The Irish Influence: Building the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization (Crua/H/Back)

Gerry Finnegan


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For most of World War II the two most important international organisations in the world were headed by Irish citizens: Seán Lester and Edward Phelan. The Irish Influence traces the careers and legacies of these two contrasting diplomats who played a significant role in the development of international relations and multilateralism in the twentieth century.

Seán Lester was an important actor in the League of Nations, rising to become Secretary-General. He led the organisation in its most difficult years approaching and during World War II. Edward Phelan joined the International Labour Organization as ‘the first international civil servant’ and became Director-General.

Lester was a northern Protestant and one-time member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Phelan was a southern Catholic and Irish Parliamentary Party supporter. Both were committed citizens of Ireland and international peace-builders. Their legacy is testimony to the Irish influence in the politics of international institutions.

On the centenary of the Irish Free State joining the League of Nations in 1923, their story reveals how important a role a small independent state like Ireland played – and could continue to play – in progressive international relations.


1 review for The Irish Influence: Building the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization (Crua/H/Back)

  1. John Fox

    During the Second World War, the two most important international organizations were both led by Irishmen. The early history of the International Labour Organization (ILO) is inseparable from the career of Edward Phelan, who was a native of the village of Cheekpoint in County Waterford, south-east Ireland. Born in the same year, 1888, Seán Lester first lived at Woodburn, near Carrickfergus in County Antrim, and would rise through a series of unpredictable events to lead the troubled League of Nations during the last six years of its existence.
    Finnegan tells us that, at the Peace Conference held at Versailles in 1919 set up the International Labour Organization (ILO), with Edward Phelan playing a key role in establishing its terms of reference. He was offered the post as Chief of its Diplomatic Division in Geneva. Under the impetus of the American President Woodrow Wilson, the Versailles Conference also set up the League of Nations in Geneva. Unfortunately, the United States of America would never join the League of Nations, since the Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. This would prove to be a fatal blow for the League.
    Gerry Finnegan takes us through the litany of catastrophic failings that would befall the League of Nations and lead to its total eclipse during the 1930s. It was clear to everybody that another war was inevitable and, by the end of the decade, the League played no further part in international politics. A serious crisis within the League ended with Seán Lester taking over as acting Secretary-General in September 1940.
    When compared to other studies about Lester, Phelan, the League of Nations and the ILO, Gerry Finnegan’s book adopts a resolutely Irish approach. However, thanks to his dedicated research, it contains valuable explanations of what took place at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 and, particularly, what happened to the ILO and the League of Nations after the Second World War—one of which would survive and the other perish.

    John Fox

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