Exactly 101 years to the day since the critical vote on whether to ratify or reject the Treaty was taken in 1922 following 13 days of debate, Theo Dorgan explains how he came to write a stage production of the debates that changed the future of Ireland, which you can watch here on RTE History on January 7th

The State commemorations of 2016 were notable for the clearheaded rejection of partial and partisan versions in favour of honest and thoughtful reflection. More than this, it seemed to me, then and since, that an adult note entered into our discussions of these crucial events, careful and informed analysis replacing the whataboutery, the second-guessing of history, that had clouded, confused and distorted public discussion of the Rising and the War of Independence in the 100 years since.

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I fell to considering how best we might approach the commemoration of the Civil War, the cancerous questions around Partition, and so much more. It occurred to me that it might be helpful to stage a fair and accurate rendition of the Treaty Debates, as a spur to thought and as, perhaps, a contribution to clearing the air. The transcript of the Debates comes to some 440,000 words, which was obviously unworkable in terms of staging. I cut, and cut again, and again, until I ended with a script of about 90,000 words. What to do with this, though?

Actors rehearsing
Actors rehearsing Staging the Treaty. L-R: Darragh Feehely; Robbie O'Connor; Michael Glenn Murphy and John Cronin. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

I was fortunate that Catriona Crowe arranged a meeting with Louise Lowe and ANU productions, and equally fortunate that ANU embraced the project with typical verve, imagination and energy. I had long been an admirer of their ventureseome and inspired immersive theatre, and was frankly honoured to be asked to work with them; it has been a pure joy and a revelation to find myself enrolled in a common work with Louise Lowe, Lynnette Moran, Owen Boss and Matthew Smyth, to witness their individual and collective visions and the skills of so many gifted actors and crew brought to bear on what has become a great adventure.

Darragh Feehely in the role as Michael Collins. Photo by Ros Kavanagh

They found, as I had found, the immense drama inherent in the Debates — great themes and issues of public importance, sharp and often bitter clashes of personality, nobility, idealism and sharp practice, all woven into a passionate drama in the very words of the participants themselves.

In their own words

had resolved that the script would be composed only and exclusively of the actual words uttered by the Deputies who took part, and I sweated blood to ensure that every possible aspect of the Debates would be represented fairly and accurately, with due and appropriate balanced representation of not just the great and familiar figures but, as far as possible, of figures known only to their descendants and to dedicated historians.

Constance Markievicz and Dr Lynn outside the UCD building during the debates
Countess Markievicz and Kathleen Lynn in 1921 during the Treaty Debates. Photo: Getty Images

These men and women had a passionate commitment to Irish independence as deep and sincere as that which animated the more famous figures. Then, I was sometimes taken aback to see familiar figures in a new light, to see, for instance, that deeply conservative man W.T. Cosgrave speak passionately about the radical Democratic Programme of the First Dáil, to hear the Countess Markiewicz express her fear that the Viceregal court would corrupt the impressionable young women of Dublin, might even lead to social evils such as divorce, to read of De Valera serially committing himself to the democratic decision of the Dáil, only to call in the immediate aftermath of the vote for a meeting of all those who could not accept the decision.

Una Kavanagh in shawl as Countess Markievicz
Úna Kavanagh in the role of Constance Markievicz. Photograph by Ros Kavanagh

An enthralling encounter with history

We had intended to mount these productions in December 2021, on the 100th anniversary of the debates, but our plans were countermanded by the pandemic. There is a grim appropriateness in mounting these productions now, on the 100th anniversary of the week in which the Civil War descended into savagery and barbarism. What had been a war of identifiable armed forces became a wild and undisciplined campaign of murder directed against civilians, extra-judicial killings on the part of the State, score-settling and plain atrocity on both sides. Here was the blood-consequence of debate in the Dáil, when pitiless argument turned to pitiless slaughter, a pitiful, pivotal, moment in our history.

Michael Collins leaving UCD during the debates
Michael Collins leaves the building during the debates. Photo: Getty Images

What ANU will bring to Earlsfort Terrace, on 14 December, 15th, 17th and 18th December 2022 is a vivid and enthralling encounter with history. Irish people and people all over the world can be taken back in time, can be present at one of the most significant moments in Irish history; we can hear for ourselves the arguments that would set brother against sister, sister against brother in the horror of the Civil War that would follow so soon after.

You can read the programme and see the full credits to find out more about the team behind Staging the Treaty here.


Directed by Louise Lowe

Script by Theo Dorgan

Broadcast production company: Tiny Ark

Executive Producers: Lynnette Moran and Matt Smyth

With an ensemble of 45 cast including some of Ireland's leading actors. Including commentary and reflections from Theo Dorgan and Catriona Crowe in-conversation.

'Staging The Treaty' as part of the Decade of Centenaries Programme 2012-2023 and supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. Broadcast in partnership with RTE.ie/history

ANU Productions, this December, have brought to life one of the most significant events in Irish history - the Dáil Debates of 1921/22 at the original location where they took place in Earlsfort Terrace. Poet and writer Theo Dorgan has spent over 3 years working with the original contributions of the members of Dáil Éireann to the debates on the Anglo-Irish Treaty documents, fearlessly replaying the debates using only the words of those who participated, to fully explore both the historical and contemporary relevance of the debates.

Built directly from verbatim text and performed by some of Ireland's leading actors - an ensemble of 45 - the live performance took place in four distinct parts over 4 days 14th, 15th, 17th & 18th December 2022 with live (in person) audiences at Earlsfort Terrace, in association with the National Concert Hall.

Created by Louise Lowe and ANU Productions, STAGING THE TREATY gives audiences the chance to step back in time, to experience for themselves the significance and nuance of the Treaty debates. The Civil War began after the treaty debates ended. It is now 100 years since the watershed moment in the Civil War, when in December 1922, the conflict moved from two sides in direct confrontation to a horrific campaign of reciprocal atrocities in the wider society. But did this have to be the way it happened?

Decide for yourself by going back to the root of it - the Treaty Debates.

Digital audiences are invited to experience a filmic edit of the ballot days, broadcast on RTE.ie/culture and RTÉ History on 7th January 2023. This broadcast will include an in-conversation between Theo Dorgan and Catriona Crowe to explore the themes and topics of the debate.

This production is supported by the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, as part of the Decade of Centenaries Programme 2012-2023.

You can read the programme and see the full credits to find out more about the team behind Staging the Treaty here.