On An Equal Footing With All: Ireland at the League of Nations by Ita Marguet, September 2023

2 October 2023

An international exhibition marking the centenary of Ireland joining the League of Nations formed the centrepiece of the National Archives’ 2023 Commemoration Programme, and the conclusion of its formal engagement with the Decade of Centenaries. Working in partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Royal Irish Academy (Documents on Irish Foreign Policy), the exhibition was developed for presentation in Laois, Geneva, Dublin and New York between September and December 2023. In partnership with the Irish Mission in Geneva the exhibition was formally opened at the United Nations Office on 26 September 2023 until 6 October 2023. A book bearing the title of the Exhibition covers the history with many exhibits on display.

Even before gaining independence from Britain in 1922 the revolutionary Dail Eireann government had aspired to Ireland joining the League. But it was not possible until an internationally recognised state came into being on 6 December 1922 that Ireland had the legal and international capacity to join the League of Nations. From its earliest year as a member of the League Ireland advocated for a peaceful world order and the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means. These were the key goals of the League and Ireland knew that, as a small state which lacked great military and economic power, membership of like-minded states such as the young League of Nations was its best chance of surviving and thriving. The first Dail Eireann had demanded admission to the proposed League of Nations in 1919, the first Irish Free State came into being in December 1922, and formally joined the League of Nations on 10 September 1923.

Sean Lester (1888-1959)

He was born in the village of Woodburn on the outskirts of Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland. The son of a grocer he was a rather unusual combination of a Protestant Republican in his younger years becoming a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He joined the newly established Department of External Affairs on the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922. Posted to Geneva to represent the Free Irish State at the League of Nations he quickly impressed the League with his diplomatic abilities where he was recognised as a strong personality capable of understanding different points of view and negotiating settlements. This brought him to the attention of the Secretariat who had an urgent need to fill one of their most challenging positions as the League’s High Commissioner in the Free City of Danzig from 1934-1936 where he tried hard to resist the Nazi juggernaut. It was only one of the many high profile positions held by this respected son of Ireland.

In the early part of the Second World War he took over as Secretary-General from his disgraced predecessor and for four years fought to keep the institution alive. Isolated and overwhelmed by war he oversaw the winding up of the League following the international adoption of the United Nations Charter as its successor.

He was awarded the Woodrow Wilson Prize in 1945 and received an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland in 1948. Upon his death in 1959 ‘The Times Obituary’ described him as an international conciliator and courageous friend of refugees. He is remembered at the Gdansk City Hall, the former residence of the League of Nations, where a room carries his name with a small memorial in his honour. A Poland based Irish historian, Paul McNamara, has written the story of Sean Lester, Poland and the Nazi Takeover of Danzig, published by Irish Academic Press Ltd. It is one of the several biographies and historical literature about this Irishman who is documented as an able and trustworthy international statesman.

Note: Acknowledgement is given to references by the authors in the Exhibition book. Also to recent publications about Sean Lester, authors Marit Fosse and John Fox (Hamilton Books, 2016) and The Irish Influence Building the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization, author Gerry Finnegan (BTE Books Ltd.)