NICOLA TALLANT HE has gone down in history as a charmer who cast his spell over some of the country's most beautiful women. Even more than 80 years after his death, speculation is still rife over Michael Collins's love life and whether or not he had an affair with society queen Lady Hazel Lavery.
But a new book now dismisses claims that the 'Big Fella' cheated on fiancee Kitty Kiernan with Sir John Lavery's stunning wife. The book reveals how the IRA thoroughly investigated rumours that the pair were having an affair but found no evidence of any romance. And it claims they would have killed Lady Lavery if they did discover a relationship with Collins.
Historians have long agreed that Lady Lavery was hopelessly in love with Collins after meeting him during treaty negotiations in London. She convinced her husband to paint him and hosted numerous dinners and unofficial meetings for Collins and his UK counterparts as they framed the Irish Treaty.
Months after Collins's engagement to Kitty Kiernan, a newspaper article called Lady Lavery his "sweetheart", fuelling rumours of an affair which he denied but she encouraged. But now historian Meda Ryan says she believes Collins remained true to Kitty until the day he died.
"It does seem the relationship with Kitty was very intense and that he felt very strongly about her," she says. "I do not think he cheated on her. In all the research I have done, I have found no evidence whatsoever that he had an affair with Lady Lavery."
In her book, Michael Collins and the Women Who Spied for Ireland, Ryan says that the IRA would never have tolerated an affair between the pair and would have assassinated Lady Lavery had they found evidence of one.
"Emmet Dalton, who was with Michael in London and very close to him, says there was no evidence of an affair.
"Todd Andrews says the IRA followed both Collins and Lady Lavery. They did a thorough examination of them and they found nothing. If they had discovered they were having an affair, she would have been shot because they would have felt she was a double agent.
"Todd Andrews also says there was code of conduct within the IRA and there was no way anything like that would have been tolerated."
Ryan also cites correspondence between Kitty Kiernan and Michael Collins which she says indicates that their relationship was solid. In her book, a letter shows how Collins wrote to Kitty to tell her about reports in the papers calling Lady Lavery his "sweetheart".
"I must bring you back some of the papers to show you. Am writing this in the midst of a very worrying time. But I mustn't make you worry. I wish you were here," he wrote.
In her correspondence, Kitty writes: "Don't forget to keep the papers about your sweetheart! It was extraordinary, wasn't it. I'd like to see the papers, so don't forget."
Kitty and Lady Lavery even embraced at Collins's funeral, and, according to Ryan, were very amicable when they met. Kitty was even presented with the portrait of Collins by Sir John Lavery.
The book details how after Michael Collins's death in 1922, Kitty recovered the letters she had written to him over a 12-month period. Throughout her life, she kept them along with his other letters so she could read them over and over.
Three years after Collins was assassinated, she married Civil War veteran Felix Cronin and they had two sons - the first was named Michael Collins Cronin. Kitty insisted the Lavery portrait hang in their home until she died in 1945.
"Though the portrait did not apparently give rise to any difficulty between the pair, their life together was not altogether happy. At times Felix drank to excess and Kitty was often moody. She suffered from hypertension and other ailments, particularly in her latter years," says Ryan.
Despite Kitty being the last love of Collins's life, the book documents how the rebel leader was constantly surrounded by women who would go to any length to help him. It describes how former lover Madeline 'Dilly' Dicker, who was in a relationship with Collins between 1918 and 1920, dressed as a man and sneaked on to the mail boats in wicker baskets to steal correspondence between Dublin Castle and London.
She often hid Collins's gun in her long coat.
Ryan also dismisses rumours of an affair Collins was said to have had with society lady Moya Llewelyn Davies, who worked as a gun-runner for him using her expensive clothes and her car as a decoy.
"In recent years . . . speculation has arisen that Collins had an affair with Moya Llewelyn Davies, and it has been suggested that he was the father of her son Richard.
"Letters from him and a phonecall confirmed that he was born 24 December, 1912, before his mother met Collins," she says.
Michael Collins and the Women Who Spied for Ireland is published by Mercier at ?12.99.