The Avondhu - By The Fireside
From the Penal Laws period onwards there was an ongoing flow of emigrants from Ireland. They went to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and of course to the UK. It is probably true to say that the great majority of those who emigrated did well eventually for themselves after perhaps a shaky start. There were those of course who went under, never to be heard of again.
Among the majority who did well, there emerged a number who rose well above the average and who really distinguished themselves in business and in the professions such as engineering, law, politics, the army and so on. Fermoy and its surrounds has had its share of those people.
Patrick Andrew Collins was a case in point, probably one of the most distinguished emigrants ever from the Fermoy area. He was born at Ballinafauna, Clondulane on March 12th, 1844, the fourth child of his second marriage. The father’s name was Bartholomew who was first married around 1828 to Margaret Ahern. There were three children from that union. Sadly, this Mrs Collins died around the middle of the 1830s and Bartholomew remarried in 1837. His second wife was Mary Leahy and Patrick Collins, the subject of this article, was the fourth and last child of this second marriage.
The Collins family were comfortably off and at that time would be known as “strong farmers”. They held a lease on 200 acres, the greater part of it being from the Mount Cashel Estate. Bartholomew Collins had built a large stone house to accommodate his family of nine (seven children together with both himself and his wife). He was active in local and national politics and was highly respected in the community.
Tragedy again struck the Collins family at the height of the famine in 1847 when Bartholomew Collins himself died, leaving the second Mrs Collins now with seven children to look after. It was an extremely stressful time with the famine raging and she found herself in a very difficult situation. With a large family she was unable to farm the land herself and so she decided that the best future for her and the children would be to emigrate to America. Like thousands of Irish before her she had relatives living there.
To raise sufficient cash to enable herself and her family to travel, she sold the lease of the Mount Cashel farm and gave the remaining piece to her brother-in-law. Perhaps some money changed hands there too. At any rate, Mrs Collins and her family landed in Boston in March 1848. Young Patrick Collins was then only four years old.
Mrs Collins worked very hard for her family. She was still a young woman when she first arrived in Boston and after some years she remarried. Her husband’s name was Burke and they added a further three children to the seven Collins’ emigrants already in Boston and records show that she was a devoted mother and close friend to those ten children throughout her life. She herself died in 1890. The youngest child of her own second family became a judge.
When the Collins family arrived in Boston they eventually settled in an area called Chelsea, where young Patrick attended school when he became of an age to do so. It was to be the beginning of a period of his life that would eventually become a virtual nightmare, especially when he went into the higher grades.
Boston at that time was not the greatest place to be if you were Irish and Catholic and the area of Chelsea where the Collins family lived was extremely difficult. It was the Know Nothing era in America, a time especially between the years 1852 and 1856 when a very anti-Catholic and to a certain extent a racist political organisation, flourished in the States in response to the massive immigration into the country from countries such as Ireland and also from Germany.
Patrick Collins was ten years old when matters were really bad in Boston. At that time, he was in one of the lower classes at Grammar school. That school has 100 pupils but of those, only ten were Irish or “Paddy Boys” as they were then called and Patrick had to fight his way to get to school, he had to fight at playtime and also on his way home. In fact, he had to fight everywhere he went. It was something that he never forgot. The persecution became so bad that one day he decided to quit and brought all his school books home. Understanding the situation, his mother did not press him to stay even though he was only twelve years of age. In fact the day after quitting he took a job as “jack of all trades” in a local fish and oyster shop.
Around this time too he was confirmed by Bishop Fitzpatrick and he also became an altar boy. This was followed by being given a class to teach at Sunday School. Although he had cut himself off from a standard education he began to teach himself through books, etc and he had vowed that he would show his persecutors that he would succeed that congregation a well known negro lawyer named Robert Morris, who was very impressed with the young Collins and he took him on as his office boy and he also got him a job as office boy to a Deputy Sheriff who had an office next door. It was work that laid the foundation for a future career. During that time too he had, as an office boy, the run of the courts and lawyers offices and went on errands all over Boston and got to know a lot of people.
The ‘Know Nothing’ trouble escalated in Boston fanned by a Scots fanatic who called himself ‘The Angel Gabriel’. He was aided by about 2,000 Chelsea people from the area where Patrick lived. That group smashed the windows of all the Catholic houses and a group even climbed on top of the church roof and threw the cross to the ground. The trouble in Chelsea lasted for several weeks. Patrick himself suffered a broken arm together with some minor cuts and bruises, but he soon recovered. Nevertheless, he resolved that as far as he could in his lifetime he would see that everyone would get fair play.
He was only in the office job a short time when his mother moved the family west to Ohio in March 1857. She had relatives there who were miners and farmers. Patrick was then thirteen and for the next two and a half years he worked on farms, in a coal mine and in a grindstone mill. In the latter job, he contracted a fever common among those who worked in that type of mill and so he decided to quit. His last job there in the mill had been running its engine. With the consent of his mother he came back to Boston. No doubt he must have had relatives there as otherwise his mother would not have allowed it.
The work on the actual mill machines appealed to him and on arriving back in Boston he spent a week trying to become a machinist’s apprentice, but he failed to get such employment. His ambition was to be a machinist and later a mechanical engineer. He got himself taken on eventually as an apprentice in an upholstery firm. This move was also to be of vital importance in his life ahead because before he had reached the age of 19, he had become shop foreman in that firm and become one of the original founder members of the upholsterers’ union in 1862. In that union, he showed his ability to speak and organise.