The longest funeral in history


James Gordon Bennett, the exuberant proprietor of the New York Herald more than a century ago, liked to fund adventurous undertakings. Perhaps his best-known sponsorship was of Henry Morton Stanley's epic journey into Africa which culminated in one of the most famous introductions of all time: "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" But two of James Gordon Bennett's enterprises had connections here in Ireland. He founded the Commercial Cable Company, which for many years until the early 1960s operated a transatlantic cable station in Waterville, Co Kerry, and he was responsible for the extraordinary fame of Jerome J. Collins, late of Cork.

During the late 1870s Bennett decided that the New York Herald needed a kind of Weather Eye. Collins, a recent emigrant to the United States who seemed to have some knowledge of the subject, was duly appointed head of the "weather bureau" of the newspaper.

For several years, with limited success but a great deal of favourable publicity, Collins provided "storm warnings" to the paper's London office, based on the time that storms were last seen leaving the United States. His technique, as he himself described it, was simplicity itself: "When fairly past Cape Race, the movement of a storm is no longer interrupted, and it makes a fairly uniform progress towards the east. On approaching the west coast of Europe the storm again resumes its force, and deposits heavy rain."

In the early 1880s, Bennett organised a polar expedition, which Collins joined as "scientist and meteorologist". But the venture ended in a famous tragedy: the ship Jeanette was trapped in polar ice and all on board, including Collins, perished from exposure on Bolonoi Island, off Siberia; Collins died there on October 30th, 1882. Some months later, a rescue party discovered the bodies buried deep in snow, and then began what has been described as "the longest funeral in history".

The polar expedition had attracted such attention that the US Congress voted $25,000 to bring the bodies to the United States. So it happened that Collins, with the others, was carried 12,000 miles from Siberia, via Moscow and St Petersburg to Germany, and from there by sea - passing very close to his native Cork - to a lavish public funeral in New York.

But Collins's fellow countrymen would have their hero home. He was disinterred, and completed the last 3,000 miles of the journey to his final resting place 115 years ago today, on March 8th, 1884. I am told that the Celtic cross above his grave in Curraghkippane churchyard, outside Cork, is the only tombstone in the graveyard facing north.