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John Henry Collins was born in Newry on 3 March 1880, the son of Henry Patrick Collins, who was an auctioneer in Derrybeg, then on the outskirts of Newry, and Kate Collins, who came from Carrickredmond, near Dundalk in county Louth. Living at Castle Street in the town, John Henry Collins was educated at the Christian Brothers’ School and Queen’s University, Belfast, before being apprenticed to Bell & McCartan, a legal firm in Downpatrick. He qualified in 1911 and subsequently opened his own legal practice in Newry at 5 Hill Street. His brother, Patrick, joined him in 1916.

John Henry Collins pictured (back row, first right) with the reception committee at a rally in Armagh organized by Éamon Donnelly, a prominent Newry Nationalist politician, at which Michael Collins (front row, centre) was the keynote speaker. The rally was held in September 1921, shortly after Michael Collins had been elected as MP for Armagh and was attended by over 20,000 people.  Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
John Henry Collins pictured (back row, first right) with the reception committee at a rally in Armagh organized by Éamon Donnelly, a prominent Newry Nationalist politician, at which Michael Collins (front row, centre) was the keynote speaker. The rally was held in September 1921, shortly after Michael Collins had been elected as MP for Armagh and was attended by over 20,000 people. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

During these years, Collins was involved in Nationalist politics; before the 1916 Rising, he was in favour of Home Rule and became a supporter of Sinn Féin. During the War of Independence, his legal profession and political standing in the local area led him to represent most of the IRA prisoners arrested in the Newry and south Down region. 

After the truce in July 1921 and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in January 1922, Collins sided with the Pro-Treaty party as a result of assurances by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith that Newry, south Armagh and south Down would become part of the Irish Free State after the deliberations of the Boundary Commission. The Boundary Commission convened in 1924 as a part of the Treaty to determine the border between Northern Ireland and the Free State. 

John Henry Collins was a Vice President of Newry Musical Feis and his wife, Mary, was a member of the Executive Committee, pictured here in 1930. Mrs Collins is seen standing in the back row, first left. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
John Henry Collins was a Vice President of Newry Musical Feis and his wife, Mary, was a member of the Executive Committee, pictured here in 1930. Mrs Collins is seen standing in the back row, first left. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

At a meeting held in Newry Town Hall on 27th January 1922 comprising representatives of local public bodies and commercial and business interests, John Henry Collins and Patrick Hughes, an Newry Urban District Councillor, were elected as Secretaries to a deputation which was to travel to Dublin. The deputation was to take a statement to Dáil Éireann voicing the claim by habitants of the Newry area to be excluded from the authority of the Belfast Parliament. The President, Arthur Griffith, and the Minister of Finance, Michael Collins, informed the deputation that their claims were unanswerable but that their rights were preserved under the Treaty.

Collins’ legal work gave him an extensive knowledge of the Newry area and this underpinned his unstinting work as an agent for the North-East Boundary Bureau from January 1922 until November 1925, co-ordinating representations and submissions from anti-partition witnesses to the Commission.

One of John Henry Collins’ most notable legal cases was representing Terence Ruddy (above), a Newry Urban District Councillor, in a libel case against the Trustees of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. Ruddy alleged that he had been libeled by the Voice of Labour, the Union’s newspaper, in April 1926. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
One of John Henry Collins’ most notable legal cases was representing Terence Ruddy (above), a Newry Urban District Councillor, in a libel case against the Trustees of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. Ruddy alleged that he had been libeled by the Voice of Labour, the Union’s newspaper, in April 1926. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

After the Boundary Commission closed in December 1925, Nationalists in Newry, south Armagh and south Down had to accept that they were citizens of Northern Ireland. In the election to the Northern Ireland Parliament in April 1925, John Henry Collins was elected as MP for Armagh on a ‘Smash Partition’ mandate. This meant that he would not take his seat in Stormont. However, like other ‘abstentionist’ MPs, Collins took his seat in November 1927 with the support of W.T. Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGaedheal government in Dublin. From 1929 until 1933, Collins was MP for the South Down constituency. He did not stand in the 1933 general election.

Away from politics and law, John Henry Collins had been a keen athlete, oarsman and cyclist as a young man. In June 1919, he married Mary Burke, the daughter of a Tipperary vintner and they lived with their two sons and one daughter at Laurel Hill, Dublin Road in Newry. He died on 12th January 1952.

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

by Noreen Cunningham and Ken Abraham

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