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The Unsung Hero of the Collins Family

Michael Collins is a household name in Ireland and the most known of the Irish revolutionaries, but he wasn’t the only person in the family to play a role in the fight.

His eldest brother, Seán, was born in 1878 at the family’s farm at Woodfield, County Cork. The first boy and second child in a family of eight. It was a rather large farm for the area’s standards, ninety acres, and although it didn’t provide a comfortable life, the family could get from the land almost all they needed. His father, Micheal Collins Senior influenced Sean’s political views. Michael Collins Sr. was an old Fenian, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Seán would follow in his steps, being sworn into the IRB at some point around the turn of the century.

As the eldest son Seán, inherited the farm upon his Father’s death leaving 18-year-old Seán the task of running the farm and raising the younger children. Michael junior, the youngest, was only six and grew attached to his eldest brother, whom he often called “dad”.

Seán was involved with political agitation in West Cork. In 1910 he became the first president of the All-for-Ireland League’s Lisavaird branch and as such played a big part in electing the candidate indicated by William O’Brien, a progressive, anti-Redmondite nationalist, for the British parliament. He likely made contact with other prominent activists like Robert Hales elected to the Cork County Council, and his sons Seán, Bob and Tom. The latter would become pioneers of the Irish Volunteers in West Cork in late 1913.

Although the farm and his young family prevented him from taking an active part on the mobilization on Easter Week, 1916, he was still there to help reorganizing the movement on the aftermath, as shown by his presence as one of the representatives from Clonakilty on a Volunteers meeting on St. Patrick’s Day, 1918, chaired by his brother Michael, then Director of Organization.

At the same time, Seán Collins threw himself again on the political front, as a member of the local Sinn Féin party. He helped organizing during the 1918 general election and was himself elected to the Cork Council in the 1920 local election. The same year, Seán became a parish judge on the Dáil Courts, the judicial branch of the Republican government.

By that time, his house in Woodfield was raided twice a week, but it never stopped Seán and his family to support the fighting men. Liam Deasy tells how, when he went on the run in 1919, he found a warm welcome in the Collins homestead, “with … Johnny’s optimism and enthusiasm for the Volunteer cause”. It’s believed that the Kilmichael ambush, the first great victory of the West Cork Flying Column and one of the watersheds on the war, was planned by Tom Barry and other offices in the house’s kitchen, with the help of Seán himself.

But the strain was too much to his already ill wife. Catherine died in January 1921, leaving Seán to take care of the farm and his young children, the eldest only 12 years old. But tragedy didn’t end. In 1921, while out in Cork City attending a County Council meeting, the dreaded Essex Regiment of the British Army went to the farm and burned the house, outbuildings and all farm equipment - even the children’s belongings - to the ground. Meanwhile, while arriving on Clonakilty railway station, Seán was arrested, leaving the children homeless and parentless in the care of neighbors and relatives.

He spent the next eight months in Spike Island and was released with the signing of the Treaty. Without his home, he sought refuge with relatives, unable to gather the children again. A further complication came from a wound on his right hand suffered in a farming accident shortly before his arrest. The wound was neglected in prison and in consequence would never heal properly.

As the rest of the family, he followed his younger brother in favor of the Treaty, but had no involvement on the Civil War. He was in Woodfield in 1922 when Michael, in a tour of inspection around West Cork, arrived with his escort. The brothers had a chat, in which Michael told Seán that he was going to finish the war. It was the last time the two met.

Seán learned about his brother’s death a couple of days later through an Army ambulance that arrived to transport a wounded anti-Treaty man. In order to make his way to Dublin to attend the funeral, he accepted a ride with them, but, on the way, he was captured by an anti-Treaty party, who kept him for the night boasting that they had “plugged Mick”. The arrival of their commandant, Seán’s old friend Tom Hales, ended it. Hales was the man in charge of the ambush party when Michael was killed.

For the rest of his life, Seán dedicated himself to keep the memory of his brother Michael alive. He also worked tirelessly to heal the wounds left by the Civil War and openly forgave several members of the ambush that killed Michael. For example, he renewed his friendship with Tom Hales and became best friends with Jim Hurley a member of the ambush party that killed Michael Collins.

Seán Collins retired in 1950 and moved back to Clonakilty, where he died of a heart attack in 1965, age 86. Jim Hurley, who died a few weeks later, is buried besides him.

Author Credit: Adriana Moura, Irish History 1916 through to 1923

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