Subscriber OnlyStage

The day Éamon de Valera cried in the Dáil: ‘The world is looking at us now’

Staging the Treaty: A filmed theatrical production, written by Theo Dorgan, using primary sources will soon be available to view

On January 7th, 1922, at the end of 13 days of extraordinary debate about whether to endorse the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Dáil Éireann voted 64 to 57 to do so. Éamon de Valera, then president of the Irish Republic, who had led the arguments against it, said:

“I would like my last word here to be this: we have had a glorious record for four years; it has been four years of magnificent discipline in our nation. The world is looking at us now ...”

Then, he broke down.

The preceding days, starting on December 14th, with a crucial break for Christmas, had seen the most consequential conversation Ireland ever had with itself. The future of the State, its legitimacy, fledgling democracy, fidelity to the idea of a republic, the memory and sacrifice of those who had died in 1916 and during the War of Independence, what kind of independent country we might become, the Irish language, partition – all were discussed in increasingly heated terms.


The debates took place in Earlsfort Terrace, with a large crowd gathered outside and the world press in attendance. In the country at large, everyone was riveted by these discussions on their future – many weary of long years of war, some determined to accept nothing less than a sovereign republic. These days were a turning point in our history, with consequences lasting to this day.

In December last year, ANU Productions staged these debates in the very room where they had originally taken place, meticulously restored to its condition in 1921. A script of 90,000 words, ingeniously and scrupulously fairly whittled down from the original 440,000 by Theo Dorgan, was enacted by a cast of 45 actors, all of whom had researched their characters and were invested in their beliefs and ideology. Every word spoken is taken from the published debates; this is a totally accurate representation of what was said to and about each other.

Those of us lucky enough to see the performances will never forget them. Not many did, though, as audience size was limited and the pre-Christmas period is not ideal for theatre.Louise Lowe, director of the piece, however, cleverly filmed the whole thing before they had to leave Earlsfort Terrace.

That film is now going to be available to Irish audiences and the world. It is 10 hours long, divided into four segments, and will be screened over two days at the Irish Film Institute on October 7th-8th. Thereafter, it will be available for purchase from IFIHome, the streaming platform which specialises in good Irish film. It will also be made available to around 800 schools.

Ireland has one of the best-documented revolutions in the world. Over the past decade, crucial archives on the period have been released for the first time, allowing both scholars and the public to interrogate and reflect upon a complicated past and the activities of many people’s ancestors in our turbulent journey to independence. The Treaty Debates are one of the most important primary sources for the period. Instead of the heat and confusion of ambush and bomb attack, we have structured communication, which allows the speakers to tell their own stories, give their versions of history and express their political convictions.

Thus, we hear Mary MacSwiney on the gruesome death of her brother Terence on hunger strike in 1920; Arthur Griffith on the importance of democracy; de Valera on the inviolability of the Republic; Michael Collins on the gradual achievement of freedom; Margaret Pearse on the debt owed to her two dead sons; Sean MacEntee (from Belfast) on the partition of the country; Cathal Brugha, fatally for his own side, on the villainy and incompetence of Collins; and everyone on the subject of oaths to the Republic and the King of England, couched in the pietistic language common at the time.

There were six women in the second Dáil, four of them bereaved by the previous conflicts: Kathleen Clarke lost her husband Tom and brother Ned to execution in 1916; Kate O’Callaghan saw her husband shot dead before her; MacSwiney lost her brother; Pearse lost her two sons to execution in 1916. Constance Markievicz and psychiatrist Ada English were the other two. All were anti-Treaty, a subject that deserves further scrutiny. Loss of loved ones can turn people against conflict. In these cases, it inspired a desire to fight on.

It is difficult to describe the emotional effect of watching these men and women try and fail to reach agreement on flawed peace or further war. As the debates go on, you see the sides drawing further and further apart, ceasing to listen to each other and settling into entrenched positions and it is heartbreaking. Because we are watching and listening to actors speaking the real words of their characters, we are forced out of our own comfort zones into the difficult but rewarding enterprise of trying to understand both sides. Compassion can replace partisanship. To paraphrase Sean O’Casey, hearts of stone can become hearts of flesh.

Our emotional involvement is enhanced by our knowledge of what happened after the talking was over. As Theo Dorgan has written: “ ... the Civil War descended into savagery and barbarism. What had been a war of identifiable armed forces became a wild and undisciplined campaign of murder directed against civilians, extrajudicial killings on the part of the State, score-settling and plain atrocity on both sides.”

I don’t know of any other country that has created a film like this, absolutely accurately recreating one of the pivotal points in its history. The extraordinary drama of the events themselves needs no further enhancement. In this case, real life trumps any possible fictional version. The superb cast, marvellous set and acutely intelligent direction make this a landmark film in its own right, as well as a crucial addition to our archival resources on the Decade of Centenaries.

Tickets for the screening on October 7th-8th are available at the IFI Box Office or over the phone at 01 679 3477. More information at

The films can be rented at and

Catriona Crowe is former head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland