Ethna Collins: rest in peace
Ethna Collins, who died on August 18 aged 79, lived an uneventful life but not an unremarkable one. Born in Wellington Street, Lurgan, her father Felix Breen was a joiner. Her mother, Rose Ann – Cissie – stitched handkerchiefs produced in the town’s renowned linen mills.
Ethna was a bright and intelligent girl, the second of four children, but she left school early, like many of that era. Nonetheless, she prized education, making significant sacrifices later to ensure her own children benefited from it.
As a teenager she loved cycling. The Mournes were a favourite destination for trips with her friends, and she never lost her love of the place – revisiting old cycling haunts on a nostalgic trip a few months before her death.
Like many of her generation, she went to England for work, settling in Birmingham with a close-knit set of friends who remained friends for life. There she met Limerick man Stephen Collins. They married in 1958, and had three children: Tom, Stephen and Annette.
Ethna stopped work to bring up her family, taking pride in making meagre resources go a long way– though she was generous with others. She loved the small terraced house she and Steve bought in Membury Road, Birmingham. It was home at one time or another to her father, brother, cousins and friends all earning a living in the Midlands.
In 1968 she brought her family back to Lurgan. Goodyear had opened in Craigavon and there was the prospect of a high quality of life surrounded by the family she loved. Little did she realise what was to befall Northern Ireland. Like most, she got on with life in spite of the Troubles.
For a year the family lived with her parents in the two-up, two-down house where she was born, sharing it with her brother Larry and his new wife Anne. The toilet was in the yard, the bath was a tub in front of the fire, and the fridge was a metal box nailed to a shaded wall out the back. The bath and cool box had been fashioned by her uncle Hughie, the last tinsmith in Lurgan.
In 1969 the family moved to the North Circular Road area of Lurgan. Such was her dislike of debt that things were bought only when she had raised the money for them. The mortgage was paid in double-quick time, and she used her self-taught dress-making skills to help clothe her family.
Ethna found work in the kitchens at St Michael’s senior high school in Lurgan, rising to the position of head cook, as much for her organisational skills and ability to keep the books as her culinary skills.
She sent her sons to board at St Colman’s College in Newry, hoping total immersion would give them the best start in life. Paying the fees was not easy. Indeed, so hard-pressed was she that when Tom’s blazer needed to be replaced, she made it herself. With its home-embroidered badge and chintz lining from a Glendinnings off-cut, it was rarely worn and never fully appreciated. She expected good results, and if she felt the school was not delivering, she did not pull her punches in letting it know.
Her children did all right. Her son Tom became a journalist and was editor of The Irish News from 1993-1999. Her son Stephen, a talented artist, is now a publican in New Orleans, and her daughter Annette is a musician and Sean Nós step dancer and teacher.
In her fifties, she was hit by bi-polar disorder, a condition never satisfactorily managed, but which she dealt with heroically. It dogged the last 30 years of her life, as did her worsening eyesight. In spite of ill health she led a full life, caring for her family, working for the Church, and travelling whenever she could.
She had a deep religious faith, and worked tirelessly for the missions, turning her dressmaking skills to good use making vestments and altar pieces, first for Apostolic Work, Lurgan, and later with the St Peter and Paul’s Altar and Missionary Society which she helped found. She was also involved in a number of cross-community activities in Lurgan.
Ethna also revealed herself to be a talented amateur artist, and she loved crafting, knitting and crocheting. She missed them when arthritis and poor eyesight made them impossible.
In spite of her chronic illness, she was her mother’s primary carer and in later years a pivotal figure in the lives of her grandchildren Joshua and Ella. She died in Craigavon Hospital after a short illness, and was laid to rest with her husband and mother in St Colman’s Cemetery Lurgan.
She is survived by her daughter Annette, sons Stephen and Tom, and grandchildren Joshua and Ella.