A century on: Dramatising the drama that led to Anglo-Irish Treaty

Negotiations behind the foundation of the Irish State are staged at the NCH

On the walls of the entrance to the Kevin Barry rehearsal rooms in the National Concert Hall are photographs from the Treaty debates 100 years ago.

Every day throughout December 1921 and January 1922, expectant crowds gathered outside the National Concert Hall which was then the main campus for University College Dublin (UCD) while the debates over the Treaty were taking place inside.

One panoramic photograph shows expectant and mostly smiling faces, their demeanour at odds with the ferocious and often personalised nature of the debates inside.

The Kevin Barry Rooms were where the debates took place and are a fitting setting for the staging of The Treaty, a play by Colin Murphy about the negotiations which led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the morning of December 6th, 1921.


Murphy has specialised in turning major events in Irish history, most notably the Easter Rising and the bank bailout, into drama.

The source material for The Treaty is rich, featuring Thomas Packenham’s definitive 1935 account of the Treaty negotiations, Peace by Ordeal, British cabinet secretary Tom Jones’s diaries and the first-hand account of the Irish and British negotiators. There are also the meticulous Irish Cabinet meeting minutes that graphically document the emerging splits and confusion in the Irish position.

The Irish delegation faced one of the most formidable teams of negotiators Britain had ever assembled with the prime minister David Lloyd George, known as the Welsh Wizard, at the head. It also included Winston Churchill, the future prime minister, Austen Chamberlain, the Conservative leader, and FE Smith, known as Lord Birkenhead, a figure largely forgotten about now, but regarded then as one of the finest minds of his generation.

Eamon de Valera, famously and for reasons which are still disputed to this day, was not one of the Irish negotiators.

“It’s a cracking story,” said Murphy. “In our popular culture, it is a relatively untold story outside the historians.

“There is a granular detail in it that goes far behind the basics that we all know. When you get into the detail of who was fighting for what, it becomes terrific political drama. It jumps off the page.”

The Fishamble production, directed by Conall Morrison, features a cast of 12 playing 17 different characters.

Male characters

Conspicuous by their absence at the original negotiations were women. All the negotiators, seven British and five Irish, were men.

Conspicuous by their presence in the play are female actresses. The role of de Valera is played convincingly by Jane Brennan and Arthur Griffith is played by Karen Ardiff, Churchill by Camille Lucy Ross, Caitríona Ní Mhurchú as Lady Lavery and Sir James Craig and Ali White as the Earl of Birkenhead and Ernie O'Malley.

“The theatre sector has faced some kind of an overdue reckoning in recent years about representation on all sorts of levels,” explains Murphy.

“I am constantly confronted with the fact that when I am writing political drama, the decision makers historically have been men. Does that mean, play after play is going to be about men in suits on stage. Do I need to?

“We felt it was a risk, but once we started the readthrough we realised it was no risk. I don’t think anybody needs to do a doubletake. It’s just great actors doing great parts.”

Such a large ensemble cast would make the production financially unviable especially in a place with a limited capacity such as the Kevin Barry Rooms, but it is being funded by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media’s Decade of Centenaries programme.

It will run for 11 nights at the NCH before moving to the Irish Embassy in London for a short run. Its final performance will be streamed on demand on December 6th to coincide with the centenary.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times