I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Coláiste na Tríonóide and the new state


The 1916 rising began a process which led to the foundation of the state. While this statement is true, it sounds remarkably clear-cut and uncomplicated. It has a “well that’s that then” feel to it.

It’s worth remembering that no one was exactly happy with the form taken by the new state, including those who traced their origins to the rising and even those who comprised the first government. In the 1920s there was much discontent and finger-pointing among the political classes, with everyone discontented in their own way. As a result, the political temper during the first decade of Irish democracy was characterised by bad feeling, if not toxicity. Even relatively arcane and marginal issues could lead to a rehearsal of discontents about the 1922 settlement and rival interpretations of the events which preceded it.

One such was the tussle which arose between Trinity College Dublin and the Cumann na nGaedheal government over whether The Soldier’s Song or God Save the King was the appropriate anthem with which to greet the governor general, who, under the terms of the treaty, was the king’s representative in Ireland.

When the governor general, James McNeil, attended a garden party at Trinity College in 1928, he was greeted with a rendition of God Save the King, as had been the established practice. The “nationally minded” McNeil did not care for this and he was supported in his objections by an executive acutely conscious of its 1916 pedigree, a pedigree which radical republicans, seeing the pro-treaty side as traitorous, would have denied the government. In these circumstances Cumann na nGaedheal, which wanted to assert the maximum practical distance from Britain under the terms of the treaty, was unwilling to allow continuing primacy of God Save the King over The Soldier’s Song once the latter had been adopted as the official anthem of the Free State. It might have accepted the Oath of Allegiance on pragmatic grounds but, it seems, it drew the line at giving parity to God Save the King. Unimpressed, Trinity College refused to back down and said the procedure would be “as usual” in 1929.

Trinity argued that God Save the King was the anthem played on all such occasions throughout “his majesty’s dominions”, that it was not the British national anthem but simply an “imperial hymn”, the playing of which was entirely consistent with the 1922 settlement. Unlike the government, Trinity wished to see the maximum possible connection with Britain under the terms of the treaty. The playing out of the dispute, which eventually saw the college climb down, reflected the transformed power relations in the new state, a reality which Trinity would fully accept in due course.

The terms in which the debate was conducted, especially in the press, suggest that, across the nationalist spectrum, there was no hope of ending or desire to end partition by agreement. There was no sense of a government or society preparing the ground for the eventual welcoming of Northern Ireland into a state adhering to the vision of Tone and Davis. Perhaps following some years of oppressive unionist rule in the north, the Tone/Davis idea, with its implicit suggestion of a purely temporary false consciousness amongst unionists, was coming to be recognised as baloney.

The unionist Belfast News-Letter, in its comment on the dispute, expressed itself bluntly: “those who talk of a united Ireland should have sufficient intelligence to see that the loyal North can never unite with the disloyal South. For this reason, even if there were no others, partition must be permanent.”

In the south, suggestions in The Irish Times and elsewhere that Trinity should be assuaged in the interests of a future national unity had no impact. Perhaps gestures towards the largely Protestant unionist population had a whiff of Home Rule failure about them which in turn may have facilitated the growing clericalisation, in which all nationalist elements were complicit, and which was well under way in the 1920s.

The government was developing the very modern Ardnacrusha hydroelectric scheme on the Shannon, but its celebration of the centenary of Catholic Emancipation in 1929 and its preparations for a triumphalist celebration of the fifteen-hundred-year anniversary of Saint Patrick’s arrival on the island in 1932 can leave little doubt that the new Ireland was to be Catholic in outlook and values. Pluralism, whether genuine or just a means to woo Protestant Ireland in the hope of reversing the trauma of partition, was not on the political agenda.

In 1932, the year of the Eucharist Congress, when some in Trinity offered the traditional, if somewhat strained, Anglican opinion that the Church of Ireland was the real successor to St Patrick and that Rome-oriented Christianity was a disorder introduced by the Normans unknown in the early Irish church, their arguments were brusquely dismissed.

The early decision not to separate church and state in the south, which was a political entity rhetorically obsessed by the “evil” of partition, left physical force as the only remaining option for redress. This, of course, turned out to be an impractical option which mainstream society eschewed but which successive generations of purists pursued to a degree which was to plague twentieth century Ireland. The acrimonies of the 1920s then and the decisions taken in that decade were to cast a shadow over the years which followed. For this reason it is worth taking a look at how people lined up politically in that decade.

First let us look, in no particular order, at some of the political positions to be found in 1920s Dublin. The Irish Parliamentary Party had been cast aside in the wake of 1916 and the general perception ‑ growing for some time before that ‑ was that the party had failed to achieve anything much since the demise of Parnell. Notwithstanding this, diehard IPP supporters and leaders were not shipped off to an Irish gulag. They were a presence in 1920s Dublin. For them, the recent course of politics was like the fable of the wren who became king of the birds by hiding under the eagle’s feathers, only to fly above it at the last moment. As they saw it, the giants of nineteenth and early twentieth century constitutional politics were now unacknowledged by a crew of usurpers and opportunists. Those in the IPP tradition continued – and they were often well dug in in the professions and business and education – to hold their own views and begrudge full loyalty to the new state.

The preferred IPP tunes were God Save Ireland (TD Sullivan) or Let Erin Remember (Thomas Moore) and A Nation Once Again (Thomas Davis). Had they formed the first Irish government, as they long expected to do, one of these would have become the Free State anthem. However the actual government was comprised of an element which saw Easter 1916 as an Irish Vendémiaire and was just as certain to reject something from Thomas Moore as it was to reject God Save the King.

The radical republican elements which were on the losing side in the civil war were also uninterested in state-building; they were filled with rage that the Free State had appropriated the tricolour and The Soldier’s Song. In 1929 the Fianna Fáil newspaper The Nation made clear that in its view Trinity had logic on its side, arguing that since the treatyites had acknowledged that the Free State was part of the British Empire it was logical to honour the crown by playing God Save the King. Cosgrave was a hypocrite who should “stand by his Free State and all that it connotes”. An Phoblacht, the newspaper of the IRA, also declared that Trinity had logic on its side and that the Free State had no basis for objecting to “their master’s voice”.

The government itself was comprised of republicans who had made the not insignificant compromise of accepting dominion status and a role for the crown in Irish affairs in order to get an Irish government up and running. They had conducted a ruthless military campaign during the civil war in pursuit of this objective, a campaign which ensured that they would not be supported in the task of state building from the numerically significant republican quarter.

Compromises often leave a funny aftertaste and this can be accentuated when, as in the Cumann na nGaedheal case, the government’s republican adversaries rubbed their noses in the embarrassing aspects of their compromise and denounced them as traitors at every turn. In this situation it was extremely irritating for the government to have Trinity College demand that the government honour an anthem which nationalists of every stripe saw as a symbol of their country’s past degradation and impoverishment. It was perhaps inevitable that there would be a muscular response, albeit disguised in diplomatic language.

In public the government’s language was measured and diplomatic. But a fuller view of Cuman na nGaedheal thinking and the emotions involved can be gleaned from the commentary published in newspapers associated with the party, such as The Freeman and The StarThe Star, for example, denounced Trinity as permeated “with the dry rot of imperialism”. It also pointed out that the treatment of the minority in the Free State was in marked contrast to the treatment of the minority in Northern Ireland and implied that this could change. Other newspapers were also hostile; The Leader argued that the unionists were defeated in the Anglo-Irish war and should accept the consequences. The Independent said “our kindness is being mistaken for servitude”. The message was clear: “tolerance” was predicated on accepting the new status quo.

Like the IPP and the radical republicans, the not-quite-practising unionist element in the Free State was not shipped off to an Irish gulag, and like the others neither was it engaged by the business of state-building. Some accepted the new reality and supported the government, if only as protection against “the menace of republicanism”. Others simply bemoaned the collapse of the union. Such elements were prone to giving lusty renditions of God Save the King at social functions where “their people” dominated. These safe events included certain dances, the Dublin Horse Show, Armistice Day celebrations and events within Trinity College. Obviously the practice allowed for an emotional release and conveyed the message, understood by all involved, that while things had taken a bad turn their fundamental unionist principles were intact.

The business over the anthem to be played in Trinity when greeting the governor general was a serious and public matter concerning the degree to which Trinity would be allowed to continue in semi-denial of the implications of 1922 and especially of the government’s reading of the treaty. The language adopted for the wider presentation of its case was measured and unemotional. Trinity, as has been noted, argued that the treaty agreement allowed a role for the monarch in Irish affairs and that in honouring the king by singing the “imperial hymn” when his representative visited the college they were entirely at one with the terms of the treaty.

The government responded to this argument with one which turned the Trinity argument on its head by asserting that God Save the King was the British national anthem and that as such it would be appropriate to play it in greeting a visiting British politician but that the monarch or his representative as head of the Irish state should be greeted by The Soldier’s Song, which was the national anthem of the Irish Free State.

In time more reflective elements in Trinity realised it could hardly survive as a major seat of learning in splendid isolation from the society in which it lived and without the financial support it might derive from that society. Some may have hoped that Britain would force the Cumann na nGaedheal government to accept a less separatist interpretation of the treaty. Indeed, there were some noises of this sort from Westminster, but the government successfully pushed the line in London that any climbdown would be a boon to extremists and a threat to stability. Westminster’s long history of discounting the political interests of Anglican Ireland was not about to cease and Dublin effectively received British support for its position. A half-hearted campaign in Britain to boycott Irish goods petered out.

Trinity also had to consider the dangers of stimulating hostility to often isolated Church of Ireland communities around the country who were already nervous in consequence of the harsh treatment meted out to northern Catholics living under unionist control. Ultimately, it was understood that it was not politically sensible to continue in defiance of the government.

Trinity agreed in 1931 that the governor general would be greeted by The Soldier’s Song and that at the end of the events, after he had left, God Save the King would be played. This was essentially what the government had demanded. God Save the King was played at Trinity commencements until 1938. It is said that strains of the tune could be heard until the late 1940s at The Dublin Horse Show.

Looking at the degree of division among secular elements in 1920s Dublin, the extent of state-building achieved is impressive and almost surprising. What is less surprising is that in these circumstances and in the long afterlife of these divisions, a purposeful and coherent church was able to secure significant social power, a power which was to be extended and consolidated over subsequent decades.

Sources include “God Save the King versus The Soldier’s Song: The 1929 Trinity College national anthem dispute and the politics of the Irish Free State”. Ewan Morris, Irish Historical Studies. Vol XXXI No 121 May 1998.