In 1921, the Irish rebel leader Michael Collins was ordered to travel to London – with Arthur Griffith and the Irish delegation – to negotiate the Anglo-Irish Treaty which followed the Truce and the War of Independence. Collins loathed the assignment and protested vehemently: but the Irish political leader Eamon de Valera insisted that he must go.
In London, Collins was regarded, at this time, in Winston Churchill’s own words, as “a legend among the gunmen and revolutionaries who held Ireland in thrall… [whose] prestige and influence amongst all extremists was high.” Churchill was Colonial Secretary in charge of Ireland, and the two men were prepared to detest one another across the green baize table. Churchill was deeply opposed to Irish “rebellion”: Collins certainly did not trust Winston, who had been part of a British government which had sent the notorious “Black and Tans” to Ireland.
Yet, at a point when the Treaty talks seemed to be in stasis, Churchill and Collins spent the whole night drinking together, talking, arguing, even singing and reciting poetry to one another. They emerged from this session, according to Lord Birkenhead “fascinated” by each another: and according to another witness, as “bosom friends”. Bosom friendship is an exaggeration, but some chord was touched, emotionally, between the two men. Men who do not agree with one another can nonetheless harbour a quixotic liking or admiration: Churchill always admired a warrior, and Collins knew that, somehow, he had to learn the art of politics rather than fighting.
Moreover, after this, Churchill softened towards Ireland, and gave Collins and the nascent Irish Free State every support he could. For his part, Michael Collins, just before his untimely death, sent a valedictory message: “Tell Winston we could never have done it [establish the Free State] without him.”
The play is an imaginative reconstruction of how the encounter between the two might have progressed, drawing on historical sources. It is about Anglo-Relations relations at a crucial point in our history; it is about two very charismatic historical characters, republican and imperialist: and it is about something which must continue to be done in our world – when political negotiation has to arise out of conflict.