1925 - 2008
Helen was the daughter of impoverished Irish immigrants who came to the United States in the early twentieth century. The collection La Mujer Maya / Maya Woman was established in her honor.
A devoted mother of ten children, Helen always told them, “Never forget where you came from!” The valiant resistance of indigenous Maya women and men recalls the struggle of the Irish peasants, who likewise fought their oppression for centuries.
The quality of mercy is not strained . . .
Helen was a warm and welcoming person whom everyone wanted to be with. She took great pleasure in witty conversation with her family and friends, yet was often sought out for her wisdom, and her ability to comfort others through kind words and a bracing cup of tea. She had tremendous empathy and respect for working people.
Helen Collins was born in an Irish working-class enclave of the South Bronx, New York City, in 1925. The oldest child of Margaret Cronin and Edward Collins, both of County Kerry, Helen cared for her four younger brothers and sisters while her mother worked as a maid or prep cook. Her father, who loved history and Shakespeare, worked as a stevedore on the docks, and later as a marble setter. During World War I he had been drafted into the U.S. Army and shipped to France, where he fought in the trenches in the Battle of the Argonne Forest.
The Great Depression of 1929 through the Thirties made life for the immigrant family extremely tough. Helen's character was forged in the struggle to survive dire poverty and transcend many obstacles. Edward, her father, could not find work and became an alcoholic. Helen and her siblings were blessed by the tremendous strength and love of their mother, Margaret.
A fine student, Helen won a scholarship to Manhattan's Cathedral High School, the best Catholic girls' prep school in the city. There she excelled in her studies, and loved singing with her classmates in Saint Patrick's Cathedral. When she turned sixteen, Helen wanted to leave school and get a job to help her mother support the family. Fortunately, her mother turned for advice to a dear friend, Miss Drew, who urged Helen to complete high school. This she did, and upon graduation was awarded a full scholarship to Manhattanville College. (She was also named Most Amiable Girl in her high school class.) Unfortunately, Helen could not accept the college scholarship because of her family responsibilities.
Helen was also a beauty, with fair skin, black hair, and frank blue eyes. One evening Malachy Moran, from County Mayo, was captivated as she descended a staircase at a dance in the Carroll Club. He soon appreciated the beauty of her character, and ended up marrying her. The two of them raised a family of ten very happy, healthy, hard-working and optimistic children.
Tragedy struck the family in 1970, when Helen and Mal lost their eldest son, Kevin. The Vietnam War was raging, and young people throughout the nation were trying to stop it through massive, peaceful, legal demonstrations. But there were times when anger and frustration flared up into rioting. This occurred in April of 1970 in Isla Vista, a student enclave at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Kevin was a student. The oldest of the ten children, Kevin had been raised to take responsibility for the wellbeing of others. In response to an appeal by the Student Body President, he went out with some friends to try and stop the rioting. Tragically, he was shot and killed by a frightened policeman. Two weeks later, during an antiwar protest at Kent State University in Ohio, four unarmed students were killed and nine more wounded by the National Guard.
The family carried on, but Kevin's death affected each person profoundly. In the 1970s and 1980s, Helen and Mal became involved in the struggle for freedom and peace in Northern Ireland. They organized many a fundraiser to support the families of those who were unjustly imprisoned. They also became active in the Irish Social Club of Santa Clara Valley, and their Irish Christmas parties are legendary. Many of their closest friendships grew out of these activities.
In her last years, Helen would say that her life's work was raising people who would make the world a better place. Her children assured her that she was a great success—and they try hard to live up to this expectation.
See Also: An Interview with Helen