Thomas Ireland was 33 when he lost his job interviewing Russian defectors for the State Department. His position, he was told, was being cut to save money.

Ireland, who went on to other jobs, did not find out there was more to his firing until nearly 30 years later, when he saw his government files. Among the papers was a confidential memo by a State Department inspector who said the Russian-language specialist should be removed.

The inspector noted that Ireland had attended a loud party given by a Soviet defector and that his productivity was low. The inspector also said that Ireland had married a woman of Russian descent and the two spoke Russian in their home.

His wife, the inspector wrote, "speaks Russian fluently and the two use Russian to a considerable extent in their household. This is an advantage to Mr. Ireland in keeping up with the language, but I do not consider that the marriage has been fortunate for him from the point of view of a career in the United States Foreign Service."

Shortly after the memo was written, a telegram citing the inspector's report and ordering his firing was sent to Ireland's superiors in West Germany, where he was then posted.

Based on the new information, Ireland challenged his 1954 firing in federal court, claiming that he had been discriminated against on the basis of his wife's nationality, and that his right to due process had been violated. Foreign Service employees could not be fired for poor performance or misconduct until the charges had been proved at a hearing. Ireland never had a hearing.

Federal lawyers denied the charges. But in what his attorney described as the largest back pay settlement ever made by the government, Ireland was awarded $2.3 million in September, 36 years after his firing. His quest for vindication took a sweeter turn last weekend when the now 69-year-old Ireland opened up the Many Mansions bookstore in Bethesda with some of the settlement proceeds.

A Justice Department attorney declined to comment and the settlement agreement includes no admission on the part of the federal government.

But Ireland, who now lives in Rehoboth Beach, Del., said in an interview that he is "very much relieved."

"I knew that it was dumb then, and it's still dumb," he said of what happened to him. "You have to remember the climate of that time. It was the period of McCarthyism, and a lot of people in the State Department were very wary of attracting any attention to the State Department that could be avoided."

Ireland said it never dawned on him back in 1954 that there might be another reason for his firing. At the time, Ireland did not think his wife's Russian ancestry was "a matter of any importance."

He and his wife had met and married when both were posted in Moscow. His wife, whose mother was Russian, was a member of the Dutch Foreign Service working at the Dutch Embassy. Later transferred to West Germany, the couple communicated in English, Russian and some German.

"She also spoke Chinese, French and German," he said. "What does it have to do with your attachment to the principles of representative government?"

After he was fired, Ireland returned to the United States, and for the next 25 years worked at temporary jobs: translating a Russian humor book that never was published, teaching at a junior high school in California, leading tours for Russian delegations and representing a television company in Boston.

Convinced that he never had liked any job as much as being a Foreign Service officer, Ireland returned to Washington and decided to make one last go at the State Department. He requested his personnel records in January 1981.

Five months later, Ireland received what the government said were his records "in their entirety," according to the lawsuit he filed. For the first time, he saw the confidential memo.

Believing his rights had been violated, Ireland sued the federal government and again requested his records. This time, his attorney discovered a startling difference between the confidential memo that Ireland originally had seen and the one obtained for the lawsuit.

The passage on his wife's ancestry and the couple's use of Russian at home had been deleted from the memo. "It explained a lot that was going on," said Michael Kator, Ireland's attorney.

The issue of whether Ireland was fired because of his wife's nationality was never decided by a court. A federal judge here ruled in 1986 that Ireland could seek compensation because federal guidelines had not been followed. But before Ireland's case proceeded, a settlement was reached.

"I hadn't really liked anything as much as the State Department," Ireland said last week. "I felt I had a real calling there."