Michael Collins has been dead for over ninety years, but the world’s fascination with him continues to grow. Collins, perhaps the most dynamic and innovative revolutionary of the 20th century, has many admirers. The Israelis basically copied his revolutionary plans, which banished the British from Ireland, and applied them to Palestine. He was admired by future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Mao Tse-tung and even the young Nelson Mandela. Recently, there has been as much interest in his sex life as there ever was in his revolutionary tenets.
When he died at the age of thirty-one in 1922 he was engaged to Kitty Kiernan. But it was during the Treaty negotiations of October-December 1921 when the world’s press focused on Collins, suggesting that he was not only a statesman but perhaps the Irish answer to Don Juan. For it was during this period when his path converged with several women, including Lady Hazel Lavery, American wife of the famous painter, Sir John Lavery, and Moya Llewelyn Davies.
Collins used Lady Lavery as a diplomatic go-between because of her social connections with the British power structure. She often drove him around London for meetings and social functions. It was these events that got tongues-a-waggin’. Were they intimate? Of course, no one knows for sure but years later some of Collins’s poetry was discovered and in it there was his ode to Lady Lavery:
Oh! Hazel, Hazel Lavery:
What is your charm Oh! Say?
Like subtle Scottish Mary
You take my heart away.
Not by your wit and beauty
Nor your delicate sad grace
Nor the golden eyes of wonder
In the flower that is your face.
I’ll leave the Lady Lavery-Collins relationship up to the historians, but revolutionaries—particularly Irish revolutionaries—don’t usually write poems describing their subject as having “wit and beauty” unless there is an underlying passion.
Collins’s relationship with Moya Llewelyn Davies is more complicated. Was she a lover, just a friend, or, as some have maintained, a “stalker”? Collins apparently knew her when he was living in London between 1906 and 1915. In fact, Vincent McDowell, in “Michael Collins and the Brotherhood,” claims that Llewelyn Davies’s son, Richard, born in 1912, was the biological child of Michael Collins. Richard, later in his life, used to brag about his paternity. Unfortunately, Richard Llewelyn Davies went to his grave without leaving us a DNA test.
With the possibility of Collins “entertaining” three women in the fall of 1921 it is surprising to hear that he probably went to the grave a virgin! This is the conclusion of University College Dublin professor of modern history Diarmuid Ferriter “I’ve never seen any kind of proof that Collins was ever sexually active. I believe he died a virgin.”
John A. Murphy, professor emeritus of history at University College Cork, took a similar approach. “Collins has sometimes been wrenched from his proper historical context and forced into contemporary relevance,” Murphy said. “Thus, he is depicted as a very modern ‘macho’ man, cast in a late 20th-century mold, especially in the area of sexual permissiveness. However, his alleged womanizing remains mere speculation and there is no evidence he succumbed to the blandishments of his groupies. He was exclusively devoted to his fiancée Kitty Kiernan. He was a practicing Catholic after the manner of his day, even if occasionally anti-clerical in the Fenian tradition.”
On the other hand, openly gay Irish Senator David Norris (see chapter 15, “Gay Gaels,” for more on Norris) now claims that Collins was gay! In his autobiography, A Kick Against the Pricks, Norris claims that one of Collins’s grand-nephews spilled the beans to him: “I had a chat with him in the coffee bar and was greatly amused to hear that, according to him, he shared this [gay] trait with his great-uncle. I don’t know if he was teasing or not but a subsequent event appeared to confirm it. An elderly man came in one night who had been visiting Sinn Fein‘s headquarters three doors down. He had fought in the Civil War more than half a century before and claimed to have been one of Michael Collins’s principal boyfriends.” Norris went on to add that: “I mentioned this to a well-known popular historian of the period, who confirmed that this was generally known in certain republican circles.”
On hearing Norris’s claim, Ferriter (of the virgin school) suggested that it was “wishful thinking on David’s part.”
Of course, one wonders if Michael Collins had been a failure as a revolutionary if people would have cared one way or another about his sexuality. As President Kennedy, another man with an eye for the ladies, once remarked, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
* Dermot McEvoy was born in Dublin in 1950 and immigrated to New York City four years later. He is a graduate of Hunter College and has worked in the publishing industry for his whole career. He is the author of "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising," "Terrible Angel," "Our Lady of Greenwich Village," and "The Little Green Book of Irish Wisdom." He lives in Greenwich Village, New York.
* Originally published in February 2015.