Drama on the Irish Sea

Holyhead and the Anglo-Irish Treaty

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Travel is often eventful and never without risks. One hundred years ago the mail boat and train service between Dublin and London Euston was the critical travel infrastructure supporting the Anglo-Irish treaty negotiations. On the morning of 3rd December 1921, some of the Irish delegates involved in treaty negotiations experienced a dramatic marine accident just outside Holyhead Port, and it was extensively reported in the newspapers.

Shortly after 3am Michael Collins, Erskine Childers and Gavan Duffy left Holyhead on the maiden voyage of the Cambria Mailboat, enroute to Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire). They were returning to Dublin with draft Anglo-Irish treaty proposals to be discussed at a critical Cabinet meeting. 

In the darkness off North Stack, their vessel collided without warning with a schooner, James Tyrrell, which was cut in two, and three of her crew were drowned. Four of the crew were rescued by a boat lowered from the Cambria which remained at the location for two hours to search for the missing crew members. The passengers were mustered on deck, and when Michael Collins was handed a lifebelt, he said “I have been in tighter corners than this.” 

Afterwards the mailboat had to return to Holyhead to be examined and it was only slightly damaged.  However, the delegates and other passengers had to transfer to another ship, the Hibernia, to continue their journey to Ireland.  When eventually they docked in Dún Laoghaire, Collins told reporters asking about the sailing, “it was not so exciting at all”. Then they went directly to The Mansion House for one of the most contentious Cabinet meetings in Irish history. Amendments to the proposed treaty text were vigorously debated but division remained between the Cabinet members.

After six hours, at 7pm, the Cabinet meeting concluded to allow the delegates to return to London. They travelled in the early hours of the morning as two separate parties. With little sleep during the previous night Michael Collins, and Arthur Griffith returned via Dún Laoghaire, and the other delegates used Dublin Port. Griffith was the grandson of Rev. John Griffith, pastor of Buckley in Flintshire and he frequently spent holidays with family and friends in Wales.

One can only imagine how the effort of travelling at all hours of the day added to the stress and exhaustion of the delegates who faced many tough debates with Éamon De Valera and David Lloyd George. Next time you travel this route on the train crossing westwards over the Britannia Bridge on to Anglesey, remember these tired Irish men gathering their papers into briefcases as Holyhead approached.  No doubt they looked out the window and contemplated sea conditions.

The author, Catherine Duigan (@c_duigan), is a writer and researcher who was born in Dublin but now lives on Anglesey watching history pass by.  She is a Professor (Hon.) of Environmental Science at Aberystwyth University, and she has a keen interest in history and heritage issues.

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