The origins of an international ‘good citizen’ – An Irishman’s Diary on Ireland and the Corfu Crisis of 1923

William T Cosgrave: celebrated speech to the League of Nations

William T Cosgrave: celebrated speech to the League of Nations


As Europe struggles to address the humanitarian disaster beyond its borders, the Naval Service continues to play a lifesaving role in the Mediterranean. This naval deployment complements Ireland’s long-standing foreign policy of performing the role of “international good citizen”. Since the second World War, this policy has framed Irish activities at the United Nations, and prompted Irish military missions to the Congo, Lebanon, Chad, and other troubled regions.

The origins of this policy are traceable to a pre-war confrontation between Italy and Greece, whose maritime space the Irish Naval Service currently patrols. In the autumn of 1923, the so-called “Corfu Crisis” threatened the fragile European peace. In August of that year, bandits murdered a group of Italian officials who, as part of an International Commission, were then attempting to define the disputed frontier between Albania and Greece. Exploiting the fact that the murders occurred on Greek territory, Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, ordered the punitive occupation of Corfu. Involving an unnecessary naval bombardment that killed 16 Greek children, the attack on Corfu foreshadowed the reckless foreign policy synonymous with fascist Italy during the 1930s.

As both Greece and Italy were member states, these events also provided the inaugural test case of the League of Nations. This ill-fated forerunner to the United Nations sat at Geneva, and was conceived as an international parliament with the wherewithal to avert future wars. Yet Mussolini’s response to possible League intervention was swift and negative. It was also highly problematic for Italy’s allies during the Great War, France and Great Britain, neither of whom wanted the issue of League jurisdiction to cause a lasting rift with Mussolini. Consequently, Paris and London sidelined Geneva and claimed refereeing rights in the Italo-Greek dispute for themselves.

This snub frustrated Irish supporters of the League. Although the League had its critics in Ireland (especially amongst the clergy, who resented the fact that the Geneva forum did not involve the Holy See in its deliberations), others argued that Ireland could benefit from membership of the organisation. Irish nationalists harboured strong internationalist instincts, and looked to the League as a means of reintegrating independent Ireland into the world community. Equally, Ireland’s new rulers expected that League membership would weaken Ireland’s ties to the British Commonwealth, and that the League could eventually mediate on the thorny issue of partition.

With these objectives in mind, Irish delegates assumed their seats in the League Assembly on September 10th, 1923. To mark the occasion, William T Cosgrave delivered a celebrated speech. Mixing Irish with English, he outlined the ancient Christian links between Ireland and the Continent, and anticipated a new era of friendship between the governments in Dublin and London. In addition to these innocuous themes, Cosgrave also alluded to the Corfu Crisis. According to the author of the speech, Prof Eoin MacNeill, the president’s words “were not spoken without advertence to the particular state of things which existed at the time and which preoccupied the minds of the entire Assembly”.

In this context, Cosgrave spoke powerfully of Ireland’s determination to protect fellow small states from “the shadow of external violence, vicious penetration, or injurious pressure of any kind”. Meanwhile, the Irish president had some tactful words of advice for Ireland’s peers at Geneva. Minimising the damage done by Mussolini’s precipitate action, Cosgrave suggested that the Corfu Crisis should clarify the authority of the League and thus strengthen the machinery of international co-operation.

Addressing the assembly in his own right, MacNeill developed these themes when the League eventually debated the much-anticipated findings of the Great Powers. In broad terms, the Franco-British report exonerated Italy while humiliating the Greeks, even if Mussolini ultimately had to withdraw from Corfu.

For MacNeill, though, the conditions imposed upon Greece and Italy mattered less than the fact that Geneva had played no part in the judgement rendered. Accordingly, he struck a balance between excusing the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations, and lecturing its members on their future obligations. As such, this widely reported contribution was far from an act of appeasement. Rather, like Cosgrave before him, MacNeill delivered a hopeful, articulate, and insightful address that gained general approval at the time, while marking Ireland out for a leadership role within the family of “small nations” represented at Geneva.

Unfortunately, the League failed to live up to the challenge laid down by Irish diplomats in 1923. Fragmenting instead into a moribund organisation, the League had few dedicated adherents on the eve of the second World War. By then, the disaffected states included de Valera’s Ireland, which opted for strict neutrality as the war clouds gathered.