One hundred years after his death, Harry Boland is remembered, if he is remembered at all, as Michael Collins’s love-rival in the film of the same name.
Neil Jordan’s film features the Irish-American actor Aidan Quinn, with his palest of blue eyes and cheerful demeanour, vying for the attention of Kitty Kiernan played by Julie Roberts, at that time the most famous actress in the world.
This was not poetic licence on Jordan’s part. The real-life Harry Boland really did love Kitty Kiernan and wrote to her suggesting they start a new life in the United States. Yet she loved Collins and he loved her.
Collins and Boland’s friendship survived this love triangle. It would not survive the Treaty split.
Harry Boland was born into a Fenian family. His father James was a nationalist and supporter of Charles Stuart Parnell who died suddenly at the age of 38 in 1890. The family were all committed nationalists – Harry Boland’s brother Gerald would go on to have a long career as a Fianna Fáil TD and minister, as would Gerald’s son Kevin in somewhat controversial circumstances.
Like Collins, Harry Boland was a tireless organiser who was involved in many nationalist organisations – the Gaelic League, the GAA and the Irish Volunteers among them. When John Redmond urged the Irish Volunteers to go and join the British army to fight in the first World War, Boland was one of those who resisted. The small rump of about 8 per cent of members who remained would foment the Easter Rising.
Boland was a late comer to the Rising, arriving only at the GPO on Easter Tuesday, but he did enough to merit a ten-year prison sentence where he spent much time in jail with de Valera. Dev was impressed with Boland’s quiet determination and his cheerfulness.
Boland was close to Collins, but he was closer still to de Valera and spent much of his time during the War of Independence traipsing after the Chief in the US as de Valera attempted in vain to get recognition for the Irish Republic.
Boland’s most enduring legacy to Irish history was his cajoling of the Labour Party to not contest the British general election of December 1918. Some have questioned the wisdom of that decision from a Labour Party point of view, as its stellar showing at the 1922 general election demonstrated, but it was nonetheless critical in ensuring a landslide victory for Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election. More importantly, it established a democratic imprimatur for everything that followed in the War of Independence.
Boland voted against the Treaty, but used his personal skills to foment the electoral pact between the pro- and anti-Treaty Sinn Féin factions in advance of the 1922 general election. This was a vain attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, but a reminder that nobody believed at that stage that Civil War was inevitable.
He believed in the essential oneness of the national cause and was horrified when the Civil War broke out when the Provisional Government responded to a British ultimatum delivered after the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP and shelled the Four Courts. Boland was incredulous. “Can you imagine me on the run from Mick Collins? It is ludicrous.”
Nevertheless, Boland threw himself into the fight as he done with all the others and became quartermaster of the anti-Treaty IRA Dublin Brigade, though it failed to put up much a fight against Free State forces.
The war was barely a month old when Boland fetched up in the Grand Hotel in Skerries and signed in under his own name despite being one of the most wanted men in Ireland at the time.
This was a mistake as it had only been a few days since a letter had been found on anti-Treaty TD Seán T O’Kelly from Boland urging him to go to America and use Boland’s old contacts to procure weapons for the anti-Treaty IRA. The fight, Boland told him, was likely to be “long drawn-out”.
What was he doing in Skerries with Joe Griffin, the anti-Treaty IRA’s Director of Intelligence? There has been no satisfactory answer to that conundrum as north Dublin was solidly pro-Treaty territory. Perhaps he was on his way to visit Michael Collins in Dundalk or to meet up with pro-Treaty intelligence officers to put an end to the war.
On the morning of July 30th, 1922, Free State troops entered Boland and Griffins’s bedroom in the hotel. What happened next is unclear. We only have the account of his killers who said he was shot in the stomach while resisting arrest.
He died two days later in St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, not as Neil Jordan dramatically portrayed him in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of the Four Courts at the start of the Civil War.
Collins’s grief, though, as expressed in the film was real enough. He pondered sending a wreath to the hospital, but thought better of it believing it would be torn up.
Boland’s funeral at Glasnevin Cemetery was depicted in Jack B Yeats’s painting The Funeral of Harry Boland in which shimmering figures in black and grey gather under the O’Connell monument to mourn one of their own.
Michael Collins wasn’t there. Within three weeks he would join his old friend and love-rival for all eternity in the same graveyard – brothers in arms separated in life but united in death.