'Guardians of your liberties'

Headline describing John Collison's death, Nenagh Guardian, 5 Aug. 1922.

Image: Newspaper headline describing John Collison's death, Nenagh Guardian, 5 Aug. 1922. 

by Lauren Cassidy

Lauren Cassidy was born in Limerick city and is currently studying for a joint honours degree in English and History. Lauren has always been interested in genealogy; this essay is based on a number of her ancestors who were involved in the Irish Revolution. She spent her Erasmus placement in Umeå, Sweden, where she studied Swedish media, culture and sociology. During her stay there, Lauren visited Stockholm and Swedish Lapland, visiting the royal palace, meeting the Sami people (the indigenous population), and chasing the Northern Lights. 

The Collisons: a revolutionary family in North Tipperary, 1917-22

Academic research regarding the Collison family’s contribution to the Irish Revolution is relatively non-existent. However, Joseph McKenna’s Guerrilla Warfare in the Irish War of Independence and Seán Hogan’s The Black and Tans in North Tipperary both reference witness statements describing the family’s involvement in ambushes. While these sources refer to Collison involvement in violent activities, they do not explore their participation in alternate revolutionary organisations. Historian Peter Hart believes that socio-political and cultural movements must be considered when studying revolutionaries, arguing that involvement in these groups produced an increased willingness to participate in violence.[1] Thus, using newspaper articles and witness statements, this essay explores the Collison family’s embroilment in a range of revolutionary movements. With reference to North Tipperary, this essay argues that the Collison family’s contribution to the Irish Revolution did not rely on violent force alone.

The term ‘Irish Revolution’ produces ambiguity, employed to describe a vast period of unrest in Ireland.[2] Joost Augusteijn claims that Easter 1916 did not constitute a revolution, but acted as a catalyst for the violent ideologies that emerged.[3] Similarly, other historians argue that Ireland was radicalised between 1916 and 1918, inspiring support for Sinn Féin’s republican policies.[4] After 1916, the Collison family exhibited increasing defiance to British sovereignty in North Tipperary. John Collison supported Sinn Féin, rallying support in 1917, and canvassing for the 1918 general election.[5] Following their 1918 victory, Sinn Féin declared themselves Ireland’s legitimate governing body and Collison’s participation in Sinn Féin campaigns demonstrated his desire to assert independence through political legitimacy. By April 1918, Tipperary had united against British law.[6] That same month, Collison was brought to court on a drilling charge. During proceedings he refused to take off his hat, declaring he did not recognise the British court.[7] Furthermore, Collison disregarded British authority, becoming known as the ‘Elusive Collison’.[8] In August 1918, Collison was three months on the run when he was discovered near Nenagh. Engaging in a struggle with, and escaping from a policeman, an article states, ‘Mr Collison, a splendid type of Irish manhood…would not…be easily taken’.[9] Subsequently, he eluded police for ten months before he was arrested.[10] Collison’s involvement with Sinn Féin, and resistance to British rule, established his dedication to political agitation. While Collison employed limited violence to elude police, he used political defiance to assert the right to a self-governing Ireland. Moreover, John Collison was involved in cultural organisations.

Described as a hurling family, brothers John and Jeremiah played with the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in Roscrea, and Moneygall. [11] According to some historians, the GAA was a cultural movement, reviving traditional sports.[12] However, Richard McElligott states that links existed between GAA membership, and nationalism, arguing that it was a seditious organisation, becoming increasingly radicalized after 1916, and transforming members into a cohesive force.[13] Successively, both brothers were charged with drilling. In 1918, the British government prohibited public meetings in Ireland.[14] However, drilling increased in Tipperary throughout that year.[15] In April 1918, John was brought to court, having been recognised amongst a crowd of men assembled in military formation in Moneygall.[16] Moreover, in June of that year, Jeremiah was caught drilling sixty-two men.[17] He was sentenced to six months imprisonment in Belfast Jail.[18] The Collison brothers’ participation in GAA, and illicit drilling, accentuates their contribution to the revolution through non-violent methods. While it provided men with military drilling and training, the GAA was not explicitly linked to violence.

Female members of the Collison family also participated in revolutionary movements. Bridget and Elizabeth Collison, John’s mother and sister respectively, participated in fundraising, and safe house operations. Elizabeth was also a member of Cumann na mBan (CnB). Confining the topic within feminist contexts, existing historiography has not sufficiently accounted for CnB’s involvement in the Irish Revolution.[19] However, it is important to note that CnB pension statements and membership lists are relatively new resources, requiring further exploration. CnB was fundamental to the revolution, with members working as nurses, couriers, spies, and fundraisers.[20] Elizabeth was treasurer of Moneygall CnB.[21] In June 1919, Elizabeth and eleven others were taken to court for selling flags outside a church. When asked for their permit, they replied that their permit was from de Valera, and could not be seen.[22] Similarly, Elizabeth attended a fundraising dance for ‘Moneygall ex-prisoners’ in July 1919.[23] CnB advocated Irish nationalism, supporting Sinn Féin policies as well as fundraising for Irish prisoners and arms.[24] Furthermore, Bridget ran a safe-house, which was raided several times during the War of Independence. A piece in the Nenagh Guardian newspaper stated that ‘boys on the run always had a safe refuge and good fare with Mrs Collison…leaders were glad to rest there’.[25] While Bridget and Elizabeth did not use violence, they were essential to the revolution in North Tipperary through fundraising, providing safe-houses, and disobeying British law; although they did not use physical force, they facilitated the violent actions of others.

In contrast, male members of the Collison family were involved in explicit violence throughout the War of Independence. Historians argue that after 1916, the Irish people were transformed from political nationalists to violent soldiers.[26] McKenna states that this violence was necessary, proceeding from Britain’s failure to grant the independence sought through legitimate political means.[27] Consequently, necessity prompted the Irish people to instigate war. During the War of Independence, John and Jeremiah Collison participated in Active Service Unit (ASU) activity. Jeremiah was commandant of the 2nd Battalion [Toomevara] of the Irish Republican Army until June 1921.[28] John was commanding officer of the ASU for the No. 1 North Tipperary Brigade from January 1921, contributing to several important ambushes.[29] On 16 December 1920, John’s ASU participated in an ambush near Kilcommon Cross, killing four Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) men, and wounding three others.[30] On 23 March 1921, his ASU fought British forces at Burnwood, inflicting injuries on four Crown Force members.[31] Furthermore, John took part in the Modreeny affair, one of the largest ambushes in North Tipperary during the War of Independence. This ambush resulted in the deaths of four RIC men, wounding fourteen others.[32] Although the Collison family participated in a variety of revolutionary movements, they could not escape the necessity for violence. Accordingly, violent action became an important aspect of their contribution to the Irish Revolution.

Equally, John Collison used violent force during the Civil War. Historians argue that British coercion forced Ireland into a state of brutality.[33] Subsequently, as a Colonel Commandant of the Free State Army, he fought to defend the new Irish state.[34] In July 1922, as commanding officer of the Roscrea barracks, Collison addressed the people of North Tipperary and Offaly, stating: ‘We the Soldiers of the Irish Nation come amongst you, not as enemies, but as friends …guardians of your liberties’.[35] John was determined to protect a free and Irish Ireland, advocating solidarity amongst the Irish people. However, his participation in the Civil War ultimately led to his death. On the 28 July 1922, during an anti-treaty ambush on Free State soldiers, he received a fatal bullet wound to his right thigh.[36] While he had committed to the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, there were those who were unable, culminating in domestic conflict, and the unnecessary deaths of Irishmen. In 1933, a crowd gathered to honour John’s struggle for Irish autonomy. A graveside oration stated: ‘the liberty fought for by Collison was the real and true form of liberty – the liberty of the citizen to lead his own life’.[37] Embroiled in divisions amongst the Irish people, John was compelled to participate in violence. Advocating the right to live one’s life in a free state, he paid the ultimate price for liberty.

With reference to North Tipperary, the Collison family’s contribution to the Irish Revolution did not rely on violent force alone. Considering the Collison family’s attempts to assert independence through political legitimacy, and cultural nationalism, the necessity for violence emerged after the failure of alternative methods. Like many other families from this era, the Collison family has an important story to tell. While many go unexplored, the availability of new records and research allows historians to create more comprehensive pictures of Irish revolutionaries, accounting for different revolutionary movements as well as violent activity.


[1] Peter Hart, ‘The Geography of Revolution in Ireland’ in Past & Present, 155 (1997) p. 172.

[2] Joost Augusteijn (ed.), The Irish Revolution, 1913-1923 (New York, 2002), p. viii.

[3] Augusteijn, The Irish Revolution, p. 19.

[4] Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, ‘The Irish National Aid Association and the radicalization of public opinion in Ireland, 1916-1918’ in The Historical Journal, 55 (2012), p. 706.

[5] Killarney Echo and South Kerry Chronicle, 24 Aug. 1918.

[6] Joost Augusteijn, From public defiance to guerrilla warfare: the experience of ordinary volunteers in the Irish War of Independence (London, 1996), p. 77.

[7] Irish Times, 29 Mar. 1919.

[8] Nenagh Guardian, 22 Mar. 1919.

[9] Nenagh Guardian, 24 Aug. 1918.

[10] Nenagh Guardian, 22 Mar. 1919.

[11] Nenagh Guardian, 5 Aug. 1922.

[12] Joseph E. A. Connell, ‘Countdown to 2016: The GAA and the development of nationalism’ in History Ireland, 19 (2011), p. 66.

[13] Richard McElligott, ‘1916 and the radicalization of the Gaelic Athletic Association’ in Éire-Ireland, 48 (2013), p. 101.

[14] McElligott, ‘1916 and the radicalisation,’ p. 108.

[15] Augusteijn, From public defiance, p. 79.

[16] Irish Times, 29 Mar. 1919.

[17] Nenagh Guardian, 8 Jun. 1918.

[18] Nenagh Guardian, 22 Mar. 1919.

[19] Cal McCarthy (ed.), Cumann na mBan and the Irish Revolution (Cork, 2007), pp 1-3.

[20] Liz Gillis, Women of the Irish Revolution (Cork, 2014), p. 82.

[21] Monegall Cumann na mBan, personnel’s lists, 11 July 1921, Toomevara District Council 2,  Military Archives Ireland, Military Services Pension Collection, CNB/99 (http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Membership/9/MA-MS...) (18 March 2017).

[22] Nenagh Guardian, 9. Aug. 1919.

[23] Nenagh Guardian, 2 Aug. 1919.

[24] Brian Hanley, The IRA: a documentary history (Dublin, 2010), p. 9.

[25] Nenagh Guardian, 23 Apr. 1938.

[26] Augusteijn, From public defiance, p. 14.

[27] Joseph McKenna, Guerrilla warfare in the Irish War of Independence 1916-1926 (North Carolina, 2011), p. 1.

[28] Statement by Sean Gaynor, 1956, Military Archives Ireland: Bureau of Military History, 1913-21, WS1389, p. 6 (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1389.pdf) (19 March 2017).

[29] Statement by Patrick Cash, 1956, Military Archives Ireland: Bureau of Military History, 1913-21, WS1372, pp 8-9 (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1372.pdf) (19 March 2017).

[30] Statement by Edward O’Leary, 1956, Military Archives Ireland: Bureau of Military History, 1913-21, WS1459, pp 17-8 (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1459.pdf) (18 March 2017).

[31] Statement by Edward John Ryan, 1956, Military Archives Ireland: Bureau of Military History, 1913-21, WS1389, p. 18 (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1392.pdf) (18 March 2017).

[32] Statement by William Meagher, 1956, Military Archives Ireland: Bureau of Military History, 1913-21, WS1391, p. 8 (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1391.pdf) (18 March 2017).

[33] Gavin Foster, ‘Res publica na hÉireann? Republican liberty and the Irish Civil War,’ in New Hibernia Review, 16 (2012), p. 21.

[34] Statement by Lawrence Brady, 1956, Military Archives Ireland: Bureau of Military History, 1913-21, WS1388, p. 33 (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1427.pdf) (22 March 2017).

[35] Nenagh Guardian, 5 Aug. 1922.

[36] Ibid

[37] Irish Independent, 24 Jul. 1933.