In December 1921 and January 1922 the members of the Second Dáil debated the merits and otherwise of the Anglo-Irish Treaty which established the independent Irish State.
The debates were the most extraordinary in Irish parliamentary history, suffused with a passion which is hard to understand, knowing what we know now, by people who had endured danger, jail and bereavement.
Insults were exchanged and the vitriol was personal, not political, among old comrades who now found themselves in a death grapple about the future of the infant state.
The Treaty debates were about everything and nothing. For the pro-Treaty side this was about getting the British out of the 26 counties and looking towards the eventual unification of the country. The Treaty, Michael Collins famously suggested in the debates, "gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it".
Within months of the Treaty vote many of the most important contributors to the debates were dead – Michael Collins most famously
For the anti-Treaty side it was a betrayal of the Irish Republic established on Easter Monday 1916. Nothing short of a republic entirely free from British rule would do. Where was power vested? If it was vested in the British monarch and not the people, Ireland could not be a republic and the sacrifices of the Easter Rising and War of Independence were in vain.
As an alternative Éamon de Valera, the leader of the anti-Treaty side, put forward his Document No 2, which took the position that the Free State could be associated with, but not part of, the British Empire. The British would not allow it.
The debates were not really about the substance of the measure of freedom afforded by the Treaty. In a fascinating word cloud experiment published in the book The Treaty: Debating and Establishing the Free State, edited by Liam Weeks and Mícheál Ó Fathartaigh, researchers found that the words economic/economical/economy appeared just 52 times.
The debates lasted 15 days, beginning on December 14th and ending on January 7th, with a break for Christmas. The vote in favour of the Treaty (64 to 57) was a close-run thing that did nothing to resolve the matter and led to the tragedy of the Civil War which began on June 28th, 1922.
Within months many of the most important contributors to the Treaty debates were dead – Michael Collins most famously, but also Arthur Griffith, Cathal Brugha, Sean Hales (gunned down in an ambush in Dublin), Harry Boland, Collins's good friend who took the anti-Treaty side, and Seamus Devins, the Sligo TD allegedly executed without trial by Free State forces.
The bitterness of the Civil War was presaged by the bitterness of the Treaty debates, where Brugha laid bare his jealousy and dislike of Michael Collins. “Can it be authoritatively stated that he ever fired a shot at any enemy of Ireland?”
Doing the debates justice is a mammoth task. How do you cover the gamut of opinions and emotions involved? How do you capture the nuances of people 100 years ago, many of whom had not even finished primary school?
ANU Productions, which specialises in immersive theatre experiences, will embark on its most ambitious project yet. Staging The Treaty is a 16 to 18-hour, two-day event designed to give a contemporary audience a sense of what it was like to be there. It’s funded by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media’s programme for the Decade of Centenaries.
There are 92 speaking parts. A main cast of 16 actors will play the parts of the main speakers. "We will incrementally build up a support cast around them of people who spoke less in that space," says director Louise Lowe.
The performance will be staged in Earlsfort Terrace, where the original debates took place, in front of a rotating audience at 90-minute intervals and will also be streamed live online.
Writing credit is given to poet Theo Dorgan, although it would be more accurate to describe him as the editor. The verbatim text has been drawn by him from the transcript of the debates, cut down from 440,000 words to 139,000. There is no editorial intervention; the drama of the debates is in the actual words used by TDs on all sides. Dorgan believes no writer could script a more pointed debate, so why try when the source material is so powerful?
“All our lives we have been hearing partial and partisan views of the Treaty. Wouldn’t it be interesting that we could be there and hear exactly what was said?” asks Dorgan.
“I didn’t expect the sheer drama. These are people, men and women, who had been up to their necks in the War of Independence. They were all on the same side, in a sense. They all wanted to see the republic, but you see very quickly that nobody wants to talk about what a republic should be.
“It freaked me out slightly that all of the topics and themes are still live issues - partition, the relationship with a supranational association of states, the meaning of adopting a policy and never implementing it.”
Conspicuous by its absence in the Treaty debates was any serious consideration of the impact of partition or how it could be ended. Clause 12 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty allowed for the creation of a Boundary Commission to determine the final border. There was a presumption in the chamber – hopeless groupthink, as it turned out – that the commission would see the nationalist-majority areas of Derry city, the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone and South Armagh join the Free State, leaving Northern Ireland as an unviable rump territory.
“There was an extraordinary and naive belief that the North would come in once they saw where their best interests lie,” Dorgan says.
“There was a subterranean belief that the struggle could be carried through to the North and that they could win. Politically, nobody had given consideration to the fact that there were two parliaments, de facto, in Ireland. A lot of them were simply badly educated politically. I don’t doubt their open-heartedness, but their levels of political analysis were very, very poor.”
The contribution of women to the debate has to be seen in the context of their personal suffering. In MacSwiney's case she witnessed her brother, day after day, dying in Brixton Prison
The part played by women, and one woman in particular, looms large in the Treaty debates. There were only six women in the Dáil, but they included Constance Markievicz, Margaret Pearse (mother of the executed Padraig and Willie), Kathleen Clarke (widow of executed Tom Clarke, Kathleen O'Callaghan (widow of Lord Mayor of Limerick Michael O'Callaghan, shot dead during the War of Independence), and Mary MacSwiney (sister of Lord Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in 1920).
Mary MacSwiney’s contribution included a one-hour speech on December 17th, 1921, followed by a two-hour and 40-minute speech on December 21st. She made no apologies for her long-windedness. On the contrary she revelled in it. “I have kept you a long time. I make no apology for it, nor will you seek one. You may be tired, so am I,” she said.
It was, as the pro-Treaty TD and later writer Piaras Béaslaí suggested, with a touch of misogyny, a “screeching tirade”, but even fervent anti-Treaty TDs tired of her belief that a return to war was better than any compromise on the republic.
The contribution of women to the debate has to be seen in the context of their personal suffering, Dorgan says. In MacSwiney’s case she witnessed her brother, day after day, dying in Brixton Prison.
“She is a threat to male stability in many ways, but I’m not sure you can see it as direct misogyny,” said Lowe.
“Her radical views estrange her from her comrades and she is quite intriguing. She is a victim of her whole life and all that brings her to that point. She gets carried away with the passion of it all. She doesn’t do reasoned arguments.”
The pall of the patriotic dead hung over the debate. They could no longer speak for themselves, but plenty invoked their names, causing an exasperated Michael Collins to opine: “Deputies have spoken about whether dead men would approve of it, and they have spoken whether children yet unborn would approve it, but few have spoken of whether the living approve it.”
We, the children yet unborn, will now get a chance to pronounce on the Treaty debates with the benefit of a century of hindsight.
What they said in the Treaty debates
Countess Markevicz (anti-Treaty): I believe, and we are against the Treaty believing that England is being more dishonourable and acting in a cleverer way than she ever did before, because I believe we never sent cleverer men over than we sent this time, yet they have been tricked. Now you all know me, you know that my people came over here in Henry VIII's time, and by that bad black drop of English blood in me I know the English – that's the truth. I say it is because of that black drop in me that I know the English personally better perhaps than the people who went over on the delegation.
Seamus Robinson (Anti-Treaty): The Press has called him the Commander-in-Chief of the IRA. He has been called "a great exponent of guerilla warfare" and the "elusive Mike" and we have all read the story of the White Horse. There are stories going round Dublin of fights he had all over the city – the Custom House in particular. If Michael Collins was all that he has been called then I will admire him and respect his opinions, if my little mind cannot comprehend his present attitude towards the Republic and this Treaty. Now, from my knowledge of character and psychology, which I'm conceited enough to think is not too bad, I'm forced to think that the reported Michael Collins could not possibly be the same Michael Collins who was so weak as to compromise the Republic.
Michael Collins (Pro-Treaty): Every Irishman here who has lived amongst them knows very well that the plain people of England are much more objectionable towards us than the upper classes. Every man who has lived amongst them knows that they are always making jokes about Paddy and the pig, and that sort of thing.
Mary MacSwiney (Anti-Treaty): I am but a plain member of this Dáil with a plain straight intelligence that refuses point blank to draw the veil of my hypocrisy over my conscience for anyone. This matter has been put to us as the Treaty or war. I say now if it were war, I would take it gladly and gleefully, not flippantly, but gladly, because I realise that there are evils worse than war, and no physical victory can compensate for a spiritual surrender.
Margaret Pearse: (Anti-Treaty): I rise to support the motion of our President for the rejection of this Treaty. My reasons for doing so are various, but my first reason for doing so I would like to explain here today is on my sons' account. It has been said here on several occasions that Pádraig Pearse would have accepted this Treaty. I deny it. As his mother I deny it, and on his account I will not accept it. Neither would his brother Willie accept it, because his brother was part and parcel of him.
I am proud to say to-day that Pádraig Pearse was a follower and a disciple, and a true disciple, of Tom Clarke’s. Therefore he could not accept this Treaty. I also wish to say another reason why I could not accept it is the reason of fear. As I explained here at the private meeting, that from 1916 – I now wish to go over this again in public – from 1916 until we had the visits from the Black and Tans, I had comfortable, nice, happy nights and happy days because I knew my boys had done right.
WT Cosgrave (Pro-Treaty): Here in the capital of Ireland there are something like 20,000 families living in single-room tenement dwellings, and are these the people you are going to ask to fight for you? It is not fair, I submit. To my mind, when I first saw this instrument, it appeared that there were potentialities in it undreamt of in this country up to this time.
If as a result of the successful working and administration of this act that that gradual improvement that has been outlined in a semi-prophetic fashion by the Minister of Finance was brought about and the ideals this country struggled for generations should come to pass, it might possibly be within the bounds of certainty that a reconciliation would be effected between the new world and the old; that these two great countries would be able to keep the peace not only of themselves but the world, working for the best interests of humanity, assisted by the civilisation and culture of this country, improved by people who have never had an opportunity in their lives of developing their own nation in their own way and effecting world improvements in problems that have never been solved and that are not even in the way of being solved.
Some American jingoes, or whatever they are, very much fear that that sort of thing will come to pass. It may even be possible from the influence that would be exercised by the Irish Free State to effect improvements in these downtrodden nationalities such as Egypt and India.
Staging The Treaty, written by Theo Dorgan directed by Louise Lowe and created by ANU Productions, is part of the Decade of Centenaries Programme 2012-2023, supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.
The event will run in two parts over two days, for 10 hours each day, on December 22nd, 2021 and January 7th, 2022 for live (in person) audiences at the National Concert Hall, Earlsfort Terrace . Digital audiences will be invited to experience a durational streamed broadcast of the live performance as it unfolds. More details from anuproductions.ie and nch.ie