The formal politics of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 has been brilliantly explored by contemporary historians. Sometimes, however, there are movers and shakers behind the scenes in any negotiation who also play an important role. And one of these, surely, was Hazel Lavery.
Older readers and numismatic hobbyists will recall her face on Irish pound notes between 1928 and 1977 in which she is portrayed – by her husband, the Belfast-born painter John Lavery – as Kathleen Ní Houlihan, the visual metaphor of Ireland.
Hazel was American-born – she claimed to be Irish-American, with links to the Martyns of Galway – and she passionately embraced the Irish national cause in 1916.
She first met Michael Collins at the Royal Court Theatre in London before the First World War, (at a performance of Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island) when he was barely out of his teens.
She was struck by the potential in this “pale young Hercules” as John Lavery called Collins, and befriended him. It’s been rumoured that the friendship later blossomed into an affair, but although there were fond feelings, I think a sexual relationship was unlikely. In Collins’s letters to his fiancée Kitty Kiernan, he emerges, in such matters, as a traditional, rather proper, Irish Catholic of his time.
Hazel was a highly strung, gifted and sociable woman who held court at her husband’s Cromwell Road studio over the period of the War of Independence and the Treaty talks.
She was a talented artist but, like many women, took a back seat in her own career to allow her husband’s work to flourish. Yet she taught Winston Churchill to paint, and became a friend of the Churchills.
In 2003, Mary Soames, Churchill’s daughter, told me that Hazel Lavery was a frequent visitor to the family home and her father developed his painting hobby under her tutelage.
Hazel’s social networking was prodigious. She used her charms to plead the cause of Ireland not just to Churchill, but also to Lloyd George, Lord Birkenhead – crucial in the Treaty talks – and others.
Andy Cope, the senior British civil servant involved in the Treaty talks, wrote that Hazel, along with John Lavery, had accomplished “the gigantic task of getting Protestant England to see some virtue in Catholic Ireland”.
This was at a time when some in the British establishment looked upon the Irish rebellion, and what followed, with horror. But the Laverys, Cope said, had always done “big things” to win sympathy for Ireland.
Hazel, who possessed rare physical beauty, with large dark eyes – there are some stunning portraits in the National Gallery of Ireland – attracted a devoted following of admirers, including some gay men, like the writer Lytton Strachey.
Geoffrey Dawson, the influential editor of The Times, the Abbey playwright Lennox Robinson (who cried himself to sleep when she died in 1935) and Lord Londonderry were all worshippers at Hazel’s shrine.
Her husband, who was twice her age, never disapproved of the swains who paid court to her mostly because, I believe, these were usually more romantic friendships than affairs.
Hazel liked being in love. Later, she was smitten by Kevin O’Higgins, as revealed – shockingly for some – by Sinéad McCoole’s remarkable biography – Hazel, A Life of Lady Lavery – in 1996.
O’Higgins was seen as a pillar of conservative Catholicism, and some historians have since portrayed him as a hypocrite for his passionate letters to Hazel. But again, there is no evidence that a consummation of the romance ever occurred.
Hazel was perhaps partly in love with the idea of romantic Ireland, and there were some suggestions that after the Free State was established, the Laverys might occupy the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Uachtaráin) as Governors General.
That dream died with the assassination of O’Higgins in 1927, but Hazel went on advancing Irish interests: she was influential in the campaign to have the disputed Hugh Lane bequest brought to Dublin.
Treaties and the development of politics are recorded in formal archives, but even historians themselves admit that we don’t always know what informalities took place, what personal sympathies were struck.
Hazel Lavery was immortalised by her portrait on the Irish pound, which, incidentally, was a currency note of artistic distinction, approved by WB Yeats.
When the Lady Lavery pound notes appeared, it was jested that “every Irishman would hold her close to his heart” (in a wallet!).
But she was, I believe, much more than just a beautiful model for a currency’s image. She threw herself into the cause of Ireland at a crucial time, and was a highly significant personality in the lives of Irish leaders.
When Michael Collins was shot by a sniper’s bullet in 1922, a letter to Hazel was found in his pocket.