Irish head of state from 1922 to 1949

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The state known today as Ireland is the successor state to the Irish Free State, which existed from December 1922 to December 1937. At its foundation, the Irish Free State was, in accordance with its constitution and the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, governed as a constitutional monarchy, in personal union with the monarchy of the United Kingdom and other members of what was then called the British Commonwealth. The monarch as head of state was represented in the Irish Free State by his Governor-General, who performed most of the monarch's duties based on the advice of elected Irish officials.

The Statute of Westminster, passed in 1931, granted expanded sovereignty to the Dominions of the British Commonwealth, and permitted the Irish state to amend its constitution and legislate outside the terms of the Treaty. The Executive Authority (External Relations) Act 1936, enacted in response to the abdication of Edward VIII, removed the role of the monarch for all internal purposes, leaving him only a few formal duties in foreign relations as a "symbol of cooperation" with other Commonwealth nations. The Constitution of Ireland, which took effect in December 1937, established the position of president of Ireland, with the office first filled in June 1938, but the monarch retained his role in foreign affairs, leaving open the question of which of the two figures was the formal head of state. The Republic of Ireland Act 1948 ended the statutory position of the British monarch for external purposes and assigned those duties to the President, taking effect in April 1949, from which point Ireland was inarguably a republic.


The Anglo-Irish Treaty was agreed upon to end the 1919–1921 Irish War of Independence fought between Irish revolutionaries who favored an Irish Republic and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The treaty provided for the Irish Free State, which excluded Northern Ireland, as an autonomous and self-governing dominion of the British Commonwealth, with the British monarch as head of state, in the same manner as in Canada and Australia.[1] The treaty also mandated that members of the new Irish parliament would have to take an oath of allegiance that promised fidelity to George V and his heirs.

The disestablishment of the Irish Republic declared in 1919, the imposition of even a constitutional monarchy, and the continued ties to Great Britain were particularly contentious for many Irish nationalists.[2] Even the Treaty's supporters viewed it as a compromise imposed on the Irish by their inability to achieve full independence through military means: Michael Collins, the republican leader who had led the Irish negotiating team, argued that it gave "not the ultimate freedom that all nations aspire and develop, but the freedom to achieve freedom."

The Treaty was fiercely debated in the Second Dáil, the Irish Republic's revolutionary parliament. Éamon de Valera, the Republic's President, opposed the proposed dominion status for Ireland; instead, he advocated for a relationship he called external association, under which Ireland would be "associated" with the rest of the British Commnwealth and would "recognise His Britannic Majesty as head of the Association" — but not as Ireland's King or head of state.[3]

Nevertheless, the Dáil narrowly approved the treaty, and de Valera resigned in protest.[4] Pro-Treaty forces won the ensuing election and civil war, and the Free State's new constitution incorporated the monarchial elements mandated by the Treaty.

Irish Free State[edit]

The new Irish Free State thus established was a form of constitutional monarchy, a Dominion with the same monarch as the United Kingdom and other states within the British Commonwealth. Under its constitution, the King had functions that included the exercise of executive authority of the state, the appointment of the cabinet, the dissoliution of the legislature, and the promulgation of laws.

However, all of these were delegated to the Governor-General of the Irish Free State, who acted on the advice of elected officials — both British and Irish until 1928, because until that point the governor-general served an additional role as the British government's agent in the Free State. This meant that all official correspondence between the British and Irish governments went through the governor-general and that he had access to British government papers. It also meant that he could receive secret instructions from the British government and so, for example, on assuming office Tim Healy was formally advised by the British government to veto any law that attempted to abolish the Oath of Allegiance.

The passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 granted the Irish Free State the freedom to amend its constitution outside the terms set by the Anglo-Irish Treaty.[5][6]

Duties and functions[edit]

Monarchy of the Irish Free State
Seal of the Irish Free State.png
StyleHis Majesty
First monarchGeorge V
Last monarchGeorge VI
Formation6 December 1922
Abolition29 December 1937
ResidenceViceregal Lodge

Under the original constitution of the Irish Free State in 1922, the monarch had a number of formal duties:

  • Executive authority: The executive authority of the state was formally vested in the monarch but exercised by the governor-general on the advice of the Executive Council.
  • Appointment of the cabinet: The President of the Executive Council (prime minister) was appointed by governor-general after being selected by Dáil Éireann (the lower house of parliament). The remaining ministers were appointed on the nomination of the president, subject to a vote of consent in the Dáil.
  • Convention and dissolution of the legislature: The governor-general, on behalf of the monarch, convened and dissolved the Oireachtas on the advice of the Executive Council.
  • Signing bills into law: The monarch was formally, along with the Dáil and the Senate, one of three tiers of the Oireachtas. No bill could become law until it received the Royal Assent, which was given by the governor-general on behalf of the monarch. The governor-general theoretically had the right to veto a bill or reserve it "for the signification of the King's pleasure", in effect postponing a decision on whether or not to enact the bill, for a maximum of one year. However neither of these two actions was ever taken.
  • Appointment of judges: All judges were appointed by the governor-general, on the advice of the Executive Council.
  • Representing the state in foreign affairs: The monarch accredited ambassadors and received the letters of credence of foreign diplomats; ministers signed international treaties in his name. The role of the monarch in the Free State's foreign affairs was the only function retained by him after the constitutional changes of 1936.

Oath of Allegiance[edit]

The Oath of Allegiance was included in Article 17 of the Irish Free State's 1922 Constitution. It read:

I (name) do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State as by law established, and that I will be faithful to His Majesty 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.

The words "allegiance to the Constitution of the Irish Free State" were taken from De Valera's preferred version, which read: "I (name) do solemnly swear true faith and allegiance to the constitution of the Irish Free State, to the Treaty of Association, and to recognise the King of Great Britain as Head of Associated States".[7]

1932–1936: Diminished role of monarchy[edit]

Leinster House, decorated for the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911; within a decade, it became the seat of the Oireachtas (Irish Free State)

The 1932 Irish general election was won by Fianna Fáil, led by Éamon de Valera, on a republican platform. Over the next several years, the Irish government began reducing the visibility and formal role of the monarch and governor-general. Domhnall Ua Buachalla, a republican and former Fianna Fáil TD, was appointed governor-general in late 1932; on his government's advice, he withdrew from all public and ceremonial roles, performing in a perfunctory manner the minimum duties required by the Constitution. The governor-general's role in budget appropriations and ability to veto legislation were abolished, as was the Oath of Allegiance. No treaties requiring the assent of the king as head of state were signed from 1931 to 1937. Two methods were used to circumvent this: bilateral treaties were concluded at government rather than head-of-state level; for multilateral treaties, the Free State chose not to enrol at inauguration via the king's signature, but instead to accede a few months later via the signature of the Minister for External Affairs.[8]

1936: Abdication crisis and the External Relations Act[edit]

In January 1936, George V died and was succeeded by his eldest son, who became Edward VIII. The new King's reign lasted only eleven months, and he abdicated in December of that year and was succeeded by George VI. The parliaments of independent members of the British Commonwealth were required to ratify this change in monarch, and de Valera's government decided to use this opportunity to drastically change the constitution.

The Constitution (Amendment No. 27) Act 1936, swiftly passed by the Oireachtas in response to the abdication, abolished the post of Governor-General and transferred most of the monarch's functions to other organs of government. Thus, for example, the executive power was transferred directly to the Executive Council, the right to appoint the President of the Executive Council (head of government) was explicitly vested in Dáil Éireann (the lower house of parliament), and the power to promulgate legislation was transferred to the Ceann Comhairle (chairman of the Dáil). However, the constitutional amendment also provided, without mentioning the monarch specifically, for the state to be represented by him in external affairs with other countries and their representatives:[9]

it shall be lawful for the Executive Council, to the extent and subject to any conditions which may be determined by law to avail, for the purposes of the appointment of diplomatic and consular agents and the conclusion of international agreements of any organ used as a constitutional organ for the like purposes by any of the nations referred to in Article 1 of this Constitution.

The nations referred to in Article 1 were the other members of the British Commonwealth (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom). The External Relations Act, adopted shortly after the constitutional amendment, gave life to this provision by providing that:[10]

so long as [the Irish Free State] is associated with the following nations, that is to say, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and South Africa, and so long as the king recognised by those nations as the symbol of their co-operation continues to act on behalf of each of those nations (on the advice of the several Governments thereof) for the purposes of the appointment of diplomatic and consular representatives and the conclusion of international agreements, the king so recognised may … act on behalf of [the Irish Free State] for the like purposes as and when advised by the Executive Council so to do.

Thus, for the remaining year of the Irish Free State's existence, the king's role was restricted to diplomatic and foreign affairs — a standard head of state role — but he performed no formal duties in regards to domestic legislation or governance. The Act also recognized Edward's abdication and the accession of his brother as George VI.[10]

1937: Constitution of Ireland[edit]

In 1937 a new Constitution was adopted on the proposal of Éamon de Valera, establishing the contemporary Irish state named Éire or, in the English language, Ireland. It did not describe or declare the state to be a republic, or use descriptions such as Republic of Ireland or the Irish Republic.

The new constitution filled the gap left by the abolition of the Governor-General by creating the post of a directly elected president of Ireland, who would "take precedence over all other persons in the State", but was not explicitly described as head of state. The president was henceforth responsible for the ceremonial functions of dissolving the legislature, appointing the government, and promulgating the law. Unlike most heads of state in parliamentary systems, the president was not even the nominal chief executive. Instead, the role of exercising executive authority was explicitly granted to the government—in practice, to the Taoiseach. The constitution also, like the 1922 constitution that preceded it, contained many provisions typical of those found in republican constitutions, stating, for example, that sovereignty resided in the people and prohibiting the granting of titles of nobility.

Article 29 of the new constitution mirrored the amendment to its predecessor passed the previous year, by permitting the state to allow its external relations to be exercised by the king. Article 29.4.2° provided that:

For the purpose of the exercise of any executive function of the State in or in connection with its external relations, the Government may to such extent and subject to such conditions, if any, as may be determined by law, avail of or adopt any organ, instrument, or method of procedure used or adopted for the like purpose by the members of any group or league of nations with which the State is or becomes associated for the purpose of international co-operation in matters of common concern.

This provision meant that the External Relations Act continued to have the force of law until the legislature decided otherwise, and so the monarch continued to represent the state abroad when empowered to do so

The Republic of Ireland Act 1948[edit]

The Republic of Ireland Act 1948 contained three major provisions: it repealed the External Relations Act; it provided that the description of the state was the Republic of Ireland; and it provided that the external relations of the state would henceforth be exercised by the President.

Soon after President Seán T. O'Kelly signed the act into law, he commemorated his new status as the clear and unambiguous Irish head of state with state visits to the Holy See and France. A visit to meet George VI at Buckingham Palace was also provisionally planned, but timetabling problems with the president's schedule prevented the meeting.

The Act came into force on 18 April 1949, Easter Monday,[11] to commemorate the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which had been read by Patrick Pearse at the beginning of the Easter Rising on Easter Monday 1916.

One practical implication of explicitly declaring the state to be a republic in 1949 was that it automatically led to the state's termination of membership of the then British Commonwealth, in accordance with the rules in operation at the time. The London Declaration of the Commonwealth, agreed on 26 April 1949, shortly after the commencement of The Republic of Ireland Act, allowed India to remain within the Commonwealth while becoming a republic.[12]

Ambiguity from 1936 to 1949[edit]

During the period from December 1936 to April 1949, some commentators consider that it was unclear whether the Irish state was a republic or a form of constitutional monarchy and (from 1937) whether its head of state was the President of Ireland or King George VI. The exact constitutional status of the state during this period has been a matter of scholarly and political dispute.[13]

From 1936 until 1949, the role of the king in the Irish state, having been reduced to a few formal duties in foreign affairs, was invisible to most Irish people. The monarch never visited the state during that period and, due to the abolition of the office of Governor-General, had no official representative there. The president, on the other hand, played a key role in important public ceremonies.

Asked to explain the country's status in 1945, de Valera insisted that it was a republic. He told the Dáil that:

The State … is … demonstrably a republic. Let us look up any standard text on political theory … and judge whether our State does not possess every characteristic mark by which a republic can be distinguished or recognised. We are a democracy with the ultimate sovereign power resting with the people—a representative democracy with the various organs of State functioning under a written Constitution, with the executive authority controlled by Parliament, with an independent judiciary functioning under the Constitution and the law, and with a Head of State directly elected by the people for a definite term of office.[14]

Referring to the External Relations Act he insisted that:

We are an independent republic, associated as a matter of our external policy with the States of the British Commonwealth.[14]

Despite de Valera's views, many political scholars consider representing a nation abroad to be the key defining role of a head of state. This view was echoed by the Taoiseach John A. Costello in a debate in Seanad Éireann in December 1948, when he argued that the Republic of Ireland Bill he was introducing would make the President of Ireland the Irish head of state. Despite this conflict, de Valera's party, as the main opposition in the Dáil at the time, did not oppose Costello's bill. Only when that Act went into effect in 1949 did the state officially describe itself as the Republic of Ireland.[15]

List of monarchs[edit]

Portrait Regnal name
House Reign
Start End
George V of the united Kingdom.jpg George V
Windsor 6 December 1922 20 January 1936
Governors-general: Timothy Healy, James McNeill, Domhnall Ua Buachalla
Presidents of the Executive Council: W. T. Cosgrave, Éamon de Valera
Edward VIII Portrait - 1936.jpg Edward VIII
20 January 1936 11 December 1936
Governors-general: Domhnall Ua Buachalla
Presidents of the Executive Council: Éamon de Valera
King George VI crop.jpg George VI
11 December 1936 29 December 1937[16]
Governors-general: Office abolished
Presidents of the Executive Council: Éamon de Valera

Title of the sovereign[edit]

While Henry VIII of England had adopted "King of Ireland" as a distinct title in 1544,[17] that title was subsumed into a single royal title with the formal unification of Ireland and Great Britain in 1801, and no distinct royal title or style was revived for use in Ireland between 1922 and 1949. Instead, a single style was used throughout the British Commonwealth[citation needed]:

  • 1922–1927: By the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India
  • 1927–1948: By the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India
  • 1948–1949: By the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith

The changes during this period were effected by acts of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which authorized the monarchs to make alterations to their style via royal proclamation. However, the wording of the 1927 change, brought about by the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927, was agreed upon at the 1926 Imperial Conference, in which representatives of the Irish Free State participated, and was formulated specifically to reflect the changed Irish political situation.[18]

Irish law did not provide any alternate royal style or title during this period. The original text of the Constitution of the Irish Free State simply referred to the monarch as the "King" without further elaboration.[19] The opening words of Ireland's superseding constitution of 1937 were "In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred", and there was no mention in it of the king or monarch;[20][21] the External Relations Act, the only Irish law referring to the monarch still in force after 1936, called him "the king recognised by those nations [of the British Commonwealth] as the symbol of their co-operation."

Despite the passage of the Republic of Ireland Act, "Great Britain, Ireland" was not officially omitted from the royal title until 1953. Then, each Commonwealth realm adopted a unique title for the monarch. No mention of Ireland was made in any except in the title within the United Kingdom and its dependent territories: it was changed from "of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas Queen" to "of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen".

See also[edit]



  • Coakley, John (2012). "An ambiguous office? The position of head of state in the Irish Constitution". Irish Jurist. New Series, Vol. 48: 43–70. JSTOR 44027497.
  • Lowry, Donal (2000). "New Ireland, Old Empire and the Outside World, 1922–49: The Strange Evolution of a 'Dictionary Republic'" (PDF). In Cronin, Mike; Regan, John M. (eds.). Ireland : the politics of Independence, 1922–49. St. Martin's Press. doi:10.1057/9780230535695. ISBN 9780230535695.


  1. ^ "Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Series: Anglo-Irish Treaty: Text of". Archived from the original on 3 May 2021. Retrieved 3 September 2021.
  2. ^ Younger, Calton (1988). Ireland's Civil War (6th ed.). London: Fontana. pp. 233–235. ISBN 978-0-00-686098-3.
  3. ^ "Appendix 18: The President's alternative proposals". Treaty debates. Oireachtas. 10 January 1922. Retrieved 18 August 2012.
  4. ^ "Official Correspondence relating to the Peace Negotiations June–September, 1921". Archived from the original on 30 March 2017. Retrieved 3 September 2021.
  5. ^ "NEW CLAUSE.—(Saving with respect to Irish Free State and Northern Ireland.) (Hansard, 24 November 1931)". Archived from the original on 20 October 2012. Retrieved 3 September 2021.
  6. ^ "Press statement by Patrick McGilligan on the Statute of Westminster, Dublin". Documents on Irish Foreign Policy. Royal Irish Academy. 11 December 1931. No. 617 NAI DFA 5/3. Archived from the original on 23 September 2015. Retrieved 5 January 2015.
  7. ^ Coogan, Tim Pat. Michael Collins: The Man Who Made Ireland, p. 267. (Boulder: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1996).
  8. ^ Stewart, Robert B. (1938). "Treaty-Making Procedure in the British Dominions". The American Journal of International Law. 32 (3): 467–487: 480–485. doi:10.2307/2191164. ISSN 0002-9300. JSTOR 138434.
  9. ^ Constitution (Amendment No. 27) Act 1936 (No. 57). 11 December 1936. Act of the Oireachtas. Retrieved 4 September 2021, Irish Statute Book.
  10. ^ a b Section 3 (Exercise of foregoing power) of the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act 1936 (No. 58). 12 December 1936. Act of the Oireachtas. Retrieved 4 September 2021, Irish Statute Book.
  11. ^ The Republic of Ireland Act 1948 (Commencement) Order 1949 (S.I. No. 27). Statutory Instrument of the Government of Ireland. Irish Statute Book.
  12. ^ "London Declaration". The Commonwealth. Archived from the original on 4 July 2021. Retrieved 5 September 2021.
  13. ^ McMahon, Deirdre (1984). Republicans and Imperialists: Anglo-Irish Relations in the 1930s. p. 181. ISBN 0300030711.
  14. ^ a b "Committee on Finance. – Vote 65—External Affairs". Dáil Éireann debates. 17 July 1945. pp. Vol. 97 No. 23 p.22 cc2569–70. Archived from the original on 16 May 2018. Retrieved 25 June 2013.
  15. ^ In the words of Mary E. Daly (January 2007). "The Irish Free State/Éire/Republic of Ireland/Ireland: "A Country by Any Other Name"?". Journal of British Studies. 46 (1): 72–90. doi:10.1086/508399. JSTOR 10.1086/508399.: "After the enactment of the 1936 External Relations Act and the 1937 Constitution, Ireland's only remaining link with the crown had been the accreditation of diplomats. The president of Ireland was the head of state. When opposition deputies asked de Valera whether Ireland was a republic—a favorite pastime in the mid-1940s—he tended to resort to dictionary definitions showing that Ireland had all the attributes of a republic."
  16. ^ The date on which the present Constitution of Ireland came into force, creating the office of President of Ireland and abolishing the Irish Free State.
  17. ^ "England: Royal Styles: 1521-1553". Archived from the original on 17 January 2014. Retrieved 21 October 2014.
  18. ^ Imperial Conference, 1926: Summary of Proceedings Cmd 2768, p. 15 (London: HMSO, 1926).
  19. ^ Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) Act 1922 (No. 1). 6 December 1922. Act of the Dáil sitting as a Constituent Assembly in the Provisional Parliament. Irish Statute Book.
  20. ^ In the second stage of the Dáil debates on the Constitution, the President, Éamon de Valera, said that the Preamble was "a clear, unequivocal statement that authority comes from God", which was "fundamental Catholic doctrine": Dáil Debates 13 May 1937 col 416-417, quoted in "In the name of the Most Holy Trinity" by Brian O'Reilly [1] Archived 19 November 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ Parliamentary Debates, Dáil Éireann - Volume 67 - 13 May 1937, Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas, Dublin_ "Bunreacht na hEireann (Dréacht)—Dara Céim (Resumed). – Dáil Éireann (8th Dáil) – Thursday, 13 May 1937 – Houses of the Oireachtas". Archived from the original on 5 March 2012. Retrieved 3 August 2013.