Irish Free State (Saorstát na hÉireann)

Official name for the twenty-six county state that came into existence on December 6, 1922, one year after the signing of the *Anglo Irish Treaty. Under the treaty, the state was to be a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, with dominion status equal to that of Canada. The British Monarch was to be represented by a Governor-General and all members of the Irish legislature were required to take an oath of allegiance to the British crown. The Free State parliament or *Oireachtas consisted of two houses, the *Dáil and *Seanad Éireann.
A substantial anti-Treaty faction led by Eamon de Valera had bitterly opposed the Free State and its oath of allegiance to Britain, arguing for a free and independent Republic. After the Treaty was ratified by a narrow margin, the dispute escalated into a full scale Civil War in June 1922.
*W.T. Cosgrave was elected first President of the Executive Council in December 1922 at the height of the Civil War. It would be his task to establish a stable parliamentary democracy within the new state. Throughout the Civil War, the Free-State government took strong measures to end the conflict, including the use of interment and execution (77 in all). Ultimately, these coercive measures and the government’s superior resources helped the fledgling state to survive and in May 1923, the Civil War ended.
In August 1923, the fourth Dáil was elected with *Cumann na nGaedheal, the party founded by Cosgrave in April 1923, retaining power. *De Valera’s party Sinn Féin refused to take the oath and participate in the new parliament. The absence of any real opposition greatly strengthened the power of the new government as it attempted to reestablish law and order, rebuild the Irish economy and assert Irish independence in foreign affairs.
In 1922, the *Gárda Síochana, the civil police force, was established. The legal system was reformed under the Courts of Justice Act (1924), which abolished both the British and Sinn Féin Courts, and established District and Circuits to deal with most criminal cases, and the High and Supreme Courts to adjudicate appeals and constitutional matters.
The Army Mutiny Crisis of 1924 represented a serious threat to the stability of the state. As the Free State government began to demobilize and restructure the army for a peacetime role, on March 6, 1924, officers issued a list of demands, which included an end to demobilization and a guarantee that the government intended to establish a republic. *Eoin O’Duffy, appointed Supreme Commander of the army to deal with the mutiny, reached a compromise agreement. By successfully quelling the mutiny, the Free State established that the army was the non-political servant of the state.
In the area of economic development, the Free State government adopted a conservative policy, which was supported by banks, large farmers and the wealthy Anglo-Irish community. Agriculture was the most important sector of the economy involving more than half the population, but farms remained small and inefficient. The Ardnacrusha Hydro Electric Power plant and a number of semi-state companies, including the Electricty Supply Board (ESB) and the Irish Sugar Company, were established at this time. Britain was developed as Ireland’s prime market, and to encourage free trade, tariffs were not widely imposed.  Approximately 13,000 new jobs were created in industry during this period 1922-1932.
To assert its international identity, the Free State joined the *League of Nations on September 10, 1923, and created an extensive foreign diplomatic service. In 1924, a major controversy was averted when the Free State government convinced the British to suppress the *Boundary Commission’s recommendations that a part of County Donegal be ceded to *Northern Ireland (in return for parts of Fermanagh and South Armagh. Following this fiasco, The Ultimate Financial Agreement between Britain and Ireland was signed in March 19, 1926. It waived certain financial claims against the Free State in return for continued payments of land annuities and pensions. The agreement was never passed by the Dáil and was later repudiated by de Valera.

From 1921, leaders of Commonwealth countries met in London every two years to discuss matters of mutual interest. These meetings led to the passing of the *Statute of Westminster in 1931, which gave dominions the right to accept, annual or amend legislation passed by Westminster. This essentially meant an end to any British involvement in Irish affairs.
Cosgrave’s party narrowly survived a strong challenge from de Valera’s new party *Fianna Fáil in the general election of 1927. O’Higgins’ assassination on July 10 renewed fears of a return to violence and the government passed a Public Safety Act, banning all revolutionary societies.
The economic depression of the early 1930s and rising unemployment led to the government’s defeat in the general election of 1932. Fianna Fáil with Labour Party support formed a government.  In 1937, the Constitution of 1922 was replaced with Bunreacht na hÉireann, in which Ireland was declared a sovereign, independent, democratic state, and its name was changed from the *Irish Free State to Éire.


Garvin, T. 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1996.
Moody, T.W. and Martin, F.X. (eds.) The Course of Irish History. Dublin: Mercier Press, 1994.
Murphy, J. Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1989.