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Irish nationality and citizenship since 1922

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

Mary E. Daly*
Department of Modern Irish History, University College Dublin


In the proclamation that was issued on Easter Monday 1916 the provisional government of the Irish Republic undertook to grant ‘equal rights and opportunities to all its citizens’ and to ‘cherish all the children of the nation equally’. It also emphasised that the Republic was ‘oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from a majority in the past’ and referred to the support given to the Republic ‘by her exiled children in America’. The belief that the Irish nation included all inhabitants of the island was a central tenet of Irish nationalism both before and after 1922, and the numerous visits that nationalist leaders have paid to the United States from the time of Parnell and Davitt to the present testify to the importance that has been attached to the Irish overseas. In November 1948, while introducing the second reading of the Republic of Ireland Bill, the Taoiseach, John A. Costello, noted that ‘The Irish at home are only one section of a great race which has spread itself throughout the world, particularly in the great countries of North America and the Pacific.’

Research Article
Copyright © Irish Historical Studies Publications Ltd 2001

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1 Bowman, John, De Valera and the Ulster question, 1917-1973 (Oxford, 1982), pp 2930Google Scholar, 300-1.

2 Dáil Éireann deb., cxiii,393 (24 Nov. 1948).

3 Another aspect concerns the status of spouses and children in marriages between couples of different nationalities. I propose to examine this topic in a separate article.

4 Select working papers and memoranda on the constitution (U.C.D.A., Hugh Kennedy papers, P4/308); Dáil Êireann deb., i, 662-7 (25 Sept. 1922). A memorandum by the Department of External Affairs in response to an article on ‘Aliens in Ireland’ in Irish World, 17 Aug. 1935, noted that ‘Owing to the arbitrary condition of domicile in Ireland on 6 December 1922, compliance with which was necessary in order to acquire citizenship under the Constitution, large numbers of our people who had left Ireland before 1922 were deprived of Irish citizenship’ (N.A.I., DFA 1/20).

5 Briain, Barra Ó, The Irish constitution (Dublin, 1929), pp 64-5Google Scholar.

6 ‘Nationality and citizenship, 1929-30’ (U.C.D.A., McGilligan papers, P35b/103 (2)).

7 Hansard 5 (Commons), clix, 771 (29 Nov. 1922); ibid., cols 373-4 (27 Nov. 1922). M.P.s were particularly concerned that articles 7 and 8 appeared to restrict the constitutional guarantee of property rights and freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion to Irish citizens.

8 Dáil Éireann deb., i, 669 (25 Sept. 1922). This should undoubtedly read ‘British Nationality Act’. The 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act regulated the nationality and citizenship of British subjects throughout the Empire until 1948.

9 O’Grady, James P., ‘The Irish Free State passport and the question of citizenship, 1921-4’ in I.H.S., xxvi, no. 104 (Nov. 1989), pp 396405Google Scholar.

10 Devonshire to Healy, 27 Mar., 10 Aug. 1923 (N.A.I., DT S1971A, Passports General File).

11 FitzGerald to Walsh, 21 Dec. 1923 (ibid.).

12 Ibid. FitzGerald’s reference to the ‘Portuguese Jew or Spanish Jew’ related to the Don Pacifico incident of 1850 when the Royal Navy blockaded Greek ships in order to enforce claims for compensation on behalf of Don Pacifico, a Portuguese Jew and a British subject because he had been born in Gibraltar. In 1948 the Home Secretary, Chuter Ede, cited the Don Pacifico affair in a speech introducing the second reading of the 1948 British Nationality Bill (Hansard 5 (Commons), ccccliii, 393 (7 July 1948)).

13 O’Grady, ‘Irish Free State passport’, pp 403-5.

14 Memo from the Dominions Office to the Department of External Affairs, 13 May 1924 (N.A.I. DT S1971 A).

15 Memo from FitzGerald, 27 Nov. 1926 (ibid., DT S1971B). The 1926 Imperial Conference recommended that in future the title of the king should be ‘George V, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, King, etc.’ This title acknowledged the Conference’s recognition that the British Commonwealth consisted of ‘diverse nationalities’ (Harkness, D.W., The restless dominion: the Irish Free State and the British Commonwealth of Nations, 1921-31 (London, 1969), pp 104-5Google Scholar).

16 Memo to Executive Council, 16 Dec. 1926 (N.A.I., DT S1971B).

17 Record of conversation between McGilligan and Lovat, 20 Mar. 1928 (U.C.D.A., Blythe papers, P24/159, Saorstát passports).

18 Circular signed by Robert Vansittart, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, Jan. 1930 (N.A.I., DT S1971B).

19 Memo from Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Justice, 13 Oct. 1924 (ibid., DT S6501).

20 Harkness, Restless dominion, p. 202.

21 Devonshire to Healy, 10 Aug. 1923 (N.A.I., DT S1971 A).

22 Memo from O’Higgins, 13 Oct. 1924 (ibid., DT S6501).

23 Barra Ó Briain claimed that article 3 conferred Irish citizenship on children born within the Irish Free State after 1922, provided that their parents were Irish citizens (O Briain, Irish constitution, pp 64-5). This was not the official view. Replies to queries concerning eligibility for Irish citizenship distinguish between those who were born before 6 December 1922, who are automatically citizens under the 1922 constitution, and those born at a later date (e.g. John Hearne, law officer, Department of External Affairs, to Dr E. D. Curran, M.D., 26 Feb. 1935, quoted in ‘Citizenship Bill, 1934, suggestions’ (N.A.I., DFA 1/120)). A subsequent study noted that article 3 ‘made no provision for persons born after 1922’ (Heuston, R. V. V., ‘British nationality and Irish citizenship’ in International Affairs, xxvi (1950), p. 83Google Scholar).

24 Minister for Justice to each member of the Executive Council, 13 Oct. 1924 (N.A.I., DTS6501).

25 Harkness cites the curious case of a Frenchwoman who married an Irish diplomat and assumed her husband’s nationality; she became a British subject! (Harkness, Restless dominion, p. 204).

26 ‘Nationality and citizenship’ [1929-30] (U.C.D.A., McGilligan papers, P35b/103).

27 Harkness, Restless dominion, p. 121.

28 ‘Nationality of married women’, 23 Sept. 1929 (N.A.I., DFA 1/20).

29 Memo from the Department of Justice, Oct. 1929 (U.C.D. A., McGilligan papers, P35b/103).

30 Harkness, Restless dominion, pp 200-2.

31 ‘Nationality’, n.d. (U.C.D.A., McGilligan papers, P35/b/103).

32 Hancock, W.K., Survey of British Commonwealth affairs, i: Problems of nationality, 1918-1936 (Oxford, 1937), p. 380Google Scholar.

33 R. T. E. Latham, ‘The law and the Commonwealth’, ibid., p. 584.

34 Imperial Conference, 1937: summary of proceedings, section xiv (pp 23-8) [Cmd 5482], 1937-8.

35 Dáil Éireann deb., xxxiii, 2032-3 (19 Mar. 1930). The Hague Conference on Nationality was established at the behest of the League of Nations to devise an international protocol on nationality. It was particularly concerned with problems resulting from the aftermath of the First World War, such as statelessness and dual nationality.

36 Memo ‘for answer’, 19 Mar. 1930 (U.C.D.A., McGilligan papers, P35b/103).

37 Memo from Hearne, 30 Jan. 1934 (N.A.I., DFA 1/56).

38 British and Commonwealth citizens were not eligible to vote or to serve on juries. They also suffered a measure of economic discrimination (see below, pp 392-4).The question of enfranchising British subjects was raised in 1933 during the deliberations on the Nationality Bill (N.A.I., DT S6501).

39 Hearne to Roche, 21 Aug. 1930 (U.C.D.A., Desmond FitzGerald papers, P80/603).

40 ‘Questions requiring decisions of policy’, 18 Nov. 1933 (N.A.I., DT S6501).

41 Quoted in Harkness, Restless dominion, pp 200-2.

42 Hancock, Survey, i, 379; McMahon, Deirdre, Republicans and imperialists: Anglo-Irish relations in the 1930s (London & New Haven, 1984), pp 142-3Google Scholar.

43 Dáil Éireann deb., liv, 410-11 (28 Nov. 1934).

44 Ibid., cols 394-5.

45 ‘Observations of the Department of External Affairs on points raised by the Executive Council’, 10 Jan. 1934 (N.A.I., DT S6501).

46 ‘Irish persons resident in U.K., position under the new bill’, 28 Apr. 1935 (ibid., DFA 1/125).

47 ‘Irish labour, emigration to Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 1940-44’ (ibid., DTS11582A).

48 ‘Citizenship Bill, 1934, suggestions’ (ibid., DFA 1/120).

49 Lord Jowitt’s speech, 11 May 1948, quoted in Mansergh, Nicholas (ed.), Documents and speeches on British Commonwealth Affairs, 1931-52 (2 vols, Oxford, 1953), ii, 969Google Scholar. Jowitt noted that the hope that all Commonwealth countries would subscribe to a common scheme of citizenship, based on the 1914 British nationality act, ‘was completely shattered’ by the 1945 Canadian citizenship act.

50 McCabe, Ian, A diplomatic history of Ireland, 1948-49 (Dublin, 1991), p. 53Google Scholar.

51 Heuston, ‘British nationality & Irish citizenship’, p. 86.

52 Hansard 5 (Commons), ccccliii, 386 (7 July 1948).

53 Aide-mémoire prepared by the Department of External Affairs, 16, 22 Jan. 1947 (N.A.I., DT S14002A). On 31 January 1947 the government agreed to send a delegation to London. The relevant clause in the British Nationality Act is reproduced in Mansergh, (ed.), Documents & speeches, ii, 950Google Scholar. Children born in the Irish Free State after 1 January 1949 could not claim British citizenship under article 2.

54 Aide-mémoire prepared by the Department of External Affairs, 6 July 1948 (N.A.I..DT S14002B).

55 Hansard 5 (Commons), ccccliii, 385-96, 503-10 (7 July 1948); ibid., cols 1095-8 (13 July 1948).

56 Dáil Éireann deb., cxi, 1787, 1940 (30 June 1948).Tensions between the government and the opposition were further inflamed by the publication of an article on the British Nationality Bill which appeared in the Irish Press on 30 June 1948 and which the government claimed was based on confidential government files. Ministers alleged that the author, who was described in the paper as ‘a special correspondent’, was Carroll O’Daly (Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, a future president of Ireland), who had been attorney general in the Fianna Fáil government when it left office in February 1948 (Dáil Éireann deb., cxi, 1931-43 (30 June 1948)).

57 Costello to de Valera, 14 July 1948 (N.A.I., DT S14002). De Valera complied, though he criticised the measure at length in the course of a speech in the debate on the estimates for the Department of External Affairs (Dáil Éireann deb., cxii, 947-58 (21 July 1948)).

58 McCabe, Diplomatie hist. Ire., pp 37, 58-9,79,83.

59 ‘Irish labour, emigration to Britain and Northern Ireland, 1945-8’ (N.A.I., DT S11582B).

60 Royal Commission on Population: report, pp 125-8 (paras 331-7) [Cmd 7695], 1949. Although this report was not published until 1949, Britain and the Commonwealth countries were already aware of the implications of the falling British birth-rate.

61 Dáil Éireann deb., cxiii, 382 (24 Nov. 1948).

62 Fanning, Ronan, Independent Ireland (Dublin, 1983), p. 137Google Scholar; McMahon, Republicans & imperialists, p. 288.

63 0’Grady, ‘lrish Free State passport’, p. 399.

64 Heuston, ‘British nationality & Irish citizenship’, p. 83.

65 In 1929 Barra Ó Briain had claimed that the 1922 constitution did not confer Irish citizenship on residents of Northern Ireland. According to Ó Briain, because the act of the British parliament ratifying the Anglo-Irish treaty was passed on 5 December 1922, i.e. the day before the 1922 constitution came into effect, ‘consequently by virtue of Article 11 of the Treaty the area of jurisdiction of the Irish Free State did not include six of the counties of Ulster on 6 December 1922’ (Ó Briain, Irish constitution, pp 64-5).

66 Dáil Éireann deb., liv, 402 (28 Nov. 1934).

67 Ibid., cols 410-11.

68 ‘Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill’, 1955 (N.A.I., DT S15579).

69 Hansard N.I. (Commons), xl, 2360 (10 Oct. 1956).

70 N. S. Ó Nualláin, Department of the Taoiseach, to T. Coyne, secretary, Department of Justice, 25 June 1954 (N.A.I., DT S13707A).

71 Johnson, David, ‘Partition and cross-border trade in the 1920s’ in Roebuck, Peter (ed.), Plantation to partition: essays in Ulster history in honour of J. L. McCracken (Belfast, 1981), p. 246Google Scholar.

72 Cited in Daly, Mary E., Industrial development and Irish national identity, 1922-39 (Syracuse, N.Y. & Dublin, 1992), pp 105-6Google Scholar.

73 Legal restrictions applied to persons born in Northern Ireland under the following acts: Merchant Shipping Act, 1947; Harbour Act, 1947; Pilotage Act, 1913 (which restricted employment as a pilot in certain ports to those born in the town); Road Transport Act, 1935; Control of Manufactures Act, 1932; Control of Manufactures Act, 1934, and Control of Manufactures Amendment Act, 1937; Agricultural Produce Cereals Act, 1933; Air Navigation and Transport Act, 1935; Air Navigation (General Regulations) Act, 1930; Industrial and Commercial Property Act, 1927, as amended by the Industrial and Commercial Property Act, 1929.

74 Daly, Mary E., ‘“An Irish-Ireland for business”? The Control of Manufactures Acts, 1932 and 1934’ in I.H.S., xxiv, no. 94 (Nov. 1984), pp 263-5Google Scholar.

75 Memo prepared by the Department of Industry and Commerce, June 1949 (N.A.I., DT S13707).

76 ‘Irish citizenship, provisions for British legislation’, n.d. (ibid., DT S14002A).

77 Ibid.

78 ‘Irish Nationality and Citizenship Bill’, Sept. 1953 (N.A.I., DT S15579A).

79 The 1922 constitution did not distinguish on the basis of gender; consequently, in the case of emigrants who were born before 1922, citizenship could be transmitted by either parent.

80 Department of Foreign Affairs,‘1935 Act. Foreign Births Register’. My thanks to Gary Ansbro and to Mary Foran of the Consular Section, Department of Foreign Affairs, for enabling me to gain access to the registers that are held by the department.

81 E. D. Curran to de Valera, 4 Feb. 1935, quoted in ‘Citizenship Bill, 1934, suggestions’ (N.A.I., DFA 1/120).

82 ‘Nationality of married women’, 24 Aug. 1935 (ibid.).

83 Cabinet minutes, 13 Jan. 1934 (N.A.I., Cab 7/103).

84 Walshe to Roche, 6 Nov. 1934 (ibid., DFA 1/117).

85 ‘Saorstát citizens who went to the U.S.A. after 6 Dec. 1922 and became American citizens — removal of restrictions on the return of such persons to Saorstát Éireann’, 1935 (ibid.).

86 Memo prepared by the Department of External Affairs, 24 Aug. 1935 (N.A.I., DFA 1/20).

87 ‘Citizenship enquiry regarding Irish-born persons absent from Saorstát Éireann between 1921 and 1932; question of domicile under article 3’, 27 July 1936 (ibid., DFA 1/338).

88 Citizenship inquiry of William Baldick, 1 Oct. 1936 (ibid., DFA 1/290). This tolerance of dual citizenship is one of the few instances where Irish nationality law was not identical to the British Nationality Act.

89 Statement by James Everett, Minister for Justice (Dáil Éireann deb., clv, 1055 (22 Mar. 1956)).

90 There were two sets of registers: the registers held in each consular office, e.g. in New York, and the main register that was maintained in the Department of External Affairs. Names were entered first in the local register; at a later date they were recorded in the main register in Dublin.

91 Higham, John, Strangers in the land: patterns of American nativism, 1860-1925 (New York, 1963), p. 301Google Scholar.

92 Citizenship application of Mr and Mrs G. B. Shaw (N. A.I., DFA 1/326).

93 Although the 1935 act specified that all claimants must register within a maximum period of two years, this requirement does not appear to have been enforced.

94 McCabe, Diplomatic hist. Ire., pp 83-4.

95 The committee consisted of T. Coyne, secretary of the Department of Justice, William Fay, secretary of the Department of External Affairs, and Philip O’Donoghue, of the office of the attorney general. No copy of the committee’s report has been located in N.A.I.

96 Ó Nualláin to Coyne, 29 Sept. 1953 (N.A.I., DT S15579).This seems to echo the spirit of the Israeli law of return, which was passed in July 1950, giving Jews everywhere the legal right of immigration to Israel.

97 Ó Nualláin to Coyne, 8 Oct. 1953 (ibid.).

98 Inter-departmental committee, 31 Oct. 1953 (ibid.).

99 Introduction or bill, 1956 (ibid.); reference to backlog, 10 May 1955 (ibid.).

100 Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act (no. 26), 1956.

101 Hansard N.I. (Commons), xl, 2358-9 (10 Oct. 1956).

102 Dáil Éireann deb., cliv, 1000-11 (29 Feb. 1956).

103 ‘An Tóstai, National Festival, 1953’ (N.A.I., DT S15297A).

104 Hansard N.I. (Commons), xl, 2367 (10 Oct. 1956).

105 Dáil Éireann deb, cliv, 1011-12 (29 Feb. 1956).

106 Inaugural address, 3 Dec. 1990 (Irish Times, 4 Dec. 1990).

107 Akenson, D.H., The Irish diaspora (Belfast, 1993), pp 56, 103-36Google Scholar.

108 Rose, E.J.B., Colour and citizenship: a report on British race relations (Oxford, 1069), pp 83-7Google Scholar.

109 The London embassy had been monitoring the possibility that controls would be applied to Irish immigrants for some years: ‘Irish labour emigration, 1961-3’ (N.A.I., DTS97/6/310).

110 Peach, Ceri, Robinson, Vaughan, Maxted, Julia and Chance, Judith, ‘Immigration and ethnicity’ in Halsey, A. H. (ed.), British social trends since 1900 (London, 1988), pp 568-9Google Scholar.

111 Dáil Éireann deb., ccclxiv, 2619 (21 Mar. 1986).The primary purpose of the 1986 act was to provide for equal treatment of men and women concerning the rights of alien spouses of Irish citizens. The changes in citizenship by descent did not attract much attention in Dáil Éireann.

112 There appears to be no indication as to the number of Northern Ireland residents who made a formal declaration of Irish citizenship as required under section 7 of the 1956 act.