Collins’s Closest Friends

Collins’s Closest Friends:

If no man is an island, neither was Michael Collins. Like all of us, Collins had many friends and/or colleagues. There were those with whom he worked, like Ned Broy, Liam Tobin, David Nelligan, Eamon de Valera, Eoin O’Duffy, and many, many others. Indeed many of those with whom Collins worked went on to become some of the most influential and controversial characters in modern Irish history. Collins also had a personal life. The details of his romance with Kitty Kiernan are well known, as are the largely unsubstantiated allegations of his purported trysts with other women. But what of his friendships? Who were his closest confidants?

The answers to those questions are impossible to ascertain with substantial certainty. Collins did not live long enough to testify to any such attachments. We can but speculate. Collins seems to have worked particularly closely with people with whom he shared a common bond of place, experience or familial connection, or with those who were closely connected to others whom he trusted. There are quite a few who could justifiably lay claim to fitting such criteria. As such, in honour of his anniversary, we produce the following short vignettes of five people with whom the Big Fella’s collaborations seem to have been particularly close. We have no doubt that our readers will suggest others who may fit in this category and over time, we hope to work to produce further awareness and understanding of all of the people who contributed to Collins’ success. The story of Michael Collins is not just the story of one man. It is the story of one man and his relationships and alliances with all of those who helped make his memory one of Ireland’s most enduring legacies.

Over the coming weeks, months and even years we hope to put together a collection of the different people associated with Collins. Rather than an in depth biography of each person this project will take a brief look at their connections with Collins and hopefully this will weave a rich tapestry to further our knowledge of Collins himself as well as the people around him. First we will begin with a man who was friends with Collins long before he became the man who know of today and was ever by his side in his latter years; Joe O’Reilly.

Joe O’Reilly

Joe O’Reilly was born in Bantry Co. Cork, in 1893. O’Reilly does not seem to have had the same opportunities in life as many of his comrades and he emigrated to London at the age of 15. He eventually obtained employment in the Post Office Savings Bank in West Kensington, and there, in 1911, he met Michael Collins. Like many of the republican London Irish, O’Reilly (with Collins) returned to Dublin to fight in the 1916 rising. In its aftermath he ended up at Frongoch.

Released before Collins, O’Reilly returned briefly to Bantry before re-joining Collins in Dublin in March 1917. According to one of Collins’s early biographers the two then began a close association which continued right up until Collins’ death at Béal na Bláth. At this time it was difficult to really decipher what O’Reilly’s formal position was, as he acted as Collins’ right arm in many aspects of revolutionary activity. David Nelligan, a G-Man who Collins succeeded in turning later described how Collins had dispatched O’Reilly and Liam Tobin to ascertain whether or not he was trustworthy before he gained access to Collins.[1]The Irish Independent later claimed that ‘potential agents and suspected spies were often dealt with by Colonel O’Reilly.’[2] Collins could be a hard taskmaster and Michael Lynch later remembered him berating O’Reilly after a successful arms raid on the part of Crown forces. Lynch claimed that O’Reilly had then declared Collins ‘impossible to work for’ but that the heat soon dissipated after Collins calmed down.[3]

O’Reilly followed Collins after the treaty split. He was raised to the rank of Colonel in the National Army and formally installed as Collins’ Aide de Camp.[4] He provided hot drinks and kind words for an impatient Collins before his departure for Cork, on the trip that would become his last. He later recalled watching from an upstairs window as a ‘tragically dejected’ Collins departed Dublin. O’Reilly ran downstairs to bid Collins farewell, but by the time his descent was complete, the car had departed.[5]

After Collins’ death, Colonel Joe O’Reilly went on to serve as Aide de Camp to WT Cosgrave and worked in that capacity for a decade. Shortly before the fall of the Cosgrave government, O’Reilly was transferred to the Board of Works where he procured fuel and supplies for public buildings. O’Reilly died of stomach cancer in 1943. He was buried in Glasnevin cemetery with full military honours. He does not appear to have married and no children are mentioned in his obituary. [6][1] BMH, David Nelligan Witness Statement, WS380.

[2] Irish Independent, 9 August 1943.

[3] BMH, Micheál Lynch Witness Statement, WS511.

[4] Irish Independent, 9 August 1943.

[5] Frank O’Connor, The Big Fellow, Mercier Press, Cork, 1965, p307.

[6] Irish Independent, 9 August 1943.

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