Opinion: controversy about the name and nature of the state has been part and parcel of Irish life for a century

By Stephen O'Neill, University of Notre Dame

Reading maps and street signs in Ireland in the first years of partition must have been a confusing experience. Sackville Street had changed to O'Connell Street –reflecting many of the new street-names found around the country – King’s County had become Offaly, and Queenstown was now Cobh. Donegal was named Tirconaill for some five years before going back to Donegal.

Perhaps most jarringly, the name of the new 26 county state, once imagined by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act as "Southern Ireland", was now "the Irish Free State" or "Saorstát Éireann", a name which was often exchangeable with "Ireland". 

The remainder of the island, geographically misnamed "Northern Ireland", was also subject to any number of alternative terms. This was not helped by the fact that the unionist government was far keener on the historically relevant but geographically inaccurate "Ulster". Nationalists, however, suggested plenty of synonyms. These included "the north", "the north-east corner", "the north of Ireland", "the black north", "Hibernia Irredenta", "Carsonia", "the six counties", "unrecovered Ireland" and "unredeemed Ireland".

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Myles Dungan looks at how the boundaries between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland could have been drawn a little differently

As these terms suggest, this was more than just wordplay. Each implied a particular political standpoint and revealed much about the user's attitudes towards the state. However, as in the case of the "six counties", the early years of partition even saw Ulster unionists use some of these terms. 

Republicans had also adopted alternative names for the Saorstát. As early as March 1923, the Irish-American periodical The Irish World featured an article by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington entitled "The Hysteria of Freak Staters". The piece was furnished with a cartoon depicting this "vicious English-Irish Freak".

From RTÉ Archives, Brian Farrell looks back the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act of 1922 on its 75th anniversary in 1997

In Outraged, Plundered, Partitioned Ireland: The Curse and Tragedy of the "Treaty" (c.1922), T.F. O'Sullivan wrote of his own outrage about the name of the 26 county state: "The name of Ireland has disappeared, so far as the Imperialist, new and old, are concerned, but it will survive the Imperialists, English and native". As Caoilfhionn Ní Bheacháin has shown, this sense of disappearance was echoed throughout republican periodicals in the ensuing decade, with Cumann na mBan's "Ghost" pamphlets striking a similar note: "our country, Ireland, has been wiped off the face of the map. In its stead we are misrepresented by the "The Irish Free State" and "Northern Ireland"."

Apart from implying an alternative allegiance, using these substitute names (as well as writing the official ones in apostrophes) became a way of imagining a united Ireland in the face of this disappearance. Anxiety about the name of each state pervaded the first few decades of partitioned Ireland. Official publications as well as newspaper editorials often reflected a frustration with the new terminology that came with the establishment of each government. Controversy about the name and nature of "Ireland", as well as resistance to what were British-imposed terms for each state, continued well into and beyond the 1930s. 

The Mayor of Whitechapel, Miriam Moses (left) with Alderman C Lankester at a 1932 exhibition of produce from the Irish Free State at the Whitechapel Art Galleries. Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images

As Mary Daly has written, a Free State Official claimed in 1936 that "Ireland" had been "used much less and less even as a geographical term. That is an inevitable result of partition". In the context of this partition, the official elaborated, legally defining "Ireland" as a 26 county territory would be seen as a "gesture of despair". Responding in 1937 to this pervasive ambiguity in the republican periodical Ireland Today, James O’Donovan, whose preferred term was "the 26 counties", asked "when shall we have an unequivocal name for our country?".

The answer was soon to be found. O’Donovan’s frustration was shadowed by the ongoing drafting of the Constitution, personally supervised by Éamon de Valera, which was initially fairly ambiguous about what the term "Ireland" meant. Defending this ambiguity in the Dáil during the drafting stage, de Valera himself explained that the use of "Éire" for the state was a means "to bring out the difference between the state and the national territory and the national home of the whole island".

Michael Collins addresses a crowd at Dublin's College Green on the day of the official launch of the Irish Free State in 1922. Photo: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

As Daly notes, this evasiveness was abandoned quickly by de Valera in a late amendment which added "or in the English language Ireland" to the text. But this also, and crucially, came with a territorial claim over "the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas". Rather than simply being reflections of loyalty or a lack thereof, the recent controversies surrounding naming either state must be placed in the context of partition, which involved dividing cultural and social traditions just as much as drawing a border on a map.

However, the use of these names was not always politically pointed. One of those who keenly understood this was Myles na gCopaleen, pen-name of Brian O'Nolan and better known to some as Flann O'Brien, who was born in Strabane and lived all of his life in Dublin. Myles often applied the kind of wordplay that was characteristic of these first decades of partition. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Documentary On One podcast, 1976's Yer Only Man looks at the life and times of Brian O'Nolan with Sean Mac Reamoinn, Michael O'Haodha, John Ryan Benedict Kiely and Jack White

In one instance during 1947, in saying that "th[e] question of redeeming Sir Basil Brooke’s province of Ulster is quite a problem", he demanded that his reader recognise that it was "not a Province but a Convince". Myles further suggested that it was "incorrect to call it "Ulster"" and that Brooke and his government were "entitled to only two-thirds of the word "Ulster"—the eastern two thirds—and hence they should go by the name and style of "STER." The Dublin government would thus be proprietors of the areas of Munster, Leinster, Connacht, and Ul’.

Unsurprisingly, Myles’s suggested alternatives have not caught on either side of the border. But recognition of the fact that "Ireland" as a term carries the burden of these disputes might add some form of perspective to recent debates about its use in political circles.

Dr Stephen O'Neill is a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee.


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