The Correct Name for Ireland

By John Davies

This is a footnote to John Davies's article "Britain/Great Britain/United Kingdom &c: Some Common Confusions".

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 remove it.

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 revealing:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 clear:

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 member.

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 hÉireann".

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 will readily show.

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 this address.

Last revised: October 2004
© John Davies, 2004