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Map of Éire
Map of Éire

Éire ( pronounced [ˈeːrʲə]) is the Irish name of the island called Ireland in the English language.

The name Éire is the nominative form in modern Irish of the name for the goddess called Ériu in Old Irish, a mythical figure who helped the Gaels conquer Ireland as described in the Book of Invasions. Éire is still used in the Irish language today to refer to the island of Ireland as well as the Republic of Ireland - as well as the goddess. The dative form Éirinn is anglicized as Erin, which is occasionally used as a poetic name for Ireland in English, and has also become a common feminine name in English.

The name was given in Article 4 of the 1937 Irish constitution to the Irish state, created under the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was known between 1922 and 1937 as the Irish Free State. Article 4 stated that: "The name of the state is Éire, or, in the English language, Ireland."

The name "Éire" features on all Irish coinage (and Irish euro coins), postage stamps, passports and other official state documents issued since 1937 — for instance the Official Seal of the President of Ireland. Before then, "Saorstát Éireann", the Irish translation of Irish Free State, was used except for postage stamps which regularly used "Éire" during the Irish Free State era in both definitive and special issues.

Since 1949, the term Republic of Ireland has generally been used in preference to Éire, when speaking English. It is sometimes felt that use of "Éire" is associated with a condescending attitude to Ireland in some right-wing quarters of the British media. Technically, as the Republic of Ireland Act enacted in 1948 makes clear, the "Republic of Ireland" is actually a description rather than the name of the state, even if generally used as such.

Éire in the Irish Constitution

The Fianna Fáil party government (1932–48) of Éamon de Valera drafted an entirely new constitution, called Bunreacht na hÉireann. The constitution is not an act of the parliament of the Irish Free State; rather it was "enacted by the people", by a plebiscite in 1937. The simple terms, Ireland and Éire, were used in the constitution to indicate a break with the Irish Free State without implying a return to the Irish Republic or a break with the Crown. Among the new features of that new constitution were a President of Ireland, renaming the President of the Executive Council the Taoiseach, and restoring the senate Seanad Éireann. As it was the religion of over 95% of the population, there was a reference (repealed by plebiscite in 1972) to the "special position of the Roman Catholic church". Unlike the Irish Free State constitution which it replaced, Bunreacht na hÉireann had no constitutional link with the Crown, except in external relations through a combination of Article 29 of the Constitution and the External Relations Act, 1936. The repeal of the latter Act by the Republic of Ireland Act, 1948 created Ireland as a sovereign Republic in 1949, with Republic of Ireland as a new description but without changing the name of the state from Éire or Ireland.

From Éire to the Republic of Ireland

The declaration of the republic proved somewhat controversial. In 1945, when asked if he planned to do so, de Valera had replied, "we are a republic", having refused to say so before for eight years. He also insisted that Ireland had no king, but simply used an external king as an organ in international affairs. However, that was not the view of constitutional lawyers including de Valera's Attorneys-General, whose disagreement with de Valera's interpretation only came to light when the state papers from the 1930s and 1940s were released to historians. Nor was it the view in the international arena, who believed that Ireland did have a king, George VI who had been proclaimed King of Ireland in December 1936, and to whom they accredited ambassadors to Ireland. King George, in turn, as "King of Ireland" accredited all Irish diplomats. All treaties signed by the Irish Taoiseach or Minister for External Affairs were signed in the name of King George.

De Valera did have a history of making statements on constitutional matters that were legally questionable. His belief that the Governor-General's post had been abolished by a constitutional amendment in December 1936 was privately rejected by his own Attorney-General, James Geoghegan, Secretary to the Executive Council (i.e., the state's main civil servant and his own closest advisor), Maurice Moynihan, the Parliamentary Draftsman's Office (which drafted legislation) and other leading legal figures in the government. To sort out what was privately seen as a legal mess, de Valera had had to introduce a second enactment, the Executive Power (Consequential Provisions) Act, 1937, which was backdated as if effective from the original date of the supposed abolition in December 1936. In 1947, de Valera's new Attorney-General, future President of Ireland Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, began drafting a bill to grant to the President the powers in international affairs possessed by the King. Part of the debate in government revolved around whether a republic should be declared in the bill. The very existence of the debate is evidence that de Valera's latest attorney-general and part of his cabinet, maybe even de Valera himself, did not agree with de Valera's statement in 1945 that Éire was already a republic. In the end, the draft bill was never submitted to the Oireachtas for approval. Whether that is because it was simply abandoned or because de Valera planned to introduce it after the 1948 general election (which he unexpectedly lost) is unclear.

A bill to finally and unambiguously declare a republic was introduced, in 1948, by the new Taoiseach, John A. Costello of the Fine Gael party. What caused the bill to be introduced remains a mystery. Costello made the announcement that the bill was to be introduced when he was in Ottawa, during an official visit to Canada. It had been suggested that it was a spur of the moment reaction to offence caused by the Governor-General of Canada, Harold Alexander, 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis who was of Northern Irish descent and who allegedly placed symbols of Northern Ireland, notably a replica of the famous Roaring Meg cannon used in the Siege of Derry, in front of an affronted Costello at a state dinner. What is certain is that the prior arrangement whereby toasts to the King (symbolising Canada) and the President (representing Ireland) were to be proposed, was broken. Only a toast to the King was proposed, to the fury of the Irish delegation. Shortly afterwards Costello announced the plan to declare the republic.

However, according to all but one of the ministers in Costello's cabinet, the decision to declare a republic had already been made prior to Costello's Canadian visit. Costello's revelation of the decision was because the Sunday Independent (an Irish newspaper) had discovered the fact and was about to "break" the story as an exclusive. Nevertheless one minister, the controversial Noel Browne, gave a different account in his autobiography, Against the Tide. He claimed Costello's announcement was done in a fit of anger of his treatment by the Governor-General and that when he returned, Costello, at an assembly of ministers in his home, offered to resign because of his manufacture of a major government policy initiative on the spot in Canada. Yet according to Browne, all the ministers agreed that they would refuse to accept the resignation and also agreed to manufacture the story of a prior cabinet decision.

The evidence of what really happened remains ambiguous. There is no record of a prior decision to declare a republic before Costello's Canadian trip, among cabinet papers for 1948, which supports Browne's claim. However, in what is generally regarded as one of its most ill-judged decisions, the Costello government refused to allow the Secretary to the Government, Maurice Moynihan, to attend cabinet meetings and take minutes, because they believed he was too close to their enemy, Éamon de Valera. (De Valera had been in office continually for sixteen years and directly preceded them. As Moynihan had been the state's chief civil servant for much of that time, it was hardly surprising that he would have been close to de Valera. Still, no evidence suggests that his closeness to de Valera led him into active antagonism towards Costello's ministers, and they reversed their decision when they returned to government in 1954.) Rather than entrust the minute-taking to Moynihan, the cabinet entrusted it to a Parliamentary Secretary (junior minister), future Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. Given that Cosgrave had never kept minutes before, it is understandable that Cosgrave's minutes, at least early on in the government, proved less than a thorough record of government decisions. So whether the issue was never raised, was raised but undecided on, was subjected to a decision taken informally, or was subjected to a decision taken formally, remains obscure on the basis of the 1948 cabinet documentation.

In addition, Browne's own book, published in the 1980s, is littered with major factual inaccuracies and thus is seen as equally unreliable. The last two surviving ministers of that cabinet in the 1980s, former Minister for External Affairs Sean MacBride and Browne, publicly and trenchantly disagreed with one another as to the events that led to the declaration of the republic. What is certain is that one man's account is wrong. But it has proved impossible to determine which one is wrong.

At any rate, the Republic of Ireland Act was enacted in Oireachtas Éireann with all parties voting for it. De Valera did suggest that it would have been better to reserve the declaration of the republic until Irish unity had been achieved, a comment hard to reconcile with his 1945 claim that Éire was already a republic. Speaking in Seanad Éireann Costello told senators that as a matter of law, the King was indeed "King of Ireland" and Irish head of state and the President of Ireland was in effect no more than first citizen and a local notable, until the new law came into force.

On 18 April 1949, the Republic of Ireland Act, 1948 came into force. Ireland ceased to have a king. The President of Ireland was upgraded to a full head of state. While the constitutional name of the state, Éire was not changed, the descriptive name given to Éire in the new Act, The Republic of Ireland, became the effective name of the twenty-six county state. All previous ambiguities over name, title, head of state and the positions of the King of Ireland and the President of Ireland were resolved. The Westminster Parliament passed its own Ireland Act 1949 acknowledging the changes, preserving certain rights of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom, and designating the Republic of Ireland as its name for the resulting state. King George VI, sent a message of goodwill to the new Irish head of state, President Sean T. O'Kelly. O'Kelly's new status as head of state was celebrated by the first ever state visit by an Irish president abroad, to the Holy See in 1950. (En route, he planned to "do the decent thing and call upon Your Majesty", but timetabling problems prevented what was intended to be the first ever public meeting between a British king and an Irish president.)

The declaration of the republic had two controversial after-effects. On becoming a republic, a country ceases to be a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Though 1949 saw India as a republic reapply for membership and be accepted, the Republic of Ireland decided not to do so. More controversially, the British parliament's Ireland Act 1949 gave a legislative guarantee to Northern Ireland that Northern Ireland would continue to remain a part of the United Kingdom unless the parliament of Northern Ireland formally expressed a wish to join a United Ireland. This " unionist veto" became a source of much controversy during the rest of the twentieth century.

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