Collins, also sometimes found as Cullane or O’Cullane, is one of the most common surnames in Munster. It originates from the sept of Ó Coileáin, which extended from County Cork to south Limerick. The name itself is thought to come from the Irish coileán, meaning a whelp or a young dog. In the 13th century, the Ó Coileáins were chased southward into Cork after losing a war with the Geraldines and settled near their kinsmen, the Ó Cuilleáins. It is not unlikely that both these names derive from the Irish diminutive of cú, or hound, which we well know from the most famous of Irish hounds, the Hound of Ulster, Cú Chulainn.
Both Ó Coileáin and Ó Cuilleáin were eventually anglicized to Collins, which was an existing English surname, so the number of Collinses around the world is pretty staggering. Although the surname is itself a diminutive (and the English Collins is actually a double diminutive, from the medieval nickname “Col” for Nicholas, which became Colin, little Col), the Collinses of history have little reason to be called pups.
Jerome Collins (1841–1881) was the founder of Clan na Gael and was an early 19th century Arctic explorer. The astronaut Eileen Collins (b. 1956) was the first female pilot and commander of a space shuttle and has graced the cover of this magazine on more than one occasion. But she’s not the only astronaut by the name of Collins. Irish-American astronaut Michael Collins (b. 1930) commanded the Apollo 11 module while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong moonwalked, prompting the 1970 Jethro Tull song “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” about being left behind.
Another American Collins, Susan Collins (b. 1952), is the senior Senator from Maine and has been described by Time as one of “the last survivors of a once common species of moderate Northeastern Republican.” She is currently the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (and is not to be confused with Suzanne Collins, the best-selling author of the Hunger Games trilogy).
The earliest Collins of note is the Irish language poet Seán Ó Coileáin (anglicized as John Collins) (1754–1817), best known for the famous poem “Machtnamh an Duine Dhoilíosaigh” (translated as “Lament Over Timnoleague Abbey”) in the 18th century. A poet who merged romanticism with Gaelic traditions, Ó Coileáin was a favorite to translate by later Anglo-Irish writers like Samuel Ferguson and James Clarence Mangan. Continuing with artist Collinses, Judy Collins (b. 1939), on this issue’s cover, is one of the best-known songwriters and folk musicians of the 20th century, associating with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, among many others, in New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene from the early 1960s onward.
Billy Collins (b. 1941), dubbed by the New York Times in 1999 as “the most popular poet in America,” was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001-2003 and New York State Poet Laureate from 2004-2006. His short ode for the centennial of Grand Central Terminal, “Grand Central,” can currently be read inside many New York City subway cars as part of the MTA’s Poetry in Motion program.
Returning to Irish-born Collinses, Michael Collins (b. 1953) is the current Ambassador to the United States. Educated at Blackrock College and Trinity College, he entered the Dept. of Foreign Affairs in 1974. Tommy Collins (b. 1957) is a filmmaker and producer born in Co. Donegal and raised in Derry. His 2007 film Kings, Ireland’s first bi-lingual feature film, was nominated for a record 14 Irish Film and Television Awards and won five, including Best Irish Language Film.
The eldest of three William Collinses, born in Co. Wicklow in 1740, was an art dealer and biographer of the famous English painter George Morland after emigrating to England. His son William Collins (1788-1847) informally studied under Morland and became one of the most popular pre-romantic landscape painters of 19th-century England. William Collins III better known as Wilkie Collins (1824–1889), was a novelist, essayist, playwright, and short story writer who penned more than 200 works, most notably The Woman in White (1859), which has been adapted for TV roughly once every 20 years by the BBC since 1957. He is also the namesake for Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker’s son, James Wilkie Broderick.
Contemporary author Michael Collins (b. 1964) was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize for his book The Keepers of Truth.
This brings us to the most famous Michael Collins of all, and perhaps the most famous of all the Irish Collinses. Defying the etymology of his surname, “The Big Fella” of Fine Gael (1890–1922) was definitely no whelp in stature or politics, commanding troops in the Irish War for Independence and the Irish Civil War before being killed in an ambush in 1922.
If there is a theme among these Collinses, it’s the one stated at the outset: from the A train to the Arctic, from the Senate to the stars, the Clann na t-Ó Coileáin (or Clann na t-Ó Cuilleáin, depending) aren’t diminutive in the slightest.