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Podcast: Ireland 1932 (History Corner #10)

As the History Corner returns, we look back 90 years to the 1932 legislative election held in Ireland. Almost a decade after the creation of the Irish Free State, Ireland experienced its first democratic transfer of power as the republican Fianna Fáil swept to power, beginning Éamon de Valera’s 40-year period of dominance over Irish politics.


Hello and welcome to the tenth episode of the Europe Elects History Corner, where we will be looking back at the 1932 parliamentary election in Ireland, which brought about the first democratic change of government in modern Irish history.

As ever, this election was picked by our Patrons on Patreon.  To join them in supporting Europe Elects’ work and to have a say in future History Corner episodes, in addition to other perks, go to 

February, 1932.  The first World Disarmament Conference was held in Geneva, the beginning of dramatically unsuccessful efforts at reducing the world’s armed forces; the 1932 Winter Olympics opened in New York; Japan declared Manchuko’s independence from China following the conclusion of its invasion of Manchuria launched the previous year; Adolf Hitler gained German citizenship in order to contest Germany’s presidential election the following month; the Finnish government survived an armed coup attempt by the fascist Lapua Movement; and, in Ireland on the 16th February, voters went to the polls to elect their next parliament, the Dáil Éireann.

From the conclusion of the Irish Civil War in 1923, Ireland had been governed by the centre right Cumann na nGaedheal party – meaning ‘Society of the Gaels.’  Cumann na nGaedheal represented the victorious side of the civil war, fought over the issue of whether to accept the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty which kept Ireland under the British Crown and partitioned the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland, which remained part of Britain, and the mostly-independent Irish Free State.  The party, under the leadership of W.T. Cosgrave, proceeded to win the first postwar election held in 1923 and, after an inconclusive vote in June 1927, was re-elected as a minority government in September 1927.  

As the first head of government of the Irish Free State, referred to formally at this stage as the President of the Executive Council, Cosgrave lacked the full powers of independence which would be enjoyed by later Irish leaders.  Formally, the Free State was a Dominion of the British Empire, alongside Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Newfoundland, and was governed as a constitutional monarchy under the British Crown represented by a Governor General.  Though possessing the right to veto legislation, in practice the Governor General rarely interfered and has even been described as ‘the constitutional prisoner of domestic political institutions’ – indeed, all three men to occupy the office were themselves Irish politicians or diplomats recommended by the Irish Government.  

During Cosgrave’s period in office, the dominions had gradually gained greater autonomy and status.  The 1926 Imperial Conference defined dominions as “autonomous communities within the British Empire,” in Commonwealth with the United Kingdom rather than subordinate.  In 1931, the Statute of Westminster passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom guaranteed legislative autonomy for the Dominions and the freedom to conduct their own foreign policy, although the Statute would not be formally adopted in Ireland as the Executive Council insisted it already possessed such autonomy in practice.  By 1932, then, the Irish Free State enjoyed most of the benefits of an independent state and was to most intents and purposes internationally recognised as such, although republicans and opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty continued to demand full separation from Britain.

Cosgrave had governed with very little opposition for his first five years in office due to the abstentionist policy pursued by the anti-treaty faction of Sinn Fein.  The faction’s successor party, Fianna Fáil (‘The Soldiers of Destiny’ in English), reversed course in 1927 and took up its seats in the Dáil.  As a result, Cumann na nGeadheal no longer had its working majority after the second 1927 election, though Cosgrave was able to remain in power by striking a deal with the agrarian Farmers’ Party and independent members of the Dáil.  

During his second full term in office, Cosgrave continued his party’s statebuilding efforts, emphasising protection of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and ensuring law and order. Most recently, the government had enacted the Public Safety Bill in late 1931, which banned multiple left-wing and republican organisations and temporarily ended the right to trial by jury, targeted at what Cosgrave described as ‘the menace of unconstitutional action and revolt.’  In particular, this was a response to the continuing threat posed to the new state by armed republicanism.  The Irish Republican Army still existed as an active albeit diminished force, estimated at around 5,000 members in 1931, a year in which six political assassinations were carried out.

The Cumann na nGaedheal government also pursued economically conservative policies characterised by low taxation, balanced budgets and free trade, in addition to prioritising agricultural development over industry.  The Irish Free State suffered from high levels of poverty, particularly in rural areas, a problem which was worsened by the Great Depression in the early 1930s, as unemployment rose and emigration to the United States shrank, provoking housing shortages.

Cosgrave called the election several months earlier than required, hoping to get it out of the way before economic conditions further deteriorated, while seeking to be safely re-elected ahead of an upcoming Commonwealth meeting and the 31st International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin – a major event for the heavily Catholic country.  The election shaped up to be a mostly two-party contest between Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fail, led by Eamon de Valera – a leading figure in the Irish Revolution and Civil War on the Anti-Treaty side who had been confined to the opposition since 1922.  

Cumann na nGaedheal ran a conservative campaign focused on its record of providing stability in government and called for the maintenance of trading relationships with Britain, an important export market for its large farmer voter base.  A significant part of the party’s strategy centred upon a negative campaign against Fianna Fail.  One message urged voters to keep ‘the shadow of the gunman’ away from their homes, evoking Fianna Fail’s links with the IRA.  Cumann na nGaedheal also drew connections between Fianna Fail and communism, even comparing de Valera to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.  One poster proclaimed, “We want no Reds here – keep their colour off your flag,” next to a red flag obscuring the Irish tricolour.  All three of Ireland’s main daily newspapers supported Cumann na nGaedheal’s re-election, though provincial newspapers were more evenly split.

Fianna Fail, for its part, pledged social and economic reform, calling for the introduction of protectionist measures, reduced economic dependence on Britain – which still accounted for 90% of exports and 80% of imports – and increased housing and social security support.  The party also demanded that land annuities owed to Britain as part of the Anglo-Irish Treaty should be suspended and use to fund rural infrastructure projects.  These economic policies developed greater credibility as the global economic situation continued to deteriorate.  While avoiding overt displays of republicanism in an attempt to blunt Cumann na nGaedheal’s attacks, Fianna Fail campaigned to abolish the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown and reduce the powers of the Governor General.

Though dominated by the two major parties representing each Civil War faction, a number of smaller parties also contested the election.  Ireland’s third party, the centre-left Labour Party, had provided the bulk of the opposition to Cumann na nGaedheal during Cosgrave’s first term and had achieved its best ever result in June 1927 with 12.6% of the vote and 22 seats, though this fell dramatically to 9.1% and 13 seats in September – the party’s worst result at that point.  Labour’s leader, Thomas O’Connell, was a teacher who had come to political prominence through the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and gained the party leadership after his predecessor was unseated in September 1927.  Labour’s campaign focused on the issue of unemployment and expanding welfare support.

The next largest party was the Farmers’ Party, which faced the electorate after five years of supporting Cosgrave’s government.  Like Labour, its recent trajectory had been downward, losing seats in both the 1927 elections.  A party in decline, its leader, Michael Heffernan, had even defected to Cumann na nGaedheal shortly before the election.  One final party of note was the Irish Worker League, a member of the Communist International.  Founded in 1923 by Jim Larkin, a socialist organiser who had spent nine years in the United States as a member of the Socialist Party of America and the country’s early communist movement, ending up imprisoned for three years after being found guilty of ‘criminal anarchy.’  Larkin won the party’s first seat in 1927, though was forced to immediately resign due to an unpaid libel charge against a fellow trade unionist leader.

The election was held using Single Transferable Vote, a broadly proportional system in place since 1921 that made it difficult for any single party to win a majority.  Voting took place in 30 constituencies with an average of five seats available in each.  On election day, 1.3 million voters turned out to cast a ballot, a turnout of 76.5% – a 7.5 point increase from 1927.  For the first time since the emergence of the two-party system, Cumann na nGaedheal fell to second place with 35.2% of the vote and 57 seats.  Fianna Fail surged ahead to gain 44.5% of the vote and 72 seats, just five short of an overall majority and the highest number won by any party in a contested election. 

Though Cumann na nGaedheal suffered losses, the worst decline in seats was recorded by Labour which fell to 7, losing almost half its parliamentary presence, though its vote share held up somewhat better at 7.7%.  Included among these losses was O’Connell, whose constituency of Mayo South joined the swing towards Fianna Fail in an embarrassing defeat for the party.  The Farmers’ Party also endured a rebuke from the electorate, similarly losing half its parliamentary group to fall to 3 seats.  Large parts of its support base had been squeezed between the two major parties, larger farmers tending towards Cumann na nGaedheal while smallholders departed for Fianna Fail.  The party would cease to exist by the end of the year.  

Meanwhile, the Irish Worker League failed to win any seats, falling to just 0.3% of the vote.  Thus, the election helped to solidify the development of Ireland’s two-party system.  Finally, 14 independent candidates were also elected to the Dail, a slight increase from 1927.

Geographically, Fianna Fail was the dominant party across much of rural Ireland, winning majorities of the vote in several counties in central and western parts of the country.  Cumann na nGaedheal was stronger in urban parts of the country, competing with Fianna Fail in areas like Dublin and Cork, though the only constituency where the party gained a majority of seats available was Dublin South.  Labour’s seats were predominantly clustered in the east, while the Farmers’ Party’s three seats were all won in the rural southwest.

This was an emphatic victory for Eamon de Valera, who reaped the rewards of a campaign tightly focused on tackling Ireland’s social and economic crisis.  In this sense, some historians have argued Cosgrave’s government was a casualty of the Great Depression, its fate set as early as 1929.  Fianna Fail made particular gains in rural, farming communities, where the issue of land annuity payments helped galvanise support. Cumann na nGaedheal’s attempts to promote a red scare around Fianna Fail and its recent authoritarian measures were also widely perceived to have backfired, costing rather than expanding support for the party.  In addition, the Pro-Treaty argument, another basis for keeping Fianna Fail out of power, had less relevance for many voters ten years on from the Civil War. 

Following the election, de Valera was able to form a government with Labour’s support, marking the beginning of 40 years of political dominance in Ireland as head of government and, ultimately, Ireland’s President.  Ten years on from the Civil War, political tensions were such that some Fianna Fail members turned up to the first sitting of the Dail carrying arms concealed under their clothes, though the Cumann na nGaedheal government and the state’s police force and army allowed the transfer of power to take place without incident.  

As President of the Executive Council, de Valera did not seek to instantly remove Ireland from the Anglo-Irish Treaty.  The issue of partition and the status of Northern Ireland had not featured prominently in the election campaign and would not prove to be a priority.  However, he did begin the process of chipping away at Ireland’s remaining British connections.  The Oath of Allegiance was abolished, constitutional references to the Privy Council were removed and de Valera’s pick for Governor General, Domhnall Ua Buachalla, was instructed to be seen in public as little as possible in order to reduce the position’s status.  Ua Buachalla would only hold one public meeting in his four years as Governor General, and his official residence was relocated outside Dublin.

Furthermore, land annuity payments to Britain were swiftly suspended.  This led to a six year trade war with Britain in which Fianna Fail’s protectionist policies aimed to reduce Ireland’s economic dependence on Britain and force Britain to repay considerable sums which the government claimed had been overtaxed from Ireland between 1801 and 1922.  

De Valera would secure an even more emphatic electoral victory the following year, providing the political mandate to reshape Ireland in his image.  Taking advantage of the 1936 Abdication Crisis in Britain, he would rush through Ireland’s modern constitution in 1937, bringing an end to the Irish Free State and replacing the Governor General with an elected President.  This paved the way for Ireland to leave the Commonwealth altogether in 1949 and gain international recognition as a republic, a move by this stage supported by both major parties.

Fianna Fail in power also consolidated the new state’s social conservative orientation, supporting bans on divorce, contraception and abortion and endorsing the Roman Catholic Church’s considerable social and political influence.  The status of the Irish language also continued to be emphasised, recognised in the 1937 constitution as Ireland’s national and first official language.

The 1932 election marked several turning points for Ireland.  The first democratic transfer of power in Irish history, Fianna Fail’s decisive victory accelerated the country’s transition to full independence under a republican system of government.  Nine years after the conclusion of the Irish Civil War, members of the defeated Anti-Treaty faction had gained power through the ballot box.  Cosgrave’s consent to the transfer solidified the young state’s democratic foundations, while the peaceful assumption of power by a republican party increased the state’s legitimacy across Irish society.  But the transfer of power was as much a response to growing socio-economic discontent as it was a new direction in post-civil war politics; Cumann na nGaedheal was, after all, just one of many governments in the capitalist world to collapse during the Great Depression.

The election was also a key moment in the remarkable career of Eamon de Valera, already an important political figure in Ireland, who would influence the country’s development throughout the 20th century more than any other figure.  His victory began a combined 21 years as Ireland’s head of government, in which he became the first leader to hold the title Taoiseach, followed by 14 years as President in a period of public service which would last until 1973, when he finally retired at the age of 90 – at that time the oldest head of state anywhere in the world.

Further Reading

Daly, Mary E., ‘The Irish Free State and the Great Depression of the 1930s: the interaction of the global and the local,’ Irish Economic and Social History 38 (2011), 19-36.

Dolin, Anne, ‘Politics, Economy and Society in the Irish Free State, 1922-1939,’ in Thomas Bartlett (ed), The Cambridge History of Ireland, Volume IV: 1880 to the present (Cambridge, 2018), pp. 323-48.

Dorney, John, ‘The “State will Perish”: Comparing the Elections of 1932 and 2020,’ The Irish Story (12 February 2020), accessed on 4 July 2022 at 

Hanamy, John, ‘Was defeat inevitable for Cumann na nGaedheal in the 1932 general election?’ Unpublished Masters thesis, University of Limerick (2013).

O’Halpin, Eunan, ‘Politics and the State, 1922-32,’ A New History of Ireland Volume VII: Ireland 1921-84 (Oxford, 2003), pp. 86-126.