In this edition, guest author Dr John Gibney discusses the accession of the Irish Free State to the League of Nations in September 1923. The League was the international political body established by the Paris peace conference in direct response to the First World War. Based in Geneva, it had been inspired by British and American views of a new international order (especially those of US president Woodrow Wilson), in which future wars could be avoided by an unprecedented form of multinational co-operation.
A group of National Army officers pictured with Seán Mac Eoin (seated, second from left) outside Athlone Castle in 1922. In July 1923, Mac Eoin offered advice to W.T. Cosgrave, the President of the Executive Council, regarding the Irish Free State’s potential entry to the League of Nations. (Photo provided by Athlone Public Library.)
The first Dáil Éireann had unsuccessfully sought admission to the emerging League in its quest for Irish independence to be recognized internationally, and in April 1923 the newly established Irish Free State applied to join, finally being admitted as a member the following September. In the intervening months there was a good deal of debate in Irish official circles about what this might mean in practice, and how it might best be approached, and one of the most notable of such commentaries emanated from Athlone.
The author was Major-General Seán Mac Eoin, the former Longford IRA commander who, having supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, was now the General Officer Commanding of the National Army’s Athlone Command. On 19 July 1923, from Athlone (now Custume) Barracks, he wrote a lengthy missive on the implications of League membership to W.T. Cosgrave, the President of the Executive Council, and the premier of the state that had now applied to join the League. Mac Eoin’s contribution arose from a conversation the two men had a few days earlier. It was unusual for such advice to come from a military, rather than a political or diplomatic figure, but it also stood out due to the thoroughness with which he approached the subject.
One of the key reasons that the Irish Free State wanted to join the League of Nations was to assert its new-found independence from Britain, even as it formally remained a dominion within the British Empire. Mac Eoin was sharply attuned to this. He insisted that any Irish delegation to the League be well staffed and equipped. They should ‘take with them copies of the [Anglo-Irish] Treaty, [the] Constitution, [and] Acts by both Parliaments ratifying the Treaty. These should be brought first for registry in the League of Nations, and secondly [copies] to be given to each Delegate from each Country. There are 52 Countries represented at the League of Nations, so for this purpose 100 copies would at least be necessary. This is part propaganda and to inform the Nations of the World as to what actually our Status amongst the Nations of the World really is’.
Equally, Mac Eoin advised that Michael MacWhite, the Cork-born former French legionnaire who was the Irish Free State’s representative in Geneva, should ‘retain Hotel accommodation for the Delegates in Geneva, as if we let it go any longer it will be very difficult to get [a] place, and you must have a decent place. When admission is gained to the League of Nations our first speech must be in Irish, of which you will have two translations, one in English and one in French. It would be wise that the second speech be in French and the third in English, so as to show the world, that we are Statesmen equal to any Nation of the World’.
It was crucial that Ireland make it clear that it was not merely an adjunct to the United Kingdom. MacWhite had sought to make this clear in Geneva, but Mac Eoin advised concrete measures to back this up: ‘It is also suggested that we immediately start to ratify separately some of the Treaties between the different groups of Nations for instance Opium Treaty for the prevention of Drug traffic, the White Slave Traffic, and all these various Treaties that are registered between the different groups of Nations, of which each Nation must subscribe independently. It seems at the moment that we are taking no steps in the matter’. Such Irish ratifications, he observed, ‘would have a widespread effect and would place us high in the limelight as an Independent Nation’. The actions of other dominions, especially Canada, offered precedents in this regard, and Mac Eoin suggested to Cosgrave that a close watch be kept on how they conducted themselves at the League, the better to ensure, he insisted, ‘that Ireland gets every inch and ounce of freedom out of the Treaty that can be got out of it…I know well that it is only necessary to draw your attention to these matters to have them made right’.
Mac Eoin was not the only person in Athlone to be devoting time to such matters. Between April and September 1923, the Irish Free State’s prospective and actual membership of the League featured regularly in the pages of the Westmeath Independent, back in business since February 1922 following the destruction of its offices in a British reprisal in November 1920. Its readers were generally well served with news of international affairs, but they were now assured that they officially had a stake in them. The Irish application to join the League in April 1923, the departure of the first delegation in September led by Cosgrave, the inaugural speech he delivered, and the welcomes he and his colleagues received both on their arrival in Geneva and on their return to Dublin: all were reported in the pages of the Independent. As for the editorial line, on 7 April it approvingly staked out a claim for the continuity between Easter Week and the creation of ‘Saorstát Éireann’, which was vindicated now by ‘the international recognition which has been accorded her by the nations of the world’. In June the reputation of the League in Athlone was surely bolstered by the reported views of no less a figure than the tenor John MacCormack, who ‘believes passionately in the League of Nations and in America’s full participation in the League’.
The first Irish Free State delegation to the League of Nations, attending its Fourth Assembly in Geneva, September 1923. Seated (L–R): Hugh Kennedy (Attorney General), William T. Cosgrave (President of the Executive Council, as the government was formally known), Eoin MacNeill (Minister for Education). Standing (L–R): Michael MacWhite (Permanent Delegate of Ireland to the League of Nations), Desmond FitzGerald (Minister for External Affairs), the Marquis MacSwiney of Mashanaglass (Substitute Delegate), Kevin O’Shiel (Assistant Legal Adviser), Osmond Grattan Esmonde (Delegate), Diarmuid O’Hegarty (Secretary of the Executive Council), Gearóid McGann (Secretary to the President of the Executive Council). (National Archives, DFA/1/LN/258) - Reproduced by kind permission of the Director, National Archives.
On that note, it should be said that not every mention of the League in the Independent was positive; on 19 May it had carried a piece that reflected Irish-American hostility to the League, as related in John Devoy’s influential US paper the Gaelic American. This noted the relative unpopularity of the League in the US (who never joined it), that the organisation was allegedly just a tool of the British and that, furthermore, ‘going into the League now would be a ratification of Partition, and would place Ireland in an unenviable position before the world’, ensuring that Ireland, as a member of the League, would simply be ‘a pawn in England’s game’. Such scepticism was not too far from some of the views of the League expressed in the columns of the Westmeath Independent in early 1920. But times – and editors – had changed, and as the Irish Free State formally joined the League of Nations in September 1923, the Independent nailed its colours to the mast in fulsome style. On 15 September it stated that:
Ireland has taken her place amongst the nations. At noon on Monday the event – the most notable and significant in the chequered history of our country took place in the beautiful Swiss city, Geneva. It is truly a remarkable achievement and a great victory. President Cosgrave, and those of his colleagues who laboured towards that end deserve the everlasting praise of the Irish people. They have elevated our country to a pinnacle of greatness and placed the Crown on the work begin by Griffith and Collins. The recognition of Ireland’s claim to Nationhood by the Assembly of the League of Nations marks an important epoch and another milestone on the country’s onward march towards peace and prosperity.
A week later, on 22 September, the editorial euphoria had receded, and it was down to business. News that the Anglo-Irish Treaty was to be registered with the League as an international agreement was approvingly noted as a way of locking down the ‘Boundary Question’, by ensuring that it would be impossible for the British to ‘renounce their obligations under the Treaty’. As Mac Eoin had noted in his letter to Cosgrave, ‘we must under no circumstance let England or the Northern Government round off any of the corners [of the Treaty], but that instead that we push them out and take the full benefit of it including the Boundary Commission of which England is a party to and must uphold and interpret in the spirit in which the Treaty was written’.
In that, both Mac Eoin and his local newspaper were essentially in agreement. Such commentaries about Ireland’s relationship to the new League of Nations encapsulate a recognition of both its symbolic importance and practical potential, of a desire to make good the political outcomes of the Irish revolution through international recognition, and to tidy up some of its loose ends through tackling partition. They point towards the next steps that might be taken into an uncertain future, after a decade of conflict and upheaval.
John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy programme.
Ronan Fanning, Eunan O’Halpin, Michael Kennedy and Dermot Keogh (eds), Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Vol. II: 1923-1926 (Dublin, 2000): online at www.difp.ie; Westmeath Independent (April-September 1923); John Gibney, Michael Kennedy and Zoë Reid, On an equal footing with all: Ireland at the League of Nations, 1923-1946 (Dublin, 2023). For details of the National Archives’ exhibition on Ireland and the League of Nations see https://www.nationalarchives.ie/2021commemorationprogramme/about-the-commemoration-programme/
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 03/09/2023