(Buried: Deansgrange Cemetery)
(Newspaper Report) He wears an incongrous kilt and sports an engaging schoolboy grin. In the foreground of the famous photograph, General Michael Collins in full dress uniform, revolver slapping against his thigh, strides purposefully across the square of Portobello Barracks.
The Civil War was at its most ferocious and army officers have just attended a memorial Mass in honour of 16 comrades who had been killed in ambush in Co. Kerry.
Now, in a quiet room in a Dublin nursing home, the short, stocky man, who is approaching his 80th birthday, gazes at the photograph, sighs and finds it difficult to contain his emotion.
“It was very hard to keep up with his stride….” says Alphonsus Culliton. “He was a very strong, fit man, always moving…”.
The 80 year-old man is the 14 year-old boy with the kilt and the street urchin grin, a boy who was virtually adopted by Michael Collins, signed into the army when he was 14, and lived through the Civil War, surviving many ambushes, as the mascot of the army.
In his room, he has many photographs, most of them sad. There is the photograph of him and General Collins at the funeral of Arthur Griffith and then, even more traumatically, at Michael Collins’ own funeral.
“Phonsie” Culliton, originally from Wexford, is a survivor and the story of his life far exceeds much more fantastic fiction.
He first met Michael Collins after running away from his mother and step-father in Liverpool. He was only 14 – but it was not the first time he has escaped from a home where beatings were frequent and excessive drink “a problem”.
After his second ‘escape’, he was walking down a street in New Ross when he discovered, very dramatically, that he was in the midst of an ambush against Free State soldiers.
“I was walking down the main street and the bullets were flying. I didn’t know they were bulets – I actually thought at first that it was snow! They were flying all around my feet and when I got near the custom house, a group of Free State soldiers pulled me in. They held me, went through my whole story and believed it because it was the gospel truth. I was held there for about a week and was brought by a kind of armoured car to Portobello Barracks. The officers interviewed me there and the next thing, in walked Michael Collins.”
The ‘Big Fellow’ listened to his story, took a liking to him and told him that he would enter him into the army, falsifying his age to 16.
At first, Phonsie was afraid of Collins and the roomful of army officers.
“Michael had left a written statement that I was to be looked after if anything happened to him. The man who was to do that was Lieut. Comdt. Tom Kehoe and I was in the Royal George Hotel in Limerick when I heard of Collin’s death”.
At that time, Lieut. Comdt. Kehoe was in hospital and not for the first time in his young life, the grief-stricken Phonsie disobeyed orders to tell him about the tragic ambush in West Cork.
A few days later, his new protector was also dead, killed in an explosion in Kerry.
Michael Collins had also decreed that Phonsie was to be sent later to the Curragh to be educated.
After living through the toughest days of the civil war in the dark year of 1922, Phonsie was given a job in the post-office, obtained through his army connections. Phonsie and his wife, Nelly, went to live in the U.S. in 1967. After her death he joined the Augustinian Order and now lives in the quiet nursing home in Clondalkin.
On the way out of his bedroom was that famous poster, showing him as a boy of 14 – the army’s mascot.