4 YOUNG MICHAEL COLLINS
YOUNG MICHAEL COLLINS
This was the scene into which was born, on 16th October, 1890 to Marianna Collins, without the assistance of doctor or nurse, at Woodfield, four miles west of Clonakilty, the great Michael Collins. The household comprised an already large family of five girls and two boys, their father, mother and three aged Collins uncles. His mother, as Marianna O’Brien, a neighbouring farmer’s daughter, had come, in 1875 as a twenty-three year old bride to Woodfield when she married the sixty-year old Michael John Collins whose family had lived in the locality for generations. Prior to the Famine, Irish people married very young and almost all very poor. After the catastrophe of the Famine, the age pattern of marriage changed. Young men had not the means to support a wife and delayed marriage to rather late in life. The Collins-O’Brien marriage was fairly typical of the period and almost every farmhouse had its quota of unmarried men and spinster aunts.
Michael John Collins was seventy-five when the baby to whom he gave his name came into the world. A tradition governed the naming of babies. The first-born male child was called after the paternal grandfather, the second male child after the maternal grandfather and the third son was called after “himself” i.e. the father. In that small farmhouse at Woodfield neighbours called to congratulate the father and mother and admire the new arrival. The conversation would drift to Parnell, Home Rule, the price of cattle, “how are the potatoes with ye” and the Plan of Campaign. The baby, fast asleep in his cradle, would hear nothing but as a grown man would devote his life to the cause of Irish Freedom and would direct a far more efficient campaign than ever before against Ireland’s enemies. Home Rule would not be his aim but a totally free and independent Ireland. Toward the end of his life he was asked by P.S. O’Hegarty what he stood for and he replied:-
“I stand for an Irish civilisation, based on the people and embroidering the things – their habits, way of thought,customs that make them different – the sort of life that I was brought up in…… Once, years ago, a crowd of us were walking along the Shepherd’s Bush Road when out of a lane came a chap with a donkey – just the sort of cart they have at home. He came out quite suddenly and abruptly and we all cheered him. Nobody who has not been an exile will understand me, but I stand for that”.
It is clear that West Cork people and the mentality of the people and the history of the area made Michael Colllins and, in view of the major part which West Cork men played in the fight for freedom, it is obvious that the place, its people, and what they believed in had an extraordinary influence on those born into it.
There are two Corks; Co. Cork and West Cork. West Cork begins at the edge of Cork City at Finn’s Corner, at the end of Washington Street and is enclosed by mountain ranges and the Atlantic Ocean. It takes in the valleys of the River Lee and Bandon and much of the land is mountainous or boggy. It has the large town of Bandon and the smaller towns of Kinsale, Clonakilty, Bantry, Skibbereen and Macroom. Large Georgian houses surrounded by trees and well-farmed land can be seen in the river valleys but the dominant feature of the landscape is the big number of small farm dwellings and adjoining livestock houses. The fields and farms are small and in general the land is poor.
In the post-Elizabethan period when West Cork had been finally subdued, the English Government proposed in 1615 for administrative reasons that the existing Cork be divided into two parts, Cork and Cork West. Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork and sometimes called Ireland’s original capitalist, objected. He was the largest landowner in Ireland and his town of Bandon had two members in the English Parliament. The “Great Earl’s” power was such that the government decided against the change and the County of Cork West never came into official existence.
Meanwhile, five older sisters, two brothers, three uncles and an aged father made Michael’s early childhood a happy one. He was only six years old when his father died and his capable mother then assumed the full responsibility for rearing eight children and managing the family farm.
Farmyard industry was an important feature of West Cork farming. Every progressive farm household kept poultry and fattened pigs. Both were important cash-earners and the women folk assumed responsibility for them.
In the late evenings the women in the Collins family would sit by the fireside talking, reading or knitting and listening to cronies of their father or uncles discuss the political events of the time. The family got the Weekly Freeman newspaper and were well-informed on the later Plan of Campaign developments. The fight to a finish by the tenants of the Bence-Jones estate, ten miles away, was followed with fierce intensity. Father Hill, the Parish Priest of Clonakilty, was admired for standing with his people in the evictions at Inchadoney.
The elder Michael had as a young man joined the Fenians and Uncle’s Pat and Tom had spent a year in Cork Jail for assaulting two members of the landlord class who had come roistering through the Woodfield crops. Those old men had lived through the years of the Famine and had seen starving people die on the roadside and they would often refer to that time. Old men around the fireside would agree that the most important issue for all farmers was the ownership of their own land and that it was terribly wrong for fifty people to own more than one-third of all the lands of Co. Cork. They would talk of their own landlord, the Earl of Carbery, the descendant of Captain Freke who, after the battle of Kinsale acquired 13,700 acres of confiscated land and settled at nearby Rathbarry where the huge edifice of Castlefreake was erected.
Young Michael faced the outside world when, at five years of age, he went to Lisavaird National School about two miles from Woodfield where Denis Lyons was the principal teacher. A photograph survives of Michael aged six, with a sailor collar and a peaked tweed cap on his head. The photograph was probably a First Communion one since male First Communicants dressed in that fashion.
In that period most teachers believed in corporal punishment and Denis Lyons was a strict disciplinarian. Some of the community did not fully approve of the time spent in teaching Irish history or patriotic recitations but the scholastic achievement of the school was very good. Denis Lyons, an active member of the I.R.B., made no secret of his nationalistic views and sought to instil into his pupils a sense of patriotism, independence and love for Ireland.
The local blacksmith was a very important man in rural Ireland and is a central character in popular books such as Knocknagow and Glenanaar. James Santry, the blacksmith who lived at Lisavaird, became young Michael’s hero and role model. Santry’s grandfather was with Tadg-an-Asna at the fight in Ballinascarthy and his father forged pikes for the Young Irelanders and the Fenians.
Some of the pikes that the Irish Volunteers were armed with when they mobilised at Macroom on Easter Sunday, 1916 were probably made in Santry’s Forge.
A forge is a fascinating place for young people and the heavily-muscled blacksmith a virtual alchemist. He inserts a length of iron into the seemingly black fire, blows the bellows and the fire glows. The blacksmith takes part in the general conversation for some minutes but at the correct moment grasps the hot metal with a long-handled pincers. With a few strong strokes, sparks fly, the anvil rings and the straight length of steel is formed into a horse shoe or some other intricate object. James Santry was also an active member of the I.R.B. who would speak of Ireland’s wrongs and of heroic patriots like O’Donovan Rossa born two miles west the road in Rosscarbery. At the forge Michael would hear of informers and of the treatment they deserved. Santry would laugh at the idea of England granting Home Rule to Ireland. He was a disciple of Wolfe Tone and a dedicated Republican. His words and ideas fell on Michael’s receptive ears. Is it any wonder that Collins would write from Frongoch internment camp to Kevin O’Brien?:-
” In Denis Lyons and James Santry I had my first tutors capable of – because of their personalities alone – infusing into me a pride of the Irish as a race. Other men may have helped me along the searching path to a political goal. I may have worked hard myself in the long search, nevertheless Denis Lyons and James Santry remain to me my first stalwarts. In Denis Lyons especially his manner, although seemingly hiding what meant most to him, had this pride of Irishness that has always meant most to me”.
In the years following Parnell’s death and the defeat of Gladstone’s Second Home Rule Bill, small groups of patriots came together to form clubs and Celtic Literary Societies dedicated to creating a sense of Irish nationalism. In the countryside a democracy was coming into being. The Local Government Act which the Westminster Parliament had passed in lieu of Home Rule cut across the landlord’s hold of power in rural Ireland. Catholic nationalists held a majority in Bandon Town Council. Arthur Griffith began to publish his four-page half penny journal, The United Irishman, and the song “Boulavogue” became immensely popular. Committees were established to commemorate the centenary of the ’98 rebellion in many parts of Ireland. A commemoration committee with backing from the I.R.B. was established in Clonakilty and another in Bandon.
Meeting and parades were held, speeches were made, Irish patriots like Wolfe Tone and Emmet were idolised. The spirit of Rossa, Tadg-an-Asna and Willie Allen could almost be seen in Clonakilty and Bandon. Patriotic songs and recitations were immensely popular. James Santry in his forge talked of the Clonakilty men who died for Ireland in Ballinascarthy and spoke with pride of the part his grandfather had taken in the fight.
The public gave generous financial support and in 1898 a cheering crowd saw the Pikeman Monument unveiled in what was formally known as Boyle Square but which the Clonakilty District Council had recently renamed Asna Square.
In 1898 the Bandon Centenary Committee also laid the foundation of the Bandon ’98 memorial – the Maid of Erin. The elected Rural District Council, which was nationalist-dominated, determined to show its sympathies and decreed that the cost of the monument should be levied on the local rates. This further infuriated local Protestants who succeeded in getting the proposal vetoed by the Local Government Board for Ireland. The Centenary Committee, named after the Sheares brothers, natives of Innishannon who had been executed in Dublin in 1798, then appealed for public subscriptions and received generous support from people of the town and from a wide area of the surrounding country. The Committee requested that the column on which the Maid stands was to remain unfinished symbolising the unachieved nationhood and the anchor which formed part of the monument was to represent the hope of its achievement.
The monument was completed in 1901. It was a symbol of hope to the people of the area and showed Unionists what independence-minded people wanted. The traditional Unionist regarded the proposal to erect the monument in Protestant Bandon as the greatest insult of all time and it remained a symbol of friction between the two communities. This culminated on the night of 14th April, 1921 when a group of Unionists, aided by British troops using an armoured car, pulled down the statue and threw two pieces of it into the river. The ’98 committee was re-organised and a claim for compensation submitted. The O.C. of the Essex Regiment, Bandon denied all knowledge of the incident but, nevertheless, an award of £400 was made. The statue was repaired and the Maid of Erin restored to her former glory.
Resurgent nationalism made a major impact on West Cork people in the commemoration year of 1898. There was a feeling of excitement in the air, a reawakening of an old faith and a pride in being Irish. The legend of the invincibility of Britain was being questioned and a new generation was reminded of Tone’s doctrine. A new spirit of idealism was born and many a young person who felt the excitement at the Pikeman or Maid of Erin statues would determine to fight and die for those ideals.
When that remarkable man, Michael Cusack, with seven others, four of whom were Fenians, founded the Gaelic Athletic Association in Thurles in 1884 they established an organisation which encouraged native games and was strongly nationalist. It spread rapidly through the country. It encouraged local patriotism – the honour of the little village – and on a wider scale revived national pride in things Irish. It was uncompromisingly hostile to foreign games and would not accept English soldiers or R.I.C. men as members. Its members acted as stewards at national gatherings and two thousand G.A.A. men, with hurleys were the stewards at Parnell’s funeral. The association was heavily influenced by the I.R.B. and parish teams were named after well-know patriots – O’Donovan Rossa (Skibbereen), The Dohenys (Dunmanway), Sarsfields (Glanmire). Parish teams of young physically fit G.A.A. players would compete for the championship and from these teams would later come members of the Flying Columns of the Anglo-Irish War.
Cork people were proud that Parnell had been the member for Cork and, in their turn, followers of the Parliamentary Party in West Cork were proud of the distinguished members who came from the area. This group were humorously named the Bantry Band and included Timothy Harrington, Edward Harrington, A.M. O’Sullivan, T.D. O’Sullivan, Donal Sullivan, T.M. Healy, Thomas J. Healy, Maurice Healy, William M. Murphy and James Gilhooly.
Fenians and young Nationalists, whose national heroes were Tone and Emmet, would assemble on 13th November to honour Willie Allen and his comrades at the annual Manchester Martyr’s anniversary ceremonies in Bandon and speak of Tadg-an-Asna and Rossa. They would tell of Captain Timothy Deasy from Clonakillty who organised the escape of the Fenian Chief, James Stephens from the Bridewell Prison in 1865 and who later led the raid for arms on Chester Castle and how Colonel Richard O’Sullivan Burke from Kinneigh organised the rescue of Colonel Kelly and Captain Deasy from the prison-van in Manchester. They would talk of how Deasy narrowly escaped recapture when British soldiers searched a farmyard but failed to check a barn in which the still manacled Deasy was hiding.
Old Fenians would always talk of the fearless and uncompromising Rossa and of Pagan O’Leary, the soldier from Macroom. Half a century later, Liam Deasy whose young brother was shot in Kilmichael ambush, would write in his book Towards Ireland Free – “small wonder that it seemed almost as serious to me to miss the annual Manchester Martyrs’ anniversary ceremonies in Bandon on 23rd November as to miss mass on Sunday”
Nationalists in West Cork were concerned when the Unionist Cork Defence Union, whose President was the Earl of Bandon, sought to organise Unionist Clubs in the fashion of their co-religionists in the North-East. The Vice-Chairman, Sir Augustus Warren of Warrencourt (Kilmurry Parish), was particularly active in this matter. On 2nd May, 1893 he explained the difficulties of organising Unionist Clubs in the Southern counties in a speech in Belfast:-
“It is extremely important that a very strong letter be sent to the Unionist Clubs in the Southern counties of Ireland ………There is one thing which I notice in meetings in the South, the men are afraid of the results if it goes out among their neighbours and they are afraid they will be punished as they were under the Land League…… I am sorry to say there are a good many Protestants who will not come in and join. They do not like to sign the pledge..”
Warren’s efforts were not successful in creating another Ulster situation in West Cork. The annual Orange Order March continued to be held in their Bandon stronghold and there were deep divisions in the Bandon Rural District Council but sectarian differences diminished over the years.
Michael Collins lived through these exciting times and grew up into a strong, broad-shouldered, healthy child who revelled in playing hurling, football and in wrestling. He also played the West Cork sport of bowling – throwing the iron ball along a measured distance on country roads – but like many who lived by the sea he never learned to swim.
In his home at Woodfield, Michael devoured the writings of Thomas Davis, read the novels by Kickham, Banim and Canon Sheehan. He could not sing but made up for this by reciting patriotic ballads with feelings. His favourite recitation was Kelly and Burke and Shea – three Irishmen who died on the battleship Maine in the Spanish-American War.
“I wish t’was in Ireland, for there’s the place,”
Said Burke, “that we’d die by right,
In the cradle of our soldier race,
After one good stand-up fight”
At twelve years of age he began to study the editorials in Arthur Griffith’s newspaper, the United Irishman and wrote at the time, “In Arthur Griffith there is a mightY force afoot in Ireland”. The inevitable scattering of the big Collins family had begun. Pat had gone to America, Mary married P.J. O’Driscoll, the owner of a local newspaper in Clonakillty. Helen joined a convent in England. Hannie was working in the Post office in London and John farming at home. Marianna, past her fiftieth birthday was not well and was anxious about the future of her youngest son.
A decision was made when he was fourteen to send him to Clonakilty to study for the Post Office examination and to live with his married sister, Margaret, whose husband owned a local newspaper the West Cork People. Marianna also purchased his first bicycle to bring him to and from Clonakilty and to facilitate his work as a reporter for the paper. It was a sign of times to come. During his adventurous life he would have many bicycles and would almost conduct The Anglo-Irish war from the back of a bike.
In addition to going to school, he helped in the production of the newspaper, learned to type, wrote up local sporting events and absorbed local history. He regularly passed Strand House where O’Donovan Rossa had lived. It was but a short walk past the Bank to the seashore where Lord Forbes and his men slew six hundred Irishmen in 1642, driving them into the sea at high tide so that the waters would be dyed red with blood. The Pikemen statue in Asna Square was a monument to his heroes.
He is remembered by his classmate, Sean Deasy, as: “Powerful in figure for his age and a veritable terror at the sport of wrestling”.
Wrestling was a traditional sport in West Cork and in the thirties Danno O’Mahony, a native of Skull, achieved fame as the World Champion Wrestler. After a year and a half in Clonakilty, Collins passed the competitive examination for the Post Office. He was appointed to work in London. When Collins left for London in July, 1906 he carried with him a small amount of luggage but a considerable quantity of ideological baggage. He was an independent-minded, convinced nationalist and proud of his Irish origin. He hated leaving Woodfield and Clonakilty and his people. All his life he regarded Woodfield as a perfect place. West Cork made him and he loved it. He spoke and thought like a West Cork man and never made any attempt to change either his accent or his ideals. He would look forward to returning there from London for his annual holiday and when in Ireland would also come home for Christmas.