Today June 16 marks the centenary anniversary of the general election in which Irish voters had the opportunity to vote for candidates who supported or rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which granted Dominion Status, similar to that of Canada and South Africa, to 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland.
By that stage, members of Dáil Éireann, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Republican Army had had their say and split over the issue. The result of the general election was that 78 per cent of first preferences were cast for pro-Treaty candidates, which allowed the Provisional Government to claim popular support for the Treaty.
Within a fortnight, Civil War erupted when the National (Free State ) Army attacked the Republican garrison in Dublin’s Four Courts. Over the following eleven months, around 1,600 Irish lives were lost to the conflict.
Over the last number of months Galway City Museum has worked with research teams from five local community groups – Annaghdown Heritage Society, Comhairle na nÓg, Mincéirs Whiden Society, Moycullen Heritage and Westside Resource Centre – to explore the lives and opinions of ten prominent personalities with connections to Galway, five of whom supported and five of whom opposed the Treaty.
Using the Dáil Treaty debates, contemporary newspapers, and other sources, the researchers identified statements given by each of the personalities that summed up their stance. The personalities included Archbishop Thomas Gilmartin, and four Galway TDs, Patrick J. Hogan, George Nicolls, Pádraic Ó Máille and Joseph Whelehan, who favoured the Treaty, and Galway County Councillor Alice Cashel, Dr Ada English, TD for the National University constituency, and three Galway TDs, Frank Fahy, Dr Brian Cusack and Liam Mellows, who opposed the Treaty.
Tomás Ó Dubhda, one of the researchers with the Westside Resource Centre team, said he certainly has a much greater understanding now as a result of the research for this project.
“My head tells me that to sign the treaty was the only sensible option, yet I cannot condemn those who took the opposite view. I think de Valera was wrong to send the plenipotentiaries to London while he stayed in Dublin, I believe his own insecurities played a role in all that unfolded and that, had he been more reasonable, a compromise might have been arrived at, Lloyd George’s threats and deadline notwithstanding.
“Prior to this research, and possibly due to family influences as a child, I would have seen Dev as the one who wouldn’t sell out, the defender of the true Republican spirit. Over the years, and especially as a result of this research, this opinion has changed substantially.”
Michelle Mitchell of the Mincéirs Whiden team said that she feels very strongly that if Eamon de Valera had gone to England and negotiated, “we would not have lost the six counties […]”
“Yet, I believe that the men who went did a stellar job; they were not in their comfort zone, so no blame should be put on them”, adding “I would have voted Pro-Treaty because Ireland was so desperate, war-torn, and without peace for many years. Many mothers buried their children, and many young men did not return home.”
The output of the five community groups now forms the basis of a new exhibition, Treaty/Conradh 100, at Galway City Museum, which invites the public to learn about the key issues for either side of the divide and afterward to cast a vote for or against the Treaty.
“The project and exhibition were developed as part of Galway City Council’s Decade of Centenaries programme, and has been generously funded by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media.
Brendan McGowan, Education and Outreach Officer at the Museum, who led the project, said it is important to recognise that both sides of the Treaty divide – Free Staters and Republicans – were sincere in their beliefs and they could not have then known that it would lead to a Civil War, one which would cause such destruction and lasting bitterness, dividing Irish politics for a century.
“The community groups have done Trojan work in exploring the lives and perspectives of these strong and influential Galway personalities. In reading their synopses, one of the interesting things for me is that I find myself agreeing with both the pro- and anti-Treaty points of views, all of which were quite reasoned.”
Having taken part in the Treaty/Conradh 100 project, Michelle Mitchell reflected on the limitations of having transcripts and not sound recordings of the Dáil Éireann Treaty debates:
“I believe the actual recordings of the meetings would have provided a much richer data field as it would have indicated the emotions and frustrations within the chamber.” She adds: “I hope that doing this exhibition will create an open discussion amongst those visiting the museum.”
The Treaty/Conradh 100 exhibition opens at Galway City Museum today Thursday 16 June. The Museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm, and admission, as always, is free.