MICHAEL COLLINS WOULD SPEND NINE AND A HALF YEARS, ALMOST a third of his life, living and working in London. Family tradition, followed by all previous biographers, states that throughout that entire period he lodged with Hannie in a furnished flat at 5 Netherwood Road in West Kensington. In fact, Michael and his sister resided at various addresses in West London, and only settled in Netherwood Road in 1914.
Hannie, eleven years older than Michael, had passed the Civil Service Open Competition in March 1899 and three weeks later had been appointed a Clerk Second Class in the Post Office. She went to work as a ledger clerk in the Post Office Savings Bank and retired on 15 April I940, having given a life of faithfUl if undistinguished service in which her only promotion, to Higher Clerical Officer, had come in 1928. At the turn of the century, on her salary of a pound a week, Hannie had taken a bedsitting-.room not far from her place of work, at 6 Minford Gardens in Shepherds Bush. Her landlord, Albert Lawrence, was a master baker who let out rooms to Scots or Irish clerks and shopmen, but the quiet-spoken girl from West Cork was his favourite and he kept a fatherly eye on Hannie, who touchingly, always addressed him as father, a habit which Michael easily acquired when he came to London as a Boy Clerk in July 1906. When she got word that her youngest brother was coming to work alongside her, she had asked Lawrence if he could find a room for him. The elderly baker took to the boy immediately, for he was always jolly and sincere".
In 1908 Lawrence moved to Coleherne Terrace, South Kensington, where he opened a bakery on the ground floor and let rooms above. Hannie and Michael moved with him: Dont think were going to leave you, Father, said Michael. Lawrence also recalled that There were some fine political arguments n my house. I had an Englishman and a Scotsman as well as other Irishmen living with me, and they would talk politics nineteen to the dozen. This cosy arrangement continued until Lawrence retired and sold his business in 1913.
Hannie and Michael then moved to a flat at 28 Princes Road, Notting Hill. Eight years later, in Dublin, Michael met Sir William Darling, then on the staff of the British administration in Dublin Castle. They discussed books at great length and discovered a mutual interest in the novels of G.K. Chesterton. It transpired that Michaels favourite was "The Napoleon of Nottin,g Hill", Darling concluding that the young Irishman was almost fanatically attached to it, as he recorded in his memoirs, So It Looks to Me, published in 1952. Early in 1914, however, Michael and his sister returned to Shepherds Bush, renting a substantial flat two bedrooms, a sitting-room, kitchen and bathroom on the upper floor of 5 Netherwood Road. The landlords, Willison Brothers, had a dairy on the ground floor. Next door, Henry Brough ran a pharmacy and sub post office.
For fifteen years in the 1970s and 1980s the London Irish community tried to persuade the Greater London Council to erect a plaque to Michaels memory Michael OHalloran, MP for Islington North, had first raised the matter in the 1970s, and latterly Ken Livingstone gave the campaign his backing, but it was not until 1986, when Labour gained control of Hammersmith Borough Council, that the dream became a reality. It was planned to get the newly appointed Irish ambassador to unveil the plaque in April 1987 but due to damage to the terracorta plaque in transit from a pottery in the north of England it was not until 10 July that it was unveiled by Clive Soley. The plaque, mounted high on the wall, bears a facsimile of Michaels signature with his birth and death dates below. The original idea of including the inscription Irish Nationalist and Soldier was dropped and no indication is given on the plaque of who Michael Collins was, other than saying that he resided there in 191415. The ceremony was followed by an evening of Irish song and poetry in Shepherds Bush Public Library under the appropriate tide of The Laughing Boy.
The flat latterly occupied by Hannie and Michael was in a typical yellow-brick terraced house; apart from some stucco ornament including mascarons on the window arches, it was no different from countless others thrown up at the end of the nineteenth century to accommodate the vast army of artisans, shop-workers and clerks employed in the metropolis, and nowadays divided into bedsits. The rooms at Minford Gardens and Coleherne Terrace would have been very similar. In his first year in the Savings Bank Michaels salary of fifteen shillings a week barely covered the rent and his living expenses though in 1907 Hannies salary was raised to £75 per annum. On the basis that two can live as cheaply as one, brother and sister pooled their meagre resources. Inevitably most of the domestic chores fell on Hannie but, devoted to her clever kid brother, she never complained.
Early each morning they would leave their lodgings and walk round the corner into Blythe Road, at the far end of which stood the vast red-brick pile of the Post Office Savings Bank. Shortly after Hannie had come to London, this department of the Post Office, which had grown a hundredfold since its inception in 1861, was moved from the City to a site in West Kensington adjoining Olympia. On the very spot where Michael and scores of other clerks laboured daily on the ten million accounts and deposits totalling £200,000,000, a few years previously Buffalo Bill and his cowboys had thrilled multitudes by their daily enactment of the rescue of the Deadwood stagecoach from marauding Indians. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had laid the foundation stone in June 1899 and the Savings Department completed the move by Easter Monday I 903.
Edwardian London was a melting-pot. Thousands of young men and women flocked into the worlds largest city of the time, not only from every part of the British Isles but, increasingly, from the Continent also and farther afield. Although the ethnic mix was not as exotic as it would become forty years later, it was nevertheless a cultural, linguistic and racial maelstrom. Many of the youngsters rapidly became deracinated and acquired the cosmopolitanism and easy tolerance of the typical Londoner of the period. Apart from the Jewish community, largely confined to the Aldgate district in the East End, the one immigrant group which tended to retain its cultural identity was the Irish. Even there, though, the bonds could weaken. Many a young Irishman, liberated from the claustrophobic constraints of his faith and family, cheerfully abandoned both and assimilated easily marrying a girl who might herself have migrated from Scotland, Wales or the English provinces. If he did not wish to go to Mass on Sunday morning, there was no father (or mother) figure breathing down his neck. If he wanted to read what, at home, had been condemned as bad books, he was perfectly free to do so.
On the other hand, there were many young men and women, cast adrift in an alien environment, who clung together tenaciously and reinforced each others Irishness. Things which had been taken for granted at home, or ignored altogether, now became important. If Michael had been tempted by the bright lights and the thousands of blandishments to stray and turn his back on his nationality, there was big sister Hannie at his elbow. He joined the Sinn Fein Club in Chancery Lane and it was in London that he even made his first attempt to learn Irish, attending Gaelic League classes for some time. This first essay into the mysteries of the native language seems not to have progressed very far beyond the ability to write his name Miceal O'Coileain in Gaelic uncials and to make the happy discovery that so many of the words and phrases that peppered everyday conversation in West Cork were, in fact, Irish.
In April 1907, at the age of fifty-two, Mary Anne died of cancer after a long
and painful illness. Her obituary in The West Cork People of 16 April, by one who knew her probably her son-in-law, Pat 0 Driscoll included a touching little ode extolling her simple, homely hospitality. She remains a rather shadow figure compared with her husband, yet her influence on Michael was not inconsiderable. It has often been said that the qualities of kindliness and generosity in Michael came from her. Though not as devout as his mother by any stretch of the imagination her son shared her easy-going tolerant attitude to those of other faiths. It is highly significant that, on the night Mary Anne died, it was her Protestant neighbours who were at her bedside, and many others came to her funeral. Michael himself abhorred the sectarianism which, since the I88Os, had threatened to weaken the cause of Irish independence; in the all-too-brief period allotted to him as head of state he dealt very firmly with any manifestation of partiality or vicrimisation along sectarian lines.
Under Hannies influence Michael did not kick over the traces, although she must have had some anxious moments. Far worse, in many respects than the temptations of London life in general were the attitudes and outlook of a certain element in the London Irish community which had abandoned the church for the pub and accompanied heavy drinking with a strident anticlericalism. P.S. OHegarty, who got to know him well in the London period left a very perceptive pen-picture of the adolescent Michael:
Everybody in Sinn Fein circles knew him, and everybody liked him, but he was not a leader. He had strong individuality, clearly-held opinions and noticeable maturity even as a boy of seventeen when he made his appearance in Irish circles in London. But his place was rather as the raw material of a leader than as a leader. When he came to London as a mere boy, he fell into spasmodic association with a hard-drinking, hard-living crowd from his own place, and their influence on him was not good. During most of his years in London he was in the blast and bloody stage of adolescent evolution, and was regarded as a wild youth with plenty of ability, who was spoiled by his wildness. Not that his wildness was any deeper than the surface. Behind it his mind grew and his ideas enlarged.6
Michael never lost his faith that was too deeply ingrained in him but he went through a phase as he approached manhood when he was decidedly hostile to the Catholic Church. On one occasion in 1909 he caused a furore at a Sinn Fein meeting when he delivered a tirade against the priesthoods role in Irish history, attacking the spineless attitude of the hierarchy and concluding violently, Exterminate them!
Despite the advantage of having an elder sister to comfort and guide him, Michaels immediate feelings on coming to London were homesickness
compounded by an immense loneliness. London, with its hustle and bustle and its overwhelming size, was a terrifying prospect for a teenager whose world had hitherto been bounded by Rosscarbery and Clonakilty. Loneliness, he once said to Patrick Hodges, can be of two sorts: the delighted loneliness of the traveller in the country; and the desperate loneliness of the stranger to a city8 For many weeks he was thoroughly miserable. The news from Woodfield was far from good; after his departure, Mary Anne seemed to lose the will to live, though in truth her decline was due to a malignant tumour, and nine months later she was dead.
Gradually, Michael recovered his equilibrium and found the congenial companionship of Irish boys of his own age. Quite a number, perhaps slightly older, were also employed as clerks at the Savings Bank. In an organisation of this size, with many hundreds of employees, there was an active social life offering a wide range of sporting, intellectual and recreational facilities. Significantly, Michael did not become involved in any of these. Instead, he gravitated towards the distinctive social milieu of the London Irish. Interestingly, Hannie provided a powerful corrective to the more extreme Irish nationalist tendencies. Her Irishness manifested itself mainly through her regular attendance at Mass and Confession; but she worked alongside mainly English girls and in the years before Michael joined her she had made many close friendships with English families. Through her, Michael was drawn into Hannies social circle and thus got to know many English people in a relaxed atmosphere. This social experience was to stand him in good stead years later when he was deeply involved in the critical stages of the negotiations with the British government Then, Michael would lack the awkwardness and the stiffness, perhaps born of a sense of inferiority, that plagued Arthur Griffith. Above all, close contact with the English at work and at home gave Michael a profound understanding of the Ould Enemy.
Nevertheless, he was inexorably drawn into a specific section of the London Irish community. It began within months of his arrival when he came to the notice of a group of Irish businessmen in the capital who devoted their spare time and a great deal of their cash to the welfare of young Irish boys and girls working in the strange city. In particular, they organised the distinctively Irish sports under the banner of the Gaelic Athletic Association which had been formed in 1884. Michael, who had never been all that keen on team games, found himself recruited by the Geraldine Hurling Club, and, never having handled a eanidnn before, soon took to this Irish brand of shinty with all the zest of a convert. Michael usually played midfield or back. Ned Lynch, who played for a rival team, remembered Michael as an effective though not particularly polished player, a good sportsman as long as the game was fair, but liable to fly into a temper if he suspected foul play.
Ever the rugged individualist, Michael tended to dominate his team. Big for his age, tough as nails and loud with it, he polarised the club just as he would the nation. There were those who, even at seventeen, idolised him; just as equally there were those who heartily detested what they regarded as his bullying tactics. In 1908 he put himself forward as candidate for the vice-captaincy of the hurling team. Not surprisingly the election was fiercely contested but Michael won by the narrowest of margins. Once he was on the committee, however, he exhibited qualities of organisation and administration, as well as eloquence and persuasiveness in argument that others found hard to resist. A year later he was elected to the London County Board of the Gaelic Athletic Association, and a few months after that he secured the most powerful position in the Geraldines when he became secretary, a post which he retained until he left London six years later.
The secretaryship came to him at a crucial time in the clubs fortunes, when the initial interest in Gaelic games was on the wane, and there was a move to introduce soccer, rugby and cricket. To Michael, this was rank heresy, and he denounced these garrison games by which the British sought insidiously to promote the peaceful penetration of Ireland. What, one wonders, would he have made of Ireland in the I 990s making a name for herself in world football
and with an Englishman, Jack Charlton, as the national team manager! The controversy split the Association, most of whose clubs seceded, leaving the demoralised Geraldines among the rump. In his first half-yearly report to the club Michael lashed out at the dissension in the ranks:
An eventful half-year has followed a somewhat riotous general meeting. Great hopes instead of being fulfilled have been rudely shattered . . . Our internal troubles were saddening, but our efforts in football and hurling were perfectly heartbreaking. In no single contest have our colours been crowned with success . . . In conclusion I can only say that our record for the past half-year leaves no scope for self-congratulation. Signs of decay are unmistakable, and if members are nor prepared in the future to act more harmoniously together and more self-sacrificingly generally the club will soon have faded into an inglorious and well-deserved oblivion.
The following July it was minuted that The Secretary read his report It was not flattering to the members. As Michael wrote this minute himself, it shows an uncompromising attitude when he believed himself to be right, even if everyone else was wrong. Significantly, this minute concluded on a triumphant, self-congratulatory note: The report was adopted after the exhibition of marked enthusiasm by a few members. Already Michael was attracting a band of devotees who would follow him come what may. One of them was his cousin and old schoolfriend, Sean Hurley, who had now followed him to London.
This trait of wanting to have his own way and showing a marked impatience with those who took a contrary view was early evidence of strong will rather than self-will, for in sporting matters as later on in politics Michael sincerely believed that he was working solely for the common good. For this reason he was essentially a realist and a pragmatist, ready to change his mind if he felt that circumstances had altered. This characteristic would be central to his actions a decade later.
As Michael reached his majority, the complexity of his character was clearly evident. Those who knew him in the London years paint a picture of a restless young man, a go-getter, whose dynamism was matched by his personal magnetism. Others remembered him ruefully as ruthless, single-minded, domineering and forceful, a man who did not mince his words or suffer fools lightly. He was a driven man, impelled by some sense of destiny, perhaps but it is easy to say that with the benefit of hindsight. What is clear, though, is that Michael had to excel in anything he undertook, whether it be his clerical work at the Savings Bank or in the promotion of the Geraldines. What made him a bad loser on the hurling field was that he hated to be beaten. In a team game, unfortunately, he had to rely on others, and there were often fierce recriminations when he felt that he had been let down badly. He much preferred sports in which he could compete as an individual. He took part in sports meetings where, in running and jumping, he could pit himself against other athletes.
At work and play, Michael approached everything with a manic thoroughness and wholeheartedness. He lived his life with such intensity and at such a power level that the pedestal which he himself had built with his own efforts must never be chipped or even tarnished in any way. Michael Collins, in effect, was a hard act for Michael Collins to live up to, but it explains the strange mixture of bluff geniality and coolness by turns, the extraordinary generosity one moment and the cold calculation the next. When things were going well, especially on the sports field, he would often exhibit a schoolboyish rumbustiousness and a very rough bonhomie which stopped short of hooliganism, but only just. And then his mood would change like lightning and he would be as controlled and self-contained as ever. It is small wonder, therefore, that one of his closest acquaintances from this period would later write:
I can claim to have known Michael Collins as well as, if not better than, most people. Even so, I thought my personal knowledge of him to be no more than surface knowledge. He was a very difficult person to really know. The clerical work to which Michael was assigned at the Savings Bank was routine and dull, mainly concerned with the checking and issue of dividend warrants and the periodical auditing of passbooks which had to be sent to West Kensington every time withdrawals exceeded a certain limit. The work was relatively simple, and Michael had mastered it within weeks. It is incredible that he stuck it out for four years. At first, however, he had a clear set of goals. There were Civil Service examinations which were the necessary hurdles to promotions and in particular he had set his sights on the newly unified Customs and Excise Service where the prospects were good and the pay excellent. This entailed qualifications in accountancy, taxation, commercial law and economics, so Michael enrolled at the Kings College evening classes. His reading during this period ranged from Adam Smith to Addison and Locke, the one to give him a broad understanding of economics, the others to improve his style in writing essays. One of the papers he was required to write discussed the British Empire and its future. He wrote passionately about Ireland as Englands oldest colony, acquired by military force and mismanaged for centuries. He concluded on a defiant note: Every country has a right to work out its own destiny in accordance with the laws of its being. . . The first law of nations is self-preservations and let England be wise and not neglect it.