Irish Free State

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Saorstát Éireann
Irish Free State
Irish Free State
Flag of ireland Coat of arms of ireland
flag coat of arms
Flag of Ireland.svg
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg
navigation Flag of Ireland.svg
Constitution Constitution of the Irish Free State
Official language Irish , English
Capital Dublin
Form of government Federal Kingdom
Form of government Parliamentary monarchy
Head of state British king
represented by the governor general
Head of government President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State
currency Irish pound
Existence period December 6, 1922 to
December 29, 1937
Successor state Ireland ( known as the Republic of Ireland since 1949 )
National anthem
- 1922 to 1927
- 1927 to 1937

God Save the King
Amhrán na bhFiann
Time zone WEZ
Location Irish Free State in dark green and claimed Territory in light green.png

The Irish Free State ( Irish Saorstát Éireann , English Irish Free State ) was the predecessor of today's Republic of Ireland from 1922 to 1937 . It comprised 26 of the 32 Irish counties that were split off from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 . The Irish Free State was established in December 1922 and was the successor of two coexisting states: the by the Home Rule created Southern Ireland , which from a since January 1922 Provisional Government under Michael Collins was performed, and the de facto existing Irish Republic under Arthur Griffith , the proclaimed by the Dáil Éireann (House of Assembly) in 1919.


In addition to the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent executions of the leaders, the attempt by the British to introduce compulsory military service in Ireland due to the First World War was the main reason for an increased influx of the republican movement and thus the Sinn Féin party . The 1918 Representation of the People Act, which increased the Irish electorate by one step from 700,000 to approximately 2,000,000, also benefited the party, which won 73 out of 105 Irish seats in the 1918 election reached in Westminster Parliament. But the elected representatives did not take their seats in Westminster and instead gathered as a revolutionary parliament in Dublin , which they called Dáil Éireann ( Irish: Assembly of Ireland ). They confirmed the Irish Republic's declaration of independence in 1916, the so-called Easter Proclamation . Although this was supported by an overwhelming majority of the Irish population, only Russia officially recognized the new state. This led to the Irish War of Independence between the " Army of the Irish Republic " (IRA) and the British occupying forces and ended in 1921 in the Anglo-Irish Treaty .

Despite intensive negotiations, the Anglo-Irish Treaty did not lead to an independent Irish Republic, but only to an Irish Free State with the status of a Dominion within the British Empire . Furthermore, only 26 of the 32 Irish counties belonged to the new Free State, as the six counties in the northeast of the island (which form what is now Northern Ireland ) made use of the option not to join the Free State.

Constitutional structures

The 1916 proclamation
One of the main symbols of the independence movement.

The structures of the new Free State were based on the Anglo-Irish Treaty and followed the Westminster system . The Free State was structured as a parliamentary monarchy . The head of state was the King of the United Kingdom (called "King of Ireland" from 1927), who was represented by a Governor General . The parliament (the Oireachtas ) consisted of the king and two chambers: Dáil Éireann formed the lower house, Seanad Éireann the upper house. The king's executive power was exercised through a cabinet, the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, chaired by a Prime Minister (President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State) .

The Goverment

Two political parties ruled the Irish Free State between 1922 and 1937:

Michael Collins once described the Anglo-Irish Treaty as "freedom to achieve freedom". The treaty brought most of the symbols, powers, and functions of independence, including a functioning democratic parliament, executive and judiciary, and a written constitution that could be changed by the Free State. There were only the following restrictions:

  • The British king remained king in Ireland.
  • The British Government remained part of the Irish government through the Governor General.
  • The Irish Free State, like all Dominions , had subordinate status to the United Kingdom. This meant that the Free State did not give its own citizenship, the king was represented by a representative and that all state documents had to bear the British state seal.

All of this changed in the second half of the decade through various reforms. In 1927, the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act changed the role of the king in the Dominions. He was no longer king in Ireland (etc.) but King of Ireland. As a result, the British king no longer played a role in the individual Dominions - each Dominion had its own king. As a result, the British government lost all possibilities of influencing the appointment or influencing of the governors-general and thus the influence in internal Dominion affairs.

But the Irish Free State went further. The sending of foreign ambassadors to Ireland was accepted (no Dominion had done this before) and the treaty, which on the British side was an internal document between Great Britain and the Dominion, was "registered" as an international document with the League of Nations . The Statutes of Westminster (1931) also confirmed a decision of the Commonwealth Conference that enabled the Dominions to change all laws and constitutions, even if they were originally determined by the British government.

This led to two fundamental movements in Ireland:

  • Ireland sought (and received) the consent of the King for its own Irish minister and the exclusion of all British ministers who had previously been subordinate to the "King of Ireland".
  • The abolition of the British seals on official documents and their replacement by an Irish Free State Seal.

When Eamon de Valera became President of the Executive Council in February 1932 and after reading various documents, he said of the achievements of his predecessor WT Cosgrave to his son Vivion: “You were great!” Due to the almost complete freedom of action, de Valera was able to take a few steps go on.

The Executive Council (Executive Council of the Irish Free State)

The Government Council (Irish Ard-Chomhairle ) had the formal role of supporting and advising the Governor General, who was to exercise executive power on behalf of the King. He was chaired by a President (President of the Executive Council) and a deputy. The government council could be voted out by a vote of no confidence . In addition to executive power, the council had the following rights:

  • Convocation and dissolution of Parliament - this right could not, however, be exercised by a council that had lost the confidence of the Dáil;
  • Command of the Irish Defensive Forces - the decision to enter the war had to be made with the consent of the Oireachtas;
  • Appointment of judges;
  • Introduction of financial bills into the Oireachtas.

Originally the constitution stipulated that the government council should consist of 5 to 7 members (plus the president); however, a constitutional amendment in 1927 raised the maximum size to 12. Furthermore, it was originally specified that each member should have a seat in the lower house; by a change in 1929, a member of the government council could also have a seat in the Senate.

If the majority of the lower house withdrew its confidence in the council, the lower house could force the governing council to resign. However, it was allowed to exercise the office until the election of the successor. The possibility of a political stalemate arose because a governing council that had lost the confidence of the Dáil could not request the dissolution of parliament. If the government council resigns after a successful vote of no confidence and the Dáil cannot agree on a new council, a situation arises that cannot be resolved by a new election, since the Dáil would have to be dissolved by the government council.


The government council was introduced directly with the Free State Constitution in 1922. It replaces the two previous cabinets: the Air Eight of the Irish Republic and the Irish Provisional Government . The Free State had the status of a Dominion, and the Government Council was also derived from the government organs in other Dominions, but differed in a few points: First, it was a cabinet (in contrast to the usual councils of state) and, second, in the Free State it was President of the Government Council the head of government (as opposed to the usual governor general).

Under Constitutional Amendment No. 27 in 1936, the post of Governor General was abolished. In the remaining months of the Free State, the government council took over a large part of its tasks. The Governing Council was replaced by a new cabinet in 1937 due to the new Irish constitution .

President of the Government Council (President of the Executive Council)

The President of the Government Council ( Irish : Uachtarán na hArd-Chomhairle ) was the head of government of the Irish Free State. He was proposed by the Dáil Éireann (House of Commons) and appointed by the Governor General. He needed the Dáil's trust to stay in office.

Although the president of the government council theoretically had to be appointed by the governor-general, the constitution tied him to the nomination by the Dáil (for the same reason the governor-general (actual holder of the executive power) was only the executive power of the president of the government council). After it was drawn up, the President nominated the remaining members of the Council, who were then officially appointed by the Governor General. The president had the opportunity to choose his vice-president from among all the members of the lower house, but he had to be approved by the Dáil. In the event that the President lost the Dáil's confidence, he and his cabinet would have to resign; but he could continue to exercise his office until his successor was elected.

The powers of the president were less than those of today's Taoiseach or comparable current prime ministers. There are two major differences:

  • He could not dismiss individual members of the Executive Board. The Executive Council could only be dissolved as a whole.
  • He could not alone demand the dissolution of Parliament - this was only possible by a decision of the entire Council.

The result of these restrictions (according to Brian Farrell ) was that the president of the governing council was seen as chairman rather than leader. The weak position stemmed from the fact that his post was modeled on the British Prime Minister before 1918, when his powers were still limited in contrast to the period after; he was considered " first among equals ".

Vice President of the Government Council (Vice-President of the Executive Council)

The Vice-President of the Government Council ( Irish : Leas-Uachtarán na hArd-Chomhairle ) was the Deputy President. The Vice President is proposed by the President and appointed by the Governor General. However, according to the constitution, he had no way of rejecting the desired vice.

According to Article 53 of the Free State Constitution, the Vice President represents the President in all matters if he dies, resigns or is otherwise unable to exercise his office (both permanently and temporarily). This applies until a successor has been elected or until the president returns. The vice-president could not be dismissed retrospectively by the president - there was only the possibility of removing the entire cabinet. The new Irish constitution in 1937 provided for the Tánaiste instead of a vice-president .

List of government councilors and their presidents

Dáil Period president Vice President Political party
3. December 6, 1922-18. September 1923 WT Cosgrave Kevin O'Higgins Sinn Féin (proponent of the treaty)
4th September 19, 1923-22. June 1927 WT Cosgrave Kevin O'Higgins Cumann na nGaedheal
5. June 23, 1927-13. July 1927 WT Cosgrave Kevin O'Higgins Cumann na nGaedheal
July 14, 1927-10. October 1927 WT Cosgrave Ernest Blythe Cumann na nGaedheal
6th October 11, 1927-8. March 1932 WT Cosgrave Ernest Blythe Cumann na nGaedheal
7th March 9, 1932-23. January 1933 Éamon de Valera Seán Ó Ceallaigh Fianna Fáil
8th. January 24, 1933-20. July 1937 Éamon de Valera Seán Ó Ceallaigh Fianna Fáil
9. July 21, 1937-28. December 1937 Éamon de Valera Seán Ó Ceallaigh Fianna Fáil

The governor general - representative of the crown

The British King was represented in Ireland by the Governor General ( Irish : Seanascal [ ʃanəskəɫ ], cf. German Seneschall ). Since the official name of that representative was not enshrined in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, a committee under Michael Collins was created that after various proposals (and a "President of Ireland"..) To the Governor General ( English Governor-General ) agreed - following the same title used by other Dominions. With this choice of name it was hoped that the other Dominions would support him in the event that the governor general would abuse his office by interfering in Free State affairs.

The Governor General replaced the position of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland , who represented the British Government in Ireland from the Middle Ages until 1922.

Until 1927, the Governor General was also the agent of the British Government in Ireland. Although the office was primarily ceremonial, it remained controversial as many nationalists saw it as an attack on Republican principles and a symbol of Ireland's continued dependence on Britain. Gradually, the role of the Governor General in Irish politics diminished until the post was abolished in 1936.

The first two Governors General had their own residence in Dublin, the Viceregal Lodge, which is now the official residence of the Irish President. The third (and last) Governor General lived in a private house in Booterstown, County Dublin .


The governor-general was formally appointed by the king, but actually chosen by politicians. Until 1927 he was elected by the British government; after that year this competence became the responsibility of the Irish Government through the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act . This law changed the royal title in Ireland from "King of the United Kingdom" to "King of Ireland", which meant that the King in the Free State no longer acted on advice from the British government, but only on advice from the Irish Executive Council. Since the Free State Constitution did not specify a term of office for the Governor General, the Irish government set the maximum term of office at 5 years in 1927.


The formal tasks included:

  • The actual executive power lay with the king, but was exercised by the governor general on the advice of the executive council.
  • The President of the Executive Council of the Free State (Prime Minister) was appointed by the Governor General after he was elected by the House of Commons (Dáil Éireann). The other ministers were named by the President after a vote in the Dáil.
  • The governor general, on behalf of the king, assembles the Oireachtas and dissolves it on the advice of the executive council.
  • The king was formally part of the Oireachtas, together with the upper and lower houses. No bill officially became law until it was approved by the king - that approval was given by the governor general on behalf of the king. The governor general had (theoretically) the possibility to veto a legislative proposal and could delay it by up to a year.
  • All judges were appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Executive Council.

Until 1927, the Governor General continued to serve as the representative of the British Government in the Irish Free State. This meant that official correspondence between the British and Irish Governments went through the Governor General, who also had access to British government documents. He could also receive secret instructions from the British government and, for example, block certain laws such as the abolition of the oath of allegiance.

The three governors-general

Under the government of WT Cosgrave

The first two governors-general took office under the government of William Thomas Cosgrave ( Cumann na nGaedheal ). In the first election of the Governor General, there were a number of possible candidates, including the famous Irish painter Sir John Lavery and Edward VIII. However, the Irish government saw Tim Healy, a former MP under Charles Stewart Parnell , as their preferred candidate and ultimately the British voted Government to this desire.

In choosing Healy's successor in 1928, the Irish government, which could now decide for itself, chose James McNeill, a former member of Michael Collins' constitutional committee and former chairman of the Dublin City Council. Since, unlike his predecessor, he was no longer a representative of the United Kingdom , but merely the king's personal envoy, McNeill had less influence than Healy.

Under the government of Eamon de Valera

In 1932 the government of Cosgrave lost its power to the opponents of the treaty under Eamon de Valera ( Fianna Fáil ). Since these were general opponents of the position of governor-general, de Valera's government decided to boycott and humiliate McNeill. In late 1932, de Valera and McNeill clashed furiously when the latter published his private correspondence with de Valera. De Valera then demanded McNeill's removal. King George V played the mediator and convinced de Valera to withdraw his proposal if McNeill ended his term within a few weeks. McNeill then submitted his resignation on November 1, 1932, also through the mediation of King George V. As his successor, de Valera proposed Domhnall Ua Buachalla , a former parliamentarian.


In December 1936, when Edward VIII abdicated, he also lost his title as "King of Ireland". De Valera wanted to use this situation too quickly to finally abolish the position of governor general. With the 27th constitutional amendment of the Free State, all references to the king and his official envoy were removed from the constitution. However, shortly afterwards, De Valera was advised by his attorney general and advisor that this amendment, due to other legal references, would not be sufficient to completely abolish this post. But officially it was insisted that the title no longer existed - de Valera urged Ua Buachalla not to continue to exercise his office and to leave his residence. In 1937 there was a second law that permanently (and retroactively from December 1936) removed the office from Irish law. In December 1937 the duties of the Governor General were transferred to the President of Ireland by the new Irish Constitution.

Ua Buachalla and de Valera, once close friends, fell out over Ua Buachalla's treatment after the dissolution of his office and his subsequent legal action against de Valera. But in the end the two were reconciled and Ua Buachalla became a member of the State Council in 1959, under the later President de Valera. Ua Buachalla was the last living governor general and died on October 30, 1963 at the age of 97.

The oath of allegiance

As with all other Dominions , the Anglo-Irish Treaty also had specifications regarding the oath of allegiance which are specified in Article 17 of the Free State Constitution. This had to be handed in personally by the parliamentarians to the governor general or another emissary of the king. But the Irish oath of allegiance was different from the others. It had two elements: the first was an oath to the “Free State as it was created by law”, the second part an oath of loyalty to “King George V, his heirs and successors”.


“I ... do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as established by law, and that I will be faithful to HM King George V, his heirs and successors by law in virtue of the common citizenship of Ireland with Great Britain and her adherence to and membership of the group of nations forming the British Commonwealth of nations. "

Points of contention

The oath was generally condemned by the opponents of the treaty (the Anglo-Irish treaty), since in their opinion it had to be given to the British king. However, if you take a closer look at the text, you will find that the words were chosen with care.

  • The Oath of Allegiance only applies to the Irish Free State. The oath to the king only contains an oath of conscientiousness (faithful).
  • The oath to the king, taken literally, did not concern the British monarch, but the role of the Irish king in the treaty.

Ironically, a large part of the text came from a proposal by the oath opponent Eamon de Valera, which he once proposed for the President of the Republic of Ireland. If one compares the oath with those of the other Dominions, the Irish oath is cautious; there is no direct oath of allegiance to the British king.

When de Valera founded the Fianna Fáil party in 1926 , he and his party took part in elections, but refused to take the oath. The assassination of Vice President of the Executive Council Kevin O'Higgins led the WT Cosgrave government to pass a law that made the oath mandatory. De Valera then reluctantly took the oath. When he came to power in 1932, he first amended the constitution so that he could make any changes, even if they were contrary to the Anglo-Irish treaty. In a second step, he completely removed Article 17 of the Constitution, which concerned the oath.

The end of the Irish Free State: Éire

In 1937 de Valera replaced the 1922 constitution with his own, renamed the Free State to Éire and replaced the Governor General with the newly created "President of Ireland". Its constitution claimed jurisdiction over the entire island of Ireland, but recognized the British presence in the north-east of Ireland (Articles 2 and 3; reformulated in 1999). The Roman Catholic Church held an important position, but the rights of other faiths (especially those of the Anglican and Jewish communities) were recognized. This article was deleted in 1972.

See also



  • Tim Pat Coogan: De Valera. Long fellow, long shadow . Hutchinson, London 1993, ISBN 0-09-175030-X .
  • Tim Pat Coogan: Michael Collins. A biography . Hutchinson, London et al. 1990, ISBN 0-09-174106-8 .
  • Frank Pakenham : Peace by Ordeal. An Account, from first-hand Sources, of the Negotiation and Signature of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1921 . Mercier Press, Cork 1951 (classic on contract negotiations).

Web links

Commons : Irish Free State  - collection of images, videos and audio files