Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2022), News, Volume 30

Last year the National Archives’ Commemoration Programme marked significant events of 1921, culminating in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. A major exhibition, ‘The Treaty, 1921: Records from the Archives’, was previewed in the British Academy in London on 11 October and opened in Dublin Castle on 6 December 2021.

Planning for the exhibition began in earnest in December 2020, when a small team of archivists, a conservator and a historian met over Zoom to map out what might be included in an exhibition with many ambitions. Using the Treaty as a centrepiece and placing significant historical records, official documents and private papers on display for the first time, this was an exhibition that was to be about the archival record. Contemporary reportage, images and footage provide the backdrop and locate the Treaty negotiations in the political context of the Irish revolution and a world turned upside down by the First World War. Beginning with the exploratory talks between President of Dáil Éireann Eamon de Valera and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George during the summer of 1921, it details the work of the Irish plenipotentiaries and their secretariat by presenting the documentary record that they left behind.

Above: A selection of documents on display as part of ‘The Treaty, 1921: Records from the Archives’ exhibition. (NAI)

What was Arthur Griffith’s first impression of Lloyd George on the opening day of negotiations in 10 Downing Street on 11 October 1921? What treats were ordered from Harrods by the sweet-toothed Irish Treaty delegation for their house party on 10 November? What ballet production did some Irish delegates attend on a rare break from the gruelling talks?

‘The Treaty, 1921: Records from the Archives’ explored the London world in which the Irish delegation lived for seven fateful weeks in 1921 and examined how the Treaty that they negotiated came into being. The exhibition used a variety of records to chronicle both the working and the daily life in London of the men and women who made up the Irish delegation. These men and women included political, legal, economic and military counsellors and media advisers. They were based in two townhouses in Knightsbridge: 22 Hans Place and 15 Cadogan Gardens.

Typewriters, paper and office stationery were purchased in London from various suppliers over the two months, receipts for which are included in the Dáil Éireann accounts series. Much of the secretarial work at Cadogan Gardens was carried out by Lily O’Brennan, Alice and Ellie Lyons, Kathleen McKenna and Gertie Conry, who were charged with typing up the daily minutes and notes from the conference meetings and sub-conferences. They worked late into the night preparing the documents to have them ready for the next day’s session. Duplicates were created so that all involved could have a set of drafts to review and annotate. The drafts were then typed up again, with copies of the minutes and correspondence dispatched regularly to Dublin.

Finally, the exhibition documents the delegation’s return to Dublin and the Dáil Éireann cabinet meeting on 8 December 1921 that pointed to the split in the independence movement that emerged over the terms of the Treaty and the divisions that would lead ultimately to civil war.

The exhibition was on display in Dublin until 27 March 2022. During the three months, over 17,000 people visited this hugely successful exhibition. They took a unique opportunity to see some of the most significant records in modern Irish history on public display for the first time. The regional tour of the exhibition was launched on 25 April 2022 and forms part of the National Archives’ Commemorations Programme 2021–2022. It will tour six counties, Wicklow, Tipperary, Donegal, Wexford, Limerick and Cork. These exhibitions are presented in partnership with the local authorities in those counties.

The exhibition also highlighted the role of the National Archives as Ireland’s institution of memory, which preserves the State’s records and makes them publicly available to consult for free in its Reading Room on Bishop Street. ‘The Treaty, 1921: Records from the Archives’ exhibition was presented by the National Archives in partnership with the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, the Royal Irish Academy, the National Library of Ireland, the Military Archives and University College Dublin Archives.

A comprehensive exhibition catalogue featuring over 100 document images and 30 photographs relating to the period was published in partnership with the Royal Irish Academy in March 2022. This beautifully illustrated publication is edited by John Gibney (Royal Irish Academy) and Zoë Reid (Keeper of Collection Care and Public Services, National Archives), both key contributors to the exhibition.

A high-quality online educational resource has also been designed for use by history teachers and students in secondary schools nationwide to accompany the exhibition tour.


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