The ‘Big Fellow’ among his own

Michael Collins Himself

by Chrissy Osborne

(Mercier Press, €14.99)

J. Anthony Gaughan

This book is more akin to a family memoir than a critical biography. The author provides a treasure trove of information on Collins’ family background and extended family, the locations where he spent time, his relationships with women, romantic and non-romantic, and his personality.

Collins was born on October 16, 1890 at Woodfield, near Clonakilty in West Cork. His father Michael (aged 75 at his birth) worked a small farm held by the family for over eight generations. Collins had two brothers and five sisters. It seems he was very close to his father, described by the author as well-read. She even claims that he was able to converse in French, Latin and Greek!

Aged 15, Collins secured employment as a boy clerk in London’s West Kensington Post Office Savings Bank, where he joined an older sister who was there already as a ledger clerk. Subsequently he was employed as a stockbroker in the city and later at the Board of Trade. Before he left London he was employed by the Guaranty Trust Co. During his years in London, he also attended a Commercial College and became proficient in accountancy.

Unlike the stable lodgings he enjoyed with his sister in London, following his return to Ireland, from 1916 until the Anglo-Irish Truce Collins drifted in and out of  ‘safe houses’, which belonged to relatives or friends. Batt O’Connor was particularly helpful to him in this regard. He welcomed him to his home at Brendan Road in Donnybrook and constructed a secret room for him in a nearby house.

During his sojourn in London Collins was accompanied to social events by a number of young women friends. Among these were Nancy O’Brien, Dolly Brennan and Susan Killeen. At that time also he was acquainted with Moya Llewelyn-Davies and the socialite, Lady Hazel Lavery, wife of the distinguished painter, Sir John Lavery.  

During the war of independence he enjoyed extraordinary assistance and loyalty from a number of women, notably Madeline Dicker and Sinéad Mason who was his personal secretary from mid-1919 until his death on August 22, 1922.  

Just a year before the Anglo-Irish Truce Collins fell in love with Kitty Kiernan, who had been Harry Boland’s sweet-heart. During the treaty negotiations they became engaged and planned a double wedding with Kitty’s sister Maud and Gearóid O’Sullivan.


When involved in the treaty negotiations in London in late 1921, Collins was seen on a number of occasions in the company of Hazel Lavery. At that time also he was a frequent visitor to her home and that of her husband. This led to rumours that he had an affair with the charismatic beauty, who it seems was besotted by him.  

There were also rumours surrounding his association with Moya Llewelyn-Davies. However, Osborne concludes that there is no evidence to suggest that all these rumours were anything other than rumours.


Many of the admirers of Collins will regard with distaste the author’s reflections on their hero’s ‘love life’. Nor will they be overly impressed by her attempt to psycho-analyse his personality.

Following this exercise she concludes that he was a Jekyll and Hyde character with mood swings from one extreme to the other. She also notes the ruthless streak in his make-up and, most revealing of all, his fondness for ‘a drink’, parties and socialising. This last was in stark contrast to the abstemious and almost puritanical Éamon de Valera, Cathal Brugha and Austin Stack, and would explain in part his lack of rapport with those other leaders of the independence movement.

This book’s blurb claims that it offers insights into his personal life. As such, it is a useful addition to the literature on one of Ireland’s latter-day icons.