WHEN Gerard Taylor visited his great uncle, Joe Collins, in a retirement home in London in 1982, he found out more than he bargained for.
Taylor’s mother had died shortly beforehand. She had grown up three doors from Collins, on New St, Lismore, Co Waterford. Collins was her uncle, and the oldest member of the family.
Taylor wanted Collins to tell him about gaps in his mother’s life, particularly her childhood. She had left Lismore for London — like most of the family — in the 1940s. She had never spoken much about her upbringing. There were “too many sad memories,” she had said.
Collins was warm, but mysterious, always smiling and joking. Taylor only knew him from the London Irish weddings and wakes. The family spoke little about him, presumably because of his IRA past during the War of Independence.
DISCOVER MORE CONTENT LIKE THIS
Taylor brought a recorder, to tape their conversation at the retirement home. During a long day of chat, which included a visit to a pub for a couple of pints of Guinness, Collins revealed that he had once been married. That startled Taylor. It was a family secret.
Collins’s wife, Delia , who was from Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, had died in childbirth, along with the baby. The child, Cara, was buried with her. A humane priest had turned a blind eye to the Catholic Church teaching that forbade the burial in sacred ground of a child who had died unbaptised.
“I was in a state of disbelief when he told me about Deliam,” says Collins. “It just took my breath away. I found it hard to talk to him about it, to find the right thing to say. As I’m talking, I’m getting emotional talking about it, like I’m back there in the room with him. I was told by other relatives that he left Lismore soon after, and never really got over it. He must have been keeping that in for a long, long time.”
Taylor never saw Collins again. He died two weeks later. His dying wish, to be buried in Lismore with Delia — for which he had made provisions — was never fulfilled. He was buried in London, instead. This appalled Taylor when he heard.
“It had been arranged. One of my uncles was over in Lismore, waiting [for his body] and then they heard he was being buried in London. I could never bring myself to ask questions in the family as to who made that decision. I’ve got a vague idea, but I wouldn’t like to point the finger. I was just angry. I still am angry. It was wrong. That was the thing that fired me up.”
Taylor, who lives in Cornwall, having raised five children and fostered 220 more, brought lilies to Delia’s grave in Lismore.
He also wanted to find out more about Collins’s republican past, of which his great uncle had told him some tantalising details. Collins had joined the IRA in 1917. He had gone on dispatches and had held up several mail trains. He was awarded three medals for bravery. Despite four applications to the Irish government, the last one in 1951, he was never given a military pension, however. Taylor suspects it was for political reasons.
One of Collins’s ‘Tan War’ escapades had involved blowing up the courthouse in Lismore in 1920. He had set off up the middle of the town at night with an accomplice, carrying a 30-foot ladder. They put it up against a window at the front of the courthouse. Collins climbed the ladder with two cans of petrol strapped to his shoulders, squeezed in the window, and doused the courtroom with petrol. When he struck a match to the ground, it set off a huge explosion. “I was burnt from head to butt,” he had said.
The Black and Tans were drinking in the taproom of the Red House pub. The RIC barracks was on the other side of the road. Policemen started firing on the courthouse, but Collins scampered down the ladder and fled back to his family home.
When the Tans raided the house later that night, Collins took refuge under a bed, avoiding arrest, he had said, because the soldier who checked his room took mercy on him. They were drinking buddies, and Collins knew he was secretly courting a local girl.
“They used to ride out at night to the mountain and meet up there by the lake. Jaysus, if they were ever found out there would have been a great deal of trouble. You see, if a woman was going out with a British soldier or a Tan, they’d clip her long hair. After the war was over, I’m told she went over to England and married her English soldier.”
Collins couldn’t leave the house for weeks because of his burns. Taylor visited his great aunt, Lizzie, in Lismore, who married Collins’s brother. That brother, Mossie. was alongside another famous Collins, Michael, at his death in Béal na Bláth in August, 1922. The brothers — even though they had fought in the same brigade “in many an argument with the Tans” — took arms on opposite sides during the Civil War.
Taylor, also an accomplished mural artist, will lecture about Collins, and other episodes from his family history, But For Ireland, I’d Not Tell Her Name, as part of the IMMRAMA Lismore Festival of Travel Writing.
“What’s ironic,” he says, “is that I’m delivering the talk in the courthouse. I couldn’t believe it. It’s now the heritage centre. It’s what they rebuilt a few years after Joe burnt the original one down.”
DISCOVER MORE CONTENT LIKE THIS
Other Immrama highlights
one of the world’s most courageous and conscientious war reporters, as well as being one of only a handful of western journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden.
He has ridden his motorbike (along with Ewan McGregor) all over the world and also taken part in the Lisbon to Dakar rally, among other adventures.
has retraced many of his cousin’s steps, the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, in his travels, including a visit to Elephant Island where famously 22 of Shackleton’s men holed up for several months in 1916 awaiting rescue
For more information, visit www.lismoreimmrama.com