The Treaty, by Gretchen Friemann

Camilla Bolton

An in-depth look at a tumultuous few weeks in British-Irish relations in 1921.
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Just over a century from the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, Gretchen Friemann has provided an explosive account of the detailed events leading up to and during the renowned agreement. The Treaty is a much-needed analysis of the complexity of the Irish and British negotiations in 1921. The heightened level of animosity between Britain and Ireland is brilliantly conveyed and Friemann successfully and succinctly describes the complex talks.

Friemann also touches on the idea of the Michael Collins ‘legend’, which the British press thoroughly enjoyed. Collins was an elusive character as well as playing the likeable antihero. Personality clashes are highlighted with Erskine Childers, the secretary to the Irish delegation and director of IRA propaganda, consistently documenting every delegation meeting, much to the annoyance of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith. Elsewhere, Éamon de Valera, Michael Collins, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill are vividly brought to life.

The relationship between Griffith and Lloyd George is outlined, as well as how it fluctuated day to day. The ‘Welsh Wizard’, an imperialist to his core, never fully understood or appreciated the fight for Irish independence. For example, Friemann notes that to many within Whitehall, ‘the Sinn Féin led uprising seemed indistinguishable from the class warfare unleashed by the Bolshevik revolution’. This is important as it demonstrates that the ‘Irish problem’ was just that for the British government; a problem, and one it was reluctant to address head-on.

Friemann argues that there was no inevitability about the Treaty’s outcome. Instead, perceptions and behaviour of decision-makers were driven by a constant sense of imminent crisis. She also emphasises the egos and personalities of conservative backbenchers, a crucial complicating factor. With the Anglo-Irish Treaty then sparking the Irish Civil War (1922-23), this was only the start of an incredibly turbulent century for Ireland.

The Treaty is an in-depth look at a tumultuous few weeks in British-Irish relations in 1921. By creating a micro-historic lens and looking at the daily movements, we see the personality clashes and enmity that arose between the two nations. This is paramount to understand the historical background to the hostility that can still be seen today.

Camilla Bolton is an Assistant Editor at Aspects of History.