward.

Today, it is the EU that is powerful, and the United Kingdom is, as Ireland once was, in the position of a supplicant nation. But as Collins knew, sometimes you have to take what you can get, and work with it.

We must hope that every Member of Parliament examines his and her conscience before the meaningful vote next Tuesday. And perhaps considers too, the case of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

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Lourdes is changing, according to a long report published in the French national newspaper Le Figaro. “Mondialisation” – that is, globalisation – is having an impact on the French place of pilgrimage, writes Alphonse-Jean Guillaume.

Many more pilgrims are now travelling from India, Sri Lanka, China, the Philippines, Latin America, Syria and even Afghanistan, while fewer are reckoned to come from Europe. (Lourdes officials do not break down the numbers according to national origins: observations about the changing clientele mostly come from hoteliers, hosts and providers of services in the town and surroundings.)

One of the interesting effects is the changing menus provided for pilgrims. Pizzas and pasta have become international dishes, but the menus of India, China and the Far East are appearing with more frequency.

There is some debate in the municipality as to how Lourdes should be managed. Some local officials think that Lourdes must be aware of “competition” from shrines such as Santiago de Compostela, which has had a huge revival over the past 30 years by widening its spiritual appeal. “Spiritual tourism” is now, after all, a kind of business.

Others feel that the true spirit of St Bernadette should be maintained: the focus on the sick and the simplicity of Marian devotion should remain the priorities.

But even holy places will change with the times.

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In the rather creepy thriller Mrs Wilson – currently showing on Tuesday nights on BBC One – a Catholic funeral in 1963 is accompanied by the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country. It’s a beautiful hymn, both patriotic and spiritual, written by Cecil Spring-Rice, with music by Gustav Holst. But I’m not sure that it was sung in Catholic churches before the changes ushered in by Vatican II.

Our hymns are more ecumenical these days, which is great. But am I wrong in supposing that Catholic funerals confined themselves to strictly traditional Catholic hymns back then?

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4