Catherine ‘Kitty’ Kiernan was born in Granard, Co Longford and educated in Loreto Convent, Co 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 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 pub. 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.
Michael Collins, one of the principal founders of the independent Irish state, was introduced to the vivacious Kiernan sisters by his cousin Gearóid O’Sullivan, who was already dating Maud Kiernan. Collins initially fell for the captivating Helen Kiernan, but she was already engaged to someone else. He then turned his interests to Kitty, who had already captured the interest of Collins’ friend Harry Boland. However, it was Collins to whom Kitty became engaged, with plans to marry Collins in a November 1922 double ceremony to include the nuptials of Maud and Gearóid. Collins’ death four months earlier resulted in a single wedding taking place.
After Collins’ death, Kitty spent more than a year wandering from relative to relative carrying the precious souvenirs of her dead lover.
In 1925 she married Felix Cronin, who was Quartermaster General in the Irish Army. They had two sons, the second of whom they called Michael Collins Cronin. The first child was named Felix Cronin; he and his son Rex (Felix) are buried next to Kitty and Felix.
She died of Bright’s Disease (Kidney disease) on 24 July 1945. She requested that she be buried as close as possible to her great love, Michael Collins. She is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, not far from where Collins lies, and was joined there 16 years later by her husband Felix.
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 realised when Collins was killed in action at the age of 31 near Béal na Bláth, Co Cork, on 22 August 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.
Their correspondence represents a unique and revealing portrait of a remarkable man and an ordinary woman made extraordinary by tragic circumstances.