‘Humour is the safety-valve of the nation’ – Brian Maye on Thomas J Collins and Dublin Opinion

An Irishman’s Diary

Satire has a long history in writing in Ireland, from the "aoir" of the Irish bardic tradition through Jonathan Swift up to Myles na gCopaleen. Dublin Opinion, which ran from 1922 to 1968, was a significant 20th-century part of that history. In this column on May 11th, 1996, Emmet Oliver described it as "one of Ireland's most ambitious and outstanding satirical projects". Its co-editor, Thomas J Collins, died 50 years ago on, appropriately enough, April 1st.

He was born on February 26th, 1894, one of six children of merchant tailor Anthony Joseph Collins and Alice Beatty. Following his primary schooling in Dublin, he attended Rockwell College, near Cashel, Co Tipperary, from age 12 to 17, where he excelled academically (first place in the intermediate examination in 1909 and sixth place in the senior examination in 1911 in Ireland). He then went to UCD but in 1912 joined the Office of National Education of the Civil Service without taking a degree. He developed a reputation in the Civil Service for his wit and ability to pen light-hearted verse. In 1922, an office colleague, Charles Kelly, asked him to contribute to a humorous journal to be called Dublin Opinion that Kelly and Arthur Booth, who had met through their shared interest in amateur dramatics, were planning to set up. The first issue appeared in March 1922, with Booth as editor and Collins and Kelly as the other main contributors.

Launched as civil war loomed, its stated aim was “to interest and amuse our readers, and if there must be Free Staters and republicans, we hope our pages may be as entertaining for the one as for the other ... we poke fun in the spirit of camaraderie.” Its tone was neutral and balanced and it ridiculed both sides with gentle, humorous satire. It couldn’t prevent the conflict but it helped to make it bearable for many people.

After Booth's untimely death from pneumonia in 1926, Collins and Kelly became co-editors and directors of Dublin Opinion Ltd, a newly formed company. By that time, the magazine was selling 40,000 copies per issue. Collins retired from the Civil Service in 1934 to work full time for Dublin Opinion. He wrote most of the journal's text, using pen-names such as Paul Jones, Clement Molyneux, Lycurgus and Epictetus, while Kelly drew most of the cartoons.

Anne Dolan, who did the entry on Collins in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, observed of his satire: "While the occasional barbed comment showed the potential power of his arsenal, he preferred, like the journal itself, the more benign approach that hallmarked his countless stories and poems."

A recurring motif of his remarkable output was the Corkman joke, which he claimed he came up with based on his experience in the Civil Service. Some of his favourite targets for satire were politicians, farmers, the Irish navy, fastidious officialdom, and what he saw as the West Britonism of the Irish Independent and the stuffy Protestantism of The Irish Times. Although he was deeply religious, this did not stop him taking the church to task for what he considered some of its more pointless obsessions.

The magazine ran a number of series, such as "Shakespeare and ..." (Shakespeare and Golf: Enter citizens with clubs"; Shakespeare and Lawn Tennis: Do you smell a fault?"), the "Céilithe in the Kildare Street Club", the "Taliteann Games" and the "Tramps' Congress".

As well as his more that 40-year work for Dublin Opinion, Collins also wrote extensively elsewhere. The Capuchin Annual published his play, Tenement Nocturne, and several poems by him and he also wrote two operettas. These were done in association with the Holy Ghost priest Aindrias Mac Aogáin, with music by Éamonn Ó Gallchobhair; they were entitled Nocturne sa Chearnóg (Nocturne in the Square) and Trághadh na Taoide (The Ebb of the Tide) and were produced in the Gaiety Theatre.

He was married to Mary Elizabeth (Moll) O'Sullivan from Co Kerry. They lived on Lansdowne Road, Ballsbridge, and had no children. Following a long illness, he died on April 1st, 1972.

Dublin Opinion’s popularity had begun to wane in the 1960s, and in 1968, Collins and Kelly sold their interest in it. Their motto for the magazine had been a sound one in that they considered that “humour is the safety-valve of the nation and a nation that has its values right will always be able to laugh at itself”.

During its existence it helped to reduce the bitterness engendered in Irish political life by the Civil War divisions and to tell what Emmet Oliver termed “new truths about what we were like”.

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