Ireland: Leaders

Irish Free State / Republic of Ireland

Governors General 1921-1937 

The Governor-General (Seanascal) was the official representative of the King in the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1937. The largely ceremonial office was explicitly modelled on that of the Governor General of the Dominion of Canada. Many nationalists saw it as a symbol of continued Irish subservience to the United Kingdom, even after the Irish Free State’s full legislative independence was gained with the enactment of the Statute of Westminster in 1931. For this reason the office had its role increasingly diminished until it was abolished entirely in 1937, retroactively applied to 1936.

Timothy Michael Healy 6 December 1922 – 31 January 1928. He was a leading barrister (KC) and a former Parnellite MP (other candidates considered by WT Cosgrave‘s Cumann na nGaedheal government for the post included the famous painter Sir John Lavery and The Prince of Wales).

James McNeill 1 February 1928 – 1 November 1932. An Ulsterman, he was a former member of Michael Collins‘s constitution committee and a former Chairman of Dublin County Council.

Domhnall Ua Buachalla 27 November 1932 – 11 December 1936. The last surviving Governor-General, he died aged 97 on 30 October 1963.

The first two Governors-general lived in an official residence in Phoenix Park, the Viceregal Lodge (now the official residence of the President of Irelandknown as Áras an Uachtaráin). The last governor-general resided in a specially hired private residence in Booterstown, County Dublin.

The Governor-general was officially referred to as His Excellency. However, unlike all the other governors-general within the British Empire in the 1920s and 1930s, none of the Governors-General of the Irish Free State were ever sworn in as members of the Imperial Privy Council, or wore he official Windsor uniform.

Although formally appointed by the King, the Governor-General was in practice chosen by politicians. Initially, the British Government was involved in the appointment process. However, following the 1926 Imperial Conference, only the Government of the Irish Free State was formally involved. A further effect of the 1926 conference (in particular, of the Balfour Declaration) was that the King also ceased to receive formal advice from the British Government in relation to his role in the Irish Free State; advice was now made only by the Executive Council of the Irish Free State (the ‘Cabinet’).

Until 1928 the Governor-General served an additional role as the British Government’s agent in the Free State. This meant that all official correspondence between the British and Irish governments went through the Governor-General, and that he had access to British government papers. It also meant that he could receive secret instructions from the British Government, and so, for example, on assuming office Tim Healy was formally advised by the British Government to veto any law that attempted to abolish the controversial Oath of Allegiance to the Crown sworn by Irish parliamentarians. However, at the same Imperial Conference from which the change in the mode of the Governor-General’s appointment arose, it was agreed that henceforth the Governors-General of Dominions such as the Free State would lose the second half of their dual role, and no longer be representatives of the British Government, with this role being carried out instead by High Commissioners. Furthermore, because, under the changes agreed, the British Government lost the right to advise the King in relation to the Irish Free State, it could no longer issue binding instructions to the Irish Governor-General.

Éamon de Valera’s government decided to boycott and humiliate McNeill at every turn. This policy was followed, for example, during the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 when McNeill was sidelined and on one occasion the army’s band was withdrawn from a function that he attended. On another occasion, two ministers publicly stormed out of a diplomatic function in Dublin when McNeill arrived as the guest of the French Government. In late 1932, de Valera and McNeill clashed when the Governor-General published his private correspondence with de Valera, and de Valera sought McNeill’s dismissal. King George V, however, acting as peacemaker, persuaded de Valera to withdraw the request on the basis that McNeill was due to finish his term of office within a few weeks. He then persuaded McNeill to bring forward his retirement to 1 November 1932.

On McNeill’s retirement de Valera advised the King to appoint the aged Domhnall Ua Buachalla, a former Fianna Fáil TD, to the post. The new Governor-General (who almost always styled himself as Seanascal) was formally advised by the Government to withdraw from public life and confine himself to formal functions such as giving the Royal Assent, issuing proclamations, dissolving Dáil Éireann and appointing, on de Valera’s advice, ministers to the Executive Council.

In December 1936, when King Edward VIII abdicated, de Valera decided to use the situation as an opportunity to finally abolish the governor-generalship. (The story goes that when he phoned Ua Buachalla on a bad line and told him “You’re abolished“, the latter replied “And so are you, ya so-and-so!“)

As a result of the Constitution (Amendment No. 27) Act 1936, all reference to the King and his official viceregal representative was removed from the Constitution. However, de Valera was later advised by his own Attorney-General and senior advisors that the amendment was not sufficient to abolish the office entirely, which still continued by virtue of Letters Patent, Orders in Council and statute law. Though officially insisting that the office had been abolished, de Valera introduced a second law, the Executive Powers (Consequential Provisions) Act, 1937, to completely eliminate the post from Irish law. Under its own terms the Act applied retroactively, so that the office would be deemed to have been fully abolished in December 1936. In December 1937, under the new Constitution of Ireland, the void was filled as most of the functions that had been performed by the Governor-General until 1936 were vested in a new office of President of Ireland. The State had become a ‘republic in all but name’.

Ua Buachalla and de Valera, although once close friends, fell out over Ua Buachalla’s treatment in the abolition of the governor-generalship, with Ua Buachalla initiating legal proceedings to sue de Valera. However, their relationship was eventually healed and, when de Valera later became President of Ireland, he appointed Ua Buachalla to the Council of State in 1959.

Presidents of Ireland 1937 –

The President of Ireland (Uachtarán na hÉireann) is the head of state of Ireland. The President is usually directly elected by the people for seven years, and can be elected for a maximum of two terms.[2] The presidency is largely a ceremonial office, but the President does exercise certain limited powers with absolute discretion. The president’s official residence is Áras an Uachtaráin in Dublin. The office was established by the Constitution of Ireland in 1937, and became internationally recognised as head of state in 1949 following the coming into force of the Republic of Ireland Act.

Dubhghlas de hÍde / Douglas Hyde 1938-1945

Douglas Hyde / Dubhghlas de hÍde was born in Sligo but he grew up in French Park, county Roscommon. He was a co-founder of Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League), was also a poet and a playwright and he was Professor of Irish at UCD. He became Ireland’s first President at the age of 78 on 25 June 1938 without an election as an agreed candidate and retired from office on 24 June 1945. He passed away on 12 July 1949, aged 89.

Seán T Ó Ceallaigh 1945-1959

Seán T Ó Ceallaigh / O’Kelly was born in Dublin. He was a founder of Sinn Féin and fought in the 1916 Easter Rising. He was elected to the Dáil as a member of Fianna Fáil and served as a government minister. He became President on 25 June 1945. He served both his two, seven year terms and retired on 24 June 1959. He died on 23 November 1966 at the age of 84.

Éamon de Valera 1959-1973

Éamon De Valera was born in New York. He was one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising and for his role he was sentenced to death by the British. However it was later commuted to life imprisonment but he was released from jail in 1917 and in the 1918 General Election led Sinn Féin to a landslide victory. He was the biggest opponent of the Treaty but after the Civil War he left Sinn Féin and founded Fianna Fáil (1926). He was Taoiseach on three occasions and wrote the 1937 Constitution- Bunreacht na hÉireann. He was 76 when he was elected President on 25 June 1959 and served two terms in office before he retired on 24 June 1973. De Valera died on 28 August 1975 aged 92, having been at the forefront of Irish politics for over half a century.

Erskine Childers 1973-1974

Erskine Childers Jr was born in London. His father was a prominent Republican and was on the Anti-Treaty side during the Civil War but was captured and executed. Erskine Childers Jr was a member of Fianna Fáil and served as a minister in five governments. He was Tánaiste prior to his election as President on 25 June 1973. However on 17 November 1974, he died suddenly aged 68.

Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh 1974-1976

Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh was born in Bray, Co. Wicklow. He was President of the Supreme Court and a judge in the European Court of Justice. He was 63 when he became President on 19 December 1974. However he resigned on October 22, 1976, after he was criticised by a government minister for referring a Bill to the Supreme Court before he signed it into law. He died on 21 March 1978.

Patrick Hillery 1976-1990

Patrick Hillery was born in Clare. He was a member of Fianna Fáil and served as a minister on four occasions. As minister for Foreign Affairs he negotiated Ireland’s entry into the EEC (now the EU) in 1973. He was also Ireland’s first European Commissioner. He was not elected President but was an agreed candidate and took up office on December 3, 1976. He served two terms and retired on 2 December 1990.

Mary Robinson/Maire mhic Roibin 1990-1997

Mary Robinson was born in Mayo. She was a barrister and lecturer of Law at Trinity College. She was also a member of the Labour Party. She was elected President on 7 December 1990 and at 46 she was the youngest person to hold the office. During her term she travelled widely and increased the profile of the Presidency both at home and abroad. She resigned two months before the end of her first term in order to become United Nations Commissioner for Refugees.

Mary McAleese/ Maire mhic Giolla Iosa 1997 – 2012

Mary McAleese was born in Belfast. Like Mary Robinson she was lecturer in Law at Trinity College and also served as Pro Vice-Chancellor at Queen’s University, Belfast. She was elected President on 11 November 1997,beating four other candidates of which only one was male.

Michael D Higgins, the current president, was elected on 29 October 2011. His inauguration was held on 11 November 2011.


Taoisigh (Prime Ministers)

The Taoiseach is the head of government (or prime minister) of Ireland. Prior to the enactment of the Constitution of Ireland in 1937, the head of government was referred to as the President of the Executive Council. This office was first held by W. T. Cosgrave from 1922 to 1932, and then by Éamon de Valera from 1932 to 1937. By convention Taoisigh are numbered to include Cosgrave

No. Name Entered Office Left Office Elected Period Party
1. W. T. Cosgrave 6 December 1922 9 March 1932 5 terms Cumann na nGaedheal
2. Éamon de Valera 9 March 1932[nb 4] 18 February 1948 6 terms[nb 5] 1st time Fianna Fáil
3. John A. Costello 18 February 1948 13 June 1951 1 term 1st time Fine Gael
Éamon de Valera 13 June 1951 2 June 1954 1 term 2nd time Fianna Fáil
John A. Costello 2 June 1954 20 March 1957 1 term 2nd time Fine Gael
Éamon de Valera 20 March 1957 23 June 1959 1 term 3rd time Fianna Fáil
4. Seán Lemass 23 June 1959 10 November 1966 3 terms Fianna Fáil
5. Jack Lynch 10 November 1966 14 March 1973 2 terms 1st time Fianna Fáil
6. Liam Cosgrave 14 March 1973 5 July 1977 1 term Fine Gael
Jack Lynch 5 July 1977 11 December 1979 1 term 2nd time Fianna Fáil
7. Charles Haughey 11 December 1979 30 June 1981 1 term 1st time Fianna Fáil
8. Garret FitzGerald 30 June 1981 9 March 1982 1 term 1st time Fine Gael
Charles Haughey 9 March 1982 14 December 1982 1 term 2nd time Fianna Fáil
Garret FitzGerald 14 December 1982 10 March 1987 1 term 2nd time Fine Gael
Charles Haughey 10 March 1987 11 February 1992 2 terms 3rd time Fianna Fáil
9. Albert Reynolds 11 February 1992 15 December 1994 1 term Fianna Fáil
10. John Bruton 15 December 1994 26 June 1997 1 term Fine Gael
11. Bertie Ahern 26 June 1997 7 May 2008 3 terms Fianna Fáil
12. Brian Cowen 7 May 2008 9 March 2011 1 term Fianna Fáil
13. Enda Kenny 9 March 2011 Incumbent 1 term Fine Gael

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