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Collins is of course a common English surname: of 29 Collins biographies in the Dictionary of National Biography 27 are of Englishmen. Nevertheless in Ireland Collins may be regarded as a genuinely indigenous Irish name: in fact it is one of our most numerous surnames, being number 30 in the relevant statistical list with an estimated Collins population of 14,000 persons. The great majority of these come from Counties Cork and Limerick. This is as might be expected because the sept of O'Coileain (possibly derived from the word coilean, a whelp or young dog) originated in North Desmond which extended into the modern Co. Limerick, where they were lords of the baronies of Connello, until in the thirteenth century they were driven southwards by the Geraldines and settled in West Cork near the country possessed by their kinsmen the O'Donovans. It should be observed that in the very territory to which they migrated was a sept called O'Cuilleain also subsequently anglicised Collins: these were of the Corca Laoidhe. Unfortunately, the O Coileains seem to have left no visible landmarks: no castles or towns are stamped with their name.
Noteworthy figures are scarce until the sixteenth century, when Father Dominic Collins (1533 - 1602) of Cork went to Spain, where, following service in the Spanish army, he entered the Society of Jesus as a lay brother. At the late age of 69, he returned to Ireland in time to take part in the siege of Dunboy Castle. He was captured by the Crown forces who tried to bribe him into giving information. When he refused he was hanged at Youghal, near to where he was born.
Sean O Coileain (1754 - 1817) of Corca Laoidhe was a poet in the old Gaelic tradition, when poets commanded respect and were given the hospitality of the king's castle. Unhappily for Sean, the kings had all been deposed and the people who would have been his patrons were as poor as himself. He drank, but rather than making him happy, his drinking drove away his first wife and so enraged his second that she set fire to the house. Sean was a reluctant schoolteacher, but his poetry must have been appreciated, for he was known as the "Silver Tongue of Munster". There is some mystery surrounding a strangely melancholy poem of his which has been compared to Gray's Elegy. Whether O Coileain or an earlier poet wrote it continues to puzzle the folklorists.
David Collins (1756 - 1810) left his native Offaly to join the Marines, at the age of 16. Five years later he was in Boston taking part in the American War of Independence at Bunker Hill. Next he sailed to Botany Bay and became one of the founders of Sydney and Hobart and Governor of Tasmania.
William Collins was born in County Wicklow, about 1740. Although he earned a living in London by writing, he is best remembered for being the father and grandfather of two famous men, both London born: William Collins (1788 - 1847) was a landscape painter and Royal Academician, and his son, William Wilkie Collins (1824 - 89), was a writer famous for his novel, The Woman in White, and what is said to be the first detective story in English, The Moonstone.
Edward Knight Collins' (1802 - 78) ancestors preceded him to America where, in 1635, they settled in and around Cape Cod. Edward began his career clerking in the West Indies and Mexico. Then he worked on the shipping lines from Vera Cruz to New Orleans, which he greatly improved. He went into competition with the mighty Cunards when he set up his own Dramatic fleet to sail between New York and London. He had the imagination to foresee that sail would be ousted by steam, something the US government was slow to grasp. When it eventually did, he was given what he wanted - the contract to carry the US mails, which had been the making of the Cunard Line. He built four magnificent ships and called them the Collins Line, which, in 1850, began service from New York to London. Other Collins ships followed, and beat the Cunard sailing record by one day, and soon became very popular with high society. Then tragedy struck. The Arctic sank in thick fog with many lives lost, including Collins' wife and daughter. Other disasters followed; state subsidies melted away. Cornelius Vanderbilt got into the shipping business and the once dynamic Collins company faded away without ever having paid a dividend. Undefeated, Edward turned his attention to Ohio, where he owned coal and iron works. He is commemorated by a statue in Boston.
Patrick Andrew Collins (1844 - 1905) was born on a farm at Ballinafauna near Fermoy in County Cork. When he was four, Patrick and his widowed mother sailed to Boston to escape the Famine. He had a miserable childhood, harassed by the violent bigotry of the Boston "know nothings", whose attitude the young Patrick equated with that of the English towards the Irish at home. He tried his hand at many things: farm labourer, coal miner, trade unionist. He joined the Fenians, but was disenchanted with their militancy, convinced that violence would do nothing for Ireland. Instead he developed his intellect and combined it with his ability as an actor. He was elected to the Lower House of the Senate, where he fought verbally for the abolition of the limiting "Catholic Oath" and for Catholic chaplains to be appointed to jails and hospitals. Like so many of his fellow Irish immigrants, he saw the immense value of a legal training. At the age of 37, he graduated in law from Harvard and began a meteoric career, rising to Judge Advocate General and election to Congress. He served three terms in Washington DC, where the superficial life gave him little satisfaction. He subsequently agreed to accept a consul generalship in London on condition that the ex-Fenians would not be interfered with by the British government. His monument in Boston, where he was Democratic Mayor from 1902 to 1905, is a tribute not only to the penniless Irish boy who had formerly been so badly treated, but also to the city of Boston, which had matured with him.
Jerome Collins, who died in 1850, followed a rare calling for an Irishman: he was an Arctic explorer.
Michael Collins (1890 - 1922), the son of a farmer from Clonakilty in West Cork, was affectionately known as The Big Fellow. A man of great physical strength and courage, his untimely death deprived Ireland of a most promising leader. Ten years in accountancy and stockbroking in the heart of the Empire in London was a sound education for a future Minister of Finance in the new Irish Free State, which came into being after the 1916 rising. This led to the eventual British withdrawal from the 26 counties. Though Michael Collins had taken part in the rising he did not approve of it as a military operation. He was one of the signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which he saw only as a stepping-stone and, prophetically, said that he was signing his death warrant. (Eamon de Valera and his Republicans opposed the Treaty, which led later to the Civil War.) Superlatives were used to describe Michael Collins: "blazingly intelligent" - "a capacity to get things done" - "a man of extraordinary vision and culture". He was responsible for the Dail's (Irish Parliament) first, most successful, Home Loan. In the 1918 general election he topped the polls for his party, Sinn Fein. He devised an intelligence system that baffled the British. In 1922, with the outbreak of the Civil War, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, with a price of ten thousand pounds on his head. When the President, Arthur Griffith, died in August, Michael Collins took over as head of state and the army. Ten days later he was shot in an ambush in his beloved West Cork at Beal-na-Blath, the Mouth of the Flowers.
For forty two years, Dublin Opinion reflected the comedies and tragedies and political posturings of the new Irish nation. Thomas Collins (1894 - 1972) was joint editor, contributing poems, stories and articles until its monthly publication ceased in 1968.
Patrick Collins, born in 1909, is a major artist who represented Ireland in 1958 in the Guggenheim Award Exhibition. In 1982, his high standing in the international art world was acknowledged by a retrospective exhibition held by the Arts Council in Dublin.
One of the best-known training establishments in Kildare was run by Con Collins, who was born there in 1924. He has trained winning horses for many of the big names in international racing.
In recent years, the Collins name has become prominent in the Irish business and political scene. It would be hard to find a family which could surpass the record held by John Collins of Drogheda, County Louth, a firm of building and agricultural engineers, one of only two Irish firms that can boast of passing from father to son for seven generations.
A very well known name in Australia is Tom Collins, which in fact was the nom-de-plume of Joseph Furphy (1843-1912). He was well known under his own name also, so much so that "furphy" became a word in current Australian speech, signifying a rumour without foundation. (Joe Furphy was not himself a disseminator of rumours, but the water-carts his firm manufactured, which were in use all over the country and were called furphies, were frequently the meeting-place of gossips.) His father was a tenant farmer at Tanderagee, Co. Armagh, who emigrated in 1840. The surname Furphy is very rare. It occurs occasionally in the modern birth registers for Co. Armagh and also in the Co. Armagh Hearth Money-Rolls of 1664-5. Professor M. A. O'Brien has suggested me that the name is probably O Foirbhte, derived from the adjective foirbhthe, meaning complete or perfect.
The O'Coileain sept coat of arms is recorded in the Office of the Chief Herald in Ireland and in Burke's General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The blazon or heraldic description reads as follows
Arms: Argent two lions rampant combatant proper.
A pelican vulning herself, wings elevated, all proper.