Two centenaries have preoccupied me for much of the past year, professionally as well as personally: the 100th anniversary of the formation of Northern Ireland in May 1921, and of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty seven months later in December 1921.
I have a thing about anniversaries, particularly centenaries. On one level, they're arbitrary dates, but on another they offer a useful vantage point from which to (re)interpret significant events. Ireland is currently nearing the end of what one former Taoiseach dubbed the 'Decade of Centenaries', which began with the 100th anniversary of the Ulster Covenant in 2012 and will end with the centenary (of the end) of the Irish Civil War in 2023.
Happily, two of these centenaries provided me with an excuse to spend the last few days in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which I never tire of exploring. A hundred years ago, the whole island of Ireland was still an integral part of the United Kingdom, while Northern Ireland was getting to grips with a new departure in British constitutionalism known as 'devolution'.
The Belfast-based journalist Sam McBride has been critical of what he calls the 'invisible' centenary of what many at the time regarded as an 'experiment', arguing that it has been a missed opportunity for education about the events of a century ago and 'real reconciliation'. An allusion, of course, to the contested nature of Northern Ireland's constitutional status and politics.
Interestingly, the centenary has been marked both officially – by the Northern Ireland Office – and unofficially, most notably by the Ancer Somme Association. On Saturday afternoon, I attended the unveiling of a bust organised by the latter. Its subject was Sir James Craig, later Viscount Craigavon, who served as the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland between 1921 and 1940.
Aptly, this took place in Lurgan, Craigavon, an aborted New Town named after one of the principal architects of the Northern Irish 'state'. For the event, the present Lord Craigavon (a crossbench 'elected' hereditary peer in the House of Lords) had donated his grandfather's Court Dress and official portrait to the Somme Association, which is planning a permanent display at its Brownlow House HQ.
There were lots of speeches, including from First Minister Paul Givan and the local Lord Mayor. Finally, the bust, by the Denny-based artist Helen Runciman, was unveiled by the Deputy (Lord) Lieutenant, a blessing was offered and then everyone present delivered the heartiest rendition of God Save the Queen
I think I've ever heard.
Earlier that day, and courtesy, as ever, of indulgent friends, I'd delved into a sub-bucket list of Northern Irish prime ministerial graves. No former British/UK Premier is buried in Northern Ireland, but four of its six devolved Premiers from the 1921-72 period are. Craigavon is housed in a tomb adjacent to the Northern Ireland Assembly while Viscount Brookeborough (1943-63) was cremated, as was his successor Terence O'Neill (1963-69). James Chichester-Clark (Lord Moyola, 1969-71) died in 2002 and was buried on his estate, which is not open to the likes of me.
This left John Miller Andrews (1940-43) and Brian Faulker (1971-72). Tracking down their graves involved a bit of online detective work, but we found the former in Comber, County Down, and the latter at Magherahamlet near Ballynahinch. Both had short-lived premierships. Andrews had the misfortune to follow the long-serving and dominant Craigavon, and within a few years he was ousted by fellow Ulster Unionists. A granite obelisk notes the 'long service' he gave in the Parliament of Northern Ireland, while also commemorating his two brothers, Thomas, a ship designer who went down with the Titanic
in 1912, and Sir James, who served as Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland between 1937 and 1951.
Brian Faulkner's misfortune was to become Northern Ireland's Premier at the height of the Troubles in 1971. Slightly older than Northern Ireland itself (he was born in February 1921), Faulkner presided over the prorogation of Stormont in 1972, and while he did his best to implement democratic reforms (including power-sharing), he retired after resigning as 'Chief Executive' of the first Northern Ireland Executive in 1974. As his pink granite gravestone records, he 'died in the hunting field' on 3 March 1977, just weeks after joining the House of Lords as Lord Faulkner of Downpatrick.
From Belfast, I caught the Enterprise train south, having decided to break my journey to Dublin with a trip to the Battle of the Boyne visitor centre just outside Drogheda. This is a little-known product of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement which restored devolved government in Northern Ireland after one of many hiatuses. Ian Paisley visited while First Minister, and a display notes its development by the Irish Government 'to demonstrate its respect for the different traditions on the island of Ireland'.
After catching another train to Dublin's Connolly station (named after the Edinburgh-born James), I attended a Christmas-themed show at the National Concert Hall, which in a previous guise was the venue for a series of tumultuous Dáil debates which followed the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921, the second of my two centenaries. There was, unsurprisingly, no reference to this during a light-hearted evening of song, prose and poetry.
The Treaty also had to be ratified by the 'Parliament of Southern Ireland' as created under the same Act of Parliament which had established the Parliament of Northern Ireland based in Belfast. This curious entity was summoned by Arthur Griffith, a Treaty signatory and 'President' of Ireland following the resignation of Eamon de Valera, who remained committed to a 32-county republic rather than the 26-county 'Dominion' created by the Treaty. It met at Dublin's Mansion House in January 1922 and approved the Treaty in a matter of minutes.
Griffith died of a heart attack just seven months later, not long before Michael Collins was shot by anti-Treaty forces. They're both buried at the beautiful Glasnevin Cemetery in northern Dublin, which I visited on Monday morning before doing some research at the National Archives of Ireland. Cemetery staff had placed flowers on both graves, with notes 'remembering' them '100 years after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty 6/12/1921. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h'anam
' (may his holy soul be on the right side of God). The grave of de Valera, who outlived them both by more than half a century, had flowers but no note.
At Dublin Castle later that day, I saw the carefully-preserved trappings of the British rule which lasted until its handover on 16 January 1922, including a Throne Room last used by George V in 1911. Someone at the entrance asked about the date. 'The sixth of December,' replied a member of staff, 'the day we got our…'. Her voice then trailed off, perhaps having remembered it wasn't that simple.
I saw television cameras waiting for the Taoiseach and his deputy, who were viewing an exhibition of Treaty documents in another part of the castle. Other than that, the centenary passed with little fanfare in Dublin. The following morning, I endured a stormy sea crossing to Holyhead, the same journey Griffith, Collins et al made in reverse a century ago.
David Torrance is a writer and historian