We might think the Irish constitution was created in 1937, but in 1922 a committee gathered to draft what would be the country's first constitution. As the National Archives' collection of the Committee's papers reveals, it would be a difficult - and sometimes tense - undertaking. Antoinette Dowling explains.
'…Bear in mind not the legalities of the past but the practicalities of the future'
- Michael Collins, Chairman, Constitution Committee, 24th January 1922
This is the guidance given by Michael Collins to the members of the Constitution Committee present at its inaugural meeting in the Mansion House at 3.30pm on the 24th January 1922. When we think of the Irish Constitution, it is usually the 1937 Constitution that immediately comes to mind. It is, after all, our current constitution and holds the cultural associations with the status of women and religion that have defined recent amendments.
However, the first constitution of the Irish State came into being in 1922. It set out very different parameters determined by a desire to establish, in the words of its Chairman, ‘a free democratic constitution’, an undertaking which Collins defined as ‘the most important task – more important than the Treaty itself’.
The papers of the Constitution Committee are held by the National Archives, Ireland’s official repository of State records. They sit alongside other complementary collections of early Dáil Éireann papers. Collectively, these records chart the most tumultuous and significant period in our Nation’s history, providing evidence of the decisions which determined the establishment of the State. The Constitution Committee holdings comprise its working papers, research, and drafts. Given the Committee’s narrow deadline, the quantity of research and debate chronicled in these papers shows the immense task which faced its members.
Although Michael Collins took on the role of chair, at its first meeting Arthur Griffith proposed Darrell Figgis become acting Chair. Collins, with his many responsibilities, was only able to attend one other meeting, but his directions to the Committee determined the course of their work.
Darrell Figgis, the son of a tea merchant, was born in Rathmines, Dublin, and spent his childhood in London and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He was a well-known literary figure, with his first collection of poetry, A Vision of Life, featuring an introduction by G. K. Chesterton.
The Committee worked within an exceptionally tight timeframe to produce three separate texts for review by the Provisional Government.
The other members of the Committee included two academics, Professor Alfred O’Rahilly and Professor James Murnaghan, four lawyers, Hugh Kennedy, John O’Byrne, Kevin O’Shiel and Clement J France, a former civil servant, James McNeill, and a businessman, James Douglas. According to an early Department of the Taoiseach file, Father Corcoran SJ and Father Cronin also advised the Committee.
At the end of their deliberations in March 1922, the Committee presented the three self-contained constitutions which were known as Drafts A, B and C. Draft A was supported by Figgis, McNeill and O’Byrne, Draft B was supported by Kennedy, Douglas and France and Draft C was supported by O’Rahilly and Murnaghan. O’Shiel ultimately declined to sign any of the final drafts.
These texts were then subject to criticism and consultation by the Provisional Government, with Draft B eventually emerging as the basic text which was brought before the British Government for further deliberation and revisions. An amended text was agreed to by both sides, and published by the Provisional Government on 16 June 1922, the day of the 1922 General Election.
This text formed part of Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) Act, 1922. The Constitution of the Irish Free State (Bunreacht Shaorstáit Éireann) was adopted by Act of Dáil Éireann sitting as a constituent assembly on 25 October 1922.
The task of publishing a selection of constitutions from around the world to act as a guide for Dáíl Éireann illustrates the huge body of work undertaken by the Committee. In the preface to the final published version, Figgis describes the significance of looking outwards in formulating our own Constitution:
In geographical range the Constitutions included in this volume are drawn from four Continents. In range of time they date from the 18th to the 20th centuries. In range of matter they have been selected so as to exhibit many different points of view.
Countries in this volume include USA, France, the Czechoslovak Republic, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and the Esthonian Republic. Much like the divergent views of these countries, the views of the Constitution Committee members also differed, as evidenced by the production of three drafts and by the correspondence contained in its papers.
There were opposing opinions and the task of facilitating the day to day running of the Committee took its toll. This is demonstrated in the correspondence between its members and Chairman Michael Collins which range in significance from different views on drafts and religious representation, to requests for use of the correct stationery.
What happened to the paper
The papers of the Committee were originally transferred from the Department of the Taoiseach to the State Paper Office in August 1972. Twenty-four parcels of material labelled A-W were transferred and the subsequent listing retained this system of arrangement. Requests from researchers and journalists for access to the papers sent to Taoiseach Jack Lynch led to their release for public inspection. Details of their usage and transfer can be found in the Department of the Taoiseach file dating from January 1970-October 1973.
The last request for access to the papers, which precipitated their transfer to the State Paper Office, was from Michael McInerney, an Irish Times journalist, in June 1972. He wrote directly to the Taoiseach asking for help with his research which focused on the Mother and Child Scheme and the fall of the inter-party government in 1951.
This in turn required research into ‘Church-State relations and our laws and constitutions’. Fifty years after the 1922 Constitution was drafted, public access to the Committee’s papers was granted. Now, a further fifty years later, on the centenary of its formation, the papers will be digitised by the National Archives to open up access around the world. A fitting tribute to a committee that sought to draw its inspiration from four continents and look to the practicalities of the future.
This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.