Prelude to the Easter Rising of 1916

Prelude to the Easter Rising of 1916
The Signatories of the Proclamation

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

James McNeill - Governor-General of the Irish Free State

Constitution Committee - James McNeill is seated fourth from the right

James McNeill (27 March 1869 – 12 December 1938) was an Irish politician and diplomat, who served as first High Commissioner to London and second Governor-General of the Irish Free State.

The brother of nationalist leader Eoin MacNeill, James McNeill served as a high ranking civil servant in the Raj Civil Service in Calcutta. Though unconnected with the Easter Rising in 1916, McNeill was arrested and jailed by the British Dublin Castle administration. On release he was elected to Dublin County Council, becoming its chairman. He served as a member of the committee under Michael Collins, the chairman of the Provisional Government, that drafted the Constitution of the Irish Free State. He was subsequently appointed as Irish High Commissioner (ambassador) to the Court of St. James's (the United Kingdom.) When the first governor-general, Timothy Michael Healy retired in December 1927, James McNeill was proposed as his replacement by the Irish government of W. T. Cosgrave and duly appointed by King George V as Governor-General of the Irish Free State.

In office, McNeill clashed with the King's Private Secretary when he insisted on following the constitutional advice of his Irish ministers, rather than the Palace, in procedures relating to the receipt of Letters of Credence accrediting ambassadors to the King in Ireland. He also refused to attend ceremonies in Trinity College Dublin when some elements in the college tried to ensure that old British-rule anthem God Save the King rather than the new Irish anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann was played.

When Éamon de Valera was nominated as President of the Executive Council in 1932, McNeill opted to travel to Leinster House, the parliament buildings, to appoint de Valera, rather than require that he go to the Viceregal Lodge, the Governor-General's residence and the former seat of British Lords Lieutenant, so as to avoid embarrassing de Valera, who was a republican. However McNeill's tact was not reciprocated by de Valera's government, some of whose ministers sought to humiliate McNeill as the King's representative, by withdrawing the Irish Army's band from playing at functions he attended, demanded he withdraw invitations to visitors to meet him and in one notorious incident, two ministers, Seán T. O'Kelly and Frank Aiken publicly stormed out of a diplomatic function when McNeill, there as the guest of the French ambassador, arrived. In a fury McNeill wrote to de Valera demanding an apology for his treatment. When none was forthcoming (merely an ambiguous message from de Valera that could be interpreted as partially blaming McNeill for attending functions that ministers had been invited to), he published his correspondence with de Valera, even though de Valera had formally advised him not to do so. De Valera demanded that King George V dismiss McNeill. The King however engineered a compromise, whereby de Valera withdrew his dismissal request, and McNeill, who was due to retire at the end of 1932, would bring forward his retirement date. McNeill, at the King's request, resigned on 1 November 1932. De Valera later admitted that his government's treatment of McNeill was unfair and unwarranted.

James McNeill died in 1938 at the age of 69 in London. McNeill's widow Josephine was appointed Minister to the Hague by Seán MacBride, Minister for External Affairs in the coalition government of 1948.

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