Irish League of Nations entry 100 years ago marked its independence on world stage

Britain argued the Free State’s foreign affairs should be led from London, but Cosgrave forged ahead

On September 10th 1923, the Irish Free State took its place among the nations of the world.

Robert Emmet’s famous epitaph could have been written, in 26 counties at least, when a delegation led by the president of the Executive Council, William T Cosgrave, entered the Palais des Nations in Geneva – the assembly of the League of Nations.

This was a bold statement of national sovereignty. The British, who had been fixated on the oath of allegiance to King George V taken by TDs, had argued that the Irish Free State was a dominion and not an independent country.

The Irish Free State’s foreign affairs should, therefore, be guided by Britain, but having relieved themselves of their “Irish problem”, the British government was loathe to make a stand on the issue.


The Irish State’s application to the League of Nations was approved unanimously by the 60 members of the League without much in the way of protest from the British who voted in favour.

When Cosgrave climbed the podium to address the delegates, The Irish Times correspondent noted that no new country – and there were many at the conclusion of the first World War – that had entered the League of Nations had been received with such enthusiasm.

There was evident pride on the part of Cosgrave when he addressed the congress first in Irish and then in English. “After a long journey of tribulations, an international treaty has brought to Ireland a peace by which the hostilities and bitterness of the past shall cease to inspire hymns of battle and shall merge into the pages of history,” he said.

“Today with all the nations of this assembly, Ireland joins in a solemn covenant to exercise the powers of her sovereign statutes in promoting the peace, security, happiness and the wellbeing of the human race.”

Assistant legal adviser to the Irish government Kevin O’Shiel reckoned the enthusiasm for Irish membership was down to the “prospects of one more vote against the designs and potency of the big powers”.

According to On an Equal Footing With All, a newly published book about Ireland’s entry into the League of Nations, a significant event occurred a year later that was another milestone in Irish sovereignty.

On July 4th 1924, Michael MacWhite, Ireland’s first permanent delegate to the League, registered the Anglo-Irish Treaty as an international document under Article 18 of the League’s Covenant.

The importance of this event was well understood by the then minister for external affairs (foreign minister) Desmond FitzGerald who told MacWhite: “This is to be done quietly and unostentatiously. There is to be no publicity whatsoever in the matter, and there is no need for other people to be told, even confidentially. I am sure you will realise fully how important it is that these instructions be carried out literally.”

If the international community had not accepted this measure, it would have been a recognition that the Irish Free State was not a sovereign entity.

The registration of the Treaty meant that the members of the League of Nations regarded the Irish Free State as a sovereign nation on a par with the United Kingdom. This position was finally accepted by the British in 1926.

The authors of On an Equal Footing With All argue that this vindicated Michael Collins’s assertion that the Treaty was a “stepping stone” to full independence.

“Membership of the League was, in this way, extremely important in the process by which Ireland freed itself internationally from the shackles of dominion status.”

The League of Nations was historically a failure. It was founded by the US president Woodrow Wilson as a means to resolve international differences and to avoid the catastrophe of another world war. The organisation was seriously weakened from the beginning when the US Houses of Congress voted against American involvement in it.

It turned out to be powerless in preventing the second World War. Nevertheless, for small countries like Ireland, it provided a forum to assert the sovereignty of small nations, one that continues to this day through the United Nations.

To mark the centenary of Ireland’s entry into the League of Nations, the exhibition, On an Equal Footing with All, Ireland at the League of Nations 1923-1946, will be presented at both the Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska and the Dublin Festival of History, before travelling to the UN in Geneva and New York.

The book of the same name will be launched in New York in September during the UN high-level week followed by a Dublin launch in October.