From time to time as a young child, my mother took me to St Otteran’s psychiatric hospital in Waterford to visit my great-grandmother, or ‘Old Nan’ as we liked to call her. My memories are vague – she died before I was 10. But a few things about those visits were imprinted into my young mind.
We always brought packets of Silvermints whenever we went – she apparently had a lifelong love of that quintessentially Irish sweet. She sat me on her knee and called me Terence. I learned later that she had asked my mother to christen me that way, and my mother could never bring herself to tell Old Nan, in her dementia-gripped old age, that she couldn’t stand the name. Figuring she wouldn’t live much longer, she decided on this pretence as the lesser of two evils.
Most of all I remember her appearance. A stern face, pure white hair in a bob, a high collared Victorian shirt. She looked morally tyrannical, and according to my mother that’s exactly what she was.
Memories like that stick with you, and in more recent years as I started to get involved in genealogical research, her line of the family was of great interest to me. As I moved through her history and lineage, amazing stories were to be revealed to me, including how I was related to one of Britain’s most celebrated actors. But no story was to stick with me more than that of her father – my great-great-grandfather – a man who seems to have done something so terrible, so shockingly selfish, that I still think about it with sadness at least once a day, almost 150 years after it happened.
The War Hero
I knew some bits and pieces about this man from family folklore in Waterford. A British Army veteran who left on a full pension, he had a sort of financial security in the second half of his life which was rare in those times of dire poverty. I was told that I descended from his ‘second family’ – that apparently he’d been married before he arrived in Waterford in the 1880s. I wondered if this was related to the other piece of folklore I heard – that he would frequently just disappear for months on end, leaving my great-grandmother, her mother and siblings to fend for themselves, picking potatoes in fields to earn enough to get by. In the rear-view mirror of my research, this Victorian version of ‘ghosting’ sounds just like something he would do.
Denis Collins was born in Bandon, Co Cork in 1829. His first adult act was to join the British Army’s 55th Regiment, signing up in Lismore – just across the Cork-Waterford county line – in 1847. At the height of the Great Famine, I’m sure the Army’s regular food and income looked very attractive to a growing young man. It wasn’t too long before he was in action, fighting in several key battles of the Crimean War. Armed with his war medals, it seems he returned to Ireland to find a wife, and I next discover him in the records marrying Margaret McMahon in Dublin in 1857.
From there all things went pretty well it seems. His first child – a daughter, Eliza – was born while he and his wife were stationed with his regiment in Mauritius. His second daughter, Mary Ellen, came not long afterwards. His record shows the usual occasional court martial for getting drunk on duty, but by 1869 he was able to leave the Army on a full pension, and in due course the family moved to Greenock in Scotland where he began his second career as a shipbuilding labourer. Two more daughters, Alice and Matilda, were to join the family in the 1870s. The picture I have built of this time is a man in the prime of his life, married with four thriving daughters and two incomes, having had a life of adventure and seen the world. Yes, things had turned out well for Denis, but that was about to change.
The Wife Swap
On 4 January 1884 in Greenock, Margaret died – the medical entry on her death certificate makes a point that it was sudden, probably a heart attack. This changed everything for Denis. Although two of his children were now of full age – one of them already married – he still had two young daughters aged 10 and 8, and instantly he’d become a single dad. This was probably something he’d never contemplated before – what was he to do?
Apparently it didn’t take him all that long to work that out, because four months and a day later I found him in St John’s Church, Waterford, marrying a Kilmacow girl – Mary Quinlan – 32 years his junior. Even in today’s internet age, that seems like remarkably quick work. I’m told by my mother – from tales she heard as a child – that this was an arranged marriage. Denis was apparently good friends with Mary’s father, a Kilkenny farmer, who saw in Denis’s army pension a chance of some financial security for his daughter.
1884 turned out to be a pivotal year for Denis – married to Margaret in Greenock at the start of it and married to Mary in Waterford at the end. His second marriage turned out to be more productive than his first – by the end of the century he and Mary were tending to a family of four boys and three girls, the second of which was my great-grandmother. By the early 1900s the family had found their way into newly built social housing in Monastry Street, Waterford – a tiny two room cottage, but I’m sure a luxury at the time.
As far as I can tell Denis lived the last years of his life cared for by his second family, gradually losing his faculties and succumbing to deafness and senility before he finally passed away in 1912. His young wife – probably exhausted – was to follow him into the grave within a year. If I was to look for Denis’s grave I would find it – like half the historic population of Waterford – somewhere in St Otteran’s Cemetary in Ballinaneeshagh on the Cork Road.
But I’ll never look for Denis’s grave. Because I’ve left something out of this story.
There was no obvious sign from my records of what happened to Denis’s two dependent daughters after he had left Scotland for his new life in Waterford. I had to dig a little deeper, and what I discovered was painful to unearth.
I found an Alice Collins from Greenock of around the right age in Smyllum Orphanage in Glasgow in the census records for 1891. Did Denis’s daughter end up in one of the most notorious and cruel institutions that any child of the time could be placed in? A place where children were routinely sexually abused and beaten with leather straps, hairbrushes and crucifixes? A place where, according to the judge at the Scottish Inquiry into Historic Child Abuse, children were to find “no love, no compassion, no dignity and no comfort”?
Further digging provided my answer. Poor Alice died of Scrufula in Smyllum in 1895, living only just past 20 years, more than half of them likely institutionalized. Her death certificate provided all the answers I needed: Mother: Margaret Collins, nee McMann (deceased), Father: Dennis Collins (deceased). That last part stung the most – Denis was alive and well with his new family in Waterford. It’s hard not to conclude that Alice never heard from her father once she was put in that awful place.
And what of little Matilda? I find no matching record of a girl of Matilda’s age and origin anywhere after her mother’s untimely death. My inquiries with the Sisters of St Vincent De Paul archivist got nowhere because they have no records prior to 1906 (apparently). This is deeply concerning. There is a seven year gap between when Matilda’s mother died and when the next public census occurred in 1891. If, as seems likely, Matilda was placed in Smyllum along with her sister, and if she didn’t make it to that census, all likelihood is that she is buried in a mass, unmarked grave with no record, a practice well-known to have occurred at Smyllum and in other religious run institutions such as the mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway.
Of course, part of what I write is fact and part of it is speculation, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Denis Collins abandoned two poor young helpless girls who had just lost their mother, leaving at least one of them in a place of terrible cruelty to set himself up with a new wife in Ireland. There he lived out the rest of his days in relative peace, long surviving one, if not both, of the children he’d abandoned. He probably never knew what happened to the girls he once called his daughters.
My great-great-grandfather, the war hero. He’s no hero to me.
To read more about the disturbing history of Smyllum Orphanage in Glasgow, you can visit the website of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry. To read more on the history of religious-run care homes in Ireland, I recommend Caelainn Hogan’s recent book Republic of Shame.