Michael Collins, He For She: his early support for women’s rights



photo of Maryann O'Brien Collins and family co 1900

Michael’s mother Maryann O’Brien Collins, a married sister, and his grandmother Johanna McCarthy O’Brien co 1900

Among the great volume of commentary on Michael Collins, of all shades and quality, his intimate personal relationships, especially with women, have been a favorite focus for the lamentable number whose appetite for lurid gossip exceeds meticulous adherence to facts.

In honor of International Women’s Day, this excellent overview of Collins’ close connections with strong women and the women’s movement of his time is by P Prowler.

The product of a household headed by a hard-working single mother (after his aged father’s death when Michael was no more than seven,) Collins needed no lectures on women’s leadership potential.  His own highly competent, nurturing mother managed the family farm, labourers, construction crews; while doing much to encourage and support seven of her children in pursuing successful careers away from the farm. All while earning praise as “a hostess in ten thousand.”  Four sisters, much older than he, all doted on “The Big Fella,” as they affectionately dubbed the baby of the family,

The formative role of these many strong, competent, loving women in his childhood and youth produced a man who deeply respected women and thrived on female company of all ages. It also sometimes manifested in sensitive, nurturing care toward those he was responsible for. His qualifications of this kind were exemplified in his appointment as aide-de-camp to 1916 Rising organizer Joseph Plunkett, whose chronic health problems were a challenge to his presence at The Rising’s headquarters in the General Post Office.

It is perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that we have a woman to thank for the role Collins subsequently played in national events. Following the Rising, it was Thomas Clarke’s widow, Kathleen Daly Clarke, who singled out Michael to head up a re-organizition of the Irish Volunteers, for another go.  A good call, as it proved; for during Collins’ tenure at the helm (and at no other time, before or since,) Ireland won its greatest victories to date against the British Empire’s unwelcome colonial occupation.

photo of Kathleen ClarkeCollins’ lifetime exactly coincided with a period of aggressive, mass agitation for women’s rights. The female suffrage movement was in Ireland often closely linked with the campaign for Irish independence. Many proponents belonged to both “camps”. Full enfranchisement for women became enshrined in the 1916 Proclamation, the legal founding document of the Republic of Ireland. It was the modern world’s first national declaration to do so. This was the political climate in which Collins grew up and prospered. Yet he remained one of the few great men of the time who did not omit to use gender-inclusive language in his speeches, and to explicitly acknowledge women’s contributions and concerns on a regular basis therein.

All of this belies the far-fetched “Mick the misogynist” quip which has been occasionally offered, (along with every vice and virtue that could be image of poster Irish Women's Franchise Leagueattributed to him.)

Collins’ predecessor in the independence movement, Charles Stuart Parnell, was defeated by a sexual scandal. Collins’ detractors have occasionally attempted to raise similar issues. Reported to have sown some wild oats during his teen career in London (albeit while living under the roof of an older sister,) no scandal concerning his sexual life has ever been substantiated.

His intimate connections appear to have been no less healthy, vigorous, and well-conducted than other aspects of his life: his relations with women affectionate and normal, providing no evidence either of inexperience, excess or aberration.

At the same time, he may be said to have been never without female companionship. He carried on dating and epistolary relationships with a number of women such as Susan Kileen and “Dilly” Dicker, who also worked with him in positions of great trust during the struggle for independence. Their correspondence shows that they remained on friendly terms until the end of his life.

In 1921-22, he became engaged to Kitty Kiernan,[36] and made plans for a normal family life after the war. Of their voluminous correspondence, more than 241 letters survive. They provide an important record, not only of their intimacy, but of his daily life.

Detailing his exhausting schedule, during the concurrent national crisis, their letters chronicle the challenges the couple faced in getting quality time together, under the circumstances. In so doing, they prove it quite doubtful that he could have simultaneously devoted much attention to any additional liaison. Allegations of affair(s) with English society women at this same time are unsubstantiated, and fraught with suspicious political connotations. Those concerning Hazel Lavery originate chiefly with that lady herself, and are unsupported by comparable evidence.

Read more
“The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?”

The Assassination of Michael Collins: What Happened at Béal na mBláth? by S M Sigerson - Cover Imageby S M Sigerson

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“Michael Collins and the Women Who Spied For Ireland”

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“Michael Collins and the Women in His Life”

Book cover image: "Michael Collins and the women in his life"








Kitty and Michael: a revolutionary courtship

photo of Michael Collins

Michael Collins

photo of Kitty Kiernan

Kitty Kiernan

Some historians have been obliged to play down Michael Collin’s fiancé, Kitty Kiernan, in order to support their theories about his death.  However, Ms Kiernan cannot be relegated to a footnote here, but merits a few choice words on her own account (excerpt from the book): 

“There is no basis for the erroneous characterization of Ms Kiernan as politically naïve. It is, at best, a gloss of inexcusable carelessness. The contention that others would have had more capacity than Ms Kiernan, as a political confidante, is entirely refuted by the record.  Writers seem to have presumed on the fact that … Ms Kiernan was merely the proprietor of a small hotel and shops, in a modest country town, in rural Ireland; her name unknown to the public, outside of her relationship with Collins.  Collins biographers seem to have written off Ms Kiernan as clueless and useless politically, on this basis alone.

Clearly Collins did not think so; as an attentive reading of their letters illustrates. Such an assumption does not demonstrate adequate acquaintance with their correspondence, with her education, her family’s prominent, albeit secret role in the War of Independence; nor with the level of political sophistication general among Irish people of her time, place, class and social standing.  On the contrary, as muse, hostess, networker, companion and confidante, the Kiernan sisters and their hotel may be called the Irish nationalist counterparts, of a London lady’s political salon.  With Ms Kiernan, Collins could feel secure that he was not confiding in a British agent: the Kiernan hotel had been a key safe house for Volunteers throughout the War of Independence. In their correspondence, she and Collins frequently discussed the political situation; of which she demonstrated a keen grasp, often providing insight and encouragement. The C-in-C, for his part, explicitly declared that Kitty was more and more necessary to him in these stressful days, and that “there’s no one like you.”

Ms Kiernan came from precisely the same sort of background as he: a traditional Irish farming family, hard-working, upwardly mobile,  successful in business and adaptable to town life. Both were products of a progressive, republican education. Both were ambitious, modern and stylish. In Collins’ world, Ms Kiernan was an elegant lady, and the female of his own species.”

Read more:

The Assassination of Michael Collins:
What Happened At Béal na mBláth?
by S M Sigerson
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