Was Michael Collins gay? asks new book on Irish hero

Was Michael Collins gay? asks new book on Irish hero
Michael Collins in London for the treaty negotiations with the British government in December 1921. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty

Though the ‘Big Fellow’ was engaged to Kitty Kiernan at the time he was killed, in 1922, there is still speculation about his sexuality, writes Ryle Dwyer.

We have a gay Taoiseach and we legalised gay marriage in 2015, but was one of the key founders of the State, Michael Collins, also gay? A new book indicates that he might have been.

History lecturers, Anne Dolan, of Trinity College, Dublin, and William Murphy, of Dublin City University, state in their new book — Michael Collins: The Man and the Revolution — that David Norris, the gay activist, has said the ‘Big Fellow’ was gay.

Senator Norris wrote in his autobiography that an elderly man told him one night about being a boyfriend of Collins more than 50 years earlier.

When the senator mentioned this to an eminent historian, the reply was that this was known in certain Republican circles.

The authors say that their aim is to “complicate our understanding” of Collins by encouraging curiosity “about all aspects of his life”.

Thus, they seek to “provoke questions, rather than to answer them”. Dr Dolan and Dr Murphy clearly think that too much has been taken for granted about Collins.

A veritable industry has grown around commemorating him, with histories, novels, movies, and even a musical, based on his life. He was voted Irishman of the last century in an Irish Times poll.

It wasn’t always that way. I do not remember ever hearing his name being mentioned in class in primary or secondary school, in Tralee, during the 1950s and early 1960s.

But while at university in Texas during the 1960s, I became intrigued with his part in Irish history.

The distortions surrounding him sparked my interest in Irish history, even though I did not even sit history in the Leaving Cert in 1963.

After being commissioned to write a short biography of Éamon de Valera in the Gill’s ‘Irish Lives Series’, I was planning to write a book on Michael Collins, but Gill & Macmillan said it would not be commercially viable.

Tim Pat Coogan was told the same thing, so he had his biography published in England. Mine (and three other books that I wrote on Collins) was published by Mercier Press in Cork.

Collins’s place in history was not well-served by his friend Piaras Beaslaí, who sought to block others writing about him.

In May of 1923, Hayden Talbot published Michael Collins’ Own Story, which was based on interviews that Talbot had with Collins for the Hearst newspaper chain in the USA.

Beaslaí denounced Talbot’s book as a “forgery” and tried to block its serialisation in the Sunday Express, in an obvious attempt to enhance prospects for his own two-volume biography of Collins, which was published in 1926.

Beaslaí’s writings depicted the Big Fellow as misogynistic. Kitty Kiernan, whom Collins was engaged to marry, was never mentioned in the book.

“Girls had apparently no attraction for him,” according to Beaslaí.

“The usual philanderings and flirtations of young men of his age had little interest or attraction for him, though he sometimes amused himself by chaffing his young friends over their weaknesses in that direction,” Beaslaí added.

He preferred the company of young men, and never paid any attention to the girls belonging to the branch, not even to the sisters and friends of his male companions.

After reading Beaslaí’s biography, a grandnephew of Collins told me that he concluded the Big Fellow was gay.

But when he mentioned this to his grandfather, Michael’s older brother, his grandfather just laughed and said that if Michael had a problem, it was not that he was not fond of women.

His extensive correspondence with Kitty Kiernan certainly undermined the gay suggestion.

Kitty Kiernan
Kitty Kiernan

Subsequent biographers highlighted warm relationships with other women, such as Susan Killeen, Moya Llewelyn Davies, Susan Mason, Hazel Lavery, and even the ubiquitous Dilly Dicker.

A civil war opponent, Frank O’Connor, wrote The Big Fellow. It was the most human of the earlier biographies.

It did not try to depict Collins as some kind of plaster saint, but as a man who drank, swore, and lost his temper, like other people. Thus, his Collins was “all the richer for his faults,” the authors of the latest book conclude.

Collins liked to say that he was just a plain soldier, but he “saw very little of the actual fight,” according to those authors.

“He’s no good,” Tom Barry suggested, because “he never shot a man in his life.” Of course, that kind of thinking tells us much more about Barry than Collins.

Collins was not a gunman, but a brilliant organiser and strategist. Militarily, Irish republicans were no match for the British, so confronting the British Army required something extra.

He attacked the British in ways calculated to provoke their blind reaction.

“Outrages of all sorts on the part of the enemy” then reverberated to the advantage of Irish republicans, Collins believed.

The Crown forces undermined their own sympathy in Ireland by alienating Irish opinion.

“They are losing the last few friends they have here,” Collins wrote in September 1920. The Black and Tans essentially drove the Irish people into the arms of the Republicans.

Was Michael Collins gay? asks new book on Irish hero

He understood the limits of what could be achieved by violence, and the authors contend that he “may have prevented as many killings as he ordered”.

“Most of all,” they write, “he knew when to stop.” When Cathal Brugha planned to wipe out the British cabinet in January 1921, for instance, Collins blocked the crazy scheme.

“No doubt,” the authors conclude, “he feared that the pendulum of public sympathy would swing back to London with such an act.”

If a number of cabinet members were killed, the British people would have given their forces freedom to react in the most stringent way.

“As a leader,” the authors contend, Collins “meddled too much, overstepped too many marks.” He was ready to interfere anywhere he thought he could be effective.

“If he could,” his friend Batt O’Connor said, Collins would “most likely have insisted on attending the executive meetings of Cumann na mBan.”

The authors go on to suggest that Collins “exposed himself too often and too readily to unnecessary risks.” This was actually the secret to his survival in Dublin.

He was so visible that the British became complacent and apparently assumed he was a person of no interest to them. He was, in effect, hiding in full public view.

Of course, this may have led to his ultimate undoing. “Mick wouldn’t keep down,” according to Emmet Dalton, who accompanied him at Béalnabláth during the ambush in which Collins was killed.

“If he had ever been in a scrap, he’d have learned to stay down,” Dalton added.

And so, Mick was killed standing up.

Of course, Dalton also went on to say, “We were all assholes that day.”

This latest book on Michael Collins is not a biography, but a provocation to consider all facets of the man.

It is all the richer for its wealth of magnificent photographs, illustrations, and facsimile documents. It should be an invaluable source for anybody setting out to study, or write about, any aspect of the Big Fellow’s fascinating career.

Michael Collins: The Man and the Revolution, by Anne Dolan and William Murphy, is published by The Collins Press, Cork.

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