In its 33 years as the custodian of the State’s records, the Irish National Archives has never held an exhibition before now.
The centrepiece of its first exhibition is the most important document in its collection – the signed Irish copy of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
The copy has been given a darkened room of its own in the Coach House Gallery at Dublin Castle as part of the Treaty 1921: Records from the Archives exhibition which opens to the public on Tuesday.
The Irish cabinet diaries from December 8th, 1921, laying bare the splits in the cabinet over the treaty are also going on exhibition. Other significant documents include a handwritten note in red ink from British negotiator Lord Birkenhead replacing the phrase British Empire with the "British Commonwealth of Nations" – the first time the word commonwealth was used in a British legal document.
There is also a signed letter from all five Irish plenipotentiaries accusing Éamon de Valera of undermining them as negotiators, and urging him to travel to London incognito to assist them. "If you can come without being known, it is most important you should do so immediately," they stated and that was only in October just after the talks began.
‘History in the making’
The first visitors to the exhibition were the political descendents of those who fought a war over the treaty, Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Fine Gael leader and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar along with the Minister for Culture Catherine Martin.
Mr Martin said the exhibition showed “history in the making” and the importance of primary sources for all students of history.
Mr Varadkar added that it was an “amazing exhibition – please don’t miss it if you can. I learned things I didn’t know.”
The pieces of paper that were passed among delegates at the Anglo Irish Treaty talks were the equivalent of “text messages these days”, he suggested. “Really?” interjected the Taoiseach. “You never text me,” the Tánaiste responded to laughter.
Amid the levity was a serious question about the current state of commemorations. Why had the commemorations become so “low-key” when the 1916 commemorations had been so public, and it couldn’t all be down to Covid-19, a reporter suggested. “Why has there been no State event to mark the singing of the treaty?” the reporter asked.
Mr Martin responded by stating that this treaty exhibition was of “far greater substance than one flyover on a given day and this will be one of many, many events”.
He said the events of the negotiation of the treaty and afterwards were “more prosaic” than the events of the Easter Rising. He stated there would be a State event on January 16th next year to mark the centenary of the handing-over of Dublin Castle.
“My appeal to all politicians is not to use past events for your own current politic objectives. That is doing history a complete disservice,” he said.
“These were, in my view, great people and it doesn’t matter what perspective they took.”
The Irish treaty negotiators had behaved with “honour, dignity and integrity and I’ve always taken that from any archives I have read about the period”, he said.
Despite the splits, they had both participated in Irish democracy. Was de Valera right not to attend the talks in London? Mr Martin laughed. “I’ll leave that to the judgment of history.”