Collins, Women and Gender Dynamics

The women who helped shape and influence Michael Collins

The current and welcome upsurge in the writing of women’s history has started to make new demands of more traditional parts of the discipline. The central character of Michael Collins House Museum is not a woman. But he, like everybody else, was shaped and heavily influenced by all of those with whom he interacted. Half of those people were women. But what do we know of their influence on him, and whether or not he had any interest in the changing gender dynamic of the early twentieth century.

When detailing his early years, all of Collins’s biographers are forced to rely on the same limited source material. Beaslai’s biography was written in co-operation with the Collins family and so is a reliable, albeit limited, source of information. Talbot conducted some interviews with Collins before his death, but the credibility of his account has been questioned. Forester also had some interaction with the Collins family, and thanks them for their contribution to her text. Coogan seems to have mined Liam Collins’s collection of his father’s (Johnny) papers extensively and as such brought some new information to the table. Unfortunately though, the details of Collins’s childhood remain obscured by the lack of primary source material. Nonetheless there are a few simple facts that point to his having had more feminine influence in his life than the average child of the time.

Collins’s father died when he was six years old. This left his mother in charge of the family farm. Mary Anne Collins was forced to become the head of her household and at a time when women seldom played that role. She was somewhat used to the role having had to take over much of the responsibility in her own (O’Brien) household after her parents met with an accident that killed her father and left her mother badly injured. Head of household was a position in which it seems she excelled. She managed to keep the household almost entirely self-sufficient whilst also raising enough money to build to a modern two-storey farmhouse for her family. She also invested in her son-in-law’s newspaper at a time when he may have been finding it difficult to attain financial backing. Whilst we know little about Mary Anne’s political opinions her backing of that newspaper suggests that she was a constitutional nationalist. A story told about her youth also highlights her nationalist tendencies – it is said that at a school function celebrating a local landlord, she refused to recite a verse which involved declaring herself ‘a happy English child.’ In adulthood, it seems that her nationalism was not extreme enough to object to her children becoming cogs in the machine of British government. She actively encouraged their education and betterment, and the Collins household produced two teachers (Margaret and Kate), two Civil Servants (Michael and Hanie), two emigrants (Patrick and Mary), a farmer (Johnny), and a nun (Helena). All held decent jobs, made socially comparable matches and generally led lives that would have been considered constructive. Collins himself chose the path of the Civil Service, and in so doing placed himself under the influence of two other educated self-actualising women – his sisters Margaret and Hannie.[1]

Much of Collins’s childhood care devolved upon his eldest sisters Margaret, Hannie and Mary, one of whom later recalled, ‘we thought he had been invented for our edification.’ Leaving his childhood behind him Collins left his family home in Woodfield in 1903. His first home away from that home was that of his newly married sister Margaret, in the town of Clonakilty. Margaret had married the editor of the Southern Star newspaper, Patrick O’Driscoll. Perhaps under her influence, and certainly within a year of marrying her, O’Driscoll left the Southern Star (his departure led to legal proceedings) and founded a more nationalist newspaper, The Cork Sun, in Cork city. The newspaper was in production for approximately two years before O’Driscoll again departed in controversial circumstances. It was probably at about that time in 1905 that the O’Driscoll family left Clonakilty’s fashionable Shannon Square and took up residence outside the town. Throughout the period O’Driscoll also worked as an auctioneer. Margaret’s influence on her husband’s decisions during this period is unknown. As is her influence on Collins. We know that she was an educated woman and worked as a school teacher in nearby Lisavaird. It is likely that her politics chimed with those of her husband – a constitutional nationalist.[2]

Collins’s next big move was to London where he took up employment in the Post Office in 1906. He resided with his sister Hannie until 1915 in the vicinity of Shepard’s Bush. Hannie also had some influence on Collins. She later wrote of their mutual love of classical and contemporary literature and their frequent discussions of same. She was also said to have introduced Michael to many of her English friends and taken him into their homes. Mary Anne Collins died when Collins had been in London for only a few months. Whilst the boy was now growing into an independent man, the closest thing he had to an authority figure was Hannie. It was while he was in London that his commitment to militant republicanism took tangible shape. He began his association with culturally nationalist groups like the Gaelic League and the GAA, he joined the IRB and the Irish Volunteers. While there is no evidence that Hannie had anything to do with any of this, her later writings do not indicate that she disapproved, or tried to stop it in any way. One feature of Hannie’s life that made her different to other women was her singleton status. Her not marrying didn’t make her unique, but it did make her unusual. Whether or not it was her choice, we cannot say. But we can say that the net result was the creation of a woman who spent most of her life living entirely independently in another country. One would assume that she had to have possessed an independence that was unusual at that time.[3]

His mother and his sisters were the first of a number of women with whom he enjoyed individual relationships to varying degrees of intimacy. While their influence might be said to be more formative than that of those who followed them, there is no way of knowing if it was any less powerful. One of his sister’s friends was Moya O’Connor who later became Moya Llewellyn Davies. She was the daughter of a former IRB Council member and therefore, while she was not centrally involved until after 1916, she must have been familiar with, or even supportive of Irish aspirations for independence. In the years that followed O’Connor claimed that she had been Collins’s lover while others claimed that she had been a spy. Either way, she seems to have exerted some influence on Collins, though it is not possible to measure its extent. Another of Collins’s London friends was Susan Killeen who seems to have been the first woman who might have been described as his girlfriend. She was active in Irish society in London but their relationship faded after her return to Dublin. We know little about Killeen’s intellect or political affiliations and so her influence upon him must remain a mystery. Since his death Collins has been romantically connected with other women like Hazel Lavery, Madeline Dicker, and Edith Londonderry.

Collins’s engagement to Kitty Kiernan is well known. Like his mother and his sisters, Kiernan also seems to have been an independent woman. By the time of her sixteenth birthday, Kiernan had lost two of her sisters and both of her parents to various illnesses. Thus, like Collins’s mother, she took on considerable responsibility and exercised substantial independence from an early age. One responsibility she took on was the running of one of the families businesses, The Greville Arms Hotel in Grenard, Longford and it would be here that she would meet Collins, and Harry Boland, for the first time in 1917. Although she was very well educated, she does not appear to have had an extensive interest in politics. Her correspondence with Collins seldom reveals any understanding of, or interest in, politics or the affairs of the nation – albeit that Collins expressed his concern that their letters might be intercepted. His letters to Kiernan certainly express a lot of love and look forward to a future of a typical Irish family together but occasionally also reveal some exasperation and business-like abruptness. [4] While Collins’ love for Kitty is not doubted the many rumours of his infidelity in London thought largely groundless, have been a significant part of the ‘myth’ of Collins.

Collins friend Moya Llewelyn Davis herself fuelled some of those rumours by her close connection with Collins which led to rumours of an affair. Many years later after Collins’ death Llewelyn Davis fuelled those rumours by claiming she had been Collins’s lover. Rumours of a sexual relationship with Hazel Lavery were fanned by newspaper headlines during the treaty negotiations. But historians generally agree that such rumours are unproven and speculative. Collins seems to have been the victim of celebrity rumour with many eager to be associated with such a high profile and handsome character. [5] At the time the rumours had become so far-fetched Countess Markievicz joked in a sitting of the Dail that Collins was to marry Princess Mary and become Governor General of the Free State. Collins seems to have taken exception to this jest and he opined that Markievicz’s comments may have caused pain to Princess Mary or to his own fiancée. In typical chivalrous fashion he stated that would not ‘allow without challenge any deputy in the assembly of my nation to insult any lady, either of his nation, or of any other.’ [6]

Beaslai also appeared to dismiss these rumours, but may have inadvertently raised another issue when he wrote:

The society of girls had apparently no attraction for him. 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 own companions. This indifference to female charms was characteristic of him as long as I knew him. He had many women friends for whom he cherished a high regard; but it was their qualities of mind and character, and the work which they did for the cause of Ireland, that alone evoked his admiration. The usual philanderings (sic) and flirtations of young men of his age had little interest or attraction for him, though he sometimes amused himself by chaffing his young friends over their weaknesses in that direction.[7]

Its is easy for twenty-first century eyes to see signs of homosexuality in Beaslai’s description of Collins. But writing in the early twentieth century, as a friend of Collins and with the co-operation of his subject’s siblings, it is almost certain that Beaslai was not alluding to any such possibility. He may have been attempting to counter rumours of Collins’s London philandering which had emerged before his death, or he may have been recording a genuine perspective of the man. If the latter was the case, it seems that Collins had little time for women, outside of those with whom he directly worked or had developed romantic relationships. If that was the case, it is unlikely that he devoted much of his time to the understanding of new ideas regarding the role of women in society.

While the influence individual women had on Collins may be difficult to ascertain, one would expect that the influence of predominantly female and feminist political groups might be easier to examine. The first such groups that Collins would have encountered were the suffragettes whose activities occasionally dominated the London with which he was acquainted. Between 1903 and 1917 elements of the most militant of these suffragette groups, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), conducted a widespread campaign of civil disobedience. They frequently chained themselves to various city fixtures, heckled politicians, vandalised public property, came into conflict with police during mass public demonstrations, and when imprisoned went on hunger strike and endured force feeding. It would have been impossible for anybody to live in London and not have noticed their activities. One would assume that an aspiring political revolutionary like Collins would have taken note of the headlines this revolutionary group made. Yet none of his early biographers mention the suffragettes as a potential influence on him. It seems to have never occurred to Talbot and Beaslai to speak to him about his impression of such a prevalent and reforming political group. Likewise it seems that Collins never offered up his thoughts. It may seem that way, but perhaps further analysis of the Beaslai Papers and Collins’s own political writings is in order before we can definitively conclude that the entire women’s suffrage movement passed Collins by.

Collins’s may have encountered Cumann na mBan and Citizen Army women during the Easter Rising, but he certainly encountered them in the years that followed. Upon his release from internment, he was appointed secretary to the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependent’s Fund (INNVDF). The organisation was an amalgamation of the Irish Volunteers Dependents Fund (IVDF) and the Irish National Aid Association (INAA). The former group was founded by Thomas Clarke’s widow Kathleen and was used by her to distribute IRB funds to the dependents of imprisoned republicans and to re-organise, republicanise, and spread the Cumann na mBan organisation of which she had been a member. The latter group (INAA) was substantially founded and administered by constitutional nationalists, but also had substantial input from Cumann na mBan members. The two groups were merged on Clarke’s terms thereby ensuring that the new organisation was heavily republican. Collins used the group to rebuild republican infrastructure throughout the country. Indeed he seems to have concentrated on that activity more than on the stated purposes of the fund itself. Nonetheless, in his secretarial function as administrator of the fund, he could not have failed to have noticed that many (and in some places, most) of its collectors were women. Those were predominantly republican women, and they too were using the organisation to re-build the republican infrastructure. As secretary, Collins reported to the INAVDF committee. Five of them were women.[8] It seems that Collins came to admire the industry and intelligence of some of these women and utilised them in his later activities, but his general interaction with them during his time as INAVDF secretary remains an under-studied part of his political career. An extensive collection of INAVDF papers in the National Library of Ireland might be used to construct a more complete understanding.

Collins’s interactions with the largest female group in revolutionary Ireland, Cumann na mBan, were quite limited. He used the organisation on at least one occasion to assist him in attaining ‘a young and good looking’ maid for an appointment in Dublin Castle. Cumann na mBan members would then call on her while prisoners were being paraded and report back on which republicans had been captured. In general though, he avoided members of Cumann na mBan preferring to utilise women who were not easily identifiable as republicans. Those women were always his subordinates and were never consulted with regard to his tactical approach. As the War of Independence entered its most intensive phase he wrote to Maire Kennedy telling her to ‘stop this blasted forming of fours, get out of Cumann na mBan and do some work.’ She had worked with him in the INAVDF and suspected that he had her and a number of others removed from Cumann na mBan records and ‘recognised as belonging to the IRA.’[9] It seems that Collins was more willing to utilise female operatives than many other IRA commanders, but wished to have them in his chain of command and not in a separate organisation. His casual dismissal of Cumann na mBan and its ‘blasted forming of fours’ was not a dismissal of revolutionary women and their potential as belligerents.

Collins’ final potential interaction with women’s issues and feminist intellectualism came at a time of immense personal and professional stress – in the months after the signing of the treaty and during the building of the Free State. It came after Ireland’s most politically active women, all six female TDs, and the executive of Cumann na mBan, had rejected the treaty. Based on those facts, the pro-treaty faction formed the highly questionable idea that women, particularly young women, would vote against the treaty. When the enfranchisement of all women over the age of 21 was debated in March 1922, pro-treatyites, with Collins and Griffith among them, rejected the idea suggesting that the voting register could not be updated in time for the forthcoming election. It was a peculiar debate where anti-treaty TDs like de Valera seemed rather recent converts to the idea of gender equality, and pro-treaty TD’s like Griffith who had been traditional supporters of gender equality in enfranchisement, seemed to have changed their minds. Collins agreed with Griffith and in a move that seemed to contravene the gender equality enshrined in the 1916 declaration, voted against extending the franchise to women on the basis of complete gender equality.[10]

With the Free State authorities having erroneously convinced themselves that the majority of women were against their position, it was only a matter of time before attacks on political women followed, particularly those women who found themselves taking the republican side in the Civil War. In July 1922, the Free State newspaper began a series of articles criticising these women. It alleged that combatant members of Cumann na mBan misused the Red Cross emblem during hostilities, it questioned the intellectual independence of women who opposed the treaty claiming that they blindly followed the republican men in their lives, before finally suggesting that female Republican belligerents be imprisoned in the same manner that men were. It was a peculiar endorsement of gender equality from an organ that had, just a few weeks previously, questioned the intellectual independence of such women. But it was a propaganda campaign waged with a view to gaining public support for a controversial policy of imprisoning women – a policy that the British authorities had been very reluctant to deploy. The widespread imprisonment of Republican women began about a month after Collins’s death. Thus, while Collins himself had nothing to do with the imprisonment of actively republican women, he seems to have at least acquiesced while his Free State comrades directed a smear campaign against them.[11] The full extent of his involvement in that campaign, or whether he had any involvement at all, is another understudied aspect of his political career.

Collins’s relationships with various individual women have been extensively studied. Every rumour and half-story of romantic entanglement has been extensively investigated. His relationship with the feminists of the era, and the gender dynamic that they created, may yet tell us far more about the man. While Collins was reared by a plethora of strong, independent women and seemed to have been romantically attracted to the same, did his views of women and gender differ from the traditional views of the majority? Like others, was he a product of society at a time when women were had only just received the vote and the ability to stand for political office? Or was he more influenced by the women in his life? Women like his sister Margaret who would go on to be the only sitting female TD in the first Free State government. Unfortunately it remains an under-studied part of the Collins biography with no true conclusion evident as of yet.

[1] Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins, Arrow Books, London, 1991, pp3-32, T Ryle Dwyer, Michael Collins: The Man Who Won War, Mercier Press, Cork, 2009, pp7-11. Coogan and Dwyer rely heavily on the Baeslai and Talbot biographies and the Liam Collins Papers (now in care of Michael Collins House).

[2] Patrick O’Driscoll wrote an account of his activities with the Southern Star and the Cork Sun in an early issue of the West Cork People – a newspaper that he founded in 1905, a few months before Collins’ departure from Clonakilty. Unfortunately, I do not have the issue to hand and cannot, yet, quote the date.

[3] James, MacKay, Michael Collins: A Life @ See also; Coogan pp15-31, Dwyer, pp15-23.

[4] Coogan, pp277-283.

[5] Irish Independent, 8 October 2005 & 15 July 2006. Discussions of books by Peter Hart and Meda Ryan and their investigations of Collins’s lovelife.

[6] Coogan, pp277-8. See also; Dáil debates at

[7] Baeslai, pp80-81

[8] Cal McCarthy, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Revolution, Collins Press, Cork, 2014 (2nd Ed.), pp77-80. Anne Dolan & William Murphy, Michael Collins: The Man and the Revolution, Collins Press, Cork, 2018, 73-79. Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid, The Irish National Aid Association and the Radicalization of Public Opinion in Ireland in The Historical Journal, Vol 55, No. 3, September 2012.

[9] Bureau of Military History (BMH), Moira Kennedy O’Byrne Witness Statement, WS1029 in McCarthy, Op Cit, p136. Michael Collins House, Mollie Reynolds Audio Recording.

[10] McCarthy, pp193-195, See also; The Weekly Freeman, 11 March 1922.

[11] McCarthy, pp218-221.

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