The Presidents of Ireland: 1938–Present

The Republic of Ireland emerged from a protracted struggle with the British Government during the first half of the 19th century, leaving the landmass of Ireland divided into two countries: Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom, and the independent Republic of Ireland. Self-government initially returned to Southern Ireland in 1922 when the country became a free state in the British Commonwealth. Further campaigning followed, and in 1939 the Irish Free State adopted a new constitution, replaced the British monarch with an elected president and became "Éire" or Ireland. Full independence—and complete withdrawal from the British Commonwealth—followed with the declaration of the Republic of Ireland in 1949.

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Douglas Hyde 1938–1945

Dr Douglas Hyde (center, left) speaks with female citizens.
Imagno / Getty Images

An experienced academic and professor rather than a politician, Douglas Hyde’s career was dominated by his desire to preserve and promote the Gaelic language. Such was the impact of his work that he was supported by all the main parties in the election, which made him the first president of Ireland.

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Sean Thomas O'Kelly 1945–1959

Sean O'Kelly
Keystone / Getty Images

​Unlike Hyde, Sean O’Kelly was a longtime politician who was involved in the early years of Sinn Féin, fought against the British in the Easter Rising, and worked in succeeding layers of government, including that of Eámon de Valeria, who would succeed him. O’Kelly was elected for the maximum two terms and then retired.

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Eámon de Valera 1959–1973

Eámon de Valera

National Library of Ireland / / Public Domain


Perhaps the most famous Irish politician of the presidential era (and with good reason), Eámon de Valera was taoiseach/prime minister and then president of the sovereign, independent Ireland he did so much to create. A president of Sinn Féin in 1917 and founder of Fianna Fáil in 1926, he was also a respected academic.

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Erskine Childers 1973–1974

Erskine Childers
Independent News and Media / Getty Images

Erskine Childers was the son of Robert Erskine Childers, an acclaimed writer, and politician who was executed in the struggle for independence. After taking a job at a newspaper owned by De Valera’s family, he became a politician and served in many positions, eventually being elected president in 1973. However, he died the next year.

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Cearbhall O'Dalaigh 1974–1976

President Cearbhall O'Dalaigh at the Wedding of James Ryan and Kathryn Danaher 1975
Independent News and Media / Getty Images

A career in law saw Cearbhall O'Dalaigh become Ireland’s youngest attorney general, a Supreme Court judge and chief justice, as well as a judge in the burgeoning European system. He became president in 1974, but his fears over the nature of an Emergency Powers Bill, itself a reaction to IRA terrorism, led him to resign.

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Patrick Hillery 1976–1990

President Hillery at Moneypoint Power Station on his last Official Duty
Independent News and Media / Getty Images

After several years of upheaval, Patrick Hillery bought stability to the presidency. After saying he would serve only one term, he was asked back by the main parties to stand for a second. A medic, he transitioned into politics and he served in the government and the European Economic Community.

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Mary Robinson 1990–1997

Mary Robinson
Independent News and Media / Getty Images

Mary Robinson was an accomplished lawyer, a professor in her field, and had a record of promoting humans rights when she was elected president. She became the most visible holder of the office to that date, touring and promoting Ireland’s interests. She took more liberal positions than her predecessors and gave the presidency a more prominent role. When her seven years were up she moved into a role as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and continued to campaign on those issues.

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Mary McAleese 1997–2011

Mary McAleese
Independent News and Media / Getty Images

The first president of Ireland to be born in Northern Ireland, McAleese was another lawyer who transitioned into politics. She turned a controversial start (as a Catholic, she took communion in a Protestant church in one of her bridge-building attempts) into a career as one of the best-regarded presidents of Ireland.

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Michael D. Higgins 2011–

Michael Higgins and Sabina at Nun's Island, Gaway
Independent News and Media / Getty Images

A published poet, respected academic, and long-time Labour politician, Michael D. Higgins was considered an incendiary figure early on but turned into something of a national treasure, winning the election in no small part due to his speaking ability.

On Oct. 25, 2018, Higgins was re-elected to a second term as Irish president after receiving 56 percent of the country's votes.

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Wilde, Robert. "The Presidents of Ireland: 1938–Present." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Presidents of Ireland: 1938–Present. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Presidents of Ireland: 1938–Present." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).