News from Times Past with Brian Gabriel, Blarney & District Historical Society header from last monht

In the ancient cemetery of Curraghkippane, as in most graveyards, the vast majority of the headstones face East, towards Jerusalem and the rising sun. There is however, one exception, which alone of all the headstones in this cemetery faces North, eternally pointing to the North Pole and the frozen lands and seas within the Arctic Circle. And it is fitting that it does so, for the man we honour and commemorate here lost his life in those frozen lands in an ill-conceived quest to be the first to reach the North Pole. There has been a huge growth in interest in the lives of explorers who have sought out the remotest reaches of the planet, risking danger and extreme conditions in doing so. Shackleton and Crean are two names which spring to mind, both Irish, both commemorated recently through exhibitions, books, drama, film and television documentaries. But the subject of this article is almost totally unknown to all but a few outside his native city. Jerome Collins deserves our notice and attention on a number of accounts. Engineer, meteorologist, scientist, reporter, Fenian: he led a very full life in his short forty-one years on this earth. Jerome Collins was born in Cork City on October 17th 1841 to Mark and Ellen Collins of Blackrock. His father had a salt and lime works next to the South Gate Bridge, where a plaque today marks the site. Jerome was the eldest of his seven sons. Mark Collins was elected to Cork Corporation as a Repeal candidate following the great municipal reform and continued to serve up to his death in 1863. Jerome was educated at the Lancastrian School on the Western Road and was sent for his secondary education to the seminary at the former Mansion House, now the Mercy Hospital, then run by the Vincentian Fathers. It may be that his mother intended that he go on for the priesthood but his talent lay in other directions. After leaving school he entered the service of Barry McMullen and trained as an engineer. He served as Clerk of Works on the construction of the old North Gate Bridge, his name and title were recorded at the opening of the Bridge in 1863. But there were few opportunities for employment following this and he emigrated to England. There is speculation that before left Cork he was sworn into the Fenian Brotherhood. He worked on railway construction in the Midlands before moving on once again to New York where he worked for the Union Pacific Railway rising to Company Secretary. He was then employed as town surveyor for New Jersey where he became New York’s and the world’s first weather correspondent. He was a founder of Clan na Gael and he actively plotted to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh during his visit to America. James Gordon Bennett set up a project to plant an American flag on the North Pole and Collins was appointed Scientific Officer on the navy ship Jeanette and he also bought Kodak cameras to ensure the expedition was well documented. The ship sail from San Francisco on 8th July 1879 but as winter drew in, it became trapped in floating ice. The ship was well stocked and the crew felt it would free itself from the ice in the spring-time. He had a series of mishaps with his experiments: the generator failed to work the lighting, telephone equipment failed and the hundreds of photographs were not developed. Spring came but the ship remained stuck fast in the ice and by the following winter it began to leak badly and on Sunday June 12th 1881, the ship began to break up. The crew salvaged what they could and then watched helplessly as it finally sank out of sight. They were now marooned on ice floes, sixty miles from open sea and 500 miles from land. They dragged their boats and supplies over the ice for three months before reaching the sea. Launching their small boats, a violent storm sprung up and separated the boats. Collin’s boat sighted land and had to wade 3 miles through shallow water to get ashore. Some men were now suffering from frostbite and unable to move further. The food was also now gone and two of the fittest went ahead to seek help while the remainder settled in a camp to await relief which never came. Collins spent his final days sketching and the final entry in the Captains log on 20th October was ‘Mr. Collins Dying’. The two men got through but it was to be a number of weeks before a search party was organised to look for survivors. The search was fruitless and it was assumed all had perished. The following Spring Chief Engineer Melville returned to the delta region o search for the remains of the party. They found the campsite and the Jeanette’s logbooks which were hidden away. Close by the river bank they uncovered the bodies of De Long, Collins and the other ill-fated crew members. They were removed to a high spot and a tomb was constructed from stones and driftwood in which they placed the bodies and a cross erected over it. Collin’s prayer-book was found in his pocket and given to his brother and it was eventually on display in the Cork Public Museum. The U.S. Navy spared no effort or expense to bring the bodies back for burial and steel coffins were assemble at Yakutsk. The bodies were transported by reindeer sledge to the river and then by steamer to Yakutsk and kept over the winter. They were then sledged to the railway at Orenburg. Full honours were paid at every town from there to Hamburg from where they were shipped to New York where more ceremonial honours were paid before burial in Woodlawn cemetery. The body of Collins was brought to St. Patrick’s cathedral for requiem mass after which his body and that of his mother, who had died during the search for her son, were both shipped to Cork for burial. On the morning of March 8th 1884, the steamer City of Chicago entered Cork Harbour. Requiem Mass was celebrated in St. Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh. Then the coffins were placed on the tender for the journey up the River Lee. The naval vessels in the harbour rendered full honours. On arrival at Cork the coffins were transferred to hearses for the final journey to Curraghkippane. There was a massive turnout as the citizens of Cork lined the streets to giver homage to one of their own who had died a heroic death. This then was the saga of the funeral of Jerome Collins – the longest funeral in the world, at almost 15,000 miles from Siberia to New York and finally Cork. The gentle surroundings of his memorial here overlooking the winding River Lee below is a far cry from the harsh Arctic environment where he spent his final days struggling for survival, suffering in body and in spirit. The grave of Jerome J. Collins has now been refurbished and restored. His great, great, grand-niece Amy Nessum Johnson paid an emotional visit to the grave site in June 2015, where she laid a wreath and was shown Collin’s prayer book by the Museum Curator, Dan Breen. The above is an edited version of a much larger article on the life and times of Jerome J. Collins titled: ‘Jerome Collins and the Quest for the North Pole’ written by Mr. John Mulcahy, and printed in Issue 7 of the ‘Old Blarney’ Journal, copies of which are available from 0872153216.