Notes on a small island: Getting to the root of a Cork family tree

John Arnold answers a call from Americans tracing their ancestors
Notes on a small island: Getting to the root of a Cork family tree
The Census can help us trace ancestors, but real people and anecdotes bring them to life

I'm fierce altogether for scribbling notes. These might be of a few lines or a couple of paragraphs. If I was at a match, or a wake or a funeral or the mart maybe and I heard anything of interest I'd keep a 'mental note' of it until I'd come home. Then I have a habit of writing down what I heard. Now many people would say that most of what I've written down over close on four decades is useless information and no doubt some of it is 'dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean lei' stuff.

You know when you'd be in a conversation with a few people it might come up about who was the sister of such a fellas grandfather or who lived in that house a century ago or why such and such a person or family had a particular nickname. One of the many Collins families who lived in the townland of Mullintoura in the parish of Rathcormac were known as the 'flammers'. I had always thought that this title was earned because of their tendency to engage in fisticuffs and other confrontational pastimes. How wrong I was! Just last week I had cause to contact a member of this particular Collins sept. Apparently an ancestor in the 1880's when 'rough and tumble' football was the forerunner of Gaelic football was an outstanding player. His goal-scoring ability was said to be of the top order and 'twas said of him " he'd catch the ball high in the air, turn and flam it into the back of the net". He was called 'the flammer' and the name stuck to his seed, breed and generation - to this very day! With a multiplicity of Collins families in Mullintoura 'twas no wonder the use of nicknames was essential - how the postman knew where to deliver various items of post was indeed a mystery! If one checks the Census returns in 1901 and 1910 seventeen households were listed in this particular townland and of these nine were Collins homesteads.

Last Thursday was one of those lazy, hazy days of June when those who stayed in Ireland on holidays were the lucky ones. We weren't on vacation though, the hay was baled and we were cleaning out the shed in preparation for the bringing in of the big bales. By ten o clock the sun was blazing, a real summer scorcher. We took a well-earned tea break before noon -for quarter of an hour as we thought. In truth 'twas nearly two hours later before the work resumed. That's the great joy and beauty of farming -no two days are the same and you'd never know who'd bowl in for a chat.

Anyhow we had three car loads of callers so plenty of chat and banter; sure the living is easy this time of year. We had family members first - no surprise there, but lads the joy of grandchildren is only mighty! Next in was a man with lovely photos from our recent trip to Lourdes. We sat and chatted in the shade for a while and then around the corner of the house came a stranger -well really a friend we had not yet met! When he spoke it was obvious he was American, Steve Collins from Biloxi, Harrison County in Mississippi.

My mind went into overdrive, thinking that Steve had written or emailed me to say he was coming and I'd forgotten all about it. No, he was staying in a house near Carrignavar where he told his host that he knew his great, great grandfather was William Collins from a 'place called Mullintoura near Rathcormac'. "Well" says the owner of the B&B "there's a fella around Rathcormac side and he's good at that sort of tracing -I don't know his name but sure if you ask…" So Steve and his wife Colleen drove to Rathcormac and enquired about 'the tracing fella' and hey presto here he was!

A cousin of Steve's, Danny was in Ireland last year and had visited Mullintoura and met some of the Collins clan but such are many branches and roots on all the many Collins trees he didn't make much progress tracing his family line. Well I made a few phone calls there and then to people I know that are either Collins' or married to one of the clan. There are the W's (William), the Flammers, the D's (Denis), the Daddles, the Woe be Damns, the Siocs (pronounced Shooks) and a few others as well! In fairness Steve had fairly good information that his ancestor was born in this parish in May 1819 - now I've checked the Parish Registers since and could only find a William born in May 1812. Whether this 1812 child is his ancestor is yet to be determined but Steve had details of this William Denis Collins marrying in England in 1844 and then going to the USA with his wife. It is possible that when William died in Feb 1895 his age may have been incorrectly recorded as 76. This will have to be checked out when the Collins' return Stateside.

In December 2010 on the occasion of her 95th birthday I visited a neighbour of ours Ina Murphy. She was born Ina (Catherine) Collins in Mullintoura in December 1915. Right up until her death in October 2012 Mrs Murphy's memory was razor sharp. As I write this I'm looking at the pages of notes she dictated to me, all about the different Collins families. She knew all the members of the nine Collins households. She told me who was married to whom, who went to America and who came back. She recalled people that died young and those that never married. Mikey Tom, Mary Agnes and her uncle Lar who was an Engineer in Cork were all mentioned. All these Collins' lived within a few miles of each other. Some were closely related, others a different 'clan' altogether. One theory has it that five brothers named Collins 'from Limerick side' settled here, perhaps in the late 1700's but that needs more research before declaring it as a fact. I showed Steve and his wife the recollections of Ina Murphy and they were fascinated -I'm so glad I scribbled down all those notes seven years ago. As time goes on more and more records and information sources are becoming available which makes 'tracing' somewhat easier. The bare facts of births, deaths and marriages are interesting but it's the stories, the traditions, the nicknames, the rumours and the anecdotes that add real sap to everyone's family tree.

The Collins' are in Inisheer this week as Colleen perfects her talent as a bodhran player. Next week is 'Willie Week' in Milltownmalbay when the world-renowned Willie Clancy Summer School takes place and Steve and Colleen will be there too. If I've any more branches or roots found in the next fortnight Steve and Colleen will be back before they head for Biloxi.

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