Kitty Kiernan was born in Granard, County Longford and educated in Loreto Convent, County Wicklow. Hers was a very comfortably-off merchant family with five sisters and one brother. Her parents, Bridget and Peter Kiernan, enjoyed a happy marriage, and life in the Kiernan home was joyous until Kitty reached her teens. In 1907 one of her twin sisters died in her late teens, followed in 1908 by the deaths of both her parents within a couple of months of each other. The family was to be further devastated by the death in 1909 of the remaining twin sister. The Kiernan family owned the Greville Arms Hotel in the town, as well as a grocery shop, a hardware store, a timber and undertaking business and also a bar. Around the corner from the hotel they operated a bakery which supplied the town and most of the surrounding countryside. All the family worked in one capacity or another.
Kiernan met Collins in May 1917 when he stayed at the Greville Arms with Harry Boland, his friend and fellow worker, during the by-election campaign in Co Longford. Both Collins and Boland were smitten by the charming and vivacious Kitty, but it was Collins to whom she became engaged. Michael Collins, one of the principal founders of the independent Irish state, became a regular visitor to Granard between 1917 and 1922.
Kitty Kiernan and Michael Collins kept up a lengthy correspondence and while Collins was in London during the Treaty negotiations, he wrote to her every day. These letters are the subject of a book written by Leon O'Broin entitled "In Great Haste". Kitty's worst fears were realized when Collins was assassinated at the age of 31 near Beal na mBlath, County Cork, on August 22, 1922.
In 2000, some of the 300 letters sent by Kiernan and Collins to each other went on permanent display at the Cork Public Museum. These letters give a great insight into Kitty's attitude to life and into the political events of this time.
Former Fine Gael minister Peter Barry donated his collection of historic letters to the Lord Mayor of Cork, on behalf of the municipal museum. The collection, purchased from the Cronin family in 1995, was transferred to Marsh's Library in Dublin, where the letters were catalogued. The Peter Barry collection contains letters from Harry Boland, a friend of Collins and former suitor of Kitty Kiernan.
There are also a number of letters to Collins from various individuals and to Kiernan from others. The bulk of the letters between Collins and Kiernan were written between 1919 and 1922, and through their almost daily contact emerges a picture of the dreams and aspirations of the man often called Ireland’s "lost leader" and the woman with whom he wanted to share a "normal" life.
"Their correspondence represents a unique and revealing portrait of a remarkable man and an ordinary woman made extraordinary by tragic circumstances," said a museum spokesperson.
Love in the time of war In Great Haste The Letters of Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan edited by Leon O'Broin, revised and extended by Cian O hEigeartaigh Gill&Macmillan 19.99
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