A memento of Michael Collins
At the age of eighteen, my grandmother found employment in the post office savings bank as a sorting assistant. It was January 1927 and post office work was something coveted. Offering steady pay and a pension at the end, a career with the post office might not have been exciting, but was stable and secure. Among the colleagues the young Marjorie Bennett came to know was Johanna “Hannie” Collins, from Clonakilty in West Cork. Hannie Collins was almost thirty years senior to the young assistant and had joined the post office in London in 1899, when nineteen years old (and would remain in the post office in London until her retirement in 1940, at the age of sixty).
Given their age difference, Hannie Collins must have seemed like an honorary aunt to the young Marjorie. On one occasion, perhaps Marjorie’s 21st birthday in January 1930, Hannie gave her the gift of a pocket torch. It was a gift that Marjorie much valued because it was said to have belonged to Hannie’s younger brother, Michael, who had for fifteen years lived in London with Hannie.
Of course, the torch came with no written provenance. There are post office records showing Hannie Collins and Marjorie Bennett worked in the post office savings bank – but there is nothing more than family tradition to say that they knew each other, or to say that the antique torch had come from the Collins household. To have hoped their might be a provenance would have been naive. Who would keep a written record of whom they knew at work? And who would give a gift like a pocket torch with a documentary evidence attached?
What is notable is that Michael Collins had become an iconic figure by 1930, that, within a decade of his death in an ambush at Béal na Bláth in Co Cork on this day in August 1922, to be given something that was said to have belonged to him was thought a privilege.
Hannie Collins must have had numerous things that had belonged to her late brother, perhaps such mementos were sprinkled across west London, including other torches he might once have used. Now, if there was a piece of paper declaring this torch had been used by Collins in 1921, during his time in London negotiating the fateful Anglo-Irish Treaty, a treaty that would lead to his assassination, then my grandmother’s torch would escalate in value. But even if someone were to offer a large sum of money, why would it ever be for sale? If something has been valued for three generations, then, hopefully, it will remain valued for generations to come.
While it must be a grand feeling to own something that such a great man as MC once held in his hands,and the more so as it was given to one of your forebears, to me-looking on-the greater value is the reminder that MC, however famous, however much an Icon he undoubtedly is, was also once just some bloke whose sister worked down the post office (albeit in far away fabled London) and who got him a job as a boy clerk (ie dogsbody)for no doubt shit money so he could work his way through law school. One can just imagine MC as a young man hurrying to a lecture in his cheap ill fitting suit lighting his way through the London fog with that torch with no idea he would be the man who freed his people.
I sometimes wonder if Collins’ experience of working-class life in London might have led him to a more sympathetic treatment of the poor than there was in the Free State after 1922, when one of the first measures was to cut a shilling from the Old Age Pension.
The problem was the Treaty tied them to budgetary spending that prevented them from acting as they would wish. Remember the Irish regiments those drawn up in Ireland had their pensions paid by Dublin. Ditto the civil service, and the Trinity grant was continued too, as was the NUI one. They had less leeway than any chief sec ever. I believe that was to core issue why DeValera didn’t go for it. He was the only one of that entire group with even a modicum of real mathematical training.
But to be honest I don’t think Collins would’ve made one iota of difference to the poor even if they had access to every goldmine on the globe.
Dr Adrian Kelly suggests the cuts were due to the mindset of the Free State government which was still of a Poor Law mentality and regarded pensions as no more than a necessary evil.
Ohh without a doubt the C naG government was instinctively against any sort of interventions and continued the pre 1890 policy of ejecting people off the island.
It really does seem to have been the most conservative revolution in history.
In a way, yes. Perhaps if you think that CnaG and FG are the old Irish Parliamentary party(Bruton and Coveny types) with aspects of the Tory Unionists (think Kenny and Hogan types).
Remember that in 1918 the franchised went from 100,000 to 800,000.
Oh dear. The Unionist canard. I would have put Kenny and Hogan as All-for-Irelanders (look them up) and would never had any equivalent in the old Irish Unionist Alliance. A good deal of Nationalist and Sinn Fein rhetoric before independence consisted of the idea that Ireland was overtaxed in the United Kingdom and the shilling off the pension was entirely consistent with that, if brutal, and with anti-Treaty rhetoric about “fleshpots of Empire”. Universal benefits were not sacrosanct to the independence movement.
Just read this in 2019. MC was murdered the night of my mother’s 1st birthday party. MC was visiting the party as he and my mother shared a grandmother. My mother was to later travel to London and lived with Auntie Hannie whilst she started her nursing career. No mementoes though!
Hannie must have had many stories to tell your mother!