Leo Kohn and the Law of the British Empire
43 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2019
Date Written: March 13, 2019
Leo Kohn’s 1932 publication, The Constitution of the Irish Free State, is widely recognised as the leading textbook on the Irish 1922 constitution. Many aspects of this constitution have been reproduced or have influenced the provisions of the current Irish constitution of 1937. This ensures that Kohn’s book continues to be cited in major Irish court cases and scholarly works on law and history. Yet the 1922 constitution also contained a large number of provisions that were not reproduced in the 1937 constitution. These provisions concerned important aspects of British Imperial law and reflected the demands of the 1921 Treaty that created a special constitutional link between the Irish Free State and Canada and a secondary link to the other Dominions of the British Commonwealth and Empire. Kohn’s analysis of these provisions constitutes one of the most radical and politicised aspects of his book. While this article focuses on Kohn’s book and other legal works produced by him it does not purport to serve as a definitive biography of the man himself. Instead, this article challenges the accuracy of Kohn’s analyses relating to points of British Imperial law. In some instances, Kohn’s analyses were accurate in the context of 1932 when his book was published, but attempts to backdate these conclusions to the time of the birth of the Irish Free State constitution in 1922 are open to serious challenge. Despite these realities, Kohn’s conclusion that aspects of British Imperial law were nothing more than “archaic symbols” whose “meaningless for Ireland was writ large on every page” have had a profound impact on Irish law and historiography. This article also argues that Kohn’s attempts to minimise the significance of these aspects of British Imperial law may also have been influenced by his long-term ambition to draft a constitution for a Jewish State within the British Mandate of Palestine.
Keywords: Leo Kohn, Irish Free State, British Empire, 1922 constitution, Dominion status, Mandate of Palestine
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