"One day he'll be a great man. He'll do great work for Ireland." -Michael Collins, Sr.
"Yet even the most grotesque subversions of history cannot outdistance the true facts of the story, of a country boy who became the first urban guerrilla, laid the foundations of a state and then negotiated its independence, was chairman of its Provisional Government, then commander in chief of its armed forces when it was plunged into civil war—all this before dying at the hands of his fellow republicans at the age of thirty-one." -A.T.Q. Stewart
Michael Patrick Collins was born on October 16, 1890, near Clonakilty in West Cork, Ireland. As described by Tom Barry, a future friend and colleague of Collins', West Cork "is a poor land, where bogs and mountains predominate, but there are fertile stretches, such as those along the valley of the Bandon and in the vicinity of the towns of Clonakilty and Skibbereen. Those rich areas were in the hands of a small minority, and the large majority of the people had a hard struggle for existence." Michael's father was 36 years older than his mother and this caused Michael to develop a sense of respect for his elders. Moreover, Collins was the baby in a family of eight children. The farm owned by the Collins family boasted ninety acres, an impressive share of land for Catholic farmers of the time.
"…Mary Anne was far advanced in her eighth and last pregnancy, complicated by a bad fall in which she saved the baby she was carrying but broke her ankle. The fracture was inexpertly set, leaving her with a bad limp for the rest of her days, but she struggled on with her chores. One autumn evening she milked her cows as usual, then did a large baking and attended to other household duties before retiring to her bed where, early on the morning of Thursday, 16 October, she gave birth to her third son" (James MacKay, Michael Collins: A Life).
"The care of the smaller children, particularly Michael, devolved upon the older girls. It is the inevitable, and often deeply resented, way with large families; yet from the first they lavished affection upon him. ‘We thought he had been invented for our special edification,’ is Miss Hannie Collins’s comment" (Margery Forester, Michael Collins: The Lost Leader).
Michael as a young child
When Michael was very young, his father passed away. But shortly before he died, he made a prediction that his son would go on to do great things for Ireland. Though Michael and his father did not have much time together, it is apparent that his words and his own intelligence had a favorable impact on the young boy. The senior Michael Collins had been fluent in several languages including Gaelic and had serious interests in a variety of subjects such as astronomy, construction, architecture, and math. The additional paternal influences in Collins’s life included one of his favorite teachers, Denis Lyons, and a local blacksmith, James Santry. Michael paid close attention to the stories they told and would think of the experiences they’d had whenever he needed a boost to stay motivated. Scholastically, Michael was a voracious reader and a lover of history. He studied the failed rebellions of the past and frequently read the works of authors like Thomas Davis, A.M. and T.D. Sullivan, Thomas Moore, and G.K. Chesterton.
"On the very day he himself was killed he reminisced about an incident when he was no more than five. His father was ill at the time, and for some reason it fell to the boy to pay the rent of £4 6s 8d. On his way to the land-agent’s office in Rosscarbery, Michael chanced to see, in a shop window, a football priced at a shilling. Oh, how he longed for that football, and he quickened his step in the hope that the agent would reward him for prompt payment by giving him a shilling discount, as was sometimes the case. But the man took the full amount, snapping nastily, ‘Tell your father he’s a fool to trust such a small lad with so much money.’ Right there and then, Michael vowed that there would be no land-agents in Ireland if he ever had his way. ... One thing appears to be lacking from Michael’s early boyhood; he seems not to have had any close friends of his own age. After his father died, he preferred his own company, often going for long solitary walks through the beautiful, wild countryside. … And, in turn, Griffith attracted the attention of the precocious schoolboy. In an essay written at the age of twelve, Michael extolled his new-found hero: ‘In Arthur Griffith there is a mighty force afoot in Ireland. He has none of the wildness of some I could name. Instead there is an abundance of wisdom and an awareness of things which ARE Ireland.’ This is all the more remarkable because, at that time, Griffith’s potential was recognised by very few politicians." (MacKay).
It was typical for children raised in County Cork to become postal workers and Collins followed this example by taking up residence in England. This process has been documented by noted Collins biographer, Tim Pat Coogan:
"There was at the time a tradition of recruiting for the British postal service in the Clonakilty area. When a baby boy was born, the neighbours' first comment on looking into the pram was 'musha 'tis the fine sorter he'll make.'"
Michael was no exception.