The day Ireland became a republic - archive, April 1949

compiled by Richard Nelsson
Photograph: Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Eire salutes the republic

Day of modified rejoicing: two sorts of disapproval and a mass of indifference
From our special correspondent
18 April 1949

Dublin, Monday, 1 am
The first ceremonies to mark the promulgation of the Republic of Ireland Act to-day took place in Dublin at midnight, when a salute of 21 guns and a feu de joie were fired from O’Connell Bridge. The main civil, military, and religious ceremonies are at noon to-day at the Pro-Cathedral and at the General Post Office in Dublin.

Dublin is crowded, though not all the visitors are “up for the Republic,” and not more than one in ten is wearing any of the Republican emblems which are being hawked in the streets. Although the crowds were calm throughout the day they became a little more excited towards midnight and collected in thousands round O’Connell Bridge. At 11 45 p.m. it seemed impossible that the guns, riflemen, and band would ever get into position, for the crowd had overflowed rather than forced its way past the police cordon and had occupied all the open space which should have held the ceremonial troops.

Related: The Republic: the Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923 by Charles Townshend – review

A republic is born
In spite of this there was a delay of only two minutes in the start of the ceremony. The guns flashed and boomed, firing across O’Connell Bridge in the direction of Liberty Hall, which in 1916 was shelled by British guns which were not loaded with blank rounds. After the salute riflemen performed their feu de joie, the band played the national anthem, and the crowd began to disperse, waving flags, cheering, and singing. For once a republic had been born without bloodshed – at least in this case the blood had been shed 33 years ago.

At Dun Laoghaire the ceremony was rather more naval than military. A flag was raised at the end of one of the piers and was illuminated by searchlights from craft in the harbour. A naval guard of honour presented arms and the National Anthem was played.

The Irish military genius, which has so often been expended in the service of other nations (especially of England), will have a chance to express itself in the march past the President outside the General Post Office. The parade will be partly mechanised and will include a unit of the small naval service, two battalions of the local defence force, infantry, anti-aircraft gunners, sappers, signallers, field artillery, and a field ambulance. The centrepiece of the ceremony will be the hoisting of the tricolour on the Post Office, where it flew for those few days in 1916 which made the Republic of to-day possible.

Although to-day marks an important step in Eire’s national evolution the celebrations are being taken calmly by most people and coldly by some. The public buildings – except for the Post Office – are not decorated; the Dublin Corporation thought it inappropriate to spend even the product of a farthing rate on marking an occasion of which so many members disapproved. No flags have appeared on Trinity College, but the tricolour is flying almost everywhere else with the Papal Flag and the banners of the four provinces – so even Ulster is playing a part.

There have been rumours that some young extremists might put up a counter-demonstration to mark disapproval of partition but even this anti-partitionist feeling is not being very loudly proclaimed, and the only anti-British slogans to be seen are chalked up in Irish on the walls. They call for an end to the use of the English language. The celebrations have also incurred the disapproval of those who are less than Unionists but who are still aware of what Eire gained from the slender Commonwealth connection. This feeling is strong but not organised. Between these two wings there are the people, probably the majority, who do not care one way or the other.

The atmosphere is, then, not exactly jubilant here, and if it were not for the marching soldiers, the artillery salutes, and the fireworks to-day would pass like any other Bank Holiday and certainly not like a national festival

Fianna Fail stands aloof
It might have been a different matter if the Fianna Fail party were not withholding its support, and if Mr De Valera were at the saluting base (he is taking no part in the celebrations). But the Coalition Government has not found it easy to work up enthusiasm for a constitutional change which was not part of its mandate from the voters in the last general election, and which, it has been suggested, would hardly have got a majority in the country if it had been put to the test of a referendum; even the 1937 Constitution, which was Republican in everything but name, was not passed by an overwhelming majority, and things have changed in Western Europe since then.

But to-day the political differences may sink below the surface for an hour, and the achievement of the 1916 leaders may be remembered in its historic rather than in its party context. They and not the present Government will be in the minds of to-day’s crowds – at least among the people who have any sense of Ireland’s past and what it was that Pearse, Connolly, MacDonagh, and the others died for.

Truncheons out in Tyrone

18 Apri 1949

In the village of Carrickmore, County Tyrone (Northern Ireland), 500 young men who had assembled yesterday for a Gaelic football match were warned by the police that they could not march in procession. In spite of this they went to a field and sang “A Soldier’s Song” and were hoisting the Republican flag when the police dispersed them with truncheons. Several men were injured.

Editorial: The Republic

18 April 1949

The new chapter in Irish history begins to-day without interrupting the flow of life more than a birthday or a silver wedding. The Republic of Ireland Act and the consequent withdrawal of Eire from the Commonwealth are generally regretted here, but more regretted than resented; one does not have to be very deeply versed in Irish affairs to know something of the inner compulsions which move her statesmen. Though the struggle which made the Republic possible ended nearly thirty years ago and its echoes have died away, to-day’s leaders took their share in it as young men; it was for most of them the great, the formative, experience of their lives; they found themselves moved by irresistible currents of courage and generous idealism.

All changed, changed utterly;
A terrible beauty is born.

Such a struggle generates deeper passions than served to start it, and these have run too deep to be satisfied with an outcome which might have been welcome enough if it had been more easily reached. They have run their course at last. The companions and disciples of Pearse and Connolly may turn now with a clear conscience to the not less pressing social problems of their country, and to its proper place among the free nations of the world. It will be well if they can apply to these the same spirit of selfless service which moved their old leaders at Easter, 1916.

Related: Talk of a united Ireland is rife. But is it a fantasy?

Dublin takes it calmly: a new beginning?

From Our Special Correspondent
19 April 1949

Dublin, Monday
A large but apparently rather subdued crowd watched the military parade in Dublin to mark the official birth of the Irish Republic to-day. The only part of the ceremony which seemed to make any emotional impression on the spectators was the hoisting of the tricolour on the General Post Office in O’Connell Street, where thirty-three years ago the Easter rising began. When the flag went up it was greeted with cheers and waving hats and small banners. There was for the moment a touch of the fervency which broke out when the guns were fired at midnight on O’Connell Bridge.

But the parade which followed the flag-raising, put on with the utmost military efficiency, seemed to leave the spectators unmoved, though they roused themselves to a few ragged cheers and handclaps when the naval detachment marched past with a decided swagger. This does not mean that Dublin was not enjoying the parade; it seems to be a characteristic of an Irish crowd that although it enjoys the pomp and circumstance of soldiering and watches with an expert eye it will not rise to the occasion by throwing metaphorical caps over imaginary windmills.

A brave display
Even a regimental sergeant major of the Brigade of Guards could not have found much fault with the turnout and drill of the troops, and he might well have searched for a superlative to describe the smartness of the presidential guard of honour of officer cadets.

Ireland’s president Sean O’Kelly reviewing the guard of honour on Easter Sunday, Ireland’s independence day. Photograph: Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

President O’Kelly sat on his stand in front of the Post Office surrounded by the Diplomatic Corps and other distinguished guests. who had arrived in a procession of unusually democratic appearance. The top hat, the cocked hat, the trilby and the cloth cap marched together; the shining dress uniform of the soldier (and even of the senior policeman) walked with the academic robe, the municipal gown, and the well-worn lounge suit – and there were, of course, priests of various orders in black clerical suits or the brown habits and sandals of the friars.

There was no single figure to catch the imagination of the crowd, though there was a ripple of applause for Mr Cosgrave and an affectionate cheer for Alderman “Alfie” Byrne, Dublin’s most famous ex-Lord Mayor. The President and Taoiseach were received with due respect, but it was difficult not to think what might have happened if Mr De Valera had changed his mind and turned up at the last minute. It was not so much Hamlet without the Prince as a large and loyal family without any father – but perhaps it is a virtue of the republican idea that there is no individual on whom the crowd can fix its eyes and swoon.

After the ceremonies the Taoiseach held a press conference in the main hail of the post office – the hall which was the nerve-centre of the Easter rising – in which he said nothing which has not been said often before on the subject of partition and of the longing (south of the border) for a united Ireland. It was not an occasion for profound statements of policy, but later in the day in a broadcast Mr Costello said what must have been in the minds of many Irishmen to-day:

We have put ourselves apart but not cut ourselves adrift from our former association with the great nations of the Commonwealth. We have severed the formal links but have not sundered the intangible bonds that exist between us. We hope for a closer and more harmonious association, based on community of interests and common ideals, than could have ever existed from formal ties.

This is an edited extract.

Atlantic Pact and partition

Chicago, April 18

Mr Sean MacBride, Foreign Minister of Eire, said here to-night that if Ireland joined the Atlantic Pact while partitioned she would almost certainly face the threat of a civil war in the event of a crisis.

Ireland was in complete agreement with the objects of the Atlantic Pact, but had not joined it because it included a military alliance. This was an insuperable obstacle because some of the Irish counties were occupied by British forces. There were also strategic objections, for only a single central authority, supported by the decisive majority of the population could undertake Ireland’s defence.