Evolution of Parliament in Ireland

Dail Eireann

Kildare St, Dublin 2


Houses of the Oireachtas – Where it began!

The first meeting of Dáil Éireann took place in the Mansion House, the residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, in the afternoon of 21st January 1919.

The session lasted a mere two hours. They were two of the most momentous hours in Ireland’s history.

During this brief period the Dáil adopted a CONSTITUTION and approved the Declaration of Independence. By doing so the Dáil asserted a continuity of objectives with the leaders of the 1916 Rising in setting up a separate parliament, government and republic.

Ireland is a parliamentary democracy. The legislature consists of two Houses: Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann.

The functions and powers of the Houses derive from the Constitution of Ireland – Bunreacht na hÉireann which was adopted by the people in a plebiscite on 1 July 1937 and came into operation on 29 December 1937.

The house was originally known as Kildare House after James Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare, who commissioned it to be built between 1745-47. Fitzgerald set out to create the stateliest of Dublin Georgian Mansions to reflect his eminent position in Irish society.

It is told that the Earl had said that fashion would follow in whatever direction he led.

In succeeding, he caused an unfashionable area of the city to become a desirable one.

On becoming the Duke of Leinster in 1776 (Dublin and Kildare are in the province of Leinster) the house was renamed Leinster House.

The design

The designer of Leinster House was the architect Richard Cassels (or Castle), who was born in Hesse-Cassel in Germany about 1690. The design is characteristic of buildings of the period in Ireland and England.

It has been claimed that it formed a model for the design of the White House, the residence of the President of the United States. This claim may have its origins in the career of James Hoban, who in 1792 won the competition for the design of the White House.

Hoban was an Irishman, born in Callan, County Kilkenny in 1762, and studied architecture in Dublin, and consequently, would have had an opportunity of studying the design of Leinster House.

A supporter of the United Irishmen, who advocated complete separation of Ireland from England, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, fifth son of the first Duke of Leinster, was arrested shortly before the insurrection of May 1798 and died of wounds received during his capture.

No doubt it was beyond his wildest dreams that many years later the Irish Parliament would be located in his family home.

The Royal Dublin Society

In 1815, Augustus Frederick, the third Duke of Leinster, sold the mansion to the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) for £10,000 and a yearly rent of £600 which was later redeemed.

The purpose of the society was to improve the wretched conditions of the people. Many important public institutions of the present day owe their origins to the RDS:

the National Botanic Gardens (Glasnevin),

the National College of Art and Design,

the Dublin Veterinary College,

the National Library,

the National Gallery,

and the National Museum.

Other events


Dail Chamber

The Society made extensive additions to the house, most notably the lecture theatre, later to become the Dáil Chamber.

A number of historic events took place in Leinster House. The first balloon ascent in Ireland was made in July 1783 by Richard Crosbie from Leinster Lawn.

The Great Industrial Exhibition was opened on Leinster Lawn on 12 May 1853.

After the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, the Government secured a part of Leinster House for parliamentary use. The entire building was acquired by the State in 1924.

Parliament in Ireland

There is nothing new about parliamentary assemblies in Ireland. The Normans, who began to settle in Ireland in 1169, were the first to give Ireland a centralised administration. Our legal system and our courts of law are, in large measure, inherited from them. So too is our legislature which is directly descended from the parliament which developed in medieval Ireland.

First there was..

The earliest known Irish Parliament for which there is a definitive record met on 18 June 1264 at Castledermot in County Kildare, although there is some evidence to suggest that the word “parliament” may have been in use as early as 1234. The pre-Union Irish Parliament continued to function for more than 500 years. The Houses of Parliament (Lords and Commons) later met in the first purpose built Parliament House in the world, on College Green in Dublin, which was constructed between 1729 and 1739.

Parliamentary assemblies took various forms down through the General Assembly of the Confederation of Kilkenny (1642-1649), the “Patriot Parliament” of 1689, and the independent Irish Parliament (1782 – 1800), popularly known as “Grattan’s Parliament”. These assemblies however all lacked the great principle on which Dáil Éireann was founded in 1919. This was that all legislative, executive and judicial power had its source in, and was derived from, the sovereign people of Ireland.

“Grattan’s Parliament” lasted just 18 years. The Act of Union 1800, which came into operation on 1 January 1801, created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and united the parliaments of the two kingdoms. From then until Independence in 1922, Irish Members of Parliament held seats in the parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with its seat at the Palace of Westminster.

The First Dáil (1919)

In the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916 Sinn Féin, the party founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905, was reorganised and grew into a nation-wide movement. Abstention from Westminster and the establishment of a separate and independent Irish parliament had long been part of Sinn Féin’s policy. The party contested the 14 December 1918 general election, called following the dissolution of the British Parliament, and swept the country winning 73 of the 105 Irish seats. Acting on the pledge not to sit in the Westminster parliament, but instead to set up an Irish legislative assembly, 28 of the newly-elected Sinn Féin representatives met and constituted themselves as the first Dáil Éireann. The remaining Sinn Féin representatives were either in prison or unable to attend for other reasons.

The first Dáil met in the Round Room of the Mansion House on 21 January 1919. The Dáil asserted the exclusive right of the elected representatives of the Irish people to legislate for the country. The Members present adopted a Provisional Constitution and approved a Declaration of Independence. The Dáil also approved a Democratic Programme, based on the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and read and adopted a Message to the Free Nations of the World.

On the following day, 22 January 1919, a private sitting was held which elected Seán T. O’Kelly as Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) and Cathal Brugha as President of the Ministry. The Dáil also approved the President’s nominations to the Ministry. Cathal Brugha resigned and Éamon de Valera was elected President of the Dáil (prime minister) on 1 April 1919.

Following the outbreak of the War of Independence in January 1919, the British Government decided to suppress the Dáil, and on 10 September 1919 Dáil Éireann was declared a dangerous association and was prohibited. The Dáil continued to meet in secret, and Ministers carried out their duties as best they could. In all, the Dáil held fourteen sittings in 1919. Of these, four were public and ten private. Three private sittings were held in 1920 and four in 1921.

The Second Dáil (1921)

During this time the formal government of Ireland remained with Westminster. In an attempt to settle the Irish question, the United Kingdom Parliament passed the Government of Ireland Act in December 1920. The Act created a separate state of Northern Ireland, consisting of the six north-eastern counties of Ulster, and proposed separate parliaments for Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland.

On 24 May 1921, elections were held for the return of members to serve in the new Parliaments. At a private sitting of the Dáil on 10 May 1921 the Sinn Féin representatives, who refused to accept the British concession of a Parliament for Southern Ireland, adopted a resolution declaring that the parliamentary elections which were to take place should be regarded as elections to Dáil Éireann.

All Sinn Féin candidates in the twenty-six counties were returned unopposed and took 128 of the 132 seats. The remaining four seats were filled by Unionists representing the University of Dublin (Trinity College). The Sinn Féin members, continuing in the footsteps of their predecessors, constituted themselves as the Second Dáil, which held its first meeting on 16 August 1921 in the Mansion House.

The Parliament of Southern Ireland (1921)

The inaugural meeting of the Parliament of Southern Ireland was held in Dublin on 28 June 1921 but, as Sinn Féin refused to recognise the parliament, only four members of the House of Commons – the University of Dublin representatives – together with fifteen senators attended. The Parliament met for a brief period and then adjourned sine die.

The Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland

Following the Truce between Britain and Ireland in July 1921, which led to the suspension of the War of Independence, peace negotiations between the two countries were initiated and culminated in the signing of the “Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland” on 6 December 1921. The Treaty provided for the establishment of the Irish Free State with jurisdiction over twenty-six of the thirty-two counties.

After a bitter and divisive debate, which began on 14 December 1921, the second Dáil approved the Treaty by 64 votes to 57 on 7 January 1922. Éamon de Valera resigned as President on 9 January 1922, and Arthur Griffith was elected President on 10 January 1922.

The Provisional Government (1922)

In accordance with the terms of the Treaty a meeting of “the members elected to sit in the House of Commons of Southern Ireland” was held on 14 January 1922. The meeting, which was attended by the pro-Treaty members of the Dáil and the four members for University of Dublin, formally endorsed the Treaty and set up a Provisional Government, under the Chairmanship of Michael Collins, to administer the twenty-six counties pending the establishment of the Free State parliament and government. The Provisional Government and the Government of Dáil Éireann, which was not recognized by Britain, existed in parallel and with overlapping membership.

Following the death of Arthur Griffith ( President of the Dáil ) on 12 August 1922 and the death of Michael Collins ( Chairman of the Provisional Government ) on 22 August 1922, William T. Cosgrave became both President of the Dáil and Chairman of the Provisional Government.

The Third Dáil (1922)

The Provisional Government called a General Election for 16 June 1922 and the new Dáil – the Third Dáil – held its first meeting in Leinster House on 9 September 1922. The Dáil, “sitting as a Constituent Assembly in this Provisional Parliament”, enacted the Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) Act 1922 on 25 October 1922.

The Irish Free State (1922 – 1937)

On 6 December 1922, a year after the signing of the Treaty, the Irish Free State or Saorstát Éireann came into existence. From then until 1937 the government or cabinet of the Irish Free State was known as the Executive Council, and the head of government was known as the President of the Executive Council. William T. Cosgrave was nominated to be President of the Executive Council, and the other members of the Provisional Government were nominated to be members of the Executive Council.

Article 12 of the Irish Free State Constitution created the Oireachtas: “A Legislature is hereby created, to be known as the Oireachtas. It shall consist of the King and two Houses, the Chamber of Deputies ( otherwise called and herein generally referred to as “Dáil Éireann” ) and the Senate ( otherwise called and herein generally referred to as “Seanad Éireann” ).”

The First Seanad (1922)

The pre-Union Irish Parliament consisted of an Upper and a Lower House, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The Home Rule Bills of the 19th and early 20th centuries also provided for a bicameral legislature. This was continued in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which provided that the Senate, the Upper House of the Southern Ireland Parliament, should consist of 64 members. Elections to this House were held in 1921 at the same time as the elections to the Lower House. The Dáil however refused to recognise these elections.

The Irish Free State Constitution of 1922 provided for the establishment of a second parliamentary chamber – Seanad Éireann (Senate) – consisting of 60 members. The Constitution provided that the Seanad should be composed of citizens who had done honour to the nation by reason of useful public service or who, because of special qualifications or attainments, represented important aspects of the nation’s life. While the Seanad was to be directly elected by the people, as a transitional measure one-half of the first Seanad was nominated by the President of the Executive Council and the other half was elected by the Dáil.

The General Election was held on 7 December 1922, and the Seanad of the Irish Free State met for the first time on 11 December 1922.

The functions and powers of the first Seanad were modelled on those of the British House of Lords. Substantial changes were made to these in subsequent years and the election process was also amended. The first, and last, direct election took place in 1925, as provided for in the constitution. The choice of the electorate was limited to a panel of candidates nominated by the Dáil and Seanad. Following the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Constitution of Seanad Éireann in 1928, the electoral system was changed with the electorate now consisting of the members of the Dáil and the outgoing senators. The Triennial Periods commenced on 6 December 1922, 6 December 1925, and so on. Triennial elections were held in 1922, 1925, 1928, 1931 and 1934.

Office of Governor-General (Seanascal) (1922)

Article 60 of the Irish Free State Constitution created the office of Governor-General: “The Representative of the Crown, who shall be styled the Governor-General…” Holders of the office were Tim Healy (1922 – 1927), James MacNeill (1927 – 1932), and Domhnall Ua Buachalla (Donal Buckley) (1932 – 1936).

Abolition of the Seanad (1936)

Following somewhat unsatisfactory relations between the two Houses over a number of years serious conflict developed after the change of government in 1932. Legislation to remove the oath required to be taken by Members of the Oireachtas, as laid down in Article 17 of the 1922 Constitution (commonly referred to as the Oath of Allegiance), was opposed by the Seanad and its enactment postponed for almost a year. The oath was eventually removed from the Constitution by the Constitution (Removal of Oath) Act 1933 on 3 May 1933.

Having rejected later Bills, the Seanad, as it then existed, was abolished on 29 May 1936 under the Constitution (Amendment No. 24) Act 1936. The final sitting was held on 19 May 1936.

Abolition of the Office of Governor-General (1936)

The office of Governor-General was abolished by the Constitution (Amendment No. 27) Act 1936 on 11 December 1936 (see also the Executive Powers (Consequential Provisions) Act 1937). The amendment also deleted all references to the king in the Constitution. The amendment added a provision where once a bill was passed the Chairman of Dáil Éireann shall sign the bill “… and the same shall become and be law as on and from the date of such signature”.

The Oireachtas enacted the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act 1936 on 12 December 1936 which stated that “… which for the purposes of the appointment of diplomatic and consular representatives and the conclusion of international agreements, the king so recognised may, and is hereby authorised to, act on behalf of Saorstát Éireann for the like purposes as and when advised by the Executive Council so to do.” The Act also gave effect to the instrument of abdication executed by King Edward the Eighth.

Constitution of Ireland (1937)

The Irish Free State Constitution remained in force until it was replaced by the Constitution of Ireland, which was passed by the Dáil on 14 June 1937, adopted by the people in a plebiscite on 1 July 1937, and came into operation on 29 December 1937. In accordance with Article 51, the Constitution could be amended by ordinary statute for three years following the first President’s entry into office. Since 25 June 1941 the Constitution may only be amended by referendum.

Article 4 states that the name of the State is Éire, or, in the English language, Ireland. Article 5: “Ireland is a sovereign, independent, democratic state.”

Article 15 states that “The National Parliament shall be called and known, and is in this Constitution generally referred to, as the Oireachtas.” and that “The Oireachtas shall consist of the President and two Houses, viz.: a House of Representatives to be called Dáil Éireann and a Senate to be called Seanad Éireann … The sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State is hereby vested in the Oireachtas: no other legislative authority has power to make laws for the State.”

Article 28 5 states that “The head of the Government, or Prime Minister, shall be called, and is in this Constitution referred to as, the Taoiseach.”

The Second Seanad (1938)

The period of unicameral legislature was short however. When the new Constitution was being drafted the Executive Council appointed a Commission – Second House of the Oireachtas Commission – in June 1936 to “consider and make recommendations as to what should be the functions and powers of the Second Chamber of the Legislature in the event of its being decided to make provision in the Constitution for such Second Chamber.….”. Following the report of the Commission, the Constitution of Ireland provided for the establishment of a Seanad more firmly under the control of the government. The general election for the new Seanad took place on 28 March 1938 and the first sitting was held on 27 April 1938.

President of Ireland (1938)

Dubhglás de Híde (Douglas Hyde, nom de plume “An Craoibhin Aoibhinn”) was inaugurated as the first President of Ireland on 25 June 1938.

Republic of Ireland Act 1948 (1949)

The Republic of Ireland Act 1948 ( which came into operation on 18 April 1949 – S.I. No. 27/1949 ) repealed the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act 1936, and stated that “The President, on the authority and on the advice of the Government, may exercise the executive power or any executive function of the State in or in connection with its external relations.” This severed the final link with the British Monarchy. The Act also stated that the description of the State is Republic of Ireland, but the name of the State remains Ireland in accordance with Article 4 of the Constitution.