Mayo TDs and the Treaty debates

Old Mayo

This January 7 marks the 95th anniversary of one of the most influential votes to have been taken by Dáil Éireann. The result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty vote continues to shape Ireland’s relationship with Britain and her place within the family of European and global nations to this day, as it does the domestic politics on this island. The Treaty was an agreement between the government of the United Kingdom and representatives of the Irish Republic, signed on December 6 1921, which brought the War of Independence to an end.

In order to be ratified, the Treaty had to be supported by the majority of the Irish Republic’s legislature, Dáil Éireann. The emotional and often personalised Dáil debates on the Treaty ran from December 14 1921 to January 7 1922. At that time, the county of Mayo spanned three Dáil constituencies — Mayo North and West, Mayo South and Roscommon South, and Sligo and Mayo East — which returned a combined total of 13 TDs. Though all Sinn Féin members, the 13 representatives understandably held differing opinions on the Treaty and their contributions to the debates act as a microcosm of the complex political landscape that existed in the country.

One might expect that Joseph MacBride TD would take a hard-line stance against the British considering his brother John was executed for participating in the 1916 Rising, but Joseph was quick to label the agreement “an honourable Treaty”. Rationally, MacBride added: “Unity [of the Dáil] seems to be a fetish with some people in this assembly. They fear a split. I don't. Probably they have in their minds the foul implications and the degradation of the Parnell split. But cannot we agree to differ?” It appears MacBride underestimated the strong feelings among his own Mayo North and West electorate. Of the Treaty, PJ Ruttledge, a constituency colleague of MacBride’s, summarised: “We should face facts, and the facts are these. My contention is that you may compromise on unessentials, but on essentials you cannot compromise.” Ruttledge reminded the house that he was elected on the basis that he was a republican, implying that nothing short of a 32-county Irish Republic would gain his support.

William Sears, TD for Mayo South and Roscommon South, took an opposing line to Ruttledge: “We told the world that we were not Republican doctrinaires. We did not expect them [the Irish plenipotentiaries] to bring home a Republic, but this Treaty will put us on the shortest road to the completest independence of the country.” And in an attempt to woo physical force republicans, Sears claimed: “Now I say this Treaty is a victory for the Irish Republican Army. This Treaty is the fruits of efforts of the most gallant band in history who fought against fearful odds here and suffered.” But Sears also warned that the ideal of independence would not be achieved by entering another disastrous war. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had threatened immediate war should the Irish delegation not sign the Treaty. Instead, Sears believed independence could be secured by taking charge of the schools and universities of the country.

The most prominent of the 13 TDs was 1916 veteran Harry Boland. Boland was one of four TDs representing the Mayo South and Roscommon South constituency. He was a close friend of Michael Collins who was a member of the Irish delegation that had signed the Treaty in London. Boland had been in America when the delegation returned to Ireland with the Treaty in December. When he returned in January, Boland entered the debating chamber on Dublin’s Earlsfort Terrace to emphatic applause. Boland spoke on numerous occasions and evoked the names of old Irish freedom fighters to passionately condemn the Treaty as a submission to British rule. He was adamant that the Treaty negotiated by Collins “denies the existence of the Irish nation”. Boland stated for the record that his chief objection to the Treaty was “because I am asked to surrender the title of Irishman and accept the title of West Briton”.

On January 7 1922, Dáil Éireann ratified the Anglo-Irish Treaty by a slim margin of 64 to 57 votes. Eight TDs representing Mayo constituencies voted against the Treaty, while the remaining five voted for ratification. On April 2 1922, Michael Collins addressed a large crowd outside the Imperial Hotel in Castlebar in an effort to calm tensions in the aftermath of the Treaty’s ratification. Collins told the gathering of pro and anti-Treaty supporters, some brandishing revolvers, that “it was now in Ireland’s power to secure that this state of things shall be ended and not occur again”. The Irish Civil War broke out between pro and anti-Treaty forces in June 1922.

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