For Irish emigrant Mae Collins, numbers have always been significant. The eldest of 10 children, she set sail for America when she was just 17, alongside 1471 other hopeful immigrants aboard the Baltic liner. Her ticket number in Ellis Island opened the door to a new life in America.
But perhaps the most extraordinary number will occur this coming Saturday, when she celebrates her 107th birthday on St. Patrick’s Day at a dinner dance hosted by the Emerald Association of Putnam County.
Speaking to the Irish Voice from her home in Shenorock, New York, the spirit and energy in her voice is distinctive, as well as an Irish lilt she never lost.
A breast cancer survivor, the secret to her long life, she says, is a drink of rye every afternoon at four o’clock.
“I have a shot of rye,” she told the Irish Voice.
“I have worked hard all my life, I lead a regular life – get up at 8 a.m. and go to bed at 9 p.m. I don’t bear any ill will to anyone.”
Collins recalls leaving the family home in Bohola, Co. Mayo in 1922. Her two aunts were already established in New York when she and her cousin set sail for the land of opportunity.
“I said goodbye to Mom and Dad, they cried a little,” she recalled.
Out of the 1,472 passengers abroad the Belfast-built ship, the teenager was not fazed by the seven-day trip across the Atlantic.
“They all got sea sick,” she recalls. “I think everybody on the ship got sick except me.”
Collins still remembers the process that began when the ship docked at Ellis Island.
“They took your clothes and they put them in a bag to sterilize them. I had nothing else to wear,” she says.
When she arrived at her aunt’s home in New York, they were shocked by the state of her garments.
“I got to my aunt’s and she said, ‘What on earth happened to them?’”
The eldest daughter of a farmer, Collins began working as a housekeeper and quickly assimilated into the fast paced life of New York City.
“It felt different as I was from the country but I got used to it,” Collins said. “I had to.”
Collins says she never got homesick, “I had no time to cry,” she says.
“I was living with a family, I got one half day off a week. I wrote letters home, I sent money, and I visited them a couple of times.”
On one of her rare trips home to the west of Ireland, she was surprised to find her mother was pregnant.
“I told my dad he should be shot, that baby was number 10,” she reflects.
“Seven girls and three boys, and I have outlived them all.”
Later she met and fell in love with another Irish emigrant from Limerick. She married Martin Collins on October 17, 1931 at St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Manhattan.
The couple lived on the Upper East Side before moving to Astoria, Queens. Decades later they moved to Westchester, where she has remained since.
The couple had two children, Peg Heslin and Marty Collins. They had eight grandkids and 13 great grandkids. Marty died in 1981.
Collins still resides at her home, with the assistance of her aide Gloria. Since turning 100 she has received a medal of honor from the Irish president every year.
“I feel very happy about it, it’s very important to me,” she told the Irish Voice.
Last Sunday she took part in the Westchester St. Patrick’s Day parade, which she has been a proud participant for the last 10 years.
“It was very good, there were a lot of people,” she said. “They waved and they sang happy birthday.”
Her advice for today’s Irish emigrants? “Work hard, say a prayer and go to bed early.”