‘A place among the nations’ – Brian Maye on the Irish Free State joining the League of Nations

Fledgling State showed a deep commitment to multilateralism and the rule of law

The newly independent Irish Free State joined the League of Nations 100 years ago on September 10th. It was an extremely significant occasion for the fledgling State as it asserted its newly established independence and its position “among the nations of the earth”, to borrow Robert Emmet’s phrase from his famous speech from the dock.

To have Ireland’s sovereignty and separateness from Britain recognised on the international stage had long been an aspiration of Irish nationalists. Most recently, during the Paris Peace Conference that followed the first World War – and that gave birth to the League of Nations – delegates from the first Dáil tried unsuccessfully to have Ireland’s claim to self-determination discussed. Then in April 1919, the Dáil voted to seek membership of the League of Nations that had been founded to maintain peace through collective security, disarmament and the peaceful solution of international disputes.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty, giving Ireland independence, was ratified by the Dáil on January 7th, 1922, and two days later, Michael MacWhite, Ireland’s representative in Geneva (the headquarters of the League) inquired how the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State might apply for membership. British politician and diplomat Sir Eric Drummond, who was the League’s first secretary general, supported Ireland’s admission, but the growing political instability as Ireland drifted towards civil war did nothing to enhance the possibility of joining.

An added advantage in favour of Ireland being admitted was that senior officials of the League’s secretariat hoped that Ireland’s application might convince the isolationist United States to join the League. George Gavan Duffy, Ireland’s foreign minister, was certain we would join but Michael Collins, chairman of the Provisional Government, was more cautious, referring to anti-League feeling “in certain quarters”, by which he meant the US.


Irish membership was mooted for September 1922 but it was decided to wait until after December 6th, 1922, when the transitional period towards Irish independence, as embodied in the Provisional Government, would end and the Irish Free State would officially come into existence. There were other pressing matters for the Irish government to attend to with civil war raging but on March 10th, 1923, it decided to advance the application, and on April 17th, then foreign minister Desmond FitzGerald wrote formally to the League’s secretary general. The latter and MacWhite set Ireland’s admission for September 1923.

However, some difficulties arose. Members of the Free State Senate questioned whether the government (then known as the Executive Council) could apply for membership without the approval of the entire Oireachtas. Also, because the Free State’s armed forces were so large due to the civil war, the League’s secretariat queried whether this was contrary to the League’s covenant on disarmament. The League of Nations (Guarantee) Act was passed to allow the senate debate and approve membership, and also contained a provision that Ireland would accept League recommendations on the size of its armed forces.

Following further communication between FitzGerald and Drummond, the path to Ireland’s membership was cleared and head of government WT Cosgrave led a high-profile delegation to 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,” according to Michael Kennedy, writing in this paper on May 2nd last.

By a unanimous vote of the Assembly of the League of Nations, Ireland was admitted to the organisation at 11am on September 10th, 1923, and Cosgrave, FitzGerald and Eoin MacNeill took Ireland’s seats to widespread applause. “Not a year independent, Ireland had confirmed its place among the nations,” Michael Kennedy wrote, echoing Robert Emmet’s condition for the writing of his epitaph.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs website, our membership shouldn’t be seen simply as staking a further claim to statehood because from the beginning we engaged substantially, in a principled manner and with a deep commitment to multilateralism and the rule of law. This was recognised by other members and acknowledged by our successful election to the Council of the League for a three-year term in 1930. A significant advantage of membership was that it gave Ireland the opportunity to engage at a diplomatic level with a far greater number of states than would otherwise have been the case (dfa.ie/about-us/ourhistory/100years).

By a coincidence, 1923 was also the year that Sean Lester joined the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. He was Ireland’s representative to the League by 1929 and eventually became its secretary general, its last as it turned out. He was to display remarkable courage and integrity in the role, for which he was given the Woodrow Wilson Award.