The story of Kitty Kiernan and Michael Collins evokes ancient themes from Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, and also reminds us that “It’s Complicated” applied to relationships long before the internet age.
Kitty’s family owned the Greville Arms Hotel in Granard, County Longford. She seemed to have a very happy life until, through a string of tragedies in her teens, she lost two of her sisters and both parents in the space of three years. Kitty and her remaining siblings continued to run the hotel.
When Kitty met Michael Collins, he was initially more interested in her sister Helen. Helen, however, was engaged to marry another man, so Collins turned his attention to Kitty, who was already being wooed by Collins’ friend, Harry Boland. I don’t know what geometric shape best describes this affair, but the oft-cited triangle has too few points!
Our glimpses into the hearts of all these lovers come through their many letters. It makes one wonder if people will one day comb through the email logs of national heroes, looking for details of their love lives! Some of the most gushing words written to Kitty Kiernan came not from Collins, but from Harry Boland. Boland begged her to marry him and called her “the pulse of my heart.” He may have always known that he was destined to lose her to his larger-than-life friend, for he once assured her that “no matter what manner our triangle may work out, he and I shall be always friends.” Collins and Kiernan eventually made plans to marry; plans that Collins announced in a odd exchange in Dáil Éireann during the contentious Treaty debates. It was intended to be a double wedding with Kitty’s sister, Maud and her fiancé, Gearóid O’Sullivan.
From 1919 to 1921, Collins and Kiernan wrote hundreds of letters to one another. 241 of these letters were published in 1981, in a book called "In Great Haste: The Letters of Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan." A second edition of the book was published in 1998, containing 64 newly discovered letters. Their correspondence includes much talk of the mundane things of everyday life. After all, doesn’t our talk to our own sweethearts consist of the same minutiae? However, Collins’ passion and concern for the emerging Irish state clearly consumes him. Kitty, on the other hand, rarely references the political situation. She writes at length of their relationship, coming off a bit immature and self-centered at times. It is amusing to note that the indomitable revolutionary who terrorized the British military allowed his fiancé to call him “Ducky.” A reader who picks up this collection looking for a prequel to "I Love You, Ronnie" will be disappointed by the lack of eloquent romantic exchanges. The power of the letters is that they document a remarkable man in a chaotic time, longing for an ordinary life.
There have been rumours over the years that Collins was untrue to his fiancé. One of the most persistent is that Collins had an affair with society queen Lady Hazel Lavery. Lady Hazel was the wife of Sir John Lavery, and Collins met the couple in London, where he was leading the delegation to negotiate the Irish Treaty. There is little doubt amongst historians that Lady Lavery was in love with Collins. She convinced her husband to paint his portrait, and hosted numerous dinners for the treaty delegation. A newspaper article written months after Collins’ engagement to Kiernan calls Lady Lavery his “sweetheart.” However, in a her 2006 book historian Meda Ryan details how the IRA, notoriously suspicious of double agents, thoroughly investigated the rumours and found no evidence of an affair. Collins actually joked about the newspaper article in a letter to Kiernan. She responded, “Don't forget to keep the papers about your sweetheart! It was extraordinary, wasn't it. I'd like to see the papers, so don't forget." Collins wrote to Kiernan, and lit a candle in her honour every day of his London trip. Ryan is convinced that he was faithful to her until his death.
The story of Michael and Kitty ends tragically, on a isolated crossroads in West Cork. By this time, the treaty Collins brought back from London had ended the War of Independence and spawned the Irish Civil War. Collins represented the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State, and fought reluctantly against the anti-treaty faction led by Eamon DeValera. In August, 1922, the war seemed to be winding down. The Free State controlled most of the country, and the lovers may have felt that the hard-won peace they craved was within reach. Collins was in Cork, his home county, likely on a mission to meet with opposition forces and convince them to end the war. His car was ambushed by anti-treaty forces and Collins was fatally shot. He was 31 years old.
500,000 people attended Michael Collins’ funeral, almost one fifth of the country's population. Most of them were mourning the loss of a great leader, but Kitty Kiernan’s heart must have been the heaviest of all. The wedding they were to have shared took place four months later; Ger and Maud wed with Kitty in attendance, dressed all in black. Three years after Collins death, She married a quartermaster general from the Irish army, Felix Cronin, and bore him two sons. Their second boy was christened Michael Collins Cronin. Kitty kept a portrait of Collins, the very same one painted by Sir John Lavery, hanging in their home until she died in 1945.
At this time of year, if we look only for sweet, simple stories to inform our conception of love, we might be tempted to overlook or revise this tale. We might reduce it to a spicy love triangle or a weepy romantic tragedy. Someday, the details of this relationship might be distilled into a legend with soft edges. For now, while those strange untamed details survive, the story of “The Big Fellah” and the hotelier’s daughter serves to remind us that no two loves are just alike.
"In Great Haste: The Letters of Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan," edited by Leon O.Broin, revised by Cian O. Heigertaigh
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