The Treaty: 100 Years on

By Frank O’Shea

One hundred years ago, the Irish Parliament, the Dáil, accepted by a small majority the treaty worked out the previous year over long discussions with the British. The Irish side in those discussions was led by Arthur Griffith, aided usually by Michael Collins and occasionally by George Gavan Duffy, Eamonn Duggan and Robert Barton. Their secretary was the ultra-nationalist Englishman Erskine Childers, rarely a help to anyone. At the time, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George led a coalition government consisting of his own Liberals and the larger Conservatives. His main sidekicks at the Treaty talks were fellow Liberal Winston Churchill and Tories Austen Chamberlain and Lord Birkenhead.

Many in the Tory party – to be more exact, the Conservative and Unionist party – were appalled that there should be negotiations with men ‘once classed as murderers.’ Addressing the House of Lords, Birkenhead had to devote a speech to repudiating the view that talks with Sinn Fein brought shame on Britain. Both Chamberlain, ‘the weak and untested [Tory] leader’, and Lloyd George, had great difficulty dealing with what were known as the diehards, those who felt that the way to deal with the Irish problem was the kind of brutality that had worked so well in other parts of the world. In the background at all times was the more doctrinaire Tory Bonar Law and the bullying leaders of Ulster like Carson and Craig: in Loyd George’s view, ‘They have their hands on their hearts all the time, but if it comes to touching their pockets, they quickly slap their hands in them.’

The Irish side too, were divided. They had to report back to Dev and his ‘enduring paranoia’ and the behind-the-scenes activities of Cathal Brugha and his mate Austin Stack who were determined to take civilian control of the IRA away from Collins. Dev, we read, was ‘weighing the tactical considerations [of a ceasefire] in a far more cynical frame of mind.’ Among the delegates to London, Griffith and Collins most often found themselves as allies, and had to deal with the more rigid views of Childers and Gavan Duffy (son of a former Premier of Victoria).

The book deals with each meeting of the two sides, often sub-groups rather than the full collection. It started slowly and we are told that after it had gone two weeks, things were so bad that a codeword was sent back to Dublin telling the British troops to prepare for a resumption of arms. That was repeated again in the week before the document was finally signed. The two main areas of contention were Northern Ireland and Dev’s bête noire, the oath of allegiance to the Crown.

The author refers to Lloyd George’s ultimatum of war if the document was not signed and how the Dominions might react. ‘Australia, which clung fervently to the apron strings of the mother country, welcomed the news of the Irish settlement, but as Melbourne’s Age newspaper made plain, it was seen as a necessary victory for Britannic nationalism. Irish extremism risked undermining imperial cohesion.’ It went on to say that the militancy of Sinn Fein and Ireland’s determination to leave the empire meant that the British government had ‘no alternative but to maintain the authority by force of arms.’ Bellicose Billy Hughes would be no help to Ireland.

In Westminster, the final document was approved with large majorities by both houses. In Dublin, the seven-member cabinet was divided, with Brugha and Stack joining Dev in rejecting the deal, but W T Cosgrave joined Griffith, Collins and Barton to pass it to the full Dáil where it received a 64-57 win, despite impassioned invocation of the dead by Mary McSwiney and sneering attacks by Cathal Brugha. Afterwards, Dev resigned as President and was replaced by the weary Griffith and as we know, within six months he was dead and the country was in a brutal civil war. 

You don’t expect a book about historical events such as these to keep you up late, but Gretchen Friemann’s account of the negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish treaty is a compulsive page turner. Although we know from the start that the discussions ended with the signing of a document, this does not take from the tension in the narrative as we get to know the participants on both sides and the backgrounds they bring to their discussions.

It may help to know that the book is written by an Australian-born journalist, now living in Dublin. She comes to the story as a neutral outsider, unburdened by the many educational and social experiences that an Irish writer would carry. One imagines that she was fascinated to learn about people like de Valera, Collins, Mulcahy and Childers on the Irish side as well as the many heavies on the British side.

Friemann has written a wonderful account of events of one hundred years ago. She is completely objective, does not take sides or praise one participant over another. But a reader would be entitled to believe that the hero of the whole affair was a man who has been almost forgotten by the country he gave his life for, Arthur Griffith. He deserves more credit than he receives for the fact that Ireland is today a free independent Republic.

Another book on the Treaty talks, particularly the final days, is by Colum Kenny who gives an almost minute-by-minute account of the final days. The delegates had to return to Dublin, normally an 11-hour trip each way by train and boat, a journey that took even longer on December 2 after the Hollyhead boat mowed down a smaller craft, killing three crew and requiring a return to Hollyhead. The delegates got to Dublin half an hour before a crucial meeting with the cabinet; that meeting lasted some eight hours, at the end of which the delegates had to get back to London immediately. According to one contemporary account, ‘Michael Collins was fed up.’

Kenny has a long chapter on the proposed Boundary Commission. In theory, it could result in part or all of Fermanagh and Tyrone being returned to the Irish Free State, though it could also mean that parts of Irish counties could be added to Ulster. In the end, as we know, there was no change.

He deals with other small incidents, like the supposed affair between Collins and Lady Lavery. Friemann dismisses it, but Kenny appears to leave it open. We know that Griffith was a friend of people like James Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty. He suggests that ‘it may not be entirely coincidental’ that Joyce as a kind of thank-you for advice he received from Griffith, named the main female character in Ulysses after the Irish statesman’s wife Molly.

He deals in detail with the last-minute meetings with the British side, some going on into the night. At the final one on December 5 Lloyd George issued his ultimatum: ‘war in three days’ if there was not agreement. Griffith said he would sign but could not speak for his colleagues. They returned at 11.20 pm for a further three hours during which there were minor edits to the document and then everyone signed. Churchill later recalled that all members of the British delegation walked around the large table and shook hands with the Irish, the first time it happened.

Kenny suggests that Griffith was indeed the hero of the story, a position he appeared to avoid in his biography of him, reviewed here in 2020:

THE TREATY. By Gretchen Friemann. Merrion Press 2021. 298 pp. €20

MIDNIGHT IN LONDON. By Colum Kenny. Eastwood Books 2021. 126 pp. €9.50

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.