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Some confusion surrounds the question of what we should call the independent
sovereign state that occupies 80% of the land area of the island of Ireland.
That confusion is entirely understandable, and the purpose of this note is to
The Irish Constitution of 1937 says: "The name of the State is
Éire, or, in the English language, Ireland".
The Republic of Ireland Act, 1948, says: "It is hereby declared that the
description of the State shall be the Republic of Ireland."
Irish passports simply bear the name Ireland.
Irish government regulations and official statements frequently refer to
"the Republic of Ireland".
Comhairle, a statutory agency responsible for the provision of
information, advice and advocacy to members of the public on social service,
says on its web site:
'The names of political entities and other terms can often be quite
contentious. The Irish and British governments have agreed to use the official
names by which each state describes itself. (This agreement was made at the
same time as the British-Irish Agreement). The correct name for this country is
Ireland, not the "Republic of Ireland".'
First, a brief summary of the historical setting. The struggle for Irish
independence attained only partial success in 1921 with the creation of the
Irish Free State. From a republican point of view it was deficient in two
principal respects: Ireland remained part of the British Commonwealth, with the
British King as its titular head; and the six counties of the north-eastern
part of the island remained part of the United Kingdom. A successful attempt
was made in 1937 to distance the state from Britain with a new constitution,
removing all references to the British Crown, and renaming the state
"Éire, or, in the English language, Ireland". That constitution also laid
claim to sovereignty over Northern Ireland, a claim which remains to this day,
though significantly modified in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement between
the Irish and UK governments in 1998.
In 1948 the Irish government decided to sever all links with the British
Commonwealth. The Republic of Ireland Act was its main legal instrument.
The following quotes from contemporary parliamentary debates on the subject are
Major de Valera: …I say the name "Éire" was misrepresented in
popular usage and in some places it was maliciously used to designate the
Twenty-Six Counties and not the Ireland of the Constitution. I want to appeal
to all Deputies here to co-operate in securing that the usage of the words
"Republic of Ireland" or "Poblacht na hÉireann" will not degenerate into
merely a description of the Twenty-Six Counties as a republic.
Mr. Duffy: [With reference to the Constitution of 1937] …The question
whether this country was to be described as a republic or not was a matter for
decision outside the Constitution, a matter to be decided independently.
The Taoiseach: …If I say that my name is Costello and that my
description is that of senior counsel, I think that will be clear to anybody who
wants to know. If the Senator will look at Article 4 of the Constitution she
will find that the name of the State is Éire. Section 2 of this Bill
declares that "this State shall be described as the Republic of Ireland". Its
name in Irish is Éire and in the English language Ireland. Its
description in the English language is "the Republic of Ireland".
The question of a possible conflict with the Constitution was pertinent, since a
constitutional amendment would require a referendum which the government was not
sure it could win. But in any case there was no good reason to change the
Constitution in this way, for the option to use "Ireland" as the name of the
state could be useful internationally, as the following extract from The Times
of 8 August 1949 - just four months after the Act came into force - makes
Mr MacBride, the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs, tonight sent an official
request to the Council of Europe to refer to his country simply as Ireland and
not as Eire or as the Republic of Ireland. This request is seen by observers
here as part of a systematic campaign by the Government in Dublin to link the
question of the partition of Ireland with every organization of which it is a
The Act was passed by a unanimous vote of both Dáil and Senate, and came
into force on Easter Monday, 18 April 1949, the anniversary of the 1916 Easter
rising - when those who seized the GPO had first proclaimed "Poblacht na
So is the Act, or that part of it concerning the "description",
unconstitutional? Only the Irish Supreme Court could rule that it is, and in
over 50 years they have not chosen to do so. It seems a safe bet that they are
not likely to in future. The lawyerly quibble made by Taoiseach John Costello
about the distinction between the "name" of the state and its "description" has
stood the test of time.
The conflict between the two terms can still be a live issue, and it has been
said that it led to arguments during the negotiations leading up to the Good
Friday Agreement. In the event the treaty between the two states names them as
"Ireland" and "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland",
representing modest concessions by both sides.
So whilst it is strictly true that "Ireland" is the name of the republic, that
does not mean that one should avoid the use of the phrase "Republic of
Ireland", which frequently appears in directives, press releases and other
official documents from the Irish government, as a search of their official web
site at http://www.irlgov.ie/ will readily
The advice stands: in many contexts it is safe and uncontentious to refer to the
Republic simply as "Ireland". Where the possibility of ambiguity exists, use
"the Republic of Ireland".
Thanks are due to Mark Israel, Brian Goggin, Padraig Breathnach, and to many other contributors
to the alt.usage.english newsgroup who made invaluable comments on earlier
drafts of this document. Responsibility for errors and omissions lies with the author,
and suggestions for its improvement should be directed to him at