60 Years on: the “Southern Unionists”, the Crown and the Irish Republic

When the Twenty-Six Counties – then known as “Eire” – became the Republic of Ireland in 1949, the change of status was greeted with a certain degree of mixed feelings. For some, there was rejoicing that this country’s affirmation of independence had been carried a stage further, and there were indeed celebrations and fireworks.

But it had all come about in a slightly unorthodox way – the Taoiseach of the Inter-Party Government, John A. Costello declared Eire to be a Republic at the Commonwealth Conference in Ottawa in October of 1948, apparently in a mood of pique. Certainly Noel Browne, then Minister for Health, claimed that Mr Costello had felt socially “rebuffed” by the attitude of the Canadian Governor-General, Earl Alexander. Alexander, younger brother of the Earl of Caledon, hailed from that area of Co Tyrone which was often associated with anti-Catholic prejudice, (and was certainly a locality in which Catholics found it difficult to get employment); and he had apparently shown “intended discourtesy” towards Mr Costello and his wife, Ida. (1)

The Alexanders had “snubbed” the Costellos at a Montreal tea-party; perhaps the Costellos did not feel very socially secure in the general ambience anyway. When, finally, a silver replica of “Roaring Meg” – the famous cannon used by Protestants in their defence of Derry’s walls against the Catholics during the Siege of Derry in 1688 – was placed directly on the dinner-table in front of Mr Costello. “I was so insulted by these things that I lost my temper and declared it,” he told Noel Browne.

Although this caught many people by surprise – certainly it astonished the Canadians – the change had been brewing during the summer and autumn of 1948. There had been a leak in the Sunday Independent and, as Ronan Fanning’s definitive study for Chatham House has shown, British intelligence was well aware that it was in the offing. The driving force behind the alteration from Eire’s status within the Commonwealth to an independent Republic was not really Costello, but his Minister for External Affairs Sean MacBride. When meeting with the British, Mr MacBride was most troubled by the pre-prandial procedure of being asked to drink to the health of King George VI. After Easter 1949, when the bill went through which broke the legislative connection with the United Kingdom, Mr MacBride would no longer have to raise his champagne glass to the monarch. (2)

Reaction was mixed not just because of the apparent suddenness of the event, but because of the diversity of attitudes towards such a demarche.  Understandably, it went down rather badly in Northern Ireland, and ushered in a new era of strong Unionism. Even Nationalists in the North had uncertain reactions – for a different reason: the promised Irish Republic was supposed to include the whole island, not just the 26 Counties.

Mr De Valera, then in Opposition, resorted to one of his lofty moods. He agreed to attend the formal Pro-Cathedral Mass for the Republic – they were the days when any ceremonial for the State would be automatically carried out by the Catholic church – but he went straight home afterwards, and declined to join in any further celebrations. He made it known that he would not have declared a Republic or even formally quitted the Commonwealth: the last link could always have served as a bridge with the North. Whether the enigmatic Dev really meant this, or whether he was piqued to have been “out-republicaned”, so to speak, by Fine Gael and Clann na Poblachta is an interesting question.

It seems, though, that the group most distressed by the emblematic breaking of the last link with Britain were Anglicans and other Protestants in the Republic – the “southern Unionists” or “southern Loyalists” as they were still called. That Irish Protestants were, as a group (though not necessarily as individuals), pro-Unionist was at this time regarded as a given fact, and many memoirs, such as those of Brian Inglis, attest to the correlation between Protestant and Unionist identity in what was often called the south of Ireland.

Senator David Norris, whose maternal relations were just such “southern Unionists” in the midlands, recalls how “devastated” were his aunts and cousins by the coming of the Republic in 1949, since it meant a farewell to the monarch – Irish Anglicans would no longer now pray for the King in their services. They were also in tears, he said, to see that the insignia of Queen Victoria, King Edward, and King George V were being removed from the letter-boxes in Co Offaly. They had accepted that the letter-boxes were painted green: but at least they had retained the attractive monograms of “VR” and “ER” and “GRV”. 

As it happened – as it sometimes does happen in Ireland when benign neglect takes over from a burst of zealotry – not very many postal letter-boxes were subjected to this treatment, finally. The initial enthusiasm for removing all traces of Regina, Rex and (and in some cases, the added Imperator) petered out, and to this day they stand as friendly reminders of what Anthony Trollope did for Ireland – invented, and even implemented, the postal letter-box.

The Norris relations were not just sad about the emblematic (and sacred) rupture with the monarch: they were also furious that it had been done by Fine Gael, of all people. They had depended on Fine Gael not to be “extremist” in the sphere of republican gestures. They would never, ever vote for Fine Gael again: and, said Senator Norris, they never did. (3)

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Irish “southern Unionists” were in the habit – or at least some of them were – of writing to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle to express their sense of continuing affection for the British monarchy. During the 1930s, some correspondents took to posting their letters from Holyhead, as they feared that the Irish state might censor, or even fail to despatch, any letters addressed to the monarch. Anglo-Irish relations were often scratchy during the 1930s, particularly during the period of the Economic War; from the time he came into office in 1932, Mr De Valera was – according to his own envoy in London, the remarkable John Dulanty – “obsessed” with removing the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown, this being a remnant of the 1921 Treaty. Day after day and week after week, Mr De Valera’s newspaper, The Irish Press, ran a ceaseless campaign against the horrors of “the Oath”. (Even the advertising columns took up the theme: “No more oaths! No more swearing of anything! Get a ‘Faulat’ collar & do not be trying to strangle yourself before your time!”) (4) By contrast, of course, the Church of Ireland Gazette was most apprehensive about deleting the Oath, and repeatedly referred to Mr de Valera as untrustworthy.

De Valera had no intention of being unjust to Irish Protestants: he sincerely regarded himself as fair-minded on religious issues (though he also sincerely regarded Ireland as a Catholic country). But his administration did exercise a certain level of control over any links which might continue to exist between the “southern Unionists” and the monarchy. While some people may have chosen to post their letters to the King from Holyhead, the King’s replies became a source of friction between the Dublin administration and the palace officials.

For example, a large number of Irish “southern Unionists”, both individuals and institutions, sent heartfelt condolences on the death of King George V, in January 1936. The royal secretaries wished to reply to these persons and institutions personally: but De Valera, through his civil servants, insisted that these letters of acknowledgement be sent via the Irish Government. This, they said, was the proper protocol.

This was exasperating to the King’s secretary, Clive Wigram, who felt – almost certainly correctly – that the County Donegal Branch of the Grand Orange Order, the Killarney Branch of the British Legion, the Royal Irish Yacht Club, and the Protestants’ Orphans Society, who had written in such heartfelt terms,  would almost certainly have preferred a direct communication from the King’s secretary, thanking them for their deep condolences on the passing of the monarch –  than a message which was circumnavigated via Mr De Valera and his civil service mandarin Joseph Walshe, the all-powerful secretary at the Department of External Affairs. Especially since the Irish Government insisted on seeing the letters sent by the monarch’s office to citizens in Eire.

On more than one occasion, Wigram summoned John Dulanty, the Irish High Commissioner – a brilliant diplomat who managed to remain good friends with Winston Churchill, Eamon De Valera and Queen Mary all his life – to Buckingham Palace and carpeted him thoroughly on the matter. “Gentlemen don’t open other gentlemen’s letters!”  fumed Wigram. Dulanty, a past master at smoothing over irked feelings, promised to clear up this question (and then tactfully turned the conversation to Ascot races). (5) But the protocol over these letters was never satisfactorily settled until 1949, when, with the coming of the Republic, all protocols changed.

Until that time, there was always a trickle of correspondence, mainly from Dublin, to the monarchy at either Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle. A royal visit to Northern Ireland would usually prompt a batch: indeed a visit by the King to Northern Ireland would often prompt an exodus from Dublin to Belfast, and not just by “southern Loyalists” either. When George VI and Elizabeth came to Northern Ireland soon after their coronation in July 1937, the trains from Dublin were packed with trippers keen to get a glimpse of royalty: in an era of austerity, royalty provided a rare element of glamour. (6)

Significantly, perhaps, the Catholic church in the North did not accept any invitations to be present at formal occasions hosted by the King and Queen – royal visits, they were aware, sometimes provoked sectarian attacks on Catholic neighbourhoods. But some of the “southern Loyalists” took the opportunity to pledge their loyalty to the monarchy: a William Harvey of Booterstown wrote to George VI after the event saying that “it was a privilege and great joy to come and see your Majesties in Belfast on the 28th….I can assure your Majesty that there are many thousands of your loyal subjects in the Irish Free State.” (7)

George VI was a man of mild temperament (with occasionally outbursts of frustrated temper, mainly occasioned by his agonising stammer) who, when it came to it,  “minded very much”, according to his biographer Sarah Bradford, that Eire should depart from the Commonwealth. “Why leave the family?” he asked John Dulanty. (8) But he was correctly constitutional, and though he confided his regrets to Dulanty, he was careful to make no political statements.

He did, however, receive one letter from Irishtown, near Ringsend in Dublin 4, which seems to have greatly touched him. At Easter 1949, Mrs Doris Weir, the rector’s wife at St Matthew’s Church in Irishtown, wrote to George VI to describe the valedictory service they had just conducted at that church. It had to be a valediction because henceforth the Church of Ireland in the Republic would no longer offer prayers for the King: instead they would now say prayers for the President of Ireland, and they prayer-books were being altered accordingly.

“On behalf of many loyalists in Southern Ireland,” Mrs Weir wrote, “may I thank you for the recognition which we feel was conveyed to us in your message to the new State, of services gladly rendered by our people to your Majesty and to the Empire in two wars?” [The King, in his telegram of congratulation to President Sean T. O’Kelly – for the declaration of the Republic –  had included a word of thanks to those Irishmen and women who had voluntarily fought for the Allies.]

Mrs Weir went on: “We may not now use in Church the prayers for Your Majesty and for the Royal Family. In our Parish Church, once the royal Chapel of St Matthew, Irishtown, on Easter Sunday evening we sang with sorrow, for it was the last time, the National Anthem. It was a prayer from all our hearts – God Save the King. Legislation does not kill love and loyalty. We will ever continue to pray for you and for all your family, and to hold you in deep affection.” (9)

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The “southern Unionists” had been through some of this before, in the 1920s, when they had to make the decision whether they would remain in the new Irish State or leave it. Many did leave, but those who remained made the resolve to be Irishmen and women, and to be a law-abiding group within the Irish state – a subject much discussed in the Church of Ireland Gazette in the 1920s.  Once again, in 1949, their allegiance had to be affirmed to the Irish State of the Republic, and this had to be reflected in their church services. To this day, Church of Ireland prayerbooks carry the instructions praying for the President (Rep of Ireland) and the Queen (N.I.)

But of course everything has altered profoundly over the past sixty years, and attitudes have shifted on all sides. Younger Irish Protestants today – certainly south of the Border – are probably indistinguishable from younger Irish Catholics in their attitudes to the British royal family: for the “royals” now seem to belong as much to the realm of Hello! Magazine as to traditional or religious allegiance. There are still many opinions in this country about questions of national independence and identity: but it was noticeable just how muted the 60th anniversary of the declaration of the Republic was at Easter 2009. The commemoration1916 marks a national celebration: 1949 goes almost unremarked.

According to recent studies, too, the Church of Ireland – for the first time since 1861 – is now expanding and increasing its numbers. Between 1991 and 2006, the Church of Ireland in the Republic increased by over 46%: from 82,840 to 121,229. (Between 1861 and 1926, the decline was from almost 360,000 to 164,215). Some of the recent increase would include immigrants from Africa and Asia. Nevertheless, ten per cent of those studying for ordination within the Irish Anglican church were baptised Roman Catholic. (10)

We must assume, I think, that in the process of change – and some expansion – the “southern Loyalists” in the island of Ireland have now embraced a more Irish identity, and left behind the nostalgic yearning that once marked “our people”, as Mrs Weir put it, for attachment to the Crown. ENDS.

Footnotes and booklist


  1. Noel Browne. Against the Tide. Dublin 1986.
  2. Ronan Fanning. The Response of the London and Belfast Governments to the Declaration of the Republic of Ireland. Royal Institute of International Affairs, London 1983
  3. Interview with David Norris
  4. Irish Press. 20th April 1932
  5. The list of condolences. Royal Archives, Windsor. RA PS/PSO/GVI/C/018/002. Wigram’s complaints: RA PS/PSO/GVI/C/018/004*
  6. People travelling north in July 1937. Tony Gray. Ireland This Century. London 1994.
  7. Letter from William Harvey. RA PS/PSO/GVI/PS/COR/1000/75/D/20
  8. Sarah Bradford. King George VI. London 1989
  9. Letter from Doris Weir. RA PS/PSO/GVI/312/66.
  10. Survey on Irish Anglicans. Counting the People of God? The Census of Population and the Church of Ireland. By Malcolm Macourt. Church of Ireland House, Dublin 6. 2008.


See also: Diarmaid Ferriter. Judging Dev. Dublin 2007
Anthony J. Jordan. John A. Costello – Compromise Taoiseach. Dublin 2007
R.B. McDowell, Crisis and Decline: The Fate of the Southern Unionists. Dublin 1997.


*From the list of Irish institutions who sent condolences directly to Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle after King George V’s death in 1936.

County Sligo Agricultural Society
North Dublin Branch (Women’s Section of the British Legion)
National Institution and Molyneux Asylum for the Blind of Ireland
Royal Hospital for Incurables, Donnybrook
Royal Irish Yacht Club
The Order of St John & British Red Cross Society in the Irish Free State
College of St Columba, Rathfarnham
Royal Dublin Fusiliers Old Comrades Assn, Dublin
Protestant Orphan Society, Dublin
The Select Vestry of Clontarf Parish, Dublin.
Dunmurry True Blues LOL, 1046, Lisburn.
Members of the Bar of Ireland. (W.M. Jellett, Four Courts, Dublin.)
Central C of I YMCA
IFS Bowling Assn, Sandycove
The Select Vestry of Castlemacadam Parish, Avoca
Diocesan School Old Boys Union, Dublin
Castletown Harrier Club, Bruree
Whitegate & Agheda District Benevolent Committee of the British Legion & United Services Fund
The City and County of Dublin District Black Chapter (W.A.Scales, 4 Duke St, Dublin)
Association of St Nicholas Good Fellowships Circle, Dublin
Royal Zoological Society of Ireland
County Donegal Grand Orange Order
The Charitable Society, Dublin
Parish of Carlow
Dublin, Donegal & District Area Advisory Committee of the British Minister of Pensions, IFS
The Boy Scout Movement in the IFS (Letter to Ld Powerscourt)
Omagh Regional Committee of Education
Killarney Branch of the British Legion
Ballymoney Chamber of Commerce
Masonic Lodge No 62, Tralee
Commissioners of Irish Lights, Dublin
Royal St George Yacht Club, Kingstown
Royal Medical Benevolent Fund Society of Ireland
Select Vestry of the Parish of Tara
Guinness Athletic Union, Dublin
The Royal Drummond Institution for the Orphan Daughters of Soldiers, Dublin
8th Co Dublin Gardening Assn, Monkstown
The Guardians of the Coombe Lying-in-Hospital, Dublin
Parishioners of Glenageary
Irish Turf Club & the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Cttee, Dublin
Charles W. Smythe, Wilson’s Hospital, Healthlands, Multyfarne, Co Westmeath on behalf of the ex-Servicemen in his district.
Vestry of Rathdrum Parish Diocese of Glendalough
Managing Cttee of the Unitarian Church, St Stephens Green, Dublin
Literary and Philosophical Society of UCC
The Chapter of Christ Church Dublin
The Chapter of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Waterford
Dublin, Donegal and District Area Advisory Cttee of the British Minister of Pensions, IFS
Boy Scouts Assn in the IFS
City and County of Dublin District Black Chapter
Royal Dublin Fusiliers Old Comrades Assn
Galway Branch (Women’s Section ) of the British Legion
Apothecaries Hall of Ireland, Dublin
Ex-Servicemen of West Clare
British Legion, Benevolent Funds Cttee in Mullingar
Sligo Harbour Commissioners
Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts, Dublin
Royal College of Physicians in Ireland.
Master Tailors Association of Dublin
Thurles Branch of the British Legion.
(…and many other “Free State Loyalists”.)


Published by Studies, Dublin, June 2009