The Evolution of the Irish Passport Over 100 Years

💡 Did you know that the Irish passport has just become 100 years old this April?

The Irish Times, Dublin. 8 September 1923
 The Irish delegation to the League of Nations left Kingstown last week by the fast steamer Scotia, en route for Geneva...[seeking] admission for the Irish Free State to the League of Nations... The parties are travelling on Irish passports. This is the first occasion on which Irish passports have come into use.

The Irish Free State Evolution Irish Passport

The Irish Free State came into existence in 1922, established as a dominion within the British Commonwealth, drawing inspiration directly from the Dominion of Canada. During this period, dominion status represented a constrained level of autonomy. Although the Free State Constitution mentioned “citizens of the Irish Free State,” their rights and duties were specified to be applicable solely “within the confines of the Irish Free State’s jurisdiction.” All the information you need on applying for an Irish passport

The Irish Passport was born in April 1924

In 1923, the Irish Free State formally informed the UK Government of its intention to introduce its own passports. Initially, the Irish government suggested labeling its citizens in these passports as “Citizen of the Irish Free State.” As reported by The Irish Times, the inaugural use of Irish passports occurred in August 1923 when the Irish delegation attended the League of Nations. New Irish passport design

The British Government raised objections to this proposal, asserting that the correct designation should be “British subject,” citing, among other reasons, the Irish Free State’s affiliation with the British Commonwealth. The Irish government took the British perspective into account. Evolution Irish Passport

Following this, the Governor-General communicated to the British government that the standard description to be employed, with certain exceptions, would be “Citizen of the Irish Free State and of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” Despite not reaching a consensus with the UK, the Irish government proceeded to issue its initial passports to the public on April 3, 1924, employing this description.

The British Government was not happy

The compromise did not appease the British Government. It directed its consular and passport officials worldwide to reject Irish Free State passports unless the holder was designated as a “British subject” in the passport. Consequently, Irish Free State citizens encountered significant practical challenges abroad, often needing to acquire British passports alongside their Irish Free State passports. Moreover, British consular officers would seize Irish Free State passports, a practice deemed “highly embarrassing” by the Irish authorities.

The impasse regarding Irish passports persisted until January 1930, when the Irish authorities reluctantly embraced a compromise proposal initially put forth by the Irish Minister for External Affairs, Desmond Fitzgerald, back in 1926. The Irish authorities dispatched a circular letter to British consular and passport officials, consenting to alter Irish passports. They would now be issued by the Minister for External Affairs in the name of the king, utilizing the king’s full title. The passports would designate the bearer as “one of His Majesty’s subjects of the Irish Free State.” Additionally, if passports were issued to individuals who were not subjects of His Majesty, this would be explicitly stated. This resolution resolved the contentious issue.

Irish Passport Types Evolution Irish Passport

In 1939, two years after the ratification of the Constitution of 1937, which officially redesignated the nation as “Ireland,” the Irish government opted to enact significant alterations to the format of Irish passports. As a gesture of courtesy, the Irish authorities informed their British counterparts. In a memorandum dated March 1, 1939, titled “The Form of Eire Passports,” the British Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, Thomas W. H. Inskip, apprised his government of recent developments concerning “the form of passports issued by the Government of Eire.”

The memorandum outlined that up to that point, the passports (which, as per my understanding, had not been revised since 1936) contained two indications of affiliation with the British Commonwealth of Nations. These included the mention of the king by his full title on the “request” page, and on the front page, beneath the words “Irish Free State” in Irish, English, and French, the words “British Commonwealth of Nations” appeared.

The proposals communicated by the Irish authorities entailed replacing the reference to “Irish Free State” with “Ireland,” modifying the “request” page to omit reference to the king, and eliminating the mention of the “British Commonwealth of Nations.” The Secretary of State suggested responding to the Irish authorities by expressing that “His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom greatly regrets the proposed removal of the king’s name from Eire passports; they believe that such omission, once made known, will likely leave a negative impression in the UK and exacerbate the divide that Mr. de Valera bemoans between Eire and Northern Ireland.”

The Secretary of State Irish foreign office

indicated in his memorandum that going beyond the stated points might provoke inquiries regarding whether Ireland still maintained its Commonwealth status, a scenario the statement of December 30, 1937, aimed to circumvent. This referred to the official statement from Downing Street following the adoption of the Irish Constitution, asserting that, from their perspective, Ireland remained within the Commonwealth and reaffirming Northern Ireland’s position as part of the United Kingdom.

Despite this, the Irish government proceeded with their intended changes, which included substituting the phrase “Citizen of the Irish Free State and of the British Commonwealth of Nations” with “Citizen of Ireland.” This designation has persisted to the present day, with contemporary Irish passports labeling the holder as a “citizen of Ireland” on the request page and indicating the holder’s nationality as “Éireannach/Irish” on the information page.

The transformation

of the physical appearance of Irish passports used by citizens from April 3, 1924, until January 1, 1985 (when the new European passports were introduced) was marked by a series of alterations. Before the issuance of the first Irish passport in 1924, Irish citizens were provided with a 32-page British Passport, featuring a navy-blue hardcover adorned with an embossed British coat of arms. Above the coat of arms, the label “British Passport” was inscribed, while below it, the text “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” was printed.

The passport also featured two cut-outs in the cover, enabling the bearer’s name and passport number to be visible. The inaugural Irish passport, available to the public starting from April 3, 1924, showcased a green hardcover adorned with the embossed Irish coat of arms, the harp, situated at the center.

This passport was bilingual

presenting text in both Irish and English. Surrounding the harp were the national inscriptions of “Saorstát Éireann” and “Irish Free State,” while the labels “Pas” and “Passport” were printed above the coat of arms. Additionally, there was a cut-out for the bearer’s name.

Following the adoption of the Irish constitution, the physical appearance of the Irish passport underwent further modifications. While maintaining the green hue and the embossed harp at the center, the cover now featured text in three languages, with French joining Irish and English.

Aligned to the left of the harp were the national inscriptions “Éire,” “Ireland,” and “Irlande,” while to the right of the harp, the labels “Pas,” “Passport,” and “Passeport” were printed. In the 1970s, a minor adjustment was made to the document: the national inscription in the three languages was enlarged and relocated to the top-right corner, while the label “passport” was also enlarged and moved to the bottom-left corner of the cover.

European Union

On June 23, 1981, during a council meeting of the member states of the European Communities (now the European Union), a resolution was adopted to standardize the appearance of all member state passports. This initiative, which involved changing the color of all member state passports to burgundy, resulted in the introduction of the first European passports on January 1, 1985. However, only three member states (Denmark, Ireland, and Italy) had implemented this change by the specified date, with the remaining member states following suit later. Irish citizens holding the old green Irish passports were still able to utilize them until their expiration dates.

Increased demand following Brexit

After the UK’s Brexit referendum on 23 June 2016, tens of thousands of Britons, as well as many residents in Northern Ireland, applied for an Irish Passport.

Senator Neale Richmond, chairman of the Brexit Committee in the Seanad, described in October 2018 the fast growth in the number of Irish passport applications received from the United Kingdom since the Brexit vote. There were 46,229 applications in 2015, the year before the referendum, “consistent with the annual average up to then”. In 2016, the year of the Brexit vote, 63,453 applications were received, and there were 80,752 applications in 2017. In the first half of 2018, the number was already at 44,962 applications. Richmond stated that “Embassy officials predict that based on this, 2018 will be the busiest year so far for Irish passport applications in the UK”.

98,544 applications for Irish passports were received from Great Britain in 2018, an increase of 22% on the previous year. The number of applications from Northern Ireland increased by 2% to 84,855.

Irish Nationality Law Evolution Irish Passport

Irish nationality law is extended to Northern Ireland. This means that according to the legislation regarding citizenship of Ireland, people born in Northern Ireland are automatically British citizens at birth and are entitled to Irish citizenship but are not automatically Irish citizens until they apply for their Irish passport. Anyone born on the island of Ireland (including Northern Ireland), before 1 January 2005, is entitled to Irish citizenship.

A person born on or after 1 January 2005 on the island of Ireland is entitled to Irish citizenship if either or both parents were either Irish or British citizen(s), or entitled to live in Ireland or Northern Ireland without any time limit to their residency, or were legally resident on the island of Ireland for at least 3 out of the 4 years immediately before birth.

New Irish Passport in 2025?

We might see a new Irish passport design in 2025, including a Wolfhound, according to the website from the Irish Foreign Office. This redesign is fundamental to maintaining the integrity and reputation of the Irish passport worldwide. “As well as seeing the initial designs, I was also delighted to meet Boánn, the majestic wolfhound, who has inspired some of the intricate artwork that will feature in our next-generation passport.”

The passport of James Joyce

FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...