The Easter Rising of 1916 is often known as the Poet’s Revolution because three of the signatories of the Proclamation were published poets: Padraic Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Joseph Mary Plunkett.
Michael Collins — called by Tim Pat Coogan “The Man Who Made Ireland”— took a rather cynical view of the poets of 1916. Though he participated in the Rising, he was skeptical of it. “I do not think the Rising week was an appropriate time for the issue of memoranda couched in poetic phrases, nor of actions worked out in a similar fashion,” he wrote while being incarcerated at the Frongoch prison camp in Wales.
The vision of Collins today is that of an elite revolutionary with a revolver in one hand and the Treaty in the other. But there is another side to the Big Fellow—the debonair ladies’ man with the roving eye as he bounced between Dublin and London in the fall of 1921 trying to hammer out a treaty for Ireland with British heavyweights like David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.
In Dublin he was engaged to Kitty Kiernan, a Longford girl he had won over when Harry Boland had absconded to America with Eamon de Valera in 1919. When Collins was sent to London by de Valera to negotiate the Treaty he became, as Tom Wolfe might have said, “radical chic.” Collins quickly went from coldblooded terrorist to celebrity in the drawing rooms of London’s upper-classes. His guide to these drawing rooms was a woman by the name of Hazel Lavery, the American-born wife of famed painter Sir John Lavery.
Lady Lavery used her social contacts to help Collins advance Ireland’s cause in London. She often chauffeured him around to his appointments, which was duly noted by the London press and these tales were not ignored in Dublin by a somewhat distressed Kitty Kiernan. According to "In Great Haste: The Letters of Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan" edited by León Ó Broin, Kiernan wrote to Collins: “I hope I have the pleasure of gazing on you (among all the beauties).”
“I never said any such thing,” Collins replied to Kitty in indignation at the romantic insinuations. “Newspapermen are inventions of the devil.”
Kitty was clearly hurt when she told Collins: “I’m very sensitive, will always be looking for a pin hole to reproach you if I noticed anything, and there’s where the trouble lies.”
Was it all innuendo?
According to writer Sinéad McCoole—who has written brilliantly about women in the Irish political movement—in her book "Hazel: A Life of Lady Lavery 1880-1935" maybe, maybe not.
We will never know definitely if Collins and Lady Lavery—ten years older than Collins—were bedmates, but there are indications that they may very well have been. According to McCoole, Collins wrote to Lavery that “I know I shall never again meet anyone so beautiful, so gay, and so sad as you.” McCoole also quotes George Bernard Shaw—who dined with Collins the weekend before his death—as remarkably opining: “I had no right to assume—though I knew—that Michael was what I call your Sunday husband…”
If being a “Sunday husband” is not enough evidence, how about some poems from the man who thought poetry should not be used in a revolutionary movement? Commandant-General Collins obviously saved his for the boudoir. And there is no doubt who this poem was written for:
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.
Another example is even more passionate:
Cucugan I call thee,
Cucugan the dove,
Because of thine eyes and the voice that I love.
Cucugan I call thee.
Hast thou no fear, little bird, little love,
I am an eagle and thou art a dove
Hast thou no fear of me?
Wild is my nest in the mountain above,
Wilt thou fly there with me lovely white dove,
Shall my wings carry thee.
What is interesting here is that Collins is comparing Lady Lavery to a dove, the bird of peace, and he is comparing himself to the war-like eagle, one of the sky’s most dangerous predators.
Of course, these may have been the jottings of a lonely man, out on a limb, trying to rescue his country from the British for the first time in 700 years. His love, his feelings, may have been unrequited. But after his death—there was somewhat of a scandal in Dublin at Collins’ funeral when Lavery showed up dressed in black, as if she was as much of a pseudo-widow as Kitty Kiernan—Hazel wrote a poem titled “To a Dead Lover”:
I will forgive you both,
Forgive her living,
Forgive you dead.
Your passion and beauty
are clay—Cold Michael,
And lie alone in your
Deep dark bed.
There has been all kinds of speculation over Collins’ love life. Some say he had illegitimate children from his time in London in the early part of the century. Others say he was gay. Some even say he died a virgin. We will never know for sure, but it’s obvious that Michael Collins reserved the same passion for the women in his life as he did in his revolutionary endeavors. He was highly successful as a revolutionary—there is nothing to indicate that he was any less successful as a lover.
Dermot McEvoy is the author of the "The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising and Irish Miscellany" (Skyhorse Publishing). He may be reached at [email protected] Follow him at www.dermotmcevoy.com. Follow The 13th Apostle on Facebook.