The first two Governors-General lived in an official residence, the Viceregal Lodge, now known as Áras an Uachtaráin and the residence of the President of Ireland. The last Governor-General resided in a specially hired private residence in Booterstown, County Dublin.
The Governor-General was formally appointed by the King, but in practice chosen by politicians. Until 1927 he was selected by the British Government, but after that date the Irish Government assumed the right to choose the office-holder. This change arose from the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927, enacted at Westminster after an agreement reached between Britain and her dominions at an Imperial conference.
Under this, the King now reigned in the Irish Free State as 'King of Ireland' rather than 'King of the United Kingdom'. This meant that the King ceased to accept formal advice from the British Government in relation to his role in the Irish Free State, and henceforth accepted only the advice of the Irish Executive Council (cabinet). The change meant that while Tim Healy, the first Governor-General, was chosen with the agreement of the British Government, the British Government had no role in the selection of his two successors. The Free State constitution did not provide that the Governor-General would serve a fixed term of office, but in 1927 the Irish Government decided that no Governor-General would serve a term of longer than five years.
Under the Constitution of the Irish Free State, the Governor General was bound to act in accordance with the "law, practice and constitutional usage" relevant to the Governor General of Canada. His formal duties included the following:
- Executive authority: The executive authority of the state was formally 'vested' in the King but 'exercised' by the Governor General, on the 'advice' of the Executive Council.
- Appointment of the cabinet: The President of the Executive Council (prime minister) was appointed by the Governor General after being selected by Dáil Éireann (the lower house of parliament). The remaining ministers were appointed on the nomination of the president, subject to a vote of consent in the Dáil.
- Convention and dissolution of the legislature: The Governor-General, on behalf of the King, convened and dissolved the Oireachtas on the advice of the Executive Council.
- Signing bills into law: The King was formally, along with the Dáil and the Senate, one of three components of the Oireachtas. No bill could become law until it received the Royal Assent, given by the Governor-General on behalf of the King. The Governor-General theoretically had the right to veto a bill or "reserve" it "for the signification of the King's pleasure", in effect postponing a decision on whether or not to enact the bill, for a maximum of one year.
- Appointment of judges: All judges were appointed by the Governor-General, on the advice of the Executive Council.
Until 1928, the Governor-General served an additional role as the British Government's agent in the Free State. This meant that all official correspondence between the British and Irish governments went through the Governor-General, and that he had access to British government papers. It also meant that he could receive secret instructions from the British Government, and so, for example, on assuming office Tim Healy was formally advised by the British Government to veto any law that attempted to abolish the controversial Oath of Allegiance to the Crown sworn by Irish parliamentarians.However, at the same Imperial conference from which the change in the mode of the Governor-General's appointment arose, it was agreed that henceforth the Governors-General of Dominions such as the Free State would lose the second half of their dual role, and no longer be representatives of the British Government, with this role being carried out instead by High Commissioners. Furthermore, because, under the changes agreed, the British Government lost the right to advise the King in relation to the Irish Free State, it could no longer issue binding instructions to the Irish Governor-General.
When the Irish Free State seceded from the United Kingdom in 1922 it was under the terms of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. While Irish political leaders favoured the creation of a republic the treaty required, instead, that the new state would be a Dominion within the British Empire under a form of constitutional monarchy. Central to the agreed system of government was to be a "Representative of the Crown". The new office was not named in the treaty, but the committee charged with drawing up the Free State constitution, under Michael Collins, decided, after considering a number of names, including "President of Ireland", that the representative would bear the title of Governor-General, the same as that used by the Crown's representative in other Dominions, such as Canada, Newfoundland Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The Crown's representative was to be bound by the same constitutional conventions as the Governors-General of other dominions, which would limit him to a largely ceremonial role. It was hoped that, if he was given the same title as that used in other dominions, then, if the British government attempted to violate convention by using the office of Governor-General to interfere in the Free State's affairs, these other nations would see their own autonomy threatened and might object.
The first two Governors-General of the Irish Free State assumed office under the pro-Treaty, Cumann na nGaedheal government of W. T. Cosgrave. When it came to choosing the first Governor-General there was speculation about a number of possible candidates, including the famed Irish painter Sir John Lavery and Edward, the Prince of Wales. However the Irish Government let it be known that it wished Tim Healy, a former Parnellite MP, to be appointed, and the British Government ultimately agreed.
When it came to selecting Healy's successor the Irish Government chose James McNeill, a former member of Collins's constitution committee and former chairman of Dublin County Council, and in 1928 he was sworn in. Because, unlike his predecessor he was not the United Kingdom's representative in the Free State but merely the personal representative of the King, McNeill found himself with less influence than Healy had possessed.
In 1932, Cosgrave's government lost power to the anti-Treaty, Fianna Fáil party of Éamon de Valera. Because it opposed the very existence of the governor-generalship, de Valera's government decided to boycott and humiliate McNeill. This policy was followed, for example, during the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 when McNeill was sidelined and on one occasion the army's band was withdrawn from a function that he attended. On another occasion, two ministers publicly stormed out of a diplomatic function when McNeill arrived as the guest of the French Government.
In late 1932, de Valera and McNeill clashed when McNeill published his private correspondence with de Valera, and de Valera sought McNeill's dismissal. King George V, however, acting as peacemaker, persuaded de Valera to withdraw the request on the basis that McNeill was due to finish his term of office within a few weeks. He then persuaded McNeill to bring forward his retirement to 1 November, 1932. On McNeill's retirement de Valera advised the King to appoint Domhnall Ua Buachalla, a former Fianna Fáil TD to the post. The new Governor-General was formally advised by the government to withdraw from public life and confine himself to formal functions such as issuing proclamations, dissolving Dáil Éireann and appointing cabinets.
In December 1936, when King Edward VIII abdicated from all his thrones, including the throne of Ireland (as created in the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act), De Valera decided to use the situation as an opportunity to finally abolish the governor-generalship. As a result of the Constitution (Amendment No. 27) Act 1936, all reference to the King and his official representative was removed from the Constitution. However de Valera was later advised by his own Attorney-General and senior advisors that the amendment was not sufficient to abolish the office entirely, which still continued by virtue of Letters Patent, Orders-in-Council and statute law. Though officially insisting that the office had been abolished (de Valera instructed
Ua Buachalla to act as though he had left office and to leave his official residence) de Valera introduced a second law, the Executive Powers (Consequential Provisions) Act, 1937 to completely eliminate the post from Irish law. Under its own terms the Act applied retroactively, so that the office would be deemed to have been fully abolished in December 1936. In December 1937, under the new Constitution of Ireland, the void was filled as most of the functions that had been performed by the Governor General until 1936 were vested in a new office of President of Ireland.
Ua Buachalla and de Valera, although once close friends, fell out over Ua Buachalla's treatment in the abolition of the governor-generalship, with Ua Buachalla initiating legal proceedings to sue de Valera. However, their relationship was eventually healed and, when de Valera later became President of Ireland, he appointed Ua Buachalla to the Council of State in 1959. Ua Buachalla was the last surviving Governor-General, and died aged 97 on 30 October 1963.