Discovering sources on Ireland’s membership of the League of Nations at UCD Archives

Thirty-three years ago, in September 1990, starting out into what used to be called an ‘MA by major research’, I first set foot in UCD Archives searching for sources for my dissertation on Ireland’s engagement with the League of Nations.

There was then no Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) collection in the National Archives; it would not open until January 1991. The major repositories of primary sources on Irish foreign policy were either the British Public Record Office (PRO) (now The National Archives) in Kew in London, or the United States National Archives and Records Authority (NARA) in Washington DC.

But for me, as I was interested in the 1920s, UCD Archives beat both hands down because of its significant holdings of private collections of the senior Irish political figures from the decade who were involved in the state’s 1923 admission to, and subsequent engagement with, the League.

A neophyte in research, on my first visit to UCD Archives I was thrown in at the deep end of the primary source pool by my supervisor Ronan Fanning, Professor of Modern History.  Archivist Seamus Helferty showed me the finding aids. Then I was on my own amidst the microfilm and curated documents and for the first time wore white gloves to look at photographs.

I soon became a regular underneath the Library Building in the UCD Archives Reading Room. Over the coming years the papers of Hugh Kennedy (P4), Eoin MacNeill (LAI), Patrick McGilligan (P35), Ernest Blythe (P24) and Desmond FitzGerald (P80) became my go-to sources for Ireland’s 1920s League policies.

Kennedy’s magpie-like keeping of ephemera—menus, tickets and business cards—was a fine distraction from the detailed memoranda on the finer points of foreign policy within his collection.  Kennedy is particularly good on Ireland’s admission to the League as it concerned him directly as Attorney General and his papers have most of the key official documents. His papers also contain important correspondence from Irish-born Edward Phelan, a senior official in the International Labour Office (which came under the League’s auspices) who provided ‘behind-the-scenes’ advice to Irish ministers and diplomats on how to handle events at Geneva.

Where Blythe truly excelled was in the letters he wrote to his wife Anne from meetings of the League at Geneva.  MacNeill wrote likewise to his wife Agnes, though he only attended the 1923 Assembly, where Blythe attended in 1926, 1928 and 1930.

In these letters I got an insight in a very personal way into how Irish statesmen engaged with Geneva and the League of Nations. Blythe’s account of Ireland’s last minute 1926 attempt to get elected to the Council of the League is far more engaging than any official report: 

‘We have provided a small sensation and will prevent at any rate the arranged elections from going through as a pure formality’ (P24/2252, 15 September 1926).  

There is no little humour either, MacNeill drolly writing to Agnes

‘Occasionally I treat myself to a row (mind the pronunciation) on the lake [Lake Geneva] at 1 franc per hour’ (LAI/G/218, 15 September 1923).

UCDA LA1/G/218 Papers of Eoin MacNeill

There was also the unexpected, including the 1926 Irish League Assembly delegation’s abortive trip to the Moulin Rouge in Paris en-route to Geneva.  They left quickly as 

‘four unprotected men were subject to too frequent attention to remain any length of time’ (P24/2252, 8 September 1926).

UCDA P24/2252 Papers of Ernest Blythe

Most memorable was not the copy of Blythe’s milestone 1926 memorandum on the future direction of Irish League policy (P24/157, 20 October 1926), but his letter to Anne describing a case of chronic sunburn on the shore of Lake Geneva during a break in the League’s Assembly and his subsequent woe sitting putting pen to paper half-naked in his hotel room covered in cold cream to dull the pain, his skin feeling like ‘a hot linseed poultice’ (P24/2252, 8 September 1926).

UCDA P24/157 Papers of Ernest Blythe

Highly personal too are the letters in Desmond FitzGerald’s papers. They indicate the toll attendance at League Assemblies took on FitzGerald’s delicate constitution, in one case he dashed off the line to his wife Mabel 

‘One unceasing rush for me. Perhaps more time next week. Anyway it should be less worrying. I have sometimes been nearly fainting from nervous exhaustion’ (P80/1407, 17 September 1926).

UCDA P80/1407 Papers of Desmond & Mabel FitzGerald

They also shine a fascinating light on the relationship between FitzGerald and his wife, he, for example, teasing her with tales of the women he was meeting at the many social events surrounding the Assembly (P80/1407, 9 September 1926).

UCDA P80/1407 Papers of Desmond & Mabel FitzGerald

Amongst the significant policy documents concerning Ireland and the League held in UCD Archives is one of only two known copies of an 11 October 1927 memo ‘The Status issue at the 8th Assembly’ by Secretary of the Department of External Affairs Joseph Walshe. A development of policy from Blythe’s 1926 memorandum, it is in McGilligan’s papers (P35/B/117, 11 October 1927). This memorandum marks an extremely important moment in League policy formulation as Ireland became increasingly engaged with the League as the 1920s progressed.

UCDA P35/B/117 Papers of Patrick McGilligan

Back in 1993 when I submitted what had turned into a doctoral dissertation on Cuman na nGaedheal’s League policy, UCD had not formed its partnership with the Order of Friars Minor (OFM). The transfer under this partnership of the papers of Éamon de Valera (P150) to UCD Archives and their opening was a critical and widely-awaited turning point in the availability of sources on inter-war Irish foreign policy.

P150 excels in the visual record of Ireland’s involvement in the League of Nations.  The photographs of de Valera on and off duty in Geneva in the 1930s  reveal the ‘European’ de Valera, the international statesman removed from domestic politics in Ireland and active on the world stage. A rather poignant shot catches de Valera alert but almost alone in the League’s assembly hall 

UCDA P150/2816 Papers of Eamon de Valera *

(P150/2816), whereas a more relaxed ‘off-duty’ photograph of a nevertheless stern-looking de Valera with members of the Irish delegation to the League relaxing after lunch from the mid-1930s is on P150/2818.

UCDA P150/2818 Papers of Eamon de Valera *

Then there is de Valera in a beret whilst on a tourist trip outside Geneva (P150/2812), one of the many pieces of headgear he features in across P150.

UCDA P150/2812 Papers of Eamon de Valera *

Assisting de Valera at Geneva were senior members of the Department of External Affairs.  Key direction was given by Ireland’s ‘Permanent Delegate’ to the League of Nations.  Over the course of Ireland’s League membership (1923–1946) three men consecutively held this position.  Michael MacWhite (1923–1929); Seán Lester (1929–34) and Francis T. ‘Frank’ Cremins (1934–40).

MacWhite’s papers (P194) and Lester’s papers (P203) came to UCD Archives well after I had moved on to other topics, but this year’s centenary of Ireland’s admission to the League of Nations has given me the opportunity to work through them in detail.

MacWhite’s and Lester’s papers add the critical ‘official’ level dimension to the story of Ireland’s League membership.  These collections also encompass their life stories and those of their families. MacWhite, the dashing ex-Foreign Legionnaire from Glandore in Cork (there is a superb photo of a sunburned MacWhite in uniform on P194/736) and Lester, the mild-mannered Carrickfergus journalist, were two very different kinds of diplomats, but their private papers show how they brought their skills to bear in Geneva to promote Ireland as an active and engaged member of the League of Nations.

UCDA P194/736 Papers of Michael MacWhite

Such was Lester’s ability and engagement with the League that he was seconded to the League of Nations Secretariat, serving as its High Commissioner in Danzig (today Gdansk) until returning to Geneva in 1937 as Deputy Secretary-General.  It ultimately fell to Lester to keep the League functioning during the Second World War. He performed this thankless task with a skeleton staff at the League’s vast headquarters in Geneva. There is a candid 1946 photo on P203/160 of Lester and his wartime colleagues celebrating, or perhaps commemorating, the end of their wartime vigil.

UCDA P203/160 Papers of Seán Lester

Because the sources on Ireland and the League of Nations in UCD Archives are primarily the contents of private papers they give a personal and thus most accessible view of Ireland’s membership of the League.  In them we get to assess policy documents, but also to meet the men and the women who brought the League of Nations to the centre of Irish foreign policy between the wars. Do not forget Elsie Lester and Paula MacWhite, the often-forgotten diplomatic spouses who kept the official show on the road with no recognition from the Department of External Affairs.  There is a stylish 1930s shot of Elsie Lester and Eamon de Valera on P150/2789 walking through the League’s headquarters, the Palais des Nations, in Geneva, and though not from the League, the fashion and new technologies of the inter-war years are clear in the ‘power couple’ shot of Michael and Paula MacWhite leaving a Pan Am flying boat in Miami on P194/825.

UCDA P150/2789 Papers of Eamon de Valera * and UCDA P194/825 Papers of Michael MacWhite

And finally, to be quite honest, in what other archive will you encounter a half-naked Ernest Blythe covered in cold cream?


This guest blog post was written by Dr Michael Kennedy, Documents on Irish Foreign Policy.

* Items from the Papers of Eamon de Valera are reproduced by kind permission of UCD-OFM Partnership

One thought on “Discovering sources on Ireland’s membership of the League of Nations at UCD Archives

  1. Kenny says:

    Your blog, ‘Discovering Sources on Ireland’s Membership of the League of Nations at UCD Archives,’ is a commendable exploration into a crucial chapter of Ireland’s history. The meticulous research and presentation of archival sources offer a valuable resource for understanding this period. A well-crafted and informative piece that sheds light on an important aspect of Ireland’s international engagement. Excellent work!

Leave a Reply