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Truce to Treaty Part 2: The Long Fellow takes on the Welsh Wizard

Colum Kenny


Exactly 100 years ago, just days after the War of Independence was paused, Éamon de Valera travelled to London  for talks with British prime minister David Lloyd George

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July 1921: De Valera and Griffith at the Grosvenor Hotel, with members of the Irish back-up team in London. Copyright: National Library of Ireland.

July 1921: De Valera and Griffith at the Grosvenor Hotel, with members of the Irish back-up team in London. Copyright: National Library of Ireland.

Michael Collins with a local woman in Co Cork. Crown forces torched his childhood home near Clonakilty in April 1921. Copyright: National Library of Ireland.

Michael Collins with a local woman in Co Cork. Crown forces torched his childhood home near Clonakilty in April 1921. Copyright: National Library of Ireland.

'The Illustrated London News': Given no photos of de Valera meeting Lloyd George existed, artists got to work

'The Illustrated London News': Given no photos of de Valera meeting Lloyd George existed, artists got to work

How the Sunday Independent reported events on July 17, 1921

How the Sunday Independent reported events on July 17, 1921

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July 1921: De Valera and Griffith at the Grosvenor Hotel, with members of the Irish back-up team in London. Copyright: National Library of Ireland.

On July 11, 1921, a century ago today, a truce came into effect. The brutal Irish War of Independence was paused.

Some people wanted to keep fighting. They thought they could defeat an armed unionist majority in Ulster, and even beat a British Army revived after World War I. Michael Collins disagreed. He and other Volunteer leaders knew just how stretched their military resources were. In Britain too the truce had opponents. The “Die-Hards” hated compromising with Irish “murderers”.

Within days of the truce, Éamon de Valera went to London to meet British prime minister David Lloyd George for talks about talks.

Aviation was underdeveloped, and politicians rarely, if ever, flew. For Dev and his team it was a long journey of 11 hours, by boat to Holyhead and then by train to London.

He took with him some ministers, but not Michael Collins. Collins was irked at being left behind.

A newspaper photo of the time shows “the Irish envoys and some of their friends” at the Grosvenor Hotel, where most of them lodged in London. Dev stayed in a private house with his close friends Dr Robert and Lora Farnan, who are also in the shot. In a second take, published here today, the same group seems strained.

Dev met Lloyd George privately, four times, in Downing Street. His team at the Grosvenor was reduced to the role of extras. He excluded even his deputy Arthur Griffith. Later, the anti-Treaty side was to criticise Griffith and Collins for not including all five Irish delegates in every round of substantive peace talks in London from October to December 1921.

No transcript was kept of the four private conversations. And no photo seems to have been taken. The Illustrated London News made do with a sketch of the two men for its cover.

Alone, Dev met Lloyd George for the first time on July 14, 1921. Lloyd George’s cabinet secretary Thomas Jones wrote that Dev was guarded and formal.

When Dev handed the prime minister a document headed “Saorstát Éireann”, Lloyd George asked him to explain it. Lloyd George already knew that it meant literally “Irish Free State” and not “Irish Republic”. He used this fact to score a point, saying: “Must we admit that the Celts never were republicans and have no native word for such an idea?”

This and other jockeying by Lloyd George irritated Dev.

Lloyd George and his cabinet secretary also spoke Welsh to each other in front of the Irish. Winston Churchill thought this showed Lloyd George’s tactical skills in putting the Irish at a disadvantage. The prime minister was known as “the Welsh Wizard”. But in 1935 Frank Pakenham, sympathetic to Dev, thought the two men had tried to establish a Celtic affinity with the Irish. Various sides interpreted very differently the events of that year.

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Jones told the top Conservative politician Bonar Law that Lloyd George found Dev to be “not a big man but he is a sincere man, a white man, and ‘an agreeable personality’”. Jones said that “luckily” it was Dev’s idea to exclude other ministers from the meetings. Lloyd George originally intended to have Arthur Balfour, Austin Chamberlain and the Chief Secretary for Ireland Hamar Greenwood present.

Meeting Lloyd George, de Valera learnt of the challenges that faced any future team of negotiators. The two made little progress in July. Yet the terms of peace that Lloyd George offered then were not very far off what would be agreed ultimately in December.

Jones thought Dev was “not unfavourable to the proposals in substance”, including dominion status for Ireland instead of that of a republic. Jones believed that the absent “Michael Collins is all right but some of the gunmen will be irreconcilable”. 

Michael Collins was nicknamed ‘The Big Fellow”. It was said that when the boat carrying Dev back to Ireland after 18 months in America docked in Dublin at Christmas 1920, a man sent to meet Dev told him: “The Big Fellow is leading us and everything is going marvellous.” Dev was allegedly annoyed and smacked a rail, exclaiming, “Big Fellow! We’ll see who is the Big Fellow.”

It’s a good yarn but, like many others from that period, it cannot be verified. The biographer who told it was Tim Pat Coogan, who said he heard it from a man who heard it from Collins who heard it from Collins’s father who heard it from a man who may have been present at the time!

What is a fact is that soon after his return Dev suggested that Collins should go and work for the cause in America. Collins is said to have retorted: “The long hoor [whore] won’t get rid of me that easily.” De Valera, a lean and tall Don Quixote to Griffith’s squat Sancho Panza,  was known as “The Long Fellow”.

From Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins to a recent two-part, prime-time BBC documentary The Road to Partition, Irish politics of the period are often seen as The Long Fellow versus The Big Fellow. But it was not that simple. For one thing Griffith, not Collins, was president of Dáil Éireann in 1919 and 1920 when Dev was in America. Griffith also determined the outcome of the Treaty talks in late 1921.

Men with big egos make for heroic history. But Britain and Ireland were democratic, and no single politician could ultimately prevail against the down-to-earth wishes of the electorates on both sides of the Irish Sea.

What most people wanted  nationalist, unionist, Tory or Liberal mattered, and could not be denied them ultimately by extreme nationalists or extreme imperialists. Both Griffith and Lloyd George recognised this, but were to be accused of weakness and deception for trying to find a middle way that worked.

Some suspected Dev wanted to do down Collins by moving him to America, and by excluding him from the London visit. Yet, in his recent biography of Dev, RTÉ’s David McCullagh gives reasons why sending Collins to the US might have been a good idea. It was always hard to figure out de Valera.

Lloyd George remarked that “negotiating with de Valera… is like picking up mercury with a fork”. When de Valera heard this, it is said, he asked sarcastically, “Why doesn’t he use a spoon?”

Lloyd George also said that discussing things with de Valera was like “sitting on a merry-go-round horse and following another man seated upon the horse in front of you, that you both went round and round but never got any nearer to one another”. 

Elsewhere in London in the week that he met de Valera, Lloyd George described him as “the chieftain of the vast majority of the Irish race”. It was part compliment and part colonial condescension.

By the end of that week, de Valera knew that the British had no intention of recognising any part of Ireland as a republic. But a free state with a status like that of Australia or Canada was on the cards.

He must have realised too that the British would not use their army to force the majority in Northern Ireland into an Irish state. Republicans had failed to achieve a 32-country Irish republic by force, and could not possibly achieve one by talk. Compromise is always implicit in any peace process.

Perhaps these two cold facts ultimately determined his decision not to lead the team that was to return in October to negotiate a treaty with the British. Griffith and Collins and others could take the blame for any “failure” to achieve the impossible.

Some Irish leaders were already suggesting in July that dominion status could be a stepping-stone towards greater things. On July 24, 1921, in his scribbled notes of a meeting of his cabinet in Dublin, de Valera listed one of the final points made by Michael Collins as follows: “Mick: Step on road…Free Dominion a step.”

De Valera returned to Dublin that July to a warm welcome, but without a clear path forward. More than two months of wrangling were to follow before talks began.

Meanwhile, deadly tensions were rising in Ulster.

Professor Colum Kenny, of DCU, is the author of ‘The Enigma of Arthur Griffith: Father of Us All’ (Merrion Press)


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