The biographer who unwittingly made Michael Collins gay

On the 50th anniversary of the death of Piaras Beaslaí, Ryle Dwyer assesses how his biography of Michael Collins sparked a slew of rumours about the Big Fellow.

The biographer who unwittingly made Michael Collins gay

Although Piaras Beaslaí served in the first three Dáils and attained the rank of Major General during the Troubles, he is probably best remembered as the first biographer of Michael Collins, with whom he was closely associated.

After quitting politics in 1923 and leaving the Free State Army the following year, Beaslaí began writing a full-length biography of Collins at the invitation of the Big Fellow’s eldest brother, Johnny Collins.

The two-volume study, Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, was published in 1926. It depicted Collins essentially as a flawless individual.

While active in Gaelic League and GAA during his immigrant years in London between 1907 and 1916, Collins supposedly had no time for women.

“The Society of girls had apparently no attraction for him,” Beaslaí wrote. “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.”

During the War of Independence Collins frequently stayed at Vaughan’s Hotel in Rutland (now Parnell) Square, Dublin. “He usually shared a bedroom with [Harry] Boland and myself,” Beaslaí wrote, “and frequently shared Boland’s bed with him.”

There was no mention of Kitty Kiernan in the biography, or that Collins was engaged to be married at the time of his death in 1922. Kitty Kiernan actually tended to behave like a grieving widow, much to the annoyance of the Big Fellow’s sisters, so maybe this helps to explain why Beaslaí wrote her out of the biography. This set an early trend.

The next biography of Collins, by Frank O’Connor in 1937, also failed to mention Kitty and essentially ignored his interaction with women. Rather than chasing the opposite sex, O’Connor depicted him as more inclined to burst into a room looking for “a piece of ear”.

He would jump on some unsuspecting friend and wrestle him to the floor, biting the unfortunate man’s ear until he surrendered, sometimes with blood streaming from the ear.

After reading those biographies, one grandnephew concluded that Collins must have been gay. He mentioned this to his grandfather, Johnny Collins. If Michael had a problem, Johnny replied with a laugh, it was not that he was not fond of girls.

Although Rex Taylor also failed to mention Kitty in his 1958 biography, he did note that Mrs Llewelyn Davies “was acquainted with Collins”.

This was Moya Llewelyn Davies, whom Collins would have first known as Moya O’Connor. She was a friend of his sister, Hannie. Moya married Compton Llewelyn Davies, a solicitor friend of future prime minister David Lloyd George.

During the War of Independence, Moya stored material for Collins at her house, Furry Park, on Howth Rd, Killester. This was also, apparently, one of his safe houses.

She was obviously critical of Beaslaí’s biography of Collins. “His friends who wrote about him have distorted him as much or more than his enemies”, Moya wrote in 1942.

Many women worked for Collins — passing on information to his intelligence network from within the British civil service, or doing secretarial work for him.

Lily Mernin provided invaluable information while working as secretary for Colonel Stephen S Hill-Dillon, a British intelligence officer. It was Lily who provided details on most of the British agents killed on Bloody Sunday.

Nancy O’Brien passed on information to Collins from within Dublin Castle. She later married Johnny Collins after the death of his first wife.

Others young women who worked for Collins included Susan Mason and Patricia Hoey, who worked as trusted secretaries, while Eileen McGrane stored documents for him. Beaslaí never mentioned any of those, but he certainly knew about Mernin, because she was a cousin of his, and it was he who first mentioned her to Collins, and then set up the first meeting between them.

Shortly before his death on June 22, 1965, Beaslaí disclosed the role of Mernin. “The lady is dead now,” he wrote, “and my mouth is unsealed.” While alive, she insisted he not publish anything about her. That did not mean that he had to distort Collins’s attitude towards women in general.

By 1983 the early depictions of Collins as virtually misogynistic were demolished with the publication of the extensive correspondence between Collins and Kitty Kiernan. This included a letter — exactly one week before Collins was killed — in which Kitty complained about some English society women being prepared to throw themselves at him.

There was a real “duirt bean liom” element to her story. “A girl friend told me that a man in Dublin told her that a girl friend of his heard from a society woman — don’t know if she’s a girl — in London that her only idea in life now is to get spending a night with Mick Collins,” Kitty wrote.

“One night will do her, just for the notoriety of it. No wonder the thought of it makes me almost ill,” she continued. “Isn’t England rotten? I hope Ireland won’t copy England in this respect, at least get so bad. Being a simple Irish girl, I could never get used to that kind of thing, I’m sure, tho’ it does seem funny, that London woman’s thought of notoriety at your, mine and everybody else’s expense.”

Tim Pat Coogan disclosed in his 1990 biography that Collins had a close relationship with Susan Killeen while they were both working in London. They continued an affectionate correspondence with each other following her return to Dublin in 1915.

In 1996 Meda Ryan wrote Michael Collins and the Women in His Life, which demolished any lingering doubts that might have existed. But at that point the pendulum seemed to be swinging to the other extreme.

Vincent MacDowell suggested in his 1997 book, Michael Collins and the Brotherhood, that during the Treaty negotiations Collins was amorously involved in London with three married women: Moya Llewelyn-Davies, Lady Edith Londonderry, and Hazel Lavery, the wife of painter Sir John Lavery.

MacDowell contended that Hazel assisted Lloyd George by blackmailing Collins into signing the Treaty by threatening to disclose that he was the real father of Moya’s son Richard, who was born in 1912. MacDowell did not produce a shred of credible evidence to support his contention.

Beaslaí’s depiction of Collins as having no time for women may initially have protected the Big Fellow from some sordid rumours, but when it exposed him to suspicions of being gay, it triggered the stories of Collins being a rampant philanderer.

His own writing would seem to suggest, however, that he was a man of his time — discreet when it came to writing about his amorous activities.

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