The women in Collins's life

 

The recently auctioned letters of Moya Llewelyn-Davis give insights into Michael Collins's personality and his relationship with Kitty Kiernan, writes Melissa Llewelyn-Davis

Spy for Michael Collins, fearless and charismatic, Moya Llewelyn-Davies was an amazing woman. She was also my grandmother. So when I read in the Guardian that 14 letters written by her to PS O'Hegarty were up for auction in Dublin, I decided to fly over from London. My sisters and I were brought up on stories about Moya, but we had nothing of substance left, besides two sepia photographs. She had been persuaded not to publish her memoirs in her lifetime; we believe our father destroyed them, along with other personal papers, to protect her reputation and that of Collins, to whom she was close. Perhaps the letters would help to clear up some mysteries, in particular her relationship with Collins. He was certainly the love of her life. And many people, including my father, believed she was the love of his. But he was only 10 when Collins died, and memory is fickle. Some of his stories might be more legend than truth.

The guide price at Adam's and Mealy's was €15,000-€20,000, so there was no question of my buying them. (They went to the National Library of Ireland, the best place for them.) The day before the auction last week, I sat down with the ring-binder enclosing the letters: lot 347. I'd had to wait till Anne Broy had finished with them. She is the daughter of Eamon Broy who passed information from the Dublin Metropolitan Police to Collins. Two hours later, I had to relinquish them to another elderly woman. For the first time in my life I was asked for my autograph and I realised I was part of a coterie of the descendants of Independence heroes.

My father was brought up in Ireland but moved at 18 to England, where he became a Labour peer, a member of the British establishment. But he never lost his devotion to the memory of Collins. And we were expected not only to admire but to emulate Moya, which was difficult as she was not only clever and recklessly brave, but also very beautiful.

IN 1941, MOYA and my aunt moved to Killadreenan House ("this heavenly place") in Co Wicklow - a mile's walk "both ways" from the nearest telephone. So she wrote to O'Hegarty, a historian who had been active in the IRB and Sinn Féin, and was now the Secretary for Posts and Telegraphs. Could he help her get a phone? Evidently he could, and their correspondence began. Moya's primary motive was to set the record straight about the Treaty negotiations, and about the Mick Collins she knew. She writes, "If I live to see you tell the true story I shall die contented". A friendship developed and the letters became more lively and informal.

Moya was the daughter of a Fenian former prisoner and related to one of the Phoenix Park conspirators. In a tragic accident, mentioned in Finnegans Wake, her mother and four sisters all died after gathering mussels from the beach at Blackrock, and taking them home for tea. Moya ate a couple, but then did something naughty and got sent to bed. She was sick but recovered. The others were dead within two days; it seems the mussels had been living at the end of a sewage outlet. Moya was 11.

Six years later, having fallen out with her stepmother, she left home to earn her living in London as a civil servant and paid speaker for the Liberal Party. There she met my grandfather, Crompton, an English lawyer 13 years her senior. They had two children, Richard and Catherine. Perhaps Moya looked forward to a quiet life in England. But then came the Easter Rising - and things changed for them all.

Enraged and radicalised by the executions, Moya returned to Ireland with her children. She bought Furry Park, a crumbling mansion near Dublin, left empty by the fleeing ascendancy, with damp walls, subsiding floors, 40 acres of land and a 15th-century sundial. She never installed electricity, believing she looked better by candlelight. And it was here that she lived her best and worst years, where she stored guns, dodged snipers, and hid Mick from the British army and the Black and Tans; here that she and Crompton discussed tactics with Collins in the time leading up to the Treaty negotiations (some of his notes were included in the lot); here that she started her lifelong mourning after Collins's assassination.

MY FATHER AND aunt ran wild as children, roaming the grounds of Furry Park, blowing up tree-stumps and trying to make poison for their home-made arrows. They had no friends because they never went to school, where Moya was afraid they might hear something positive about the British - or worse, God. So their education was irregular; visiting tutors taught them Latin, Greek, Gaelic and little more. In 1920, Moya was arrested. As my father told it, there was a tip-off from the village that "they" were coming for Collins. He got away but Moya was imprisoned on a trumped-up charge. The two children were left alone with a maid and the Black and Tans, who occupied the house, until an English aunt arrived to rescue them.

Moya always loved Crompton, although they mainly lived apart. They wrote to each other every day; my father remembered her pacing up and down the garden waiting for the post. However, theirs was not a faithful marriage, on her part at any rate. I used sometimes to come across doddery old gentlemen at my parents' house who remembered her with awe, and perhaps a little alarm. She was part of the generation of free-thinking women that included, in England, Dora Russell and Vita Sackville-West, who thought they could, indeed should, re-think social conventions and sexual morality. Sexual jealousy, for example, was irrational, so they and their menfolk would not feel it. You could say they were naive. But I admire them enormously - at least for trying.

Disappointingly, the letters shed no light on the question of a physical relationship with Mick. Indeed, explaining how Collins got engaged to Kitty Kiernan she says, "I believe he had never had any sexual experience. I got the impression he was still virginal". But the letters hint at the intimate, companionable way they spent time together. She describes him as "one of the most humble of men, did not know, so far as I could see, what a great man he was". And referring, I'm sure, to my father and aunt, she notes "how much he liked to have a child on his knee . . . took their questions seriously and gave them serious answers". She tells how she came across him in the garden holding a beautiful leaf, and she seems, in a slightly condescending way, to have introduced him to art. "He loved beautiful things, had a hunger for them."

Sadly, given the "no jealousy" rule, she describes Kitty as a heavy drinker, plain and vulgar. Mick asked her, she says, to take his fiancée under her wing, to "make a lady of her". "Pretty cool and pretty offensive [of him], wasn't it?" she comments. Mick also told her Kitty was "brainless" but that he would marry her because "she was a devil". Of Lady Lavery, who was rumoured - like Moya - to be having an affair with Collins, she says, "I was told . . . that with her enamelled face she looked marvellous from the far end of a room, near to she was rather horrible".

There is much of historical interest in the letters, but to me, the most interesting passages deal with her own beliefs and passions. She loathed both de Valera ("such an obedient servant of the Church", who destroyed "a grand pagan country") and Catholicism, with equal venom. She quotes love songs sung by her maid, which she describes as coming "from the old passionate times of the Midnight Court before Ireland turned puritan with de Valera":

Good St Anthony, blessed St Anne,

Send me a man as quick as you can.

And may the wing of the plover

Ne'er lose a feather

Till your legs and my legs

Are mingled together.

HER CHILDREN WERE brought up, "without any religion and got a first hand demonstration of what the human mind could be if no lies and ugly superstitions were imposed to drug and confuse it . . . ".

In 1941 or 1942, Moya was diagnosed with cancer. In the last of the letters, she writes: "I believe in the holiness of the heart's affections . . . I was able to throw off the Catholic religion, but I have remained confused by the false standards of right and wrong which were implanted in me with it . . . We are left without any high standard to check and control the passions and weaknesses we are born with . . . When I met noble natures . . . I adored them, but I could not reach up to them, being without the star they had to which to hitch my wagon . . . Well that's all very serious, but I am not well . . . ".

Then she chides O'Hegarty for complaining about the rain. "I hate mackintoshes . . . wish it were allowable to go walking in a bathing dress in the rain - the nice rain falling on the skin so pleasantly, and then home to a rough towel and dry clothes."

This passionate and sensuous woman, whose dreams for Ireland were sadly disappointed in her lifetime, died in hospital three weeks later. But not before she had argued one of the nuns, temporarily, out of her faith.