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Michael Collins - The Astronaut with Irish Roots


Posted 18/07/2019

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the first moon landing, Eternally Irish have researched the Irish ancestry of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins. Just like his famous Irish namesake, Collins' family hails from West Cork. His grandfather, Jeremiah Bernard Collins moved from Dunmanway, County Cork to Cincinatti in 1860. 

Family legend goes that Jeremiah was a drummer boy in the Civil War aged 16. He was part of a small faction that herded horses into Texas to replace mounted calvalry lost during the war. After the war was over Jeremiah moved to New Orleans to work for a grocer, James Lawton. Jeremiah would go on to marry his employer's daughter, Kate Lawton. Soon after the couple moved across the Mississippi to Algiers to raise their eleven children. Algiers was known as an Irish-American stronghold thanks to its close proximity to a main terminus station of the Southern Pacific Railroad. 

The named their first-born (Michael's father) after Kate's father. James Lawton Collins had a distinguished career in the U.S Army, retiring as a Major General in 1946. He served in World War I, World War II and the Philippine-American War. He was stationed in Rome for a large part of the 1930s and it is here where Michael was born. The Collins family travelled a lot due to their father's work in the Army and Michael spent his childhood in Rome, New York and Puerto Rico among other places. 

Michael spent his late teens in Puerto Rico before enrolling at the West Point Academy. He graduated in 1952 and decided to join the Air Force. He flew fighter planes in Europe before returning to America. He married another Irish-American, Pat Finnigan from Boston, in the summer of 1957 before moving to California to become a test pilot at Edwards Air Base in 1960. He joined NASA in 1963. Collins was co-pilot with John Young on the Gemini 10 mission in July 1966. During that mission he made two spacewalks, becoming the first person to perform more than one on the same mission. Due to a trapped nerve in his spine, Collins missed out on the Apollo 8 mission in the summer of 1968. Fortunately he was reassigned to Apollo 11 as the mission's command module pilot.  Collins was the pilot as the mission launched on July 16th 1969 with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board. Collins stayed in orbit around the moon as Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on the moon. During this time he was in complete solitude with no radio contact with Earth. He described the feeling as complete "awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation". Collins, Armstrong and Aldrin returned safely to Earth on the 24th July after more than eight days in space. 

Collins retired a year later in 1970 as a Major General, just like his father. He immediately took on the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs in the Nixon administration. The 'other guy' from the Apollo 11 mission has a slew of other achievements to his name. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and he spent time as the Director of the National Air and Space Museum. 

Collins, now 88, returned to the launch site at the Kennedy Space Center this week to mark the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. 

Of course, Collins is not the only astronaut with Irish connections. The first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, said in an interview that he had descended from a family of cattle farmers in County Fermanagh. Another Collins, Eileen, made history in 1995 as the first female NASA pilot and commander of a space shuttle. Eileen is the daughter of two Irish immigrants from County Cork. She grew up in Elmira, New York. Collins retired from NASA in 2006 and she has visited Ireland on numerous occasions. 

We are very proud of the Irish Diaspora around the world and how the traditional Irish values have been passed on from generation to generation. If you would like to find out more about your Irish ancestry then you should visit FindMyPast. You can begin your research journey with a 14-day free trial here

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