Collins was born in Woodfield, Sam’s Cross, near Rosscarbery, County Cork, on 16 October 1890, the third son and youngest of eight children. His father, Michael John (1816–1897), was a farmer and amateur mathematician, who had been a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) movement.

It is believed that many hedge school masters were either failed priests or those who studied at the various Irish Colleges in the Continent but did not proceed to take final vows as a priest.  This might apply to John Collins the Silver Tongue of Munster.