The Fenian explorer

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Irish Republican Brotherhood / Fenians, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), News, Volume 17

COLLINS, Jerome Janus (1841–81), meteorologist, Arctic explorer and founder of Clan na Gael, was born on 17 October 1841 in Cork city, the son of Mark Collins, a lime- and saltworks owner of South Main Street, Cork, and his wife Ellen (née Ryan). He attended St Vincent’s Seminary, Cork, before becoming a civil engineer. He was involved in the construction of the North Gate Bridge in Cork city and in the early 1860s emigrated to England, where he was employed as an engineer by a construction firm in London. While working in Pentonville Prison in 1866 he observed Fenian prisoners, and proposed a plan to the London IRB to rescue them by blowing open the prison gates. Betrayed to the police, he fled to America, where he was appalled by the factionalism and ineffectiveness of local Fenians. To help reunite the opposing factions of the American Fenian Brotherhood he founded a militant secret society known as Clan na Gael in New York on 20 June 1867. By the early 1870s, when the Clan had become a militant revolutionary movement (allied with the IRB in Ireland), Collins had ceased to be an active member, but he remained on good terms with leaders such as John Devoy and William Carroll. When war between Britain and Russia appeared possible in 1877, Collins drew up a memorandum for the Clan requesting aid for Irish separatism that was sent to St Petersburg. In 1878 he was consulted by Devoy about the ‘New Departure’ alliance of Fenians and Parnellites, and gave his approval.
Collins’s interest in meteorology led to his being put in charge of the meteorological department of the New York Herald by its owner, James Gordon Bennett. From 1875 Collins attempted to use telegraph messages from distant places to forecast the weather, trying to predict the advent of storms in western Europe based on data from the USA. The first warning sent to Europe correctly foretold the coming of bad weather, but only seven of the 40 forecasts in the first eleven months were accurate.
In 1878 Bennett agreed to sponsor an expedition led by Lt George Washington De Long of the US Navy to find the North Pole. Collins was appointed meteorologist and scientist on the Jeannette, which sailed from San Francisco on 8 July 1879. The ship was trapped in ice in mid-September 1879 near Wrangell Island in the East Siberian Sea and remained there for the next 21 months. During this time the crew occupied themselves in maintaining the ship, making scientific observations and hunting seals. In early June 1881 the ice parted and the Jeannette attempted to reach the open sea, but the flows closed in on 12 June with such force that the ship’s hull was crushed, and the crew of 32 men had to abandon ship and take to three lifeboats. On 12 July 1881 Collins caught a seal, which staved off starvation and allowed the crew to reach the New Siberian Islands. On 12 September the three boats were scattered in a storm. Collins was a member of the boat party led by De Long that managed to land on the northern end of the Lena River delta on the north Siberian coast. They then tried to make their way inland, but suffered dreadfully from cold and hunger. There were also serious tensions between the independently minded Collins and De Long, and it seems that De Long placed Collins under arrest for criticising his leadership. De Long’s diary entry for 30 October 1881 noted that Collins lay beside him dying. Three of the crew managed to reach a settlement and alerted the authorities to the fate of the ship. A rescue party discovered the dead bodies of Collins and his comrades on Bolonoi Island in the Lena delta on 7 April 1882.
The US Congress voted $2,500 to return the bodies to New York, where Collins was given a public funeral; he was later awarded a congressional gold medal in 1890. At a public enquiry into the expedition Devoy was severely critical of De Long, denouncing him as a martinet who had mistreated Collins throughout the voyage. Following a request from the people of Cork for the return of his body for burial in his native city, Collins’s remains were disinterred and taken there. On 9 March 1884, after High Mass at St Colman’s Cathedral in Queenstown (Cobh), the city’s dignitaries and a crowd of about 5,000 escorted the body to Curraghkippane cemetery, just outside Cork city, where he was buried alongside his parents. A Celtic cross facing north was later erected over his grave.

Rob Bohan was formerly an editorial assistant with the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

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