President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
70 years ago Ireland became a Republic, an important stepping stone on the way to our country taking its place among the nations of the world.
It changed our relationship with Britain, it resolved a number of constitutional issues, some significant, some symbolic, and it enabled us to engage with the world in a different way.
A Republic had been declared in Ireland on multiple occasions, this was the only one recognised internationally.
I want to thank the Royal Irish Academy for organising this evening’s event and for putting together such a distinguished group of experts, chaired by Dr. David McCullagh. And I look forward to hearing the views of my Oireachtas colleague, Senator Bacik, and the personal insights of Judge Costello, as well as those of the other panellists.
Today is not an anniversary that is remembered much now, partly I think because we celebrate our independence at Easter.
The events of 1916 rightly have an emotional and historical resonance in our country. The Easter Rising reignited the struggle for Irish freedom and helped make that dream a reality a few years later. However the story of our journey to full independence has many staging posts. These include the convening of the First Dáil, which we commemorated in January, the War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the foundation of the Irish state in 1922, our new Constitution in 1937, and the declaration of the Republic in 1948 which became a reality on Easter Monday 1949.
Since then, we have worked to fulfil our destiny as a free, independent country, playing its part on the world stage, promoting democracy and freedom and defending human rights. As a Republic we joined the United Nations in 1955, and our history of involvement in UN and EU Peacekeeping missions around the world is a testament to our global outlook and vision.
We became a member of the EEC in 1973 and Europe enabled us to develop economically, socially, culturally, and politically, helping us to realise our dreams of freedom, peace, and prosperity into a reality.
Ireland becoming a Republic in 1949 is part of this story. It is no coincidence that the 18th of April 1949, the day the Republic came into effect, was Easter Monday. The Inter-Party Government, led by Taoiseach John A. Costello, chose the date precisely because it wanted to make explicit the link with the 1916 Rising.
Despite the initial reluctance of some, the Republic of Ireland Act was supported by every party in the Dáil, and it passed without difficulty. So, it’s an achievement that belongs to all of us and not any one party.
A remarkable woman, Fianna Fáil’s Senator Helena Concannon, captured the emotion of what was happening when she said that it was ‘a poor Irish heart that would not feel its pulse quicken’ when a bill with the title of the ‘Republic of Ireland’ came before the Seanad. She said it was proof that ‘the death and the sufferings of those who fought in 1798, 1848, 1867 and 1916 were not in vain’.
The Republic of Ireland Act 1949 is one of the seven sacred documents that attest to the sovereignty and legitimacy of this State.
It stands alongside the 1916 Proclamation, the 1921 Treaty, the 1922 Constitution, the 1937 Constitution, the Accession Treaty to the EU, and the Good Friday Agreement.
Ireland is one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world. The 1949 Act is a manifestation of our State’s constitutional evolution. It is a testament to the vision of the Inter-Party Government, and also to the revolutionary generation. We still follow on that path.
Some of the changes the Act made were significant, including removing certain ambiguities about whether the President or the King was head of state. Before 1949 the accreditation for new ambassadors to Ireland had to go through Buckingham Palace, and the King had to approve high-level Irish diplomatic appointments abroad. That all changed.
For people in 1949, becoming a Republic was more than a symbolic change, it was a significant statement about what we had achieved as a country and our aspirations for the future. As such, it was greeted with huge enthusiasm by men, women and children in towns and cities all across the country, who marked it with parades, bonfires, readings of the 1916 Proclamation, and other events. In Castlebar, for example, we have reports of ‘scenes of joyous celebrations’, in Athlone there was a ‘week-end of celebration’, in Donegal a bonfire blazed on The Diamond and there was a huge parade in Drumshambo and other towns. In Co. Kerry towns and villages held events to mark what one local newspaper described as ‘the dawn of a new era’.
In Dublin, tens of thousands of people gathered in the city centre in Dublin at midnight.
Cries of ‘Up the Republic’ were shouted by the jubilant crowd. Searchlight batteries from across the city provided an incredible light display and it was reported that ‘O’Connell Street became a blaze of light’. Tar batteries were lit on hills across the city, providing further illumination. Open-air céilís had been arranged in various parts of the city, and there was music and dancing until the early hours of the morning. The streets were so packed that many people fainted in the excitement and the St. John’s Ambulance staff had to provide medical aid.
For people across the country, the dream of an independent Irish Republic, which had inspired Tone and Emmet, and energised Davis and Pearse, had finally been achieved.
For my part, I have an open mind about how the anniversary of Ireland becoming a Republic should be commemorated each year. Perhaps it is better to do so on Easter Monday, alongside remembering the events of 1916. Perhaps it is best to do so through academic debates, discussions and exhibitions, like we have today. Perhaps it is only the significant anniversaries that should be commemorated, such as the 75th anniversary in 2024. However I think it is important that is remembered in some way and that people are aware of the history of our country and the different stepping stones on the way to freedom.
Becoming a Republic changed our relationship with the United Kingdom forever, but the relationship evolved and grew stronger. Whatever happens over the next few months we will work to ensure the British-Irish relationship continues to be close. It’s important for peace on our island, it’s important for our economy, and it’s important for our people. Our national identity is outward looking, our destiny as a country is no longer dependent on our nearest neighbour. Perhaps that is the greatest legacy of the change that happened 70 years ago.
For some, the occasion of Ireland becoming a Republic in 1949 was a symbolic rather than a real change, for others it was the culmination of a lifelong dream. Our history has shown that symbols matter, dreams matter. The achievement of 70 years ago was a significant moment in our development as a country and today we should be honoured to recognise this and salute the Republic.