THE title of Pat Talbot’s new play, A Great Arrangement, is a reference to what the director describes as “almost a fantasy” that Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan had.
“They imagined being married and having peace and contentment together, sitting by the fire. It was what they called ‘a great arrangement’.”
It was never to be.
The revolutionary leader and his fiancée had their relationship cut tragically short when Collins was killed in 1922. He and Kiernan conducted most of their relationship via correspondence and it is the letters between the pair, as well as Collins’s speeches, that make up Talbot’s play.
It is his contribution to the centenary of the Rising “because the story really begins in 1916 when Collins returned from London to participate in the Easter Rising. When he arrived back in Dublin, he had only six years to live and see the impact he had on Irish history.”
While Collins was initially interested in Kiernan’s older sister, that went nowhere.
“Harry Boland, a close friend of Collins, had to all intents and purposes been going out with Kitty Kiernan. Collins developed a close bond with her which deepened. Boland was very much in love with Kitty and he was effusive in his expressions of that love.
"But a connection developed between Collins and Kitty which she found irresistible. Boland was philosophical about Kitty’s affection for Collins. The two men became completely preoccupied with the political situation with Boland on the anti-Treaty side. In a sense, their personal rivalry continued into political rivalry.”
Talbot says Kiernan was a daily presence in Collins’s life through the letters she sent him, replying to his daily missives from London.
“He relied on her hugely, particularly during the Treaty negotiations, the subsequent signing of it, and the tragic slide into civil war afterwards.
"What she provided for Collins was, in the best possible way, a complete distraction from the political realities of his life. What is quite charming is that here was a young man infatuated with this woman with all the excitement, vulnerabilities and insecurities that go with that.”
As to whether the relationship was consummated, Talbot (pictured below) says: “I know John A Murphy has expressed the view that it’s quite possible that when Michael Collins was shot, he was a virgin.
"I’m not sure about that. When one looks at the totality of the correspondence, there’s maybe the suggestion that it was consummated, but that’s very much open to interpretation.
"Collins had a reputation as being a lady’s man and there were various stories about him in London. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that he loved Kitty Kiernan.”
Starring Dominic McHale as Collins, and Irene Kelleher as Kiernan, the actors read the letters in dialogue form.
“The characters may not be in the same geographic space. But they talk to each other through the letters until eventually, it gets to the point where there’s no reference to te letters at all. I also have three narrators who are also newspaper reporters. They use contemporaneous news reports to push the story forward.
“There are edited extracts from Collins’s speeches. A big set piece in the play is the Treaty ratification debate in the Dáil which was probably one of the greatest debates in the history of Dáil debating.”
The stage will be divided into a space for the Collins and Kiernan characters with the narrators/ reporters anchored at a long table behind them. They move around extensively, with the reporters playing a multitude of supporting characters including de Valera, Harry Boland and Arthur Griffith.
A Great Arrangement is at Gardens Theatre, Lower Friar’s Walk, Ballyphehane, (behind Ballyphehane Church) Cork, from March 15 to April 2. Tickets are available from Cork Opera House
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