Collins Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Collins Surname Meaning

Collins may be of Irish or of English origin.   The name origins in each case are different:

  • Collins in Ireland would most likely come either from the Gaelic cuilean, a term of endearment, or from the Gaelic surname O’Coileain, which means a whelp or young dog.
  • the English name comes from Collin or Coll, a pet-form of Nicholas, or separately from Colin (deriving from the old Saxon Caewlin).  Collins would usually signify “son of Colin.”

Collins Surname Resources on The Internet

Collins Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Munster) and Southern England
  • to America, Canada and Australia

Ireland.  There were apparently two early Collins septs – the O’Coileains and the O’Cuilleains.

The O’Coileain sept were originally to be found in county Limerick around Claonglass, but were then driven southwards by the Normans in the 13th century to west Cork.  It was said that Mahon O’Collins, lord of Claonglass and the last of the ruling Collins, was killed by his wife in 1266 with a thrust of a knife in a fit of jealousy.

The well-known Gaelic poem, translated as Lament over Timnoleague Abbey, commemorated Sean O’Coileain (John Collins) of this sept. Meanwhile the O’Cuilleain sept was thought to have been indigenous to west Cork.

Father Dominic Collins, born near Youghal in east Cork, was hanged by the British in 1602 after he refused to give them information about the rebel forces.  Michael Collins, the Irish revolutionary leader killed in 1922, came from west Cork.

Today the Collins name is mainly to be found in Cork and Limerick.

England.  The Collins of English origin have come mainly from SE England.  John Collins was an early 16th century iron-maker in the Sussex forests at Burwash; and Stanton Collins a smuggler on the Sussex coast three centuries later.

The Collins of Cornwall, it is thought, were started by Irish Collins from Limerick who migrated there in the 14th century.  Joseph Collins from the Trewardale branch of this family was the founder of the Mineralogical Society.  John Collins was an 18th century merchant in Swansea.  His son John was rector of Oxwich and became an important figure in church life in the area.

Irish.  William Collins from Wicklow in Ireland settled in London in the late 1700’s.  His two sons became well-known there, William as a noted landscape painter and Wilkie Collins as a writer who was said to have invented the detective story.

Scotland.  Kollyns in Scotland is thought to have become Collins.  The name has been mainly found in and around Glasgow. 

The best-known Collins was William Collins, the Glasgow schoolmaster who founded the well-known publishing company of William Collins in 1819.  His son William was Glasgow’s Provost in 1877 and a temperance advocate.

America.  The English Collins came first, then the Irish Collins.

New England. Three early English Collins in New England were Henry Collins in Lynn, Edward Collins in Cambridge, and Joseph Collins in Eastham on Cape Cod.

Henry Collins left London with his family for New England on the Abigail in 1635 and settled in Lynn, Massachusetts:

  • one line via Samuel Collins, a Quaker, led to Rhode Island.  John Collins of this family became Rhode Island Governor in 1816.  John was also a trader out of Newport and this business was carried on by his son and grandson.  
  • another line went to the shipping entrepreneurs Isaac Collins and his son Edward who started the Collins Line service between New York and London in 1818.  It lasted until 1856 when tragedy struck.  One of his vessels sank in thick fog with many lives lost, including Edward’s wife and daughter.

Edward Collins was the church deacon at Cambridge in 1638.  A descendant was William Collins of the Ohio Cavalry during the Civil War after whom Fort Collins in Colorado was named.

Joseph Collins married Ruth Knowles at Eastham, Massachusetts in 1671.  His descendants moved to Chatham where they prospered.  Later Collins were Loyalists and they moved to Nova Scotia where Benajah and his son Thomas were prominent merchants and local politicians.

Elsewhere.   There were many Collins in Virginia in the 1600’s. But trails from them are difficult.  Herbert Collins traced one line in his 1954 book History and Genealogy of the Collins Family of Caroline County, Virginia.

Collins in Tidewater Virginia in the 1660’s may have been the forebears of the William Collins who died in Virginia in 1768.  His son James Collins moved to North Carolina some time before 1776, as that was the year when he enlisted in the militia there.  He settled at a farm in the Sandy Creek area of Franklin county.  By the 1830’s and 1840’s later generations of his family had started to move away, firstly to Georgia and then to Tennessee and elsewhere.

Josiah Collins from Somerset in England arrived in North Carolina in 1773.  He started out as a trader at Edenton.  In 1816 he purchased land in Tyrrell county where he was to site his rice plantation that would be named after his home county of Somerset.

The plantation passed down to his son and then to his grandson before it stopped functioning after the Civil War and was sold in 1870.  In 1988 the sixth Josiah Collins of the line attended a reunion of the descendants of the slaves who had worked at the plantation.

Irish.  Patrick Collins from Ireland was to be found in Frederick county, Virginia in the 1780’s.  His son Christopher bought land in Kentucky in the 1830’s and is considered to be the progenitor of the Collins in the Daniel’s Creek and John’s Creek areas of Kentucky.

Another Patrick Collins arrived penniless from Cork with his mother in 1848, escaping the famine.  He became a Congressman and was the Boston mayor from 1902 to 1905.  Another Collins of Irish roots, John Collins, was Boston mayor from 1960 to 1968.

William and Susan Collins from Cork arrived in New Orleans in 1847.  They moved to Biloxi in Mississippi ten years later and tried growing peaches and then pecans, with limited success.  More successful was son John as a boat builder and his son John Jr. with his civil engineering practice.

Canada.  The Collins name appeared in Newfoundland in the 1700’s and possibly earlier.  John Collins was a well-known Irishman in Newfoundland in the 1760’s:  

“Captain John Collins, a self-professed ‘fast sailor,’ sailed the 80 ton brig Hannah and Lydia from Cobh in Cork to Harbour Grace in Newfoundland.  He would recruit fishermen and shoremen for the Newfoundland trade.”  

Collins in Placentia, Newfoundland date from the 1790’s.  Samuel Collins who arrived from Waterford during the 19th century was the great grandfather of Kevin Collins, the Newfoundland Irish folk singer.

Hallet Collins came from a seafaring family, but in America.  His forebears had been living at Eastham on Cape Cod since the 1650’s.  He himself moved north to Liverpool, Nova Scotia in 1760 where he prospered as a merchant and a trader.  One of his sons Enos Collins – a merchant and trader as well – was reportedly the richest man in Canada on his death in 1871.

Australia.  David Collins, a British administrator of Anglo-Irish origins, sailed on the First Fleet to Australia in 1788.  He was one of the founders of Sydney, NSW and of Hobart, Tasmania.  Collins Street in Melbourne was named after him.

Thomas Collins from Somerset arrived in 1814 and had two careers.  First he was a whaler.  However, he had grown tired of that life by the 1840’s and bought land and became a cattle rancher on the Darling Downs in Queensland.  His story was told in Morland Smith’s 2015 book Captain Thomas Collins.

William Collins had come with his family from Kent to Sydney in 1839.  But it was not until 1862 that his sons Thomas and Charles moved to northern Queensland to take up a license for a pastoral run there at Spring Creek.  Five successive generations of Collins have run their cattle enterprises there. This story was to be found in Anne Smith’s 2003 book Cattle in the Blood.

Collins Surname Miscellany

Early Collins Septs.  The sept of O’Coileain, possibly derived from the word coilean meaning a whelp or young dog, originated in North Desmond (extending into the modern county Limerick), where they were lords of the baronies of Connello.

In the 13th century they were driven southwards by the Geraldines and settled in West Cork near the country possessed by their kinsmen the O’Donovans.  It should be noted that in this very territory to which they had migrated was a sept called O’Cuilleain which was also subsequently anglicized as Collins. These were of the Corca Laoidhe.

The Poet Sean O’Coileain.  Sean O’Coileain of Corca Laoidhe was an 18th century poet in the old Gaelic tradition, when poets commanded respect and were given the hospitality of the king’s castle.

Unhappily for Sean, the kings had all been deposed and the people who would have been his patrons were as poor as himself.  He drank.  But rather than making him happy, his drinking drove away his first wife and so enraged his second that she set fire to the house.

Sean was a reluctant schoolteacher.  However, his poetry must have been appreciated, for he was known as the “Silver Tongue of Munster.”  There has been some mystery surrounding a strangely melancholy poem of his which has been compared to Gray’s Elegy. Whether O’Coileain or an earlier poet wrote it continues to puzzle the folklorists.

Michael Collins.  Michael Collins, the son of a farmer from Clonakilty in West Cork, was affectionately known as “The Big Fellow.”  A man of great physical strength and courage, his untimely death deprived Ireland of its most promising leader.

Ten years in accountancy and stockbroking in London had been a sound education for a future Minister of Finance in the new Irish Free State, which had come into being after the 1916 rising.  Though Collins had taken part in the rising he did not approve of it as a military operation.  He was one of the signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and said, prophetically, that he was signing his death warrant.

In 1922, with the outbreak of the Civil War, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief, with a price of ten thousand pounds on his head. When the President, Arthur Griffith, died in August, Michael Collins took over as the head of state and the army.  Ten days later he was shot in an ambush in his beloved West Cork at Beal-na-Blath, the Mouth of the Flowers.

Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan.  In 1918, four years before he was shot to death, Michael Collins first met Kitty Kiernan at Kiernan’s family’s hotel, the Greville Arms in Granard, county Longford.

Also staying at the hotel was Harry Boland, a man who ended up on the anti-treaty side.  He also fancied his chances with Kitty. A love triangle was conducted via hundreds of letters, with Michael Collins eventually winning the heart of Kitty Kiernan.

The pair had gotten engaged.  But Michael was shot and died before they could marry. Before that he had credited Kitty with restoring his Catholic faith after having become increasingly frustrated by the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland.

Michael’s love rival Harry Boland had also been shot and killed at this time.  In the end Kitty ended up marrying someone else, Felix Cronin.  She named one of her sons Michael Collins Cronin.  And when she died she requested “that she be buried as close as possible to her great love, Michael Collins.”

Stanton Collins, The Sussex Smuggler.  Alfriston was and is a small Sussex village nestled in the folds of the South Downs.  In the early 1800’s, with the fears of invasion from France during the Napoleonic Wars, the population was boosted by troops from the Middlesex and Hampshire Militias. They were billeted in cottages around the market square and in outlying farms. The village thrived during this period and enjoyed a boisterous life.

The departure of the troops in 1815 impoverished the village but left a taste for lawlessness.  Alfriston was ruled at this time by a gang headed by Stanton Collins, a much glamorized figure who has endowed the village with its smuggler’s image today. Collins and his cronies made their base at the Market Cross Inn and, over a period of ten years, were active in smuggling and general thievery.  Alfriston was close to a convenient spot on the south coast shoreline where untaxed tubs of French brandy and other spirits could be landed and safely hidden away.

Finally in 1831, the forces of law prevailed. The Alfriston gang was broken up after Collins was caught for sheep stealing and sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia.

Hallet and Enos Collins in Nova Scotia.  Hallet Collins was just ten years old in 1760 when his family came to Liverpool, Nova Scotia from Massachusetts with the other early settlers.

He lived out his life there, starting as many did in Liverpool as a fisherman and then progressing as a trader.  By the 1770’s he was trading lumber and fish to the West Indies on vessels like the Betsey and Dolphin in which he had whole or partial ownership.  He married three times and was the father of no fewer than 26 children from his first two wives.  When he died in 1831 he left an estate of £13,000.

His second child Enos received little formal education, but went to sea at an early age on one of his father’s trading vessels.  Enos expanded on his father’s business and became one of the wealthiest men in British North America during his lifetime.  When he died in 1871 at the age of 97, he left an estate worth six million dollars, huge by the standards of the day. 

Thomas Collins, Australian Whaler and Grazier.  Thomas Collins at the age of 24 first sailed into Port Jackson in 1814 as a crew member of the Three B’s.  He was captivated by the natural beauty of the place, and also by the discovery that Australian waters abounded in whales. This made a lasting impression on a mind that was seeking a quick avenue to wealth and a career.

He continued his seafaring life, mostly on the China run and sometimes in the Mediterranean.  But the dream stayed with him.  After he had made a considerable fortune, he bought three ships, outfitted them for whaling and set sail for Sydney, leaving his family at home whilst he tested what had been in the back of his mind ever since he had landed in Sydney in 1814, the prevalence of whales in Australian waters.

His whaling days lasted from 1827 until about 1846, primarily with his vessel, the Elizabeth, which he owned for 20 years.

By the 1840’s he had begun to grow tired of the seafaring life and took up land at Maitland.  He later moved further northwards to Queensland and settled on a property on the McIntyre Brook on the Darling Downs.

His first property there was Cooloomunda where he became a cattle rancher. He then moved to a new home at Telemon. It took three months to transfer all his cattle, which then numbered 5,000, from Cooloomunda to Telemon.  The going was open country, the only transport being by horse or bullock wagon.

Collins Names

  • Wilkie Collins, a contemporary of Dickens, was a writer whose works were the precursors of today’s thrillers.  He came from a well-known Wicklow family in Ireland.
  • Joseph Collins was a Victorian mining engineer who founded the Mineralogical Society.
  • Patrick Collins, born in Ireland, became a Massachusetts politician and mayor of Boston in 1902.
  • Michael Collins was the Irish revolutionary leader who took part in the Anglo-Irish treaty negotiations and was then assassinated by the IRA in 1922.
  • Joan Collins is the British actress best-known for her portrayal of Alexis in the American TV series Dynasty. Her sister is the novelist Jackie Collins.
  • Judy Collins is the American folk singer.
  • Phil Collins is a well-known English singer/solo artist.

Collins Numbers Today

  • 95,000 in the UK (most numerous in Surrey)
  • 120,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 73,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

Collins and Like Surnames 

The Irish clan or sept names come through the mists of time until they were found in Irish records such as The Annals of the Four Masters.  The names were Gaelic and this Gaelic order was preserved until it was battered down by the English in the 1600’s.

Some made peace with the English.  “Wild geese” fled to fight abroad.  But most stayed and suffered, losing land and even the use of their language.  Irish names became anglicized, although sometimes in a mishmash of spellings.  Mass emigration happened after the potato famine of the 1840’s.

Some surnames – such as Kelly, Murphy and O’Connor – span all parts of Ireland.  But most will have a territorial focus in one of the four Irish provinces – Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht.

Munster in SW Ireland covers the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford.  Here are some of the Munster surnames that you can check out.


Return to Main Page

Written by Colin Shelley

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *