6 December 2022 marks the centenary of the coming into effect of the Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) Act, 1922  (‘the 1922 Constitution’). This was a pivotal moment in the constitutional history of an independent Irish State. The contentious process of drafting the Saorstát Éireann Constitution has been well treated elsewhere . Instead, this article highlights the use of certain Irish terms in the 1922 Constitution and their roots in Medieval Ireland.
The use of Irish terminology reflected some of the drafters’ desire to inject a Gaelic Irish element into the Constitution, though this was mostly an exercise in aesthetics. The resurrection of Irish terminology in this way did not herald a rejuvenation of Medieval Irish laws nor, indeed, substantive law reform more generally. Still, some idealised (but often inaccurate) notions of Medieval Irish society did influence earlier more progressive drafts of the 1922 Constitution. Most of that did not, however, survive into the final version , so native terminology did some heavy lifting in conveying a distinctive ‘Irishness’ to the new constitutional order of 1922.
Image 1: Members of the 1922 Constitution Committee, meeting at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. From L-R: R.J.P. Mortished (Secretary); John O’Byrne, B.L.; C.J. France; Darrell Figgis (Acting Chairman); Ned Stephens, B.L. (Secretary); P.A. O’Toole, B.L. (Secretary); James McNeill; Hugh Kennedy, K.C.; James Murnaghan, B.L.; James Douglas (Prof. Alfred O’Rahilly and Kevin O’Sheil, B.L., were absent from the session.). Image Credit, Wikimedia Commons
Irish Terminology in the 1922 Constitution
Key Irish terms, in particular ‘Oireachtas’ and ‘Dáil’, used in the 1922 Constitution proved enduring, surviving into the present Constitution of Ireland, Bunreacht na hÉireann 1937:
Article 12 of the 1922 Constitution stated: ‘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 Eireann”) and the Senate (otherwise called and herein generally referred to as “Seanad Eireann”). The sole and exclusive power of making laws for the peace, order and good government of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) is vested in the Oireachtas’.
‘Oireachtas’ has its roots in the early Irish term airecht. This was a type of public assembly, usually with a legal flavour. An airecht was the setting for hearing law cases, with rules of procedure and seating arrangements not too dissimilar to those we would recognise today in modern courts . The spelling of the word later evolved to oireacht. While primarily associated with courts in the Brehon Law sources, the historical annals indicate an airecht or oireacht might also be a setting for other engagements. Political negotiations could occur there, for example between warring territories or between vassal kings and their over-lords .
An airecht or oireacht may have been more or less ‘public’ over time. The first annalistic reference to it in the early 11th century portrays an airecht as belonging to all the people of a particular kingdom. Later on, it meant an assembly belonging to a particular ruler . By the 12th century, the word oireachtas emerged to signify a ruler’s political assembly. An outsider could be admitted to an oireachtas if they intended to cooperate with, or submit to, the ruler, thereby gaining membership of the ruler’s oireacht. In this sense, oireacht referred to the people entitled (or required) to attend at the oireachtas .
Evidence from the late 12th to early 14th centuries suggests the oireacht became a kind of council of nobles and/or sub-chieftains in a given territory . In this guise, an oireacht might also collectively move against their own ruler. In 1262 the Annals of Connacht perhaps record an early example of a ‘vote of no confidence’ and ‘change of government’:
The Meath Galls made a great raid on Gilla na Naem O Fergal, chieftain of Annaly. His own eraght [oireacht] deserted and sought refuge with the Galls, deposed him and installed the son of Murchad Carrach O Fergail in opposition to him .
From the mid-14th century, oireacht took on more fluid meanings, often denoting qualities of nobility, lordship, sovereignty or power . By the late 14th century, the oireachtas of a territory may have been held around major festivals and feast days and would have coincided with wider gatherings beyond the nobles. This is attested by a treaty from 1566 referring to an oireachtas at samhna nó bealtaine . That chimes with the seasonality of the Medieval Irish óenach or aonach (‘fair’), which hosted legal, social, sporting and musical activities amongst the general community at seasonal festivals. Oireachtas assemblies, anglicised as ‘Iraghtes’, were viewed with much suspicion by English commentators. Edmund Spencer, writing in the late 16th century, took the view:
There is great use among the Irish to make great assemblies together upon a Rath or hill, there to parly (as they say) about matters and wrongs between township and township, or one private person and another…to them do commonly resort all the scum of loose people, where they may freely meet and confer of what they list…dangerous are such assemblies….
The term ‘Dáil’ likely signified a type of public (sometimes law) assembly in early Ireland . A wisdom text, Tecosca Cormaic (the instructions of King Cormac Mac Airt) recommends that kings hold ‘frequent assemblies’ (dála) . There was also a more specialised assembly which relied on the same root word, known as the rigdál. These royal-level meetings brought together early Irish kings and (at least sometimes) ecclesiastics. They were typically held at or near a provincial boundary . A rigdál might convene to agree on a piece of legislation to be applied on an ‘all-island’ basis.
A good example was Cáin Adomnáin (Law of Adomnán or Lex Innocentium – the ‘Law of the Innocents’), named after Adomnán of Iona. Often described as the ‘Geneva Convention’ of early Ireland, it particularly aimed to protect women, children and clerics from violence . It was promulgated at Birr, on the frontier of Munster and the lands of Uí Néill, in what appears to have been a joint session of a rigdál and ecclesiastical synod. A list of guarantors in Cáin Adomáin indicates it was to be enforced throughout Ireland, Dál Riata (including on the west coast of Scotland) and Pictland (northern and eastern Scotland) .
The terms dál, comdál (‘assembling together’) and mórdál (‘great assembly’) were used in various sources over time to mark significant meetings, both secular and ecclesiastic . For example, in 1433 a comdháil was recorded to have taken place in Tír Conaill in the midst of invasion. At that meeting, the queen and brother of the absent king, along with the ‘princes of Tír Conaill’, concluded a peace deal with the aggressors .
Image 2: Official Handbook of Saorstát Éireann (Hely’s Dublin, 1932), compiled by a committee under the direction of the Minister of Industry and Commerce. Its aim was to ‘give an account of the Irish Free State’ and ‘also the necessary historical background without which an understanding of Modern Ireland would not be possible’. The front cover design noticeably drew on Celtic influences, again demonstrating the use of older aesthetics in portraying the new State. Image Credit, Trinity College Dublin Library (public)
The Lost Terminology
Irish terminology appeared more extensively in earlier drafts of the 1922 Constitution. For instance, ‘Aireacht’ (a variant of oireacht) was used in certain drafts to denote the ‘Executive Council’ (the Government) . ‘Tánaiste’, interestingly translated as ‘Vice President’, also appeared at one point . Not all of this survived contact with British representatives in the ‘Conference on Ireland’, the forum for negotiation between British and Irish representatives on the 1922 Constitution .
One of the British representatives raised questions about the use of ‘Erse’ terminology in the draft text – Erse being a negative pejorative for the Irish language . British newspaper commentary was even less charitable, criticising the draft Constitution for containing ‘certain interpolated bastard Irishisms’ . But a defence (of sorts) came from an unlikely quarter when, during a British parliamentary exchange, Winston Churchill mused:
It [the Irish language] may look very uncouth to English eyes, or unusual, but perhaps our language looks equally uncouth to Irish eyes. One never does know how one’s self appears to others, and perhaps that is one of the things one learns as one gets on in life. One cannot always be quite sure that the inward vision of one’s own presentment is in every respect coincident with external opinion…
This article may be cited as J. Biggins, ‘”Gaelicising” the 1922 Constitution: Origins of Terminology’, The Brehon Lawyer (December 2022)
Sources used for this article
Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) Act 1922 (No. 1 of 1922)
Corpus of Electronic Texts, Annals of Connacht (https://celt.ucc.ie/published/T100011/index.html)
Corpus of Electronic Texts, Tecosca Cormaic (https://celt.ucc.ie/published/T503001/)
Fergus Kelly, ‘An Old Irish Tract on Court Procedure’ (1986) 5 Peritia 74 (‘Kelly 1’)
Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2009) (‘Kelly 2’)
Katherine Simms, From Kings to Warlords: The Changing Political Structure of Gaelic Ireland in the Later Middle Ages (Boydell & Brewer, 2000)
Kenneth Nicholls, Gaelic and Gaelicized Ireland in the Middle Ages (Lilliput Press, 2003)
Laura Cahillane, Drafting the Irish Free State Constitution (Manchester University Press, 2016)
Thomas Charles-Edwards, The Medieval Gaelic Lawyer (Quiggin Pamphlets on the Sources of Mediaeval Gaelic History 4, Cambridge, 1999)
Thomas Mohr, ‘British Involvement in the Creation of the First Irish Constitution’ (2008) 30 Dublin University Law Journal 166
Thomas O’Loughlin, Adomnán at Birr, AD 697: Essays in Commemoration of the Law of the Innocents (Four Courts Press, 2001)
 No. 1 of 1922
 See Cahillane, in particular
 Kelly 1
 Simms, p. 64
 Simms, p. 64
 Simms, p. 65
 Simms, pp. 65-68
 Annals of Connacht, 1262.9
 Simms, pp. 69-70, 73
 Nicholls, p. 33
 Spencer, cited in Simms
 Kelly 2, p. 31, Simms
 Tecosca Cormaic, paragraph 3
 Simms, p. 61, p. 63
 Simms, p. 72
 Cahillane, p. 204
 Cahillane, p. 204. For further discussion of the term ‘Tánaiste’, see J. Biggins, ‘Deputy or Heir? Origins of “An Tánaiste”‘, The Brehon Lawyer (January 2021) (https://thebrehonlawyer.com/2021/01/13/tanaiste/)
 Cahillane, p. 49
 Mohr, p. 180
 Cahillane, p. 61
 Mohr, p. 180