02 Dec 2021

Marking a special birthday - December 6, 1921

Marking a special birthday - December 6, 1921

Michael Collins who reluctantly signed the Agreement with Lloyd George. Within a few months he was killed by a fellow Irishman at Béal na Bláth

In a recent analysis of the results of a survey, under the title “Global Trends 2021” (Fintan O’Toole - Irish Times November 13) reports that we Irish have scored very well in how we think of ourselves and of our country. We have a strong sense of national pride and there is a “sober realism” about the fact that, though we have few illusions about ourselves or our country, we, nevertheless, love Ireland and are proud to be Irish.
It seems to me that this conclusion evokes an immediate response: “Why wouldn’t we!” We live in a peaceful, beautiful country, a democracy, with a sound system of law and order and justice. We now have a good economic structure, with near full employment and a good quality of life. Yes, we have problems, such as a shortage of houses, but this is something we share with other countries, and which does have a solution. And, yes, we are invaded by the pandemic Covid at the present time, but so is every other country in the world.
The results of the Global Trends survey seem to imply that we are a modestly confident people happy in, and loving, our own place. And that, it seems to me, is no small achievement for a country now reaching its hundredth birthday in self governance, and whose birth pangs were particularly turbulent and traumatic. On December 6, 1921, five Irish delegates, led by Arthur Griffith and seven British delegates, led by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, signed documents under the title Articles of Agreement, bringing into existence the Irish Free State which is now the Irish Republic.
It was both an ending and a beginning: the ending of a period of 800 years which started in 1169, when the Normans sailed up Bannow Bay in Wexford to take over that area of the island. They were not met by the native people, the Irish, who were engaged in their own tribal feuds, but by the resident Vikings. The Normans, already well experienced in conquest, won. They then did the sensible thing - they married Irish wives, integrated, and became, as our school history books told us, “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. They were entrepreneurs. They and the native Irish ultimately “jelled” to become one people - Irish - who wanted to govern themselves - and so began, the final phase of the struggle, the campaign for Home Rule, 1916, and what we now call our “War of Independence - 1918-21”.

A Truce was called in mid 1921. It was welcomed by ordinary people, who had endured The Black and Tans, daily reports of death and destruction, curfews and restrictions on their movements. Negotiations immediately started between Britain and the elected members of what we now call the First Dáil. The Irish delegates reported the content of these meetings to the Dáil where they were debated and contested. The near final phase was reached on October 11 when the Irish delegation, of which the 29-year-old Michael Collins was a member, met what Tim Pat Coogan has described in his biography of Collins as the most formidable assembly of politicians - David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, Lord Birkenhead, Austen Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, supported by the most experienced of Civil Servants. The date of the final meeting was set for December 6, 1921.
It would appear that the Dáil was already not a unified assembly. The “split” which was a characteristic of so much of our Irish history was already in situ. The President, Eamonn De Valera, refused to go, saying his place was with the Dáil and the Irish people. Griffith, the intellectual but practical politician and Michael Collins were very reluctant delegates. Lloyd George promised a full-scale war within three days if the Agreement was not signed. This was accepted as a serious threat, especially by Collins, who realised that neither the manpower or arms were available to combat such a war, and after much delay he signed, remarking that in doing so he was probably signing his death warrant. He was; within the next few months he was killed by a fellow Irishman.
And so the Free State was born into civil war, much division and bitterness and at a time when the world was experiencing a severe economic depression. There was little money, massive unemployment and consequent emigration, a broken society and continued killing and destruction. In this climate, law and order had to be established, an army and police force formed, institutions founded, legislation enacted, an economy restored. It was a formidable task.
Now, a hundred years after that painful birth, we modern Irish citizens can declare ourselves, in a Global Survey, that we are happy to be Irish and that we love our country. That, it seems to me, has been no small achievement and should be the foundation of our gratitude to the leaders, the democratic politicians, the hard-working ordinary citizens, whose work and dedication and endurance took us from where we were a century ago to where we are today.

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