Life after Mick

 

JOHN McCormack had it coming. Fresh from yet another triumphant US tour, he was thigh high in sycophants when someone decided to introduce him to Kitty Kiernan. "So you're the ballad singer?" Kitty harrumphed, testing his mettle the better to measure his worth. She knew all about icons.

Kitty had loved Mick Collins, now iconised in Neil Jordan's new movie but then a lad from West Cork with fierce ambitions. They had met in 1917, teased each other for a couple of years and finally decided to get married. When their engagement was announced, shortly after the Anglo Irish Treaty, newshounds from around the world trekked to the Co Longford town of Granard and were met by a woman beautiful as any movie star and just as beguiling. Kitty loved the spotlight, posing, as Julia Roberts might, on a sofa in her family hotel, discreetly flashing the diamond solitaire Collins had bought her.

But Kitty never married him: seven months later, Mick was murdered.

Kitty was pushing 30 when Collins died, a dodgy age for women then. In 1925, she married a dashingly handsome ex IRA man named Felix Cronin. Hearing anecdotes about his hunger strike, or the way he'd borrow a dress suit, gatecrash a landlord's ball and dance with the most beautiful women there, you can see why Kitty might have liked him. They had two sons, the first called Felix and the second named Michael Collins, born in 1926 and 1929 respectively. Ostensibly, she played the role of wife: and mother in the Irish Free State - with style and conviction. But her, family was not fooled. "My mother was cut out for something different," says Michael. "She found it difficult to settle into her life as a housewife - she knuckled down and did it, but it was a chore."

Kitty had been raised to think of herself as special. Her family was part of the new Catholic bourgeoisie which was a rising force in late 19th century Ireland. The Kiernans ran various business concerns, centred around their hotel, the Greville Arms. But despite their prosperity, the Kiernans suffered great personal tragedy, with both parents and Kitty's twin sisters dying within two years of each other while Kitty was still a teenager. Loss was to become a theme of her life.

Kitty's charisma was recognised at Saint Ita's, the innovative school for girls founded by Patrick Pearse as partner to his boys' school, Saint Enda's. Kitty was School Captain, the Saint Ita's equivalent of head girl.

Pearse's own view of women was too sentimental to qualify him as a card carrying feminist, but associates of the school such as Thomas MacDonagh, Agnes O'Farrelly, Mary Hayden and Shane Leslie pushed him in the right direction. The girls were taught Irish myth and history, as well as the usual "female" accomplishments, exposed to modern art and theatre and encouraged to perform in Pearse's own dramas, notably his Passion Play, which explored early ideas about blood sacrifice. Roger Casement called Pearse's establishments "the only true Irish schools in Ireland".

"Kitty always adored the avant garde", according to Michael. "She loved classical music, literary novels and potboilers - and good films". His abiding memory is of "being dragged like a mule to see La Femme du Boulanger. Marcel Pagnol's 1938 satirical film, with Kitty determined to inoculate me in cosmopolitan culture. I preferred cowboys."

Her sons knew she could speak Irish, but she didn't use it with them. Instead, she tried out other advanced ideas on them, notably the theories of Dr. Colman Saunders, then the top child specialist in Dublin. Only the best for Kitty. Her elder son Felix remembers overripe bananas, boney fish and plates of turnips she had them eat in the cause of good diet, and is still trying to figure out "how she persuaded us to voluntarily call into the dentist on our way home from school, when other children had to be dragged screaming there."

When Kitty met Mick Collins, she'd been running the family businesses with her three sisters and one brother, partying as often as she could and socialising all over the midlands and Dublin. Collins was managing Sinn Fein's campaign in the 1917 Longford by election, his first test as a strategist and a pilot run for their electoral coup the following year. His team was based in the Kiernans hotel at Granard.

Kitty toyed with Collins for quite some time, but to a Saint Ita's girl, steeped in myth and educated to support her man in fighting for Ireland, he must have seemed heaven sent. His pal Harry Boland fell for her almost instantly, as did colleague Gearoid O'Sullivan for her sister Maud whom he later married. "Kitty described Harry as a delightful guy," says her son Michael, "but she thought he was over the top, forever arriving with a rose or calling her `pulse of my heart'. Mick Collins wouldn't have been seen dead with flowers."

Kitty counted her suitors like rosary beads. In the best traditions of the time, she was an expert flirt, making an art out of courtship, challenging Collins to prove his own mettle no matter what barbs she threw at him. The two had met their match in more than one sense - they were strongly attracted to each other, each had lost their parents young and both shared a politics whose aim was a free, independent Ireland, even if Kitty preferred to party than to parade. She had known both Pearse and MacDonagh as figures of respect and authority: she may also have known Joseph Plunkett, to whom Collins had acted as aide de camp in 1916. If Collins was the child of that rebellion, then Kitty passed muster as the kind of Gaelic woman Pearse had sought to encourage.

But there was another Kitty, far more restless and searching than Pearse might have wished. "Most of my life I've never been allowed to think for myself," she wrote to Collins after their engagement. She certainly loved Collins passionately, but her innately practical streak may also have seen in him a chance to realise her own ambitions. Women made careers out of marrying men at that time, and Kitty realised that Mick Collins promised her the career of her life. At last, she was set to become herself.

"It could have been that her ambitions were tied up with his career, but I haven't enough evidence to make such a claim," says Michael. "With what little I do know, I've inferred that Collins was the love of her life, she really never got over him. The shock of his death and the terrible pain of loss were part of my mother's trouble. She just ached away."

Felix Cronin agrees. "Our parents' marriage was not a success. At times, herself and Dad were at dagger's end, she cross and irritable because of her bad health and he drinking too much." They had honeymooned in Paris, where her husband sat awkwardly in posh salons as Kitty commanded fashion mannequins to parade before her in the latest gowns, which she couldn't possibly afford. Yet the influence of Collins was all pervasive in their lives. Sir John Lavery's portrait of Collins stood on a large easel in their drawing room, like another man in the house. Cronin shared her admiration of Collins. "He was one of the few things they had in common," says their son, Felix.

Kitty grew ever less satisfied. She kept up appearances: "Kitty would take a taxi from O'Connell Street to a grand house in Mountjoy Square for a children's party, even though it was round the corner," Felix remembers. "They hadn't much money, hut she liked to make the best impression."

But Kitty found the times stifling. The hard grind of life in the Irish Free State was not what she had planned or imagined it didn't reflect Collins's dreams. Too wrapped up in being genteel to take a stand herself, and with a progressive kidney disorder making her sick and tired, she wasn't easy. When she was in good form, she was a marvellously warm and outgoing person, a wonderful mimic, hysterically funny, given to great gates of laughter," says Michael. "But other times she had a tongue like a laser."

She was particularly vitriolic about de Valera. Michael met de Valera in the 1960s, through the auspices of Cearbhall O Dalaigh.

"Before I could say anything, de Valera said `One of the very saddest days of my life was the day I heard Mick Collins was shot. What a terrible thing to happen to your mother.'" You can imagine how tartly Kitty might have responded.

De Valera's Ireland was hardly a shrine to Collins. "The survivors were busy building up the country," says Felix. "So many had died in the Troubles that Collins was often seen as another victim. It's only now that he's arising mythically." Both Kitty's sons were delighted at the prospect of Julia Roberts playing their mother in Neil Jordan's movie - not least because of how well she wears clothes. "Kitty was always impeccably groomed," says Felix. Michael talks about "the one thing they have in common, that enormous and attractive mouth."

But Kitty kept on losing. Two of her sisters died young from the same kidney disease, shortly after Felix lost his job when the Hospitals' Trust closed down its international sales once the second World War began.

THE bailiffs moved into their Rathmines home and the family retreated to a succession of guest houses, with the boys sometimes staying with Cronin relatives in Tipperary during, breaks from boarding school. Kitty lost almost everything, including the Collins portrait which may have been stolen while in storage. Felix believes it was accidentally auctioned off, if so, it's surprising that the owner has not responded to all the current publicity surrounding Michael Collins. A copy now hangs in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art.

Kitty's illness became chronic, just as her husband stopped drinking and began to make a real success of himself. Yet, although she spent five years in and out of nursing homes, her sons were still shocked by her sudden death at the age of 52 in 1945. Felix visits her grave "as close to Collins's as my father could arrange" - every week. Michael was only 16 when he lost his mother. "Do I have regrets for her? God, yes. Now, she would be a strong and independent woman, a writer, perhaps, certainly a leader. My mother was a disappointed woman."