Seanad Éireann (Irish Free State)

Seanad Éireann (Irish Free State)

Seanad Éireann ( _en. Senate of Ireland) was the upper house of the Oireachtas (parliament) of the Irish Free State from 1922–1936. It has also been known simply as the Senate, or as the First Seanad. The Senate was established under the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State but a number of constitutional amendments were subsequently made to change the manner of its election and it powers. It was eventually abolished in 1936 when it attempted to obstuct constitutional reforms favoured by the government. It sat, like its modern successor, in Leinster House.


The Free State Senate was subordinate to Dáil Éireann (the lower house) and could only delay rather than veto decisions of that house. Nonetheless, the Free State Senate had greater power than its successor, the modern Seanad Éireann, which can only delay normal legislation for three months. As originally adopted the constitution provided that the Free State Senate had power to delay a money bill for 21 days and delay any other bill for 270 days (approximately nine months). In 1928 this second period was extended so that the Senate could delay an ordinary bill for twenty months.

Composition and election

The 1922 Constitution provided for a Senate of 60 members who would be directly elected. Members would serve 12 year terms, with one quarter of the house elected every three years. The members would be elected under the system of proportional representation by means of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in a single, nationwide, fifteen seat constituency.

However, to get the house off the ground, the body's initial membership would be appointed by Dáil Éireann (the lower house) and the president. To further complicate matters, after the holding of the first direct election the constitution was amended, so that the final three elections to the Senate occurred by a method of indirect election. Therefore, in the five elections to the Senate to occur before its abolition, three different systems were used.

It was originally required that membership of the Senate be limited to those who were over 35. Constitutional amendments made in 1928 reduced the minimum age to thirty and the term of office from twelve to nine years.

Today incarnations of the modern Seanad Éireann are given a new number after each senatorial election. Thus, the current Senate elected in 2002 is known as the "Twenty-second Seanad". This was not the custom during the Irish Free State because the Free State Senate was elected in stages and thus considered to be in permanent session. However, as a gesture of continuity with its Free State predecessor, the first Senate elected after 1937 is numbered as the "Second Seanad". The Free State Senate, despite the occurrence of three senatorial elections before its abolition, is considered to have been a single 'Seanad' for the duration of its existence and is thus referred for that whole period as the "First Seanad".

1922 election

One half the initial membership of the Senate was elected by the Dáil under the system of STV. The remaining half were appointed by the President of the Executive Council (prime minister), WT Cosgrave. Those elected by the Dáil were divided into two equal groups by lot, one assigned terms of three years and the other terms of nine. Those appointed by the president were similarly divided, and assigned terms of six and twelve years. The President agreed to use his appointments in 1922 to grant extra representation to the Protestant minority in the state. As a result, of the sixty members of the first Senate, as well as thirty six Roman Catholics, there were twenty Protestants, three Quakers and one Jew. Not only that, but it contained seven peers, a dowager countess, five baronets and several knights. The New York Times remarked that the first senate was "representative of all classes", though it has also been described as, "the most curious political grouping in the history of the Irish state". [ Article by Elaine Byrne, Irish Times, 30 July 2008] Members included WB Yeats, Oliver St John Gogarty and General Sir Bryan Mahon.

The opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty also opposed the new Senate, and thirty seven of the senators' homes were burnt to the ground. Others were intimidated, kidnapped and the subject of assassination attempts. Nevertheless, the first Senate greatly influenced the guiding principles and legislative foundations of the new state. [Irish Times, op cit]

1925 election

The fifteen original three-year seats came up for election in 1925, as did four other seats which had been filled temporarily by co-option. The 19 retiring members were automatically eligible for re-election; another 19 candidates were nominated by the Senate (by STV from a list of 29); the Dáil nominated 38 candidates (from a list of 57, again by STV). The 76 candidates were then put to the public electorate on 17 September 1925, but without partisan campaigning, turnout was less than a quarter of the 1,345,000 potential voters. The STV count took two weeks. Only eight of the former senators were re-elected, with particularly poor results for the Gaelic League and Douglas Hyde. ["'An Exceedingly Severe Test': the Irish Senate Elections of 1925" in Whyte, Nicholas, (2003). Northern Ireland ELECTIONS. Retrieved 18 Mar. 2004 from []

ubsequent elections

After the amendment of the constitution in 1928, future members of the Senate were to be elected from a single constituency consisting of the combined membership of the outgoing senate and the Dáil, and the system was changed so that a third rather than a quarter of the Senate would be replaced at each election. The elections were still held by secret ballot, and under STV. Elections took place under the new system in 1928, 1931, and 1934 before the Senate was abolished in 1936.

The system for nominating candidates was also changed. After 1928 it was provided that the number of nominees would be equal to twice the number of seats to be filled and that one-half would be elected by the Dáil and one-half by the Senate. Both houses used STV for this purpose. The right of outgoing senators to nominate themselves was removed.


The constitution originally provided that premature vacancies would be filled by a vote of the Senate. However a candidate elected in this way would only serve until the next senatorial election; then his or her seat would come up for election along with the others scheduled to be filled. In 1929 the system was changed so that vacancies were filled by members of both houses voting together.


The Free State Senate was abolished entirely in 1936 after it delayed some Government proposals for constitutional changes. Eamon de Valera had seen its delay of his proposals as illegitimate; the continuing opposition majority had stemmed from a combination of his earlier boycott of the Free State Oireachtas and the provision for the Senate's self-election. It opposed its own abolition, but this decision was overridden by the Dáil. De Valera later created a new Senate in his 1937 constitution.

Direct democracy role

As adopted the Free State constitution contained a number of provisions for direct democracy, which included a special role for the Senate. Most importantly it was provided that the Senate could, if 60% of its number agreed, demand a binding referendum on any bill. This would have allowed the Senate to appeal to voters directly if there was a disagreement between the two houses and the Dáil attempted to override the Senate. However this power was taken from the Senate in 1928 before it had been put into use. It was in compensation for this loss that the Senate's powers of delay were increased in the same year.

Before it was removed, the Senate's right to demand a referendum was contained in Article 47, which provided for voters to veto legislation directly in certain circumstances. The article provided that once a bill had been approved by both houses of the Oireachtas (or just by the Dáil, if it had overridden the Senate) its enactment into law could be suspended if, within seven days, either a majority of the Senate or 40% of all members of the Dáil so requested.

There would then be a further period of ninety days within which either 5% of all registered voters, or a 60% majority in the Senate, could demand a referendum on the bill. The referendum would be decided by a majority of votes cast and if rejected the bill would not become law. Article 47 did not apply to money bills or bills declared by both houses to be "necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety". In 1928 Article 47 was repealed in its entirety, along with Article 48 which provided for an initiative process.

A power not unlike that given to the Free State Seanad by Article 47 is granted to the modern Irish Senate by the 1937 Constitution of Ireland. Under the current constitution a simple majority of senators (with the agreement of one-third of the Dáil) can request that the President of Ireland refer a bill to the people. This means that the President can refuse to sign it until it has been approved either in an ordinary referendum or by the Dáil after it has reassembled after a general election. This power has never been used because the modern Senate is designed in such a way as to have a permanent government majority.

List of constitutional amendments

During the Irish Free State there were no less than twelve constitutional amendments relating to the Senate. These were

*Constitution (Amendment No. 1) Act (11 July 1925): Made changes relating to the terms of office of senators, and the date on which senatorial elections were to be held.

*Constitution (Amendment No. 10) Act (12 July 1928): This amendment removed a number of provisions for direct democracy from the constitution. These included the right of the Senate to force a referendum on certain bills.

*Constitution (Amendment No. 6) Act (23 July 1928): Replaced the direct election of the Senate with the system of indirect election.

*Constitution (Amendment No. 13) Act (23 July 1928): Extended the Senate's power of delay over legislation from nine months to twenty months.

*Constitution (Amendment No. 8) Act (25 October 1928): Reduced the age of eligibility for senators from 35 to 30.

*Constitution (Amendment No. 9) Act (25 October 1928): Removed the existing provisions for the nomination of Senate and candidates and empowered the Oireachtas to make alternative arrangements by law. The new system of nomination was then introduced by the Seanad Electoral Act, 1928 (which was enacted on the same day).

*Constitution (Amendment No. 7) Act (30 October 1928): Reduced the term of office of senators from twelve to nine years.

*Constitution (Amendment No. 14) Act (14 May 1929): Clarified a technical matter relating to the relationship between the two houses of the Oireachtas.

*Constitution (Amendment No. 15) Act (14 May 1929): Permitted one member of the Executive Council (cabinet) to be a senator, where previously it had been required that all be members of the Dáil. It was still required that the President, Vice-President and Minister for Finance hold seats in the Dáil.

*Constitution (Amendment No. 11) Act (17 December 1929): Altered the method for the filling of premature vacancies in the Senate.

*Constitution (Amendment No. 12) Act (24 March 1930): Altered provisions relating to the Committee of Privileges that had authority to resolves disputes between the two Houses of the Oireachtas over the definition of a money bill.

*Constitution (Amendment No. 24) Act (29 May 1936): Abolished the Senate entirely after it had delayed some Government proposals for constitutional changes.

It was replaced by the modern Senate, "Seanad Éireann", established by the Constitution of Ireland in 1937. This new Seanad was considered to be the direct successor of the Free State Seanad.

Notable members

*William Butler Yeats
*Douglas Hyde
*Lord Glenavy
*William Bernard Hickie
*Horace Plunkett
*Kathleen Clarke


ee also

*History of the Republic of Ireland
*Senate of Southern Ireland
*Seanad Éireann, the modern Irish Senate

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