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Irish Free State

Irish Free State
Saorstát Éireann
Dominion of the British Commonwealth

Flag Great Seal
"Amhrán na bhFiann"[1]
"The Soldiers' Song"
Irish Free State until 8 December 1922 (green)
Irish Free state after 8 December 1922 (dark green)
Capital Dublin
Languages Irish, English
Government Parliamentary constitutional monarchy
 -  1922–1936 George V
 -  1936 Edward VIII
 -  1936–1937 Arguably George VI
(more information)
 -  1922–1927 Timothy Michael Healy
 -  1928–1932 James McNeill
 -  1932–1936 Domhnall Ua Buachalla
President of the Executive Council
 -  1922–1932 W. T. Cosgrave
 -  1932–1937 Éamon de Valera
Legislature Oireachtas
 -  Upper house Seanad
 -  Lower house Dáil
 -  Anglo-Irish Treaty 6 December 1921
 -  Constitution of the Irish Free State 6 December 1922
 -  Northern Ireland opt-out 8 December 1922
 -  Constitution of Ireland 29 December 1937
 -  Until 8 December 1922 84,000 km² (32,433 sq mi)
 -  After 8 December 1922 70,000 km² (27,027 sq mi)
Currency Pound sterling (1922–27)
Saorstát pound (1928–37)
Today part of  Ireland
 United Kingdom

The Irish Free State (Irish: Saorstát Éireann ; 6 December 1922 – 29 December 1937) was the state established in 1922 as a Dominion of the British Commonwealth of Nations under the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed by British and Irish representatives exactly twelve months beforehand.[2][3] On the day the Irish Free State was established, it comprised the entire island of Ireland; but, as expected, Northern Ireland immediately exercised its right under the treaty to remove itself from the new state. The Irish Free State effectively replaced both the self-proclaimed Irish Republic (founded 21 January 1919) and the Provisional Government of Southern Ireland. W. T. Cosgrave, the first President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, had led both of these governments since August 1922.

The Free State came to an end in 1937, when the citizens voted by referendum to replace the 1922 constitution. It was succeeded by the sovereign and current state of Ireland.


  • Historical background 1
    • A war for a new independent Ireland 1.1
  • Northern Ireland "opts out" 2
  • Governmental and constitutional structures 3
    • The Representative of the Crown 3.1
    • Oath of Allegiance 3.2
  • The Irish Civil War 4
  • The "freedom to achieve freedom" 5
    • Governance 5.1
    • Constitutional evolution 5.2
    • Currency 5.3
    • Demographics 5.4
  • After the Irish Free State 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9

Historical background

The Easter Rising of 1916, and in particular the decision of the General Maxwell to execute many of its leaders after courts-martial, generated sympathy for the republican cause in Ireland. Meanwhile opposition increased to Ireland's participation in World War I in Europe and the Middle East. This came about when the Irish Parliamentary Party supported the Allied cause in World War I in response to the passing of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1914. Many people had begun to doubt whether the Bill, passed by Westminster in September 1914 but suspended for the duration of the war, would ever come into effect. Due to the war situation deteriorating badly on the Western Front in April 1918, which coincided with the publication of the final report and recommendations of the Irish Convention, the British Cabinet drafted a doomed "dual policy" of introducing Home Rule linked to compulsory military service for Ireland which it eventually had to drop. Sinn Féin, the Irish Party and all other Nationalist elements joined forces in opposition to the idea during the Conscription Crisis of 1918. At the same time the Irish Parliamentary lost in support on account of the crisis. Irish republicans felt further emboldened by successful anti-monarchical revolutions in the Russian Empire (1917), the German Empire (1918), and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1918). In the December 1918 General Election, Sinn Féin won a large majority of the Irish seats in the Westminster parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland: 73 of the 105 constituencies returned Sinn Féin members (25 uncontested). The Sinn Féin party, founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905, had previously espoused non-violent separatism. Under Éamon de Valera's leadership from 1917, it campaigned aggressively and militantly for an Irish republic.

On 21 January 1919, Sinn Féin MPs (who became known as Teachta Dála, TDs), refusing to sit at Westminster, assembled in Dublin and formed a single-chamber Irish parliament called Dáil Éireann (Assembly of Ireland). It affirmed the formation of an Irish Republic and passed a Declaration of Independence,

the irish people is promote the common weal, to re-establish justice ...with equal rights and equal opportunity for every citizen.
and calling itself Saorstát Éireann in Irish. Although the less than overwhelming majority[4] of Irish people accepted this course,[5] America[6] and Soviet Russia[7] were targeted to recognise the Irish Republic internationally.[8]The Message to the Free Nations of the World called on
every free nation to support the Irish Republic by recognizing Ireland's national status...the last outpost of Europe towards the West...demanded by the Freedom of the Seas.

[9] Cathal Brugha elected President of the Ministry Pro-Tem warned, "Deputies you understand from this that we are now done with England."[10]

A war for a new independent Ireland

The Hans Place, Knightsbridge. On 5 December 1921 at 11:15 am the delegation decided during private discussions at 22 Hans Place to recommend the negotiated agreement to the Dáil Éireann; negotiations continued until 2:30 am on 6 December 1921, after which the parties signed Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Nobody had doubted that these negotiations would produce a form of Irish government short of the independence wished for by republicans. The United Kingdom could not offer a republican form of government without losing prestige and risking demands for something similar throughout the Empire. Furthermore, as one of the negotiators, Michael Collins, later admitted (and he would have known, given his leading role in the independence war), the IRA at the time of the truce was weeks, if not days, from collapse, with a chronic shortage of ammunition. "Frankly, we thought they were mad", Collins said of the sudden British offer of a truce - although the republicans would probably have continued the struggle in one form or another, given the level of public support.[11] The President of the Republic, Éamon de Valera, realising that Westminster would not accept an Irish republic, decided not to become a member of the treaty delegation (Griffith, Collins, Duggan, Barton, and Gavan Duffy) and so not to become accused by more militant republicans as a "sellout". Yet his own proposals - published in January 1922 - fell far short of an autonomous all-Ireland republic.Sinn Fein's abstention was unambiguous.

As expected, the Anglo-Irish Treaty explicitly ruled out a republic. It offered Ireland dominion status, as a state within the then British Empire, equal to Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Though less than expected by the Sinn Féin leadership, this deal offered substantially more than the initial form of home rule within the United Kingdom sought by Charles Stewart Parnell from 1880, and represented a serious advance on the Home Rule Bill of 1914 that the Irish nationalist leader John Redmond had achieved through parliamentary proceedings. However, it all but confirmed the partition of Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. The Second Dáil in Dublin ratified the Treaty (7 January 1922), splitting Sinn Féin in the process.

Northern Ireland "opts out"

For about two days from 6 December 1922 Northern Ireland became part of the newly created Irish Free State.[12] This constitutional episode arose because of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the legislation introduced to give that Treaty legal effect.[13]

The Treaty was given legal effect in the United Kingdom through the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922. That Act established, on 6 December 1922, the new Dominion for the whole island of Ireland. Legally therefore, on 6 December 1922, Northern Ireland became an autonomous region of the newly created Irish Free State. However, the Treaty and the laws which implemented it also allowed Northern Ireland to "opt out" of the Irish Free State.[13] Under Article 12 of the Treaty, Northern Ireland could exercise its opt out by presenting an address to the King requesting not to be part of the Irish Free State. Once the Treaty was ratified, the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland had one month (dubbed the "Ulster month") to exercise this opt out during which month the Irish Free State Government could not legislate for Northern Ireland, holding the Free State's effective jurisdiction in abeyance for a month.

Realistically it was always certain that Northern Ireland would opt out of the Free State. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, speaking in the Parliament in October 1922 said that "when 6 December is passed the month begins in which we will have to make the choice either to vote out or remain within the Free State". He said it was important that that choice be made as soon as possible after 6 December 1922 "in order that it may not go forth to the world that we had the slightest hesitation".[14] On 7 December 1922 (the day after the establishment of the Irish Free State) the Parliament demonstrated its lack of hesitation by resolving to make the following address to the King so as to opt out of the Irish Free State:[15]

MOST GRACIOUS SOVEREIGN, We, your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Senators and Commons of Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, having learnt of the passing of the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922, being the Act of Parliament for the ratification of the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, do, by this humble Address, pray your Majesty that the powers of the Parliament and Government of the Irish Free State shall no longer extend to Northern Ireland.

Discussion in the Parliament of the address was short. Prime Minister Craig left for London with the memorial embodying the address on the night boat that evening, 7 December 1922. The King received it the following day, The Times reporting:[16]

YORK COTTAGE, SANDRINGHAM, DEC. 8. The The King this evening and presented an Address from the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland, to which His Majesty was graciously pleased to make reply.

With this, Northern Ireland had left the Irish Free State. If the Houses of Parliament of Northern Ireland had not made such a declaration, under Article 14 of the Treaty Northern Ireland, its Parliament and government would have continued in being but the Oireachtas would have had jurisdiction to legislate for Northern Ireland in matters not delegated to Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act. This, of course, never came to pass.

On 13 December 1922 Prime Minister Craig addressed the Parliament informing them that the King had responded to the Parliament's address as follows:[17]

I have received the Address presented to me by both Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in pursuance of Article 12 of the Articles of Agreement set forth in the Schedule to the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act, 1922, and of Section 5 of the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922, and I have caused my Ministers and the Irish Free State Government to be so informed.

Governmental and constitutional structures

A symbol most often associated with the new state's postal system.

The Treaty established that the new Irish Free State would be a constitutional monarchy, with a Governor-General. The Constitution of the Irish Free State made more detailed provision for the state's system of government, with a three-tier parliament, called the Oireachtas, made up of the King and two houses, Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann (the Irish Senate). Executive authority was vested in the King, and exercised by a cabinet called the Executive Council, presided over by a prime minister called the President of the Executive Council.

The Representative of the Crown

The King in Ireland was represented by a Governor-General of the Irish Free State. The office replaced the previous Lord Lieutenant, who had headed English and British administrations in Ireland since the Middle Ages. Governors-General were appointed by the King initially on the advice of the British Government, but with the consent of the Irish Government. From 1927 the Irish Government alone had the power to advise the King whom to appoint.

Oath of Allegiance

As with all dominions, provision was made for an Oath of Allegiance. Within dominions, such oaths were taken by parliamentarians personally towards the monarch. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), of which he was the secret head. In its structure, it was also partially based on the form and structure used for 'Dominion status'.

Although 'a new departure', and notably indirect in its reference to the monarchy, it was criticised by nationalists and republicans for making any reference to the Crown, the claim being that it was a direct oath to the Crown, a fact demonstrably incorrect by an examination of its wording. But in 1922 Ireland and beyond, it was the perception, not the reality, that influenced public debate on the issue. Had its original author, Michael Collins, survived, he might have been able to clarify its actual meaning, but with his assassination in August 1922, no major negotiator to the Oath's creation on the Irish side was still alive, available or pro-Treaty. (The leader of the Irish delegation, Arthur Griffith, had also died in August 1922). The Oath became a key issue in the resulting Irish Civil War that divided the pro- and anti-treaty sides in 1922–23.

The Irish Civil War

The compromises contained in the agreement caused the House of Commons of Southern Ireland (a body set up under the Government of Ireland Act 1920) to become Chairman of the Provisional Government of Southern Ireland in accordance with the Treaty. The general election in June gave overwhelming support for the pro-Treaty parties. W. T. Cosgrave's Crown-appointed Provisional Government of Southern Ireland effectively subsumed Griffith's republican administration with the death of both Collins and Griffith in August 1922.

The "freedom to achieve freedom"

Irish Free State passport (holder's name removed)


The following were the principal parties of government of the Irish Free State between 1922 and 1937:

Constitutional evolution

Overprinted stamp

Michael Collins described the Treaty as 'the freedom to achieve freedom'. In practice, the Treaty offered most of the symbols and powers of independence. These included a functioning, if disputed, parliamentary democracy with its own executive, judiciary and written constitution which could be changed by the Oireachtas. However, a number of conditions existed:

  • The King remained king in Ireland;
  • Prior to the passage of the Statute of Westminster, the UK government continued to have a significant role in Irish governance. Officially the representative of the King, the Governor-General also received instructions from the British Government on his use of the Royal Assent, namely a Bill passed by the Dáil and Seanad could be Granted Assent (signed into law), Withheld (not signed, pending later approval) or Denied (vetoed). Letters patent to the first Governor-General Tim Healy had named explicitly Bills that if passed were to be blocked, such as any attempt to abolish the Oath. In the event, no such Bills were ever introduced, so the issue was moot.
  • As a dominion, the Irish Free State had limited independence. Entitlement of citizenship of the Irish Free State was defined in the Irish Free State Constitution, but the status of that citizenship was contentious. One of the first projects of the Irish Free State was the design and production of the Great Seal of Sáorstát Éireann which was carried out on behalf of the Government by Hugh Kennedy.
Poster promoting Irish Free State farm goods for breakfast to Canadians ("Irish Free State Butter, Eggs and Bacon for our Breakfasts").
  • The meaning of 'Dominion status' changed radically during the 1920s, starting with the Chanak crisis in 1922 and quickly followed by the directly negotiated Halibut Treaty of 1923. A reform of the King's title following an Imperial Conference decision and given effect by the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927, changed the King's royal title so that it took account of the fact that there was no longer a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The King adopted the following style by which he would be known in all of his Empire: By the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India. That was the King's title in Ireland just as elsewhere in his Empire.[18]
  • In the conduct of external relations, the Irish Free State tried to push the boundaries of its status as a Dominion. It 'accepted' credentials from international ambassadors to Ireland, something no other dominion up to then had done. It registered the treaty with the League of Nations as an international document, over the objections of the United Kingdom, which saw it as a mere internal document between a dominion and the United Kingdom.

The Statute of Westminster (of 1931), embodying a decision of an Imperial Conference, enabled each dominion to enact new legislation or to change any extant legislation, without resorting to any role for the British parliament that may have enacted the original legislation in the past.

The Free State symbolically marked these changes in two mould-breaking moves:

  • It sought, and got, the King's acceptance to have an Irish minister, to the complete exclusion of British ministers, formally advising the King in the exercise of his powers and functions as King in the Irish Free State. Two examples of this are the signing of a treaty between the Irish Free State and the Portuguese Republic in 1931, and the act recognising the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936 separately from the recognition by the British Parliament.
  • The unprecedented replacement of the use of the Collins Barracks in Dublin.)

When Éamon de Valera became President of the Executive Council (prime minister) in 1932 he described Cosgrave's ministers' achievements simply. Having read the files, he told his son, Vivion, "they were magnificent, son".

The Statute of Westminster allowed de Valera, on becoming President of the Executive Council (February 1932), to go even further. With no ensuing restrictions on his policies, he abolished the Oath of Allegiance (which Cosgrave intended to do had he won the 1932 general election), the Senate, university representation in the Dáil, and appeals to the Privy Council. One major policy error occurred in 1936 when he attempted to use the abdication of King Edward VIII to abolish the crown and governor-general in the Free State with the "Constitution (Amendment No. 27 Act)". He was advised by senior law officers and other constitutional experts that, as the crown and governor-generalship existed separately from the constitution in a vast number of acts, charters, orders-in-council, and letters patent, they both still existed. A second bill, the "Executive Powers (Consequential Provisions) Act, 1937" was quickly introduced to repeal the necessary elements. De Valera retroactively dated the second act back to December 1936.


alt Picture of first pound note of the Irish Free State from 1928

The new state continued to use sterling from its inception; there is no reference in the Treaty or in either of the enabling Acts to currency.[19] Nonetheless and within a few years, the Dáil passed the Coinage Act, 1926 (which provided for a Saorstát [Free State] coinage) and the Currency Act, 1927 (which provided inter alia for banknotes of the Free State pound). The new Saorstát pound was defined by the 1927 Act to have exactly the same weight and fineness of gold as was the sovereign at the time, making the new currency pegged at 1:1 with sterling. The State circulated its new national coinage in 1928, marked Saorstát Éireann and a national series of banknotes. British coinage remained acceptable in the Free State at an equal rate. In 1937, when the Free State was supplanted by Ireland (Éire), the coins became marked Éire.


According to one report, in 1924, shortly after the Irish Free State's establishment, the new dominion had the "lowest birth-rate in the world". The report noted that amongst countries for which statistics were available (Ceylon, Chile, Japan, Spain, South Africa, Netherlands, Canada, Germany, Australia, United States, Britain, New Zealand, Finland and the Irish Free State). Ceylon had the highest birth rate at 40.8 per 1,000 while the Irish Free State had a birth rate of just 18.6 per 1,000.[20]

After the Irish Free State

In 1937 the Fianna Fáil government presented a draft of an entirely new Constitution to Dáil Éireann. An amended version of the draft document was subsequently approved by the Dáil. A referendum was then held on the same day as the 1937 general election, when a relatively narrow majority approved it. The new Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann) repealed the 1922 Constitution, and came into effect on 29 December 1937.

The state was named Ireland (Éire in the Irish language), and a new office of President of Ireland was instituted in place of the Governor-General of the Irish Free State. The new constitution claimed jurisdiction over all of Ireland while recognising at legislation would not apply in Northern Ireland (see Articles 2 and 3). Articles 2 and 3 were reworded in 1998 to remove jurisdictional claim over the entire island and to recognise that "a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island".

With respect to religion, a section of Article 44 included the following:

The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens. The State also recognises the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland, as well as the Jewish Congregations and the other religious denominations existing in Ireland at the date of the coming into operation of this Constitution.
Following a referendum, this section was deleted in 1973.

It was left to the initiative of de Valera's successors in government to achieve the country's formal transformation into a republic. A small but significant minority of Irish people, usually attached to parties like Sinn Féin and the smaller Republican Sinn Féin, denied the right of the twenty-six county state to use the name Ireland and continued to refer to the state as the Free State. With Sinn Féin's entry into Dáil Éireann and the Northern Ireland Executive at the close of the 20th century, the number of those who refuse to accept the legitimacy of the state, which was already in a minority, declined further. After the setting up of the Free State in 1923, most Protestants left southern Ireland and unionism there came to an end; this contrasted markedly to De Valera's opinion that Ireland could not stand divided. The Boundary Commission of 1924 confirmed that the two nations would live apart.[21]

See also


  1. ^ Officially adopted in July 1926. O'Day, Alan (1987). Alan O'Day, ed. Reactions to Irish nationalism. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 17.  
  2. ^ Anglo Irish Treaty (New York Times). The Irish signatories of the treaty were described in the treaty as the "Irish signatories" and the "Irish Delegation". There was no reference to the Government of the Irish Republic, so it would be inaccurate to describe the treaty as being between two Governments.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Lee,J.J, "Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society" (Cambridge 1989), p.41.
  5. ^ Arthur Mitchell, "Revolutionary Government in Ireland: Dail Eireann 1919-22" (Dublin 1995), p.17.
  6. ^ Townshend, p.70.
  7. ^ Townshend, p.54
  8. ^ Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, "Impressions of Sinn Fein in America" (Dublin 1919), cited by C Townshend, "The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence" (Penguin 2014), 66-8.
  9. ^ Macardle, Dorothy, "Irish Republic 1911-1923" (London 1937) Appendix 1, no.10.
  10. ^ Brollay, Sylvain, "Ireland in Rebellion" (Dublin 1922) translated from articles written in 1920-1 entitled "L'Irlande Insurgee" Paris, 1921.
  11. ^ Frank Thornton told a meeting, related in Sean O' Sullivan's Memoir, "Make no mistake the IRA was going to fight and gping to make the Irish Repblic a living fact." cited by Townshend, p.89., Military Archives, Ireland, CD 308/1/5
  12. ^ Times, 6 December 1921, Ulster in the Free State, Voting-Out Today, Memorial to the King
  13. ^ a b For further discussion, see: Dáil Éireann – Volume 7 – 20 June 1924 The Boundary Question – Debate Resumed.
  14. ^ Northern Ireland Parliamentary Debates, 27 October 1922
  15. ^ Northern Ireland Parliamentary Report, 7 December 1922
  16. ^ Times, 9 December 1922
  17. ^ Northern Ireland Parliamentary Report, 13 December 1922, Volume 2 (1922) / pages 1191–1192, 13 December 1922
  18. ^ Long after the Irish Free State had ceased to exist, when Elizabeth II ascended the Throne, the Royal Titles Act 1953[1] was passed, as were other Acts concerning her Style in other parts of the Empire. Until then the British monarch had only one style. The King was never simply the "King of Ireland" or the "King of the Irish Free State".
  19. ^ Except perhaps by inference: the Treaty assigned to the Irish Free State the same status in the Empire as Canada and the latter had already [1851—59] replaced the British Pound (with the Canadian Dollar).
  20. ^ Otautau Standard and Wallace County Chronicle, Volume XVIX, Issue 971, 11 March 1924, Page 1
  21. ^ Lee, J.J, "Ireland", p.125.

Further reading

  • Tim Pat Coogan, Éamon de Valera (ISBN 0-09-175030-X)
  • Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins (ISBN 0-09-174106-8)
  • Lord Longford, Peace by Ordeal (Though long out of print, it is available in libraries)
  • Dorothy McCardlee, The Irish Republic (ISBN 0-86327-712-8)
  • Donal Corcoran, Public Policy in an emerging state: The Irish Free State 1922–25, Irish Journal of Public Policy (ISSN 2009-1117)[2]

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