Phelan, Edward Joseph (1888–1967), civil servant, was born 25 July 1888 at Tramore, Co. Waterford, son of Thomas Edward Phelan, master mariner. He was educated at St Francis Xavier College, Liverpool, and the University of Liverpool (BA, B.Sc.), and entered the British civil service on leaving university in 1911. He successively served in the Board of Trade and the national health insurance commission, and joined the Ministry of Labour on its formation in 1917. He later served in the Foreign Office and was a member of the British mission to Russia in 1918, the first delegation to visit the country after the revolution. Phelan's skills were noticed by the assistant secretary, Harold Butler, and, due to Butler, Phelan became a member of the British delegation to the Paris peace conference in 1919.
Phelan was principal secretary to the first International Labour Conference, which met in Washington in 1919 and set up the International Labour Organisation (ILO). When Butler became deputy director of the ILO under its first director, Albert Thomas, Phelan became the chief of its diplomatic division in 1920. In this post he became very conscious of the desire of the Irish Free State to follow an active policy at the League of Nations. Though holding a supranational post, he was an essential source and conduit of information to the minister for external affairs and to the Irish permanent representative at Geneva.
Phelan was promoted to assistant director of the ILO in 1933, and for a time in the early 1930s seemed to be destined to become deputy secretary general of the League of Nations. This did not come to pass and he remained at the ILO; he was promoted to deputy director in 1938 and director in 1941, following the relinquishing of the post by J. G. Winant, who departed to become US ambassador to Britain. Phelan kept the ILO active during the war, and one of his most important achievements was obtaining recognition for it as a specialised agency in the newly established United Nations. He served as director general of the ILO from 1946 to 1948, when he retired.
Edward Phelan was awarded many honorary degrees, including an LLD by the NUI, a D.Sc. by the Sociales Université Laval, Quebec, and a D.Sc.Soc. (économiques et politiques) by the Université de Montreal. He was an honorary citizen of Mexico City and held many decorations, including Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur (France), Commander of the Order of the Southern Cross (Brazil), and Grand Officer of the Order of the Aztec Eagle (Mexico). He wrote many books on issues related to international affairs, including Unemployment as an international problem (1931), The British commonwealth and the League of Nations (1931), The international civil service (1932), Yes and Albert Thomas (1936), and The contribution of the International Labour Organisation to peace (1950).
On his retirement he lived in Geneva, Switzerland, and died there 15 September 1967. His obituary in The Times (16 Sept. 1967) praised ‘his first-rate abilities as an organiser and an administrator . . . a capacity to influence, to persuade, to manipulate all the intangibles in any situation which found wide scope in the international field, and especially at international conferences’. He married (1940) Fernande Cronsaz, a night-club singer, they had no children.