The forgotten Republic


Last fortnight marked the 60th anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of Ireland in 1949. Willy Nolan looks back.

On the 18th of April 1949, the Republic of Ireland Act came into force declaring Ireland a republic, leaving the British Commonwealth of Nations and taking away the last role of British monarch in Irish affairs. The announcement came in Ottawa, Canada where the Taoiseach John A. Costello was on a trip to address the Canadian Bar Association.


Up until 1949 we remained in the Commonwealth and the King retained a limited role. In 1936 the Fianna Fáil government under Eamon de Valera had brought in the External Relations Act in 1936 which had redefined the royal connection with Ireland. The King’s internal authority abolished and reference in the Constitution was deleted. He retained an ‘external authority’ which he exercised in two ways – signing international treaties and accrediting Irish ambassadors to other states.

De Valera’s seems to have at least considered the idea of repealing the External Relations Act. In 1947, he and then-Attorney General Cearbhal Ó’Dálaigh (later President) drew up legislation to repeal the act however it did not mention becoming a republic. This legislation never saw the light of day.

Fianna Fáil lost power in 1948 when John A. Costello became Taoiseach in the so-called ‘first inter-party government’. This Government would be later collapse in 1951 with the Noel Brown’s ill-fated Mother and Child Scheme. It’s most important and lasting decision however was the declaration of the Republic in 1949.

What was really shocking about the announcement was that it took place in Canada. The Canadians themselves felt bemused that such a decision would be announced in Ottawa. However before Costello’s departure, the issue had been discussed at a cabinet meeting as well as in exchanges in the Dáil in July 1948 but no formal decision or definite plan had been announced.

“In essence this was the culmination Michael Collins’ “stepping stone” argument in favour of the Treaty”

It has been argued that Costello’s announcement was a reaction to the treatment he and his wife received at a formal dinner. The Canadian Governor General snubbed them by toasting the King and declining to toast the President of Ireland. Something else also prompted Costello into the announcement.

The Sunday Independent the day after the formal dinner carried the headline ‘External Relations Act to go’. Frantic communication then began with Dublin and the following Tuesday while still in Canada, the Taoiseach confirmed the story and announced that Ireland was repealing the External Relations Act and leaving the Commonwealth.

The legislation moved quickly – the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 – one of the shortest acts ever (only one page long with only five sections) passed through the Oireachtas unanimously with support from all parties. This in itself is quite remarkable given the personal animosities which existed between the parties.

The act became law early the following year. The Government chose the symbolic day of Easter Monday 1949 which fell on 18th April. At midnight the country officially became a republic. The event was marked in Dublin with a 19-gun salute on O’Connell Bridge in Dublin and blazing tar barrels could be seen lighting up the sky form the Dublin Mountains.

That day members of the Government, judiciary and other representatives attended a special mass at Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral presided over by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. This was following by a military parade on and march past the G.P.O. Similar masses and events took place around the country in other cities and large towns. The President Sean T. O’Kelly and the Taoiseach made special radio addresses to mark the day.

Messages of congratulations came from Pope and US President Truman. King George VI sent a message on the day to President O’Kelly saying: “I send you my sincere good wishes on this day and I pray that every blessing may be with you today and in the future.”

The Act changed our constitutional position. The King’s remaining, albeit limited external authority ended. In essence this was the culmination Michael Collins’ ‘stepping stone’ argument in favour of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. This marked an end to the bitter hostilities that had dragged on far too long after the Civil War too, with all parties supporting this move.

Last Saturday marked 60 years since this great moment of Irish history. While in 1949 the country celebrated and observed this day with due respect and joy that it deserved, this its 60th anniversary was virtually ignored. The Government as well as the media have done little to even mark the occasion. It is a shameful reflection on the Ireland of today and a dishonour those who made it happen that we have failed to celebrate this moment in our country’s history.