Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

When the Irish Flew Around the Moon

American astronaut, Michael Collins.
Like another Michael Collins, famous in
Irish history as a military leader, the NASA
astronaut is of Irish descent. Photo from the US
Government in public domain, from NASA.

By Adrian McGrath

Once upon a time, the Irish flew around the Moon. Yes, it sounds incredible; but it is true.

The Irish always seem to show up in the strangest places. And in the summer of 1969, it happened -- 50 years ago this week.

The American spacecraft Apollo 11 made its historic and spectacular approach to the Moon. Two men would walk on the lunar surface in this mission -- Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Orbiting the Moon alone in the main spacecraft would be Michael Collins, the Command Module pilot.

Collins was a graduate of the US Military Academy (West Point). He joined the United States Air Force (USAF), flew a Sabre jet (an advanced USAF jet fighter), and became a distinguished test pilot. He then became one of the most select people on planet Earth -- a NASA astronaut. (NASA is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.)

The story of astronaut Michael Collins, however, goes far back in time to a land far, far away from America. It goes to Ireland.

Irish immigrants going to America
Photo from,
1868 picture by Henry Doyle

Michael's grandfather was Jeremiah Bernard Collins from Dunmanway, County Cork, Ireland. Jeremiah left Ireland to be with his immigrant Irish relatives in Cincinnati, Ohio around 1860. This was just a few years after the nightmare of the Great Famine or Great Hunger in Ireland. This placed him in America at the time of the bloody American Civil War. This war tore America apart, and it cost the lives of about 700,000 Americans. So, Jeremiah went from one enormous devastation and trauma to another.

It is possible, though not certain, that the grandfather had been a drummer boy in the Union Army during the war. After the war he worked various odd jobs including working in a cattle drive to Texas to replace some of the animals which had been lost during the war.

After his work in Texas ended, Jeremiah traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana. There he settled in and worked in the grocery business, being employed for a man named James Lawton. He married the boss's daughter, Kate Lawton.

Jeremiah and wife eventually moved across the Mississippi River to Algiers, Louisiana (today a part of New Orleans, which, by the way, is my home town) where the trains from the West Coast ended their run. There was no bridge for trains back then across the Mississippi. This made Algiers a key spot for unloading goods to send across the river to the heart of New Orleans.

New Orleans during the Civil War,
1862. Photo from Wikimedia
and Campfires and Battlefields, 1894

Irish immigrants worked in the New Orleans railroad marshaling yards and also on the river's waterfront. To capitalize on this opportunity, Jeremiah and Kate opened their own general store selling mainly dry goods. They also had the good sense to open a bar in the backroom too, selling lots of beer.

Jeremiah and Kate had many mouths to feed from their business because they had a very large Irish Catholic family with many children. As their children grew, they worked at the family business too.

James Lawton Collins, a Major General
in the United States Army, father of
astronaut Michael Collins, and
born in Algiers, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1882
Photo by Library of Congress and Wikimedia

Their first born was named James Lawton Collins. James later became the father of astronaut Michael Collins. James grew and eventually was accepted at Tulane University in New Orleans. But by chance he was also later accepted by West Point, the United States Military Academy.

So, James went to West Point and became a professional US Army career officer. This is how his son, Michael, became connected to the US military and eventually to NASA.

So, from exile from impoverished County Cork, Ireland (which was then still suffering from the past horrors of the Great Hunger, 1845 to 1850, where 1,000,000 Irish people starved to death and another 1,000,000 people fled their homeland to permanent exile), to Cincinnati, Ohio and the slaughter of the American Civil War, to the wilds of Texas, and then to New Orleans, the story led to the improbable result of an Irish descendant flying around the Moon.

Michael Collins, alive and well today, is an American hero. And the Pride of Old Ireland too.

Michael Collins from Ireland,
nicknamed "The Big Fellow,"
Irish military leader in the 1920s.
Photo from Wikimedia

By the way, people in Ireland might recognize the name Michael Collins in another sense. Another Michael Collins, a national hero, was an Irish military leader who fought for Irish independence in the Anglo-Irish War of the early 1920s. He was the leader of the Irish Republican Army. 

After the great success of Apollo 11, many Americans began to take Moon missions for granted and space trips even in the Space Shuttle as routine. But that was a grave error.

The Saturn V, the rocket ship for Apollo 11.
Photo from NASA and Wikimedia.

Ventures into outer space, beyond the atmosphere of Earth, are extremely dangerous. Any number of things can go wrong, and the result can be death. We saw this with the near fatal mission of Apollo 13 and the tragic explosion of the Challenger space shuttle where the entire crew was lost.

All of us on planet Earth, from what ever country, owe a large debt to the brave men and women who venture into outer space.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, Apollo 11.
Photo from NASA, taken by Neil

So, you might rightly ask: Why do we take such risks? We should remember the words of another famous Irish American, John F. Kennedy, who told us in his famous "Moon Speech" at Rice University in Houston, TX on September 12, 1962 why we take these tremendous risks, why we dare to leave the safety of our planet and reach for the stars: "We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon ... not because it is easy, but because it is hard." John F. Kennedy, in his brief time in office, steered America in the direction of a New Frontier.

President John F. Kennedy, Rice University, Houston, Texas,
September 12, 1962. "We choose to go to the Moon ..."
Photo from NASA and Wikimedia
So there was Kennedy, and there was Collins. Both American heroes, and descendants of the Irish.

One descendant of the Irish had the vision to go to the Moon, and the other did the driving.

The crew of Apollo 11.
Photo from NASA and Wikimedia 

Sources and further reading:

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