Century1923 Birth of a Nation

League of Nations: How Ireland joined ‘great institution for peace’

Gaining membership required complicated diplomacy, illustrating challenges for new state on world stage

April 17th, 1923 marks a milestone in Irish history. On that date newly independent Ireland applied to join the League of Nations.

The league was a multilateral organisation created by the post-first World War Paris peace conference. Based in Geneva, its formation was a direct response to the Great War. Its goal was to ensure that never again would there be such a devastating global conflict.

For Ireland, then known as the Irish Free State, the league had added significance. Ireland’s desire for membership was shaped by the wish to have an independent voice in world affairs, one distinctly separate from Britain, and perhaps influence the course of international relations.

Achieving league membership was a complicated diplomatic manoeuvre illustrating the difficulties facing a new state on the world stage.


January 1922: First inquiry

It began over a year earlier, on January 9th, 1922, when Ireland’s representative in Geneva Michael MacWhite inquired from the league’s secretariat how the Provisional Government of Ireland might apply for membership.

Aware of the deepening split in Ireland over the 1921 Treaty, league secretary general Sir Eric Drummond hoped MacWhite was “the genuine representative of the Provisional Government”, noting “we must be somewhat cautious in present circumstances”.

A dominion in the Commonwealth through the Treaty, Ireland could join the league and Drummond supported its admission. The question was when, not if, Ireland would apply.

September 1922: ‘General disappointment’

Drummond proposed membership at the September 1922 meeting of the league’s assembly. MacWhite suggested waiting until after December 6th, 1922, the date the Provisional Government would dissolve and the Irish Free State would come into existence.

Senior secretariat officials hoped an Irish application might convince the isolationist United States to join the league. MacWhite agreed; he considered Ireland could act as an independent force at Geneva.

Chairman of the Provisional Government Michael Collins and Dáil Éireann Minister for Foreign Affairs George Gavan Duffy also anticipated Ireland’s joining the league. Gavan Duffy thought the case for membership “too evident for argument”.

The outbreak of the Civil War in June 1922 did not dampen Gavan Duffy’s enthusiasm. Collins overruled him, citing hostility to the league “in certain quarters” – a reference to anti-league feeling in the United States.

MacWhite still hoped Ireland might enter the league in 1922. Membership would give a positive international image of the Irish Free State and show how the Treaty gave Ireland full nationhood. MacWhite also recognised that the league could assist following any British default on the Treaty.

December 1922: Free State comes into existence

In September 1922 Gavan Duffy’s successor Desmond FitzGerald held off applying for membership. MacWhite noted “general disappointment” in the secretariat. FitzGerald knew membership was impossible until after December 6th, 1922 and that the Provisional Government could not apply on behalf of the future Irish Free State.

All changed after December 6th, 1922 once the Irish Free State existed – an internationally recognised, self-governing state.

April 1923: Ireland applies to join League of Nations

On March 20th, 1923 the executive council gave the go-ahead for application. FitzGerald’s short formal letter of April 17th followed. MacWhite and Drummond set Ireland’s admission for September 1923 at the league’s fourth assembly. MacWhite reported to FitzGerald that this was enthusiastically welcomed in Geneva.

Suddenly there were hitches. First the Senate questioned whether the executive council could apply for membership without the approval of the Oireachtas. Then the secretariat queried the size of the Defence Forces, which were greatly expanded due to the Civil War, asking whether Ireland was in conformity with the terms of the league’s covenant concerning disarmament.

Seeking to show Ireland’s independence, their travel documents were in Irish, they used the Irish forms of their names and communicated in French, Irish and only finally in English

An Act of the Oireachtas, the League of Nations (Guarantee) Act, allowed the Senate to debate league membership and give its approval, while placing foreign affairs firmly under the control of the executive council. It also placed in law that Ireland would accept league recommendations on the size of Ireland’s military. FitzGerald backed this up with a dispatch to Sir Eric Drummond.

The league authorities were satisfied. Ireland’s road to league membership was open.

September 1923: Ireland admitted to League of Nations

Led by president of the executive council WT Cosgrave, a high-profile Irish delegation departed for Geneva. Seeking to show Ireland’s independence, their travel documents were in Irish, they used the Irish forms of their names and communicated in French, Irish and only finally in English.

Following the unanimous vote of the assembly, at 11.00 on Monday September 10th, 1923, Ireland was admitted to the League of Nations. Cosgrave, FitzGerald, and fellow delegate Eoin MacNeill took Ireland’s seats amid resounding applause.

Addressing the assembly, Cosgrave began in Irish, and moved to English, concluding that Ireland “resolved to play her part” in making “this great institution for peace as complete and efficient as possible.”

Writing to his wife Agnes, MacNeill considered league membership gave “international recognition that Ireland is a sovereign independent state.” Not a year independent, Ireland had confirmed its place among the nations.

Dr Michael Kennedy is executive editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy

Ireland’s first diplomat a former legionnaire

Further reading: The sources quoted in this article come from the Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series at (www.difp.ie) and from the League of Nations digital archive (https://archives.ungeneva.org/lontad). Documents on Irish Foreign Policy is a research programme of the Royal Irish Academy, the National Archives and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Did you know? While a member of the Commonwealth through the 1921 Treaty, the League of Nations was the first international organisation joined by Ireland after independence. Ireland remained a member until the league was dissolved in 1947.

Ireland’s first diplomat: Michael MacWhite (1883-1958), a former teacher, French Foreign Legionnaire and journalist born in Glandore, Co Cork, was one of Ireland’s first diplomats. He was Ireland’s first permanent delegate to the League of Nations (1923-9).

From revolutionary poet to foreign minister: Desmond FitzGerald (1888-1947), a poet and revolutionary, became the first foreign minister, or minister for external affairs, of the Irish Free State. He held office from 1922 to 1927. One his four sons was Garret FitzGerald (1926-2011), who was twice taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael.