MICHAEL Collins’s assassination, 90 years ago today, ended the most celebrated love triangle in Irish history. Three weeks earlier, on Aug 2, 1922, Collins’s friend, Harry Boland, who had fought on the opposite side in the Civil War, was killed in a hotel in Skerries, resisting arrest.
Both men had been in love with Kitty Kiernan, whose family ran the Greville Arms Hotel, which is still open, in Granard, Co Longford. Boland pleaded with her to marry him, but Collins, in a bizarre exchange in Dáil Éireann during the fractious Treaty debates in Jan 1922, announced he was engaged to her.
The timing of the announcement was to disabuse the Irish parliament of the notion that he was to marry Princess Mary, a charge made by Countess Markievicz. Collins first met Kitty Kiernan in 1917. Their romance, like hers with Boland, was fitful and often by post, as both men were on the run during the War of Independence (Collins and Kiernan wrote 300 letters to each other.)
After the war, Boland was dispatched to the United States as an envoy. Collins was harangued into joining Arthur Griffith in Treaty negotiations with the British government, which began in Oct 1921, the same month Boland sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. From Boland’s love letters, he emerges as decent — straightforward, gushing in his love for Kiernan (“pulse of my heart,” he called her) and stoic in his acceptance that all’s fair in love and war. A few hours before he set off from Cobh to New York, Boland assured Kiernan “no matter what manner our triangle may work out, he and I shall be always friends”.
“I think Michael Collins was kind of acknowledged as the alpha male, if you want to look at it in tribal ways,” says Mary Kenny, whose play, Allegiance, deals with the Collins-Winston Churchill relationship. “At the end of the day, the chieftain is deferred to; he was entitled to that privilege almost.”
Boland bombarded Kiernan with letters from America (even his mother to write to her), but Kiernan was preoccupied with the fanfare surrounding Collins in London. The city was captivated by him.
The tabloids — the Daily Sketch, Daily Express and Daily Mail — only wanted photos of Collins, the gunman who had emerged from the shadows, though the British government’s delegation included luminaries like Prime Minster David Lloyd George, Churchill and Lord Birkenhead.
“Collins was so physically impressive,” says Kenny. “Everybody mentioned that he was 6ft 1in, terribly good-looking in the flesh. I don’t think that pictures even do him justice. The painter John Lavery compared him to Hercules.”
Lavery’s wife, Lady Lavery, whose doe-eyed visage adorned Irish pound notes throughout the 20th century, was smitten with Collins. It is rumoured that she had an affair with him in London during the Treaty negotiations, and a fervent love letter that Collins allegedly wrote to her is in contrast in tone to the reserved, guarded mail — business-like — he sent Kiernan.
“There is a love letter to Lady Lavery that Collins wrote,” says Bridget Hourican, editor of Straight from the Heart: Irish Love Letters. “I didn’t use it because the authenticity is questioned. Collins’s biographer, Tim Pat Coogan, makes a huge song-and-dance about it and says that it couldn’t be Collins’s, because it’s written in pencil. I think that Tim Pat couldn’t cope with the thought of Collins in love with an English aristocrat.
“The letter he wrote to Lady Lavery is a much more ardent and passionate letter [than the ones written to Kiernan]. I guess Lady Lavery was clearly a fantasy. If he was having an affair with her, it was not going to have any consequences. He was obviously never going to marry her. In a way, he could say what he liked, especially given that she was sophisticated and used to these kinds of liaisons.”
Kiernan seems needy and oblivious to political affairs — an exasperated Collins told her he didn’t have time to write her “long” letters because he had “many obligations”.
“The only defence about his language to Kitty,” says Hourican, “which doesn’t seem very lover-like — he’s not writing the most passionate, affectionate letters — is they could have been the type of engaged couple that kept squabbling until they got married, and the reason why they’d quarrel was because each one was trying to carve out their ground, which can lead to quite a successful marriage.
“He might have been one of these men that had a very clear view about the type of girl that he was marrying and the type of girl he was playing around with. He just may have had this Madonnna/whore view, and, as his wife, he didn’t want to be on his knees before her. In his letters, he was not trying to whitewash anything. He says this is going to be difficult. He did write to her a lot. I don’t think he was stringing her along.”
Kiernan’s hopes for a wedding in Jun 1922 were dashed by the onset of the Civil War. By the end of the summer, both her lovers were dead. She married a quartermaster general from the Irish army, Felix Cronin, in 1925, and bore him two sons, although the marriage was unhappy. Their second boy was christened Michael Collins Cronin.
* Straight from the Heart: Irish Love Letters is edited by Bridget Hourican and published by Gill & Macmillan.