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The Anglo-Irish Treaty: 100 Years On

Anglo-Irish Treaty signatories Arthur Griffith, Eamon J Duggan, Robert Barton and George Gavan-Duffy surrounded by supporters on December 6th 1921.

RTE Photographic Archive's Cashman Collection


The 6th December marks one hundred years on from the conclusion of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. In October, the narrative surrounding the negotiations returned to their spiritual home in London – in exhibition form. On 14th October, I set out for London to retrace the century-old footsteps of the Irish delegates to the Treaty negotiations. The two Treaty exhibitions hosted by the Irish Embassy in London proved to be the finest means of capturing the essence of the Treaty negotiations of 1921.

It is something of an irony that the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which addressed Ireland’s future in 1921, had its centenary exhibition in London. Perhaps, through, this is not at all ironic. After all, the genesis of the Treaty that, it was hoped, would provide the remedy for Ireland’s centuries-old constitutional ills, was conceived, formulated and agreed within the austere black and white terraces of 10 Downing Street over a period of three months at the close of 1921.

During October, the month one hundred years ago that the Anglo-Irish negotiations commenced, London was host to two notable centenary exhibitions detailing the narrative of the Treaty’s negotiations and the key protagonists that brought it about.

The Embassy of Ireland presented both exhibitions, in conjunction with partner institutions including the Royal Irish Academy, the National Archives of Ireland and the British Academy, as part of the Irish Government’s wider Decade of Centenaries programme.

The venue of the first exhibition, The Treaty, 1921: Records from the Archives was at the British Academy’s Grade I-listed Georgian premises at Carlton Terrace bordering Westminster’s St. James’ district. The exhibitions followed a clockwise structure beginning with the various political developments which gave rise to the Treaty, including the ‘Home Rule Crisis’ 1912-1914 averted by the First World War, the Easter Rising, the 1918 ‘Conscription Crisis’, the watershed General Election of December 1918 which propelled Sinn Féin to their parliamentary majority, the establishment of the revolutionary ‘First’ Dáil and the commencement of the Irish War of Independence in January 1919. These contextual accounts proved essential starting points for any examination of the Treaty.

The range of primary sources festooned within glass cabinets and intertwined with the broader supplementary historical context allowed visitors an immediate insight into the structure of the negotiations themselves. What was chiefly noticeable was the fact that these documents – from shop receipts, Cabinet minutes to the Treaty itself – were retained. It demonstrates a team that were keen to present themselves, in front of the world’s press, as organised, collected and ultimately prepared to assume the inevitable transfer of power from English to Irish hands.

The archives began in July 1921, following the Truce between British and Irish Republican forces, the original correspondence exchanged between Éamon de Valera and Prime Minister David Lloyd George was displayed as were the, now somewhat notorious, instructions given to the Irish Plenipotentiaries prior to their departure for London, on 7th October 1921. The frantic exchange of letters on the cusp of the Treaty’s signing on 6th December, emphasise the crucial issues which were, and in some ways continue to be, in perpetual contention during the negotiations – the future position of the Crown in Ireland and the question of, what was strategically termed, the ‘North-East of Ulster’ or in franker terms, Partition.

On a more light-hearted note, the Irish delegation at Hans Place in London, the de facto embassy for the Irish London delegation, were in prime proximity to one of the world’s most esteemed apartment stores – Harrods. The original receipt shows the food (bonbons included) purchased by the delegation for a party they hosted on 10th November. In addition, the documents detailing the hiring of top-of-the-range Rolls-Royce limousines for the delegation to traverse between Downing Street and their respective residences were there for all to see. Michael Collins resided less than half a mile away at 15 Cadogan Gardens with his personal security, members of ‘The Squad’ led by Great War veteran Emmett Dalton.

The muted fissures between the Irish delegation in London and the Dáil Cabinet in Dublin, that were soon to be cast into stark relief, were evident within the documentation on display. Griffith’s request that de Valera travel to London to join the negotiations are rejected by the former with characteristic fudge; a fudge that would haunt him in the succeeding decades.

The final Treaty, or officially, the ‘Articles of Agreement’ – both the original, signed British and Irish copies – punctuated the final stage of the display. Studying the Treaty document itself one hundred years on demonstrates how figures on both sides regarded their achievement or, for some, lack of. For the British side, it was evident that they had essentially achieved what they had desired from the point at which negotiation channels opened with de Valera in the Summer of 1921. The displayed letters exchanged between de Valera and Lloyd George effectively demonstrate this, as the broad parameters of the Treaty settlement secured the 26-counties State – what would be the Irish Free State – as a Dominion within the British Empire; the Crown’s nominal supremacy, the retention of strategic Irish ports to ensure Britain’s security and free trade.

For the Irish, and Michael Collins in particular, he had gained, as he himself admitted, the ‘national aspirations’ Ireland had craved for seven centuries – self-government. Indeed, the Treaty was the foundational document on which today’s modern Irish State emerged. Arthur Griffith, founding father of Sinn Féin in 1905 and forever the pragmatist, allowed Ireland to break free from the Act of Union, which he deemed as “Illegal”, and to restore its legislative sovereignty. Unlike zealots such as Austin Stack and Cathal Brugha who would pronounce their vociferous objections to the Treaty in the Dáil debates of December 1921 and January 1922, to Arthur Griffith the substance of freedom was ultimately superior to its constitutional form. Within nine months Griffith would die from a brain haemorrhage, believed to have been triggered by overwork and stress, and Collins too would be assassinated in his native Cork in an “awful” conflict – the Civil War – which he had laboured so fiercely to avert.

The Art of Negotiation’, meanwhile, suitably complemented the narrative of the Treaty on show at the British Academy. Having viewed the primary archival sources at Carlton Terrace, arriving at the Embassy of Ireland’s salubrious surroundings truly brought Irish-born artist Sir John Lavery’s portraits of the Treaty protagonists – British and Irish - to life for a modern era. Lavery and his wife, Lady Lavery, with whom Collins developed a notable rapport, had been instrumental in facilitating the communication of peace feelers between British Government and Sinn Féin figures on the cusp of the July 1921 Truce.

The positioning of Collins’ portrait alongside that of Sir Winston Churchill is an intriguing juxtaposition. Both figures had developed something of an amiable relationship during the gruelling months of negotiations; Collins having been hosted at Churchill’s private London residence as the negotiations’ gathered considerable momentum.

Churchill would in the next decade write of Collins,

He was an Irish patriot, true and fearless. His narrow upbringing and his whole life had filled him with hatred for England. His hands had touched directly the springs of terrible deeds. We hunted him for his life, and he had slipped half a dozen times through steel claws. But now he had no hatred of England.’

It would be interesting to note what Lavery would have thought of this particular Collins-Churchill juxtaposition. Perhaps the vision would have invoked the memory of comments made to Lavery by the old Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond MP, a number of years prior to the resounding Sinn Féin victory at the 1918 General Election. Lavery had completed two portraits of the two great home rule antagonists, Redmond and Sir Edward Carson which were eventually erected side by side. On seeing the spectacle Redmond observed,

I have always had an idea that Carson and I might some day be hanged side by side in Dublin, and now it has come to pass.’

Would Collins have similarly remarked one hundred years on? That is the essence of the mystery in history – especially that which is peculiar to Ireland.

December 2021 is one hundred years from tumultuous occasion that transformed the political, social, constitutional and economic complexion of Ireland forever – the further entrenchment of political opinion within the two respective States that emerged over the next century became something of an inevitability. The narrative path of Ireland’s history has been well-trod and the Decade of Centenaries has dually demonstrated how far Ireland has progressed and how far it has yet to go. Perhaps, however, it will be milestones such as the Treaty’s centenary and that of the Irish Civil War in Summer 2022, that will be the triggers for meaningful and objective reflection and, crucially, with the addition of that hindsight, the foresight to positively and meaningfully evolve for the next century’s challenges.

The Treaty, 1921: Records from the Archives has crossed the Irish Sea to Dublin and from 6th December 2021 until 27 March 2022 will be at Coach House Gallery, Dublin Castle Gardens. Also the same paintings by Sir John Lavery will be on display at Collins Barracks as part of its Studio and State exhibition.


Peter Donnelly is studying a Masters in Law at Queen's University Belfast.


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