Samuel Kingston studied history at NUI Galway and has a keen interest in oral and local history. He is also interested in the Irish historical experience abroad especially in Canada and South America. The aim of this column is to tell the stories of West Cork people both famous and forgotten who, through their lives at home or abroad, made an impact on their time.
Most of us are aware of the role Michael Collins played in the War of Independence and his subsequent death during the civil war. Many are aware of his early years in West Cork and the famous dying words of his father ‘One day he’ll be a great man. He’ll do great work for Ireland.’ — but what of the intervening years? For a third of his life, Collins lived in London, yet this part of his life is glossed over by many. This month I want to examine what life was like for Collins in London and discover the influence his time there might have had on him.
In July 1906, at the age of fifteen, Collins completed his postal clerk exams in Clonakilty and soon moved to the heart of the British Empire. He secured a job at the Post Office Savings Bank on Blythe Road. Luckily for Michael, his sister Johanna (Hannie) was already living in London and Michael moved in with her. They were to see quite a bit of each other, as they were in fact also working in the same building. Blythe Road is in west Kensington, quite a fancy area and the Collins siblings also lived in the area, at Minford Gardens just around the corner from the office. Both Collins’ formed a close attachment to their landlord Albert Lawrence. In 1908 Lawrence and the Collins’ moved to Coleherne Terrace, South Kensington. They stayed there until Lawrence retired from his job as a master baker. The Collins’ then moved to 28 Princes Road, Notting Hill. They didn’t stay long here, soon returning to Shepherd’s Bush, renting a large apartment at 5, Netherwood Road.
During his first year at the Savings Bank, Michael was earning fifteen schillings a week, which wasn’t a great salary. During the early years he relied a lot on Hannie for financial assistance. Michael was quite keen to advance himself and studied for the Civil Service examinations. Michael took evening classes at King’s College. His studies included economics, which was to come in handy years later. He often wrote passionate essays on the economic situation in Ireland. Although a diligent student, he abandoned his studies, as the Irish struggle started to become more important. In April 1910, Michael left the Post Office Savings Bank and took a position at the stock broking firm, Horne & Company, where he was placed in charge of the messengers. In August 1914, he left this firm to become a clerk at the Board of Trade in Whitehall. His final job in London was with the Guaranty Trust Company of New York where he had the option to transfer to New York.
The freedom that London provided allowed Michael time to indulge in the wilder things in life. During the early days of his stay he fell in a rowdy crowd. The death of his mother in April 1907 hit him hard and it took him some time to get over that. He eventually came around, probably aided by the care of his sister Hannie and his second cousin Nancy O’Brien, who would have kept a close watch on him as well. For a small period he was even anti clerical but soon returned to his faith. He was quite a religious man and his faith played an important part in his life.
Michael retained a strong sense of identity. He was a proud West Cork man, perhaps a bit too proud! Often, if he heard a passing stranger with a West Cork lilt he would stop and make conversation, other times if he heard a Galway and Kerry accent he would mock and scorn them, which often didn’t go down too well with the person in question. Keen to assert his Irishness, he quickly joined Sinn Fein and through them he enrolled in classes with the Gaelic League to learn Irish and study Irish folklore. Although he usually gravitated towards sports for individuals he was drawn to hurling and became a member of the Geraldines club. He played in the backs. It was noted that while not overly skilful, he played with strength and determination. He expected the best out of his teammates, which sometimes created tension. Despite this, he became team vice-captain. His commitment saw him make the London team. He was actually playing a game in Liverpool for the London team when World War I broke out. They were playing Scotland in the All-Britain championship. Off the pitch, Michael was heavily involved in organising; he was elected to the London GAA board and was secretary of the Geraldines club for over six years. The GAA provided him with a wide circle of friends and it was clear to many people that Michael had strong nationalistic tendencies. The IRB was soon to see potential in him.
London had many Irish men and women looking to exact revenge on Britain and was a great breeding ground for the IRB. Among their leaders was Sam Maguire, a fellow West Cork man. Collins was introduced to Maguire through work at the Savings Bank and they quickly became firm friends. Maguire, the more senior man, passed on a lot of his knowledge to Collins. Collins was a willing pupil. As a child, he was always interested in the stories of rebellion. Collins was inducted into the IRB by Sam Maguire in November 1909 and was eager for a fight. During his early years in London, Collins was not seen as leader material. Yet, within months of joining the IRB, Michael was on the local committee and a year later he was promoted to Section Master; in 1914 he was appointed Treasurer of the London and South England district. Michael was inducted into Number One Company, London Brigade by his cousin Sean Hurley. A close companion of this period was the Irish writer, Padraic O’Conaire. They would drill each week at the German gymnasium in King’s Cross. As tensions increased from 1913 onwards, Michael was to the fore organising and planning drills, funding and anything else necessary for the cause.
Collins also found time for his favourite past time, reading. Always an avid reader, the libraries of west London provided Michael with a fantastic opportunity to expand his reading and gain knowledge that would serve him well. He was a fan of economic theory books just as much as he was a fan of the novels of GK Chesterton especially the novel ‘Napoleon of Notting Hill’. Collins also managed to find time for love. The Collins legend is that he was a bit of a ladies man and it does seem that during his time in London, he was quite popular with the ladies. Although some women were less than enamoured with his manners! He soon settled down and started a relationship with Susan Killeen from County Clare. She worked in the Savings Bank as well and would have been in the same social circles as Michael. According to sources they were quite close, however Susan left for Dublin and despite attempts to keep things going, the relationship eventually ended.
From 1914 onwards, books and women came second, as the IRB began to plan for a rebellion. As the war dragged and conscription became a concern, Michael’s brother Pat in Chicago sought to bring him Stateside for his own safety. Michael refused, stating that he wanted to stay and play his part in the upcoming Irish struggle. At this point Michael was seeking a move to Dublin. He met Thomas Clarke in December 1915; Clarke sent him back to London, but on January 14, 1916, Michael left London for Dublin where he found a job at a firm of accountants called Craig Gardiners. On April 24, 1916, Collins was aide de camp to Joseph Plunkett, as they marched into the GPO and the rest, as they say, is history.
The impact London had on Collins is quite clear; being in the city made Collins reaffirm his Irish identity at every opportunity and deepened his belief and resolve in the Irish struggle against the British Empire. Through the people he met, both British and Irish, his nationalistic pride became fervent and through the books he read he gained a greater understanding of what it meant to be Irish.