Enactment of the Constitution of Ireland

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The current Constitution of Ireland came into effect on 29 December 1937, having been enacted by a plebiscite on 1 July 1937 of voters in what was then the Irish Free State. The Constitution was closely associated with Éamon de Valera, the President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State at the time, who was personally eager to replace the Constitution of the Irish Free State.


The Constitution of Ireland replaced the Constitution of the Irish Free State, which had been in effect since the independence of the Irish state from the United Kingdom on 6 December 1922.

1922 Constitution[edit]

The original text of the 1922 Constitution was a schedule to the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) Constitution Act 1922, passed by the Third Dáil sitting as a "Constituent Assembly" on 25 October 1922.[1][2] This Act has subsequently been regarded by Irish courts as sufficient in itself to bring the Constitution into effect. However, the view of the British government at the time was different, and the UK Parliament passed on 5 December 1922 its own act, the Irish Free State Constitution Act 1922, with the entire Irish Act as a schedule, to give effect to the Constitution in British law.[3]

Under the 1922 Constitution amendments were governed by Article 50. Article 50, at the time the 1937 Constitution was adopted, provided that constitutional amendments could be enacted by the Oireachtas (parliament) under the same procedure used for the adoption of ordinary laws. De Valera's government repudiated the 1922 Constitution as an unrepublican, foreign imposition and so deliberately provided that the new constitution would be adopted by in a manner outside the terms of the 1922 Constitution.

Motivation for change[edit]

There were two main motivations for replacing the constitution in 1937. Firstly, the Irish Free State constitution of 1922 was, in the eyes of many, associated with the controversial Anglo-Irish Treaty. The largest political group in the anti-treaty faction, who opposed the treaty initially by force of arms, had boycotted the institutions of the new Irish Free State until 1926. In 1932 they were elected into power as the Fianna Fáil party.

After 1932, under the provisions of the Statute, some of the articles of the original Constitution which were required by the Anglo-Irish Treaty were dismantled by acts of the Oireachtas. Such amendments removed references to the Oath of Allegiance, appeals to the United Kingdom's Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the British Crown and the Governor General. The sudden abdication of Edward VIII in December 1936 was quickly used to redefine the royal connection via the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act 1936.[4] Nevertheless, the Fianna Fáil government, led by Éamon de Valera, still desired to replace the constitutional document they saw as having been imposed by the UK government in 1922.

The second motive for replacing the original constitution was primarily symbolic. De Valera wanted to put an Irish stamp on the institutions of government, and chose to do this in particular through the use of Irish Gaelic nomenclature.

Drafting process[edit]

De Valera personally supervised the writing of the Constitution. It was drafted initially by John Hearne, legal adviser to the Department of External Affairs (now called the Department of Foreign Affairs). It was translated into Irish over a number of drafts by a group headed by Micheál Ó Gríobhtha (assisted by Risteárd Ó Foghludha), who worked in the Irish Department of Education. De Valera served as his own External Affairs Minister, hence the use of the Department's Legal Advisor, with whom he had previously worked closely, as opposed to the Attorney General or someone from the Department of the President of the Executive Council. He also received significant input from John Charles McQuaid, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, on religious, educational, family and social welfare issues.

A draft of the constitution was presented personally to the Vatican for review and comment on two occasions by the Department Head at External Relations, Joseph P. Walsh. Prior to its tabling in Dáil Éireann and presentation to the Irish electorate in a plebiscite, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, said about the final amended draft, "I do not approve, neither do I disapprove; We shall maintain silence."[5][6] The quid pro quo for this indulgence of the Catholic Church's interests in Ireland was the degree of respectability which it conferred on De Valera's formerly denounced republican faction and its reputation as the 'semi-constitutional' political wing of the 'irregular' anti-treaty forces.


The government desired that the document be approved by the people's elected representatives before being put to a vote. The Free State Oireachtas was originally bicameral, consisting of the Dáil and the Seanad or Senate, as well as the Governor-General, who gave royal assent to bills to enact them. However, the Seanad and Governor-General had been abolished in 1936, so that once passed by the Dáil a bill was automatically enacted by the Oireachtas and became law.

The Constitution was not presented as a bill for enactment by the Oireachtas. Instead, the standing orders of the Dáil were changed so that it could pass a resolution by which it merely "approved" the draft constitution without it therefore immediately becoming law. The draft Constitution was introduced in Dáil on 10 March 1937, and was processed in the same manner as a bill, with first and second stages, committee and report stages, and a final stage on 14 June. Some amendments were made; notably, the name of the state was changed from Éire to "Éire, or in the English language, Ireland".


The framers of the 1937 Constitution decided that it would be enacted not by an elected body but by the people themselves by means of a plebiscite. The preamble to the 1937 Constitution is thus written in the name not of the legislature but of "We, the people of Éire". The Oireachtas passed the Plebiscite (Draft Constitution) Act 1937, which provided for the holding of a plebiscite on the draft constitution. The plebiscite was held on 1 July 1937 (the same day as the 1937 general election). The question put to voters was simply "Do you approve of the Draft Constitution which is the subject of this plebiscite?". It was passed by a plurality. 56% of voters were in favour, comprising 38.6% of the whole electorate.

Among the groups who opposed the constitution were supporters of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, Unionists, and some independents and feminists. The question put to voters was simply "Do you approve of the Draft Constitution which is the subject of this plebiscite?".

Plebiscite on the Constitution of Ireland[7]
Choice Votes  %
Referendum passed Yes 685,105 56.52%
No 526,945 43.48%
Valid votes 1,212,050 90.03%
Invalid or blank votes 134,157 9.97%
Total votes 1,346,207 100.00%
Registered voters/turnout 1,775,055 75.84%
Constituency Electorate Votes Turnout Yes No Spoilt Percent Yes
Cork City 53,019 38,850 73.3 20,765 15,392 2,693 57.4
Dublin North–East 50,323 36,579 72.7 18,651 16,496 1,432 53.1
Dublin North–West 69,174 47,638 68.9 26,095 19,210 2,333 57.6
Dublin South 82,659 57,560 69.6 32,669 21,504 3,387 60.3
Dublin Townships 52,664 37,690 71.6 14,810 21,336 1,544 41
Athlone–Longford 38,295 29,849 77.9 15,648 11,367 2,834 57.9
Carlow–Kildare 48,536 36,793 75.8 18,745 14,407 3,641 56.5
Cavan 47,008 37,824 80.5 17,412 16,508 3,904 51.3
Clare 62,551 49,731 79.5 29,279 16,454 3,998 64
Cork North 47,822 39,372 82.3 17,458 16,350 5,564 51.6
Cork South–East 41,669 32,061 76.9 13,764 12,733 5,564 51.9
Cork West 67,017 53,866 80.4 19,741 24,668 9,457 44.5
Donegal East 48,975 36,908 75.4 18,680 13,041 5,187 58.9
Donegal West 38,532 27,639 71.7 14,160 11,086 2,393 56.1
Dublin County 83,457 58,855 70.5 26,901 28,840 3,114 48.3
Galway East 49,476 34,642 70.0 21,273 10,049 3,320 67.9
Galway West 42,796 26,141 61.1 17,836 6,234 2,071 74.1
Kerry North 48,621 35,533 73.1 21,292 10,857 3,384 66.2
Kerry South 35,390 26,325 74.4 13,658 9,573 3,094 58.8
Kilkenny 40,900 33,589 82.1 16,926 13,746 2,917 55.2
Leitrim 36,368 27,551 75.8 12,583 8,429 6,539 59.9
Leix–Offaly 60,945 48,344 79.3 25,654 17,717 4,973 59.2
Limerick 81,397 66,078 81.2 35,187 21,954 8,937 61.6
Louth 38,570 30,311 78.6 16,326 11,688 2,297 58.3
Mayo North 38,170 25,934 67.9 15,900 8,247 1,787 65.8
Mayo South 59,999 42,205 70.3 22,225 15,734 4,246 58.6
Meath–Westmeath 61,654 49,094 79.6 27,586 18,704 2,804 59.6
Monaghan 36,469 31,511 86.4 16,189 12,107 3,215 57.2
Roscommon 42,103 32,170 76.4 15,481 12,910 3,779 54.5
Sligo 36,516 28,475 78.0 10,780 11,916 5,779 47.5
Tipperary 82,727 67,656 81.8 34,776 28,041 4,839 55.4
Waterford 51,596 41,192 79.8 22,118 16,578 2,496 57.2
Wexford 61,486 48,366 78.7 23,129 20,391 4,846 53.1
Wicklow 38,171 29,875 78.3 11,408 12,678 5,789 47.4

Legal basis of enactment[edit]

There were diverging views on whether the 1937 Constitution of Ireland was a revolutionary breach of legal continuity with the 1922 Constitution it replaced. There are two main arguments that it was:

  • The method used conflicted with the method set down in the 1922 Constitution. The 1922 Constitution provided that constitutional amendments be enacted in the same manner as ordinary laws, i.e. as Acts of the Oireachtas. However, the 1937 Constitution was not an Act of the Oireachtas. Instead, it was "approved" by the Dáil and then submitted to the people in a plebscite and only deemed to have become law once voters had endorsed it.
  • The second and related argument was that the 1937 Constitution purported to repeal the 1922 Constitution even though the 1922 Constitution did not explicitly grant the Oireachtas the power to do so.

The Department of External Affairs notified foreign governments only of the change of name; it did not re-accredit diplomats as would be expected were the post-1937 Ireland a successor state of the previous Irish Free State.[8]

Legitimacy of 1937 Constitution under UK law[edit]

It is clear that the 1922 Constitution Act could be amended as far as British law was concerned. In the United Kingdom the 1922 Constitution owed its validity to an Act of the Constituent Assembly established under British law and therefore derived its legitimacy from an Act of the British Parliament: the Irish Free State Constitution Act. In 1931 the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster. This Statute renounced the British Parliament's right to legislate for the Irish Free State. It also granted the Oireachtas the authority to amend all laws affecting the State including both of the 1922 Constitution Acts. Thus as far as British law was concerned amendments to the 1922 Constitution Acts could be legitimate. However, that does not necessarily mean that the enactment of the 1937 Constitution could be considered legitimate under British law. This is because the 1937 Constitution was not adopted in accordance with any law. Others have argued that even the adoption of the 1937 Constitution could be considered legitimate under British law because it could somehow be considered an amendment of the 1922 Constitution. Paradoxically, this was a proposition that the 1937 Constitution's sponsors themselves could not accept. To accept this argument would have been to recognise that the law of an alien parliament (the Statute of Westminster) could affect constitutional matters in Ireland.

Coming into force[edit]

Neither the Dáil resolution approving the draft Constitution nor the Plebiscite (Draft Constitution) Act 1937 providing for the plebiscite established how the Constitution would come into force. It was the Constitution itself which stated that this would happen 180 days after its approval,[9] and that the 1922 Constitution would simultaneously be repealed.[10] This happened on 29 December 1937, 180 days after the plebiscite on 1 July. Consequential acts were passed between July and December to provide for the establishment of, and holding elections for, the new Seanad[11] and the Presidency,[12] as well as for other adaptations.[13] The Presidential Establishment Act, 1938 was passed after the Constitution had come into effect but before the first President, Douglas Hyde, took office.[14]

New official stamps, seals, and papers marked "Éire" replaced those with "Saorstát Éireann"; in some cases immediately, in other cases after existing stocks had run out.

International response[edit]

When the new constitution was enacted, the British government, according to the New York Times "contented itself with a legalistic protest".[15] Its protest took the form of a communiqué on 30 December 1937 in which the British stated:[16][17]

"His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom has considered the position created by the new Constitution ... of the Irish Free State, in future to be described under the Constitution as 'Eire' or 'Ireland' ... [and] cannot recognize that the adoption of the name 'Eire' or 'Ireland', or any other provision of those articles [of the Irish constitution], involves any right to territory ... forming part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland ... They therefore regard the use of the name 'Eire' or 'Ireland' in this connection as relating only to that area which has hitherto been known as the Irish Free State."

The Eire (Confirmation of Agreements) Act 1938 provided that Eire would be the style in UK law for the Irish state.

The Irish Government received a message of goodwill from 268 United States congressmen including eight senators. The signatories expressed "their ardent congratulations on the birth of the State of Ireland and the consequent coming into effect of the new constitution", adding that "We regard the adoption of the new constitution and the emergence of the State of Ireland as events of the utmost importance."[18]



Dáil debates[edit]


  1. ^ "CONSTITUTION OF SAORSTAT EIREANN BILL – AS AMENDED ON REPORT.". Dáil Éireann debates. 25 October 1922. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  2. ^ "Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) Act 1922". Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  3. ^ 13 Geo.5 sess.2 c.1
  4. ^ Dáil Éireann – Volume 64 – 12 December, 1936. Executive Authority (External Relations) Bill, 1936 – Committee Stage.
  5. ^ "(UCDA P150/2419) Visit to Rome / Constitution from Joseph P. Walshe to Eamon de Valera". Documents on IRISH FOREIGN POLICY. 22 April 1937. pp. Vol.V No.43. Retrieved 5 August 2013. 
  6. ^ Larkin, Emmet (December 1975). "Church, State, and Nation in Modern Ireland". The American Historical Review (Oxford University Press) 80 (5): 1244–76. doi:10.2307/1852059. ; reprinted in Larkin, Emmet J. (1976). "Church, State, and Nation in Modern Ireland". The Historical Dimensions of Irish Catholicism. CUA Press. pp. 91–130. ISBN 9780813205946. Retrieved 5 August 2013. 
  7. ^ "Referendum Results 1937–2009". Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Retrieved 8 March 2010. 
  8. ^ "Memorandum, Rynne to Walshe from Michael Rynne to Joseph P. Walshe". Documents on IRISH FOREIGN POLICY. Royal Irish Academy. 19 January 1940. pp. Vol.VI No.110. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  9. ^ 1937 Constitution, Article 62
  10. ^ 1937 Constitution, Article 48
  11. ^ Irish Statute Book: Seanad Electoral (University Members) Act, 1937, Seanad Electoral (Panel Members) Act, 1937
  12. ^ Irish Statute Book: Presidential Seal Act, 1937, Local Government (Nomination of Presidential Candidates) Act, 1937, Presidential Elections Act, 1937, Defence Forces Act, 1937
  13. ^ Irish Statute Book: Constitution (Consequential Provisions) Act, 1937, Interpretation Act, 1937
  14. ^ "Presidential Establishment Act, 1938". Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  15. ^ "ULSTER'S INCLUSION BARRED BY BRITAIN; London Protests Claim That Belfast Eventually Must Be Ruled by Dublin; LITTLE CHANGE IS SEEN; Premier of Northern Ireland Attacks Constitution as an 'Affront to His Majesty'". New York Times. 30 December 1937. p. 2. 
  16. ^ Circular dated 1 April 1949 from the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs to Heads of Post Abroad (Circular Document No.B38, 836. DEA/7545‑B‑40)
  17. ^ The Manchester Guardian, 30 December 1937 Britain accepts new name for the Free State. Full text of British Government's communiqué cited in Clifford, Angela, The Constitutional History of Eire/Ireland, Athol Books, Belfast, 1985, p153.
  18. ^ The Canberra Times – Thursday 13 January 1938

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