Analysis: after a 30 year process which had its origins in the Irish revolution, Ireland declared itself a republic 70 years ago this month

By John GibneyRoyal Irish Academy

On January 21st 1919, the first Dáil Éireann declared Ireland independent, and affirmed the existence of an Irish republic. International recognition of Irish independence would not come until the formal creation of the Irish Free State on December 6th 1922, but Ireland would not officially become a republic until midnight on Easter Sunday, April 17th 1949. The 70th anniversary of the "declaration" of the republic marks the ending of a 30 year process with its origins in the Irish revolution, as the first governments of post-independence Ireland sought to build upon the measure of sovereignty obtained in 1922. 

The first Dáil had sought to exploit the remoulding of the international order in the wake of the First World War, most obviously by lobbying the peace conference convened in Paris in 1919. Hopes that the victorious Allies would support the cause of Irish independence (and the related ambition to join the proposed League of Nations) ultimately came to nothing.

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From RTÉ Doc On One, the Republic of Ireland Act looks at what becoming a republic and closing the door on British rule meant to Irishmen and women 70 years ago

But there was another international dimension to the Irish revolution. The Dáíl used an international network of agitators and propagandists to keep attention focused on the cause of Irish independence amidst the upheavals of the post-war world. Following the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) and the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed in December 1921, 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties became autonomous within the British empire, in the form of the Irish Free State.

Under the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Ireland reluctantly became a partitioned dominion within the British empire, with the British monarch as its official head of state. This was a far cry from the republic demanded by the independence movement and the split over Ireland’s new constitutional status was the principal cause of the Civil War of 1922-23.

During the 1920s, the Cumann na nGaedheal government of W.T. Cosgrave sought opportunities to amplify the newly-official international status of the Irish Free State while at the same time diminishing its ties to the empire. Ireland’s participation in the League of Nations was shaped, to some degree, by the desire to carve out an international niche distinct from the sphere of British influence. In the late 1920s, Irish ministers and diplomats played a major role in laying the groundwork for the 1926 Balfour Declaration, which gave all dominions the same international status as Britain, and the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which specified that the domestic sovereignty of individual dominions took precedence over that exercised by Westminster.

John A. Costello (second from left) at a public meeting in Canada in September 1948, during the official visit to the country when he stated that he intended to repeal the 1936 External Relations Act and that Ireland would formally leave the Commonwealth. Photo: UCD Archives P291/47/12

But the willingness of Cosgrave and his colleagues to work within the British imperial system left them vulnerable to attack from political opponents such as Éamon de Valera's Fianna Fáil. That party was formed from amongst those republicans who had rejected the 1921 Treaty and who took a far more aggressive stance towards the British after they came into government in 1932. Under de Valera's explicit direction, Fianna Fáil sought to break most of the legal links to the British crown while also engaging a related (and damaging) ‘economic war’ with Britain.

A milestone in British-Irish relations with potentially wider implications for the British empire was the passing of the External Relations (Executive Authority) Act of 1936. This stripped the role of the British crown from the internal affairs of the Free State, but ensured that Ireland retained an external link with the empire (ostensibly as a route to allow ultimate Irish unity). This formula was carried over into the 1937 constitution and it was a model British officials recommended to India in the late 1940s as it moved towards its own postwar break with the Empire.

The Second World War – the "Emergency" – was the greatest international challenge faced by independent Ireland. de Valera’s government sought to navigate a path between two belligerent powers, both of which were correctly suspected of having plans to invade Ireland should they deem it necessary. Discreet co-operation with the British was a geopolitical necessity in the early years of the war, with the implausible prospect of an end to partition being held out by the British as a bargaining chip.

A telegram from the Irish embassy in Canberra to Dublin, seeking guidance on how best to formally describe the Irish state given the imminent change in its constitutional status. Photo: UCD Archives P104/4443

Despite the reality of co-operation, the official Irish position throughout the war was one of strict and public neutrality, a stance greatly resented by the Allies. After 1945, Ireland remained isolated from the new arrangements of the postwar world, due to the dissolution of the League of Nations and its refusal to join NATO. This isolation was exacerbated when the last links with the Commonwealth were severed by Taoiseach John A. Costello of Fine Gael (the successor to Cumann na nGaedhal) in 1949.

If Cosgrave’s government had begun to push out the boundaries of the Free State’s sovereignty in the 1920s, de Valera had radically accelerated the process. But Costello’s action was a decisive break with the Commonwealth. The timing of his move - in the aftermath of the Second World War, as the process of decolonisation was beginning to take hold across the British empire - ensured that it was of profound importance to the British, and potentially to other countries within the empire.

It did have ramifications. The British responded with the Ireland Act of 1949, which confirmed for the first time that the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK would only ever change with the consent of its inhabitants. On the other side of the world, India seemed to implicitly concur with the view of both de Valera (who felt Costello had acted in haste) and those British officials who had recommended that they examine the External Relations Act of 1936, which Costello had repealed. When India became a republic in 1950, it remained within the Commonwealth and arguably declined to follow the Irish example.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, historian Diarmaid Ferriter on the proposal to celebrate Republic Day as a state event on the April 18th, the anniversary of Ireland becoming a Republic in 1949

In the decades since 1949, the declaration of the republic has slipped from view. 1949 never became a fixture in the Irish public imagination in the manner that dates such as 1916 have. Perhaps the declaration of the republic had relatively little long-term resonance with the Irish public because, as was argued at the time, Ireland had effectively been a republic since the enactment of Bunreacht na hÉireann in 1937. 

That said, the symbolic resonance of the 1949 declaration was a different matter. Partition and the constitutional status of the independent Irish state were seen in nationalist Ireland as the two most obvious pieces of unfinished business left over from the political revolution of the early 20th century. For many in the enormous crowds who turned out to welcome the inauguration of the republic across Ireland, one of those issues was finally, and officially, resolved in April 1949.

Dr John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series. The Royal Irish Academy will be hosting a panel discussion on April 18th to mark the 70th anniversary of Ireland becoming a republic.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ