Head of state of Ireland (1936 to 1949)

Constitution of the Irish Free State Executive Authority (External Relations) Act 1936 Constitution of Ireland

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.[1] The Oireachtas removed all references to the monarch from the revised constitution in 1936, but under statute law the UK's monarch continued to play a role in foreign relations, though always on the advice of the Irish Government. The state did not officially describe itself as the Republic of Ireland until 1949, when it passed legislation giving itself that description.[2]


The state known today as Ireland is the successor-state to the Irish Free State which was established in December 1922. The Free State was governed, until at least 1936, under a form of constitutional monarchy. Under the Free State's constitution the King had a number of nominal duties, including exercising the executive authority of the state, appointing the cabinet and promulgating the law. However, all of these were delegated to the Governor-General of the Irish Free State, and in 1927 the King's title within Great Britain and Northern Ireland was changed by proclamation under the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act passed by the Westminster Parliament to "George V, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India".

Edward VIII and the abdication crisis

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 his brother Prince Albert, Duke of York, who took the name George VI. The parliaments of independent members of the British Commonwealth were required to ratify this change in monarch, and the pro-republican government of the Irish Free State decided to use this opportunity to drastically change the constitution.

Immediate post-abdication reforms (1936–37)

The day after the abdication was announced on 12 December 1936, the Free State constitution was amended to remove all mention of the King and abolish the office of governor-general. The following day, a separate statute permitted the King to sign international treaties and to accredit diplomatic representatives, where authorised by the Irish government.

In 1937 a new Constitution was adopted establishing the contemporary Irish state named simply "Ireland" and entrenching the monarch's diminished role, transferring many of the functions performed by the King until 1936 to a new office of President of Ireland, who was declared to "take precedence over all other persons in the State". However, the 1937 constitution did not explicitly declare that the state was a republic, nor that the President was head of state, and it allowed for the King to have a role in the state's external affairs. The state's ambiguous status ended in 1949, when the Republic of Ireland Act ended the King's remaining role in external affairs and declared that the state was a republic.

The status of the Head of the Irish State from 1936 to 1949 was largely a matter of symbolism and had little practical significance. This was because the roles of both the King and the President of Ireland were merely ceremonial, being exercisable only "on the advice" of the government (Cabinet). However, 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 (Until the London Declaration in 1950, only states with the British Monarch as their Head of state, generally represented by a Governor-general, could be members of the Commonwealth)

Constitutional and legal changes of 1936

As founded in 1922, the Irish Free State was, like all other Dominions, a constitutional monarchy. It recognised the monarch of the United Kingdom as monarch of Ireland as well. However, most of the monarch's functions were performed on his behalf by the Governor-General, in practice on the advice of the Executive Council. This remained unchanged when the Statute of Westminster stripped away nearly all of the UK Parliament's authority to legislate for the Free State–effectively making the Free State the first internationally recognised independent Irish state.

This status remained unchanged until an amendment to the Free State constitution passed in 1936. The Constitution (Amendment No. 27) Act 1936 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:

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 then British Commonwealth (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom), who at that time all shared the same person as their monarch. The External Relations Act, adopted shortly after the constitutional amendment, gave life to this provision by providing that:

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.

Constitution of 1937

The Constitution of Ireland, adopted in 1937, filled the gap left by the abolition of the governor-general by creating the post of a directly elected president. The President of Ireland 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.

Nonetheless the government of Éamon de Valera, despite its long-term goal of republicanising the Irish state, consciously chose not to declare a republic and decided to name the state simply Éire (or Ireland), rather than the "Republic of Ireland" or the "Irish Republic". Thus the new constitution did not explicitly declare that the President would be head of state, providing merely that he would "take precedence over all other persons in the State". Nor did the new document mention the word republic. Most crucially, Article 29 of the new constitution mirrored Article 51 of its predecessor, 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.


Nonetheless from 1936 until 1949 the role of the King in the Irish state 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.[3]

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.[4]

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 (the Irish Senate) 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, decided not to oppose Costello's bill.

Republic of Ireland Act

The Republic of Ireland Act 1948, which came into force on 18 April 1949, the 33rd anniversary of the beginning of the Easter Rising, was remarkable in that it purported to reform the state into a republic without making any change to the constitution, the ambiguous provisions of which remained unaltered. The Republic of Ireland Act contained three major provisions; it declared that: the External Relations Act was repealed, the state was a republic, and the external relations of the state would henceforth be exercised by the President. The act also had the effect of automatically terminating the state's membership of the Commonwealth.[citation needed]

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.

King's title in the Irish state

The King's title in the Irish Free State (1922–1937)[citation needed] and in Ireland (1937–1949)[citation needed] was the same as it was elsewhere in the Commonwealth, being:

The king's title during this period was never simply "King of Ireland". Traditionally, at least from the reign of William II, in England, and after the Union with Ireland, the monarch's style as king had included "by the grace of God". Initially, the English king's title in Ireland was "Lord of Ireland". The change from "Lord" to "King" of Ireland was made by the Crown of Ireland Act 1542 passed by the Irish Parliament, the same act describing it as being "united and knit to the imperial crown of the Realm of England". Soon after the passing of that act, the new title was proclaimed in London as: "Henry VIII, by the grace of God King of England, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, and of the Church of England and also in Ireland in Earth the Supreme Head"; and this was confirmed by an act of ratification passed by the parliament in England in 1544.[5] 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.[6][7]

After India and Pakistan became independent dominions on 15 August 1947,[8] the title "Emperor of India" was officially abandoned on 22 June 1948,[9] although George VI remained monarch of India until 26 January 1950, when India became a republic within the Commonwealth, the first Commonwealth country to do so.

Outside the Irish state, "Great Britain, Ireland" was not officially omitted in 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




  1. ^ McMahon, Deirdre (1984). Republicans and Imperialists: Anglo-Irish Relations in the 1930s. p. 181. ISBN 0300030711.
  2. ^ 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."
  3. ^ "Committee on Finance. – Vote 65—External Affairs". Dáil Éireann debates. 17 July 1945. pp. Vol. 97 No. 23 p.22 cc2569–70. Retrieved 25 June 2013.
  4. ^ "Committee on Finance. – Vote 65—External Affairs". Dáil Éireann debates. 17 July 1945. pp. Vol. 97 No. 23 p.22 cc2573. Retrieved 25 June 2013.
  5. ^ England: Royal Styles: 1521-1553
  6. ^ 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]
  7. ^ Parliamentary Debates, Dáil Éireann - Volume 67 - 13 May 1937, Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas, Dublin_ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 5 March 2012. Retrieved 3 August 2013.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ Section 1 of the Indian Independence Act 1947 provided that from "the fifteenth day of August, nineteen hundred and forty-seven, two independent Dominions shall be set up in India, to be known respectively as India and Pakistan."
  9. ^ "No. 38330". The London Gazette. 22 June 1948. p. 3647. Royal Proclamation of 22 June 1948, made in accordance with the Indian Independence Act 1947, 10 & 11 GEO. 6. CH. 30.('Section 7: ...(2)The assent of the Parliament of the United Kingdom is hereby given to the omission from the Royal Style and Titles of the words " Indiae Imperator " and the words " Emperor of India " and to the issue by His Majesty for that purpose of His Royal Proclamation under the Great Seal of the Realm.'). According to this Royal Proclamation, the King retained the Style and Titles 'George VI by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith', and he thus remained King of the various Dominions, including India and Pakistan, though these two (and others) eventually chose to abandon their monarchies and became republics.