Heraldry in Ireland
Heraldry is known to have existed in Ireland by the 13th century, imported by the English conquerors. Some traditional Celtic symbols have been incorporated in the arms of some families.
The same arms are attributed to the King of Ireland ("le Roi d'Irlande") in one of the oldest medieval rools of arms, the Wijnbergen Roll (a French roll of arms dating from c. 1280). The harp, traditionally associated with king David, was a rare charge in early medieval rolls. Léon Jéquier's ordinary of 19 early rolls (in Cahiers d'Héraldique I) has only two arms with a harp, the Ireland coat in the Wihjnbergen roll, and the Steinach family in the Zurich roll of c. 1340. Du Cange (Historia Byzantina, 1680; p. 362) cites a "Peiresc manuscript" which attributes de gueules à une herpe d'or, encordée de mesme.
Have there been other arms associated with Ireland as a whole in the Middle Ages? There are three potential sources of information: Irish, English, and Continental documents.
Among English documents, one can cite the quarter of augmentation granted to Robert De Vere when he was made duke of Ireland in 1386: "Azure three crowns or (within a bordure argent)" (Fox-Davies, Complete Guide to Heraldry, p. 596; Oxford Guide to Heraldry, p. 69). Three crowns, but in pale, were used on Henry V's Irish coinage. Note that Azure three crowns or are the arms traditionally associated with the Irish province or kingdom of Munster. The Irish coinage of John and his successors Henry III and Edward I feature a triangle on the reverse, which some have taken to be a crude harp (see Ruding, Annals of Coinage, vol. 1, p. 178, note 3).
Foreign rolls are an unreliable source: the more distant the country, the more fanciful the arms usually are. But they may present useful clues nonetheless.
Continental documents were studied by S.M. Collins: 'Some English, Scottish,
Welsh and Irish
The Uffenbach roll, a German roll currently dated to c. 1440, attributes 'Argent three lions passant guardant gules" to Ireland, but follows with the arms of four "Grafs" (counts):
English and British kings used the following as crest for Ireland: "On a wreath or and azure, a tower triple-towered of the first, from the portal a hart springing argent, attired and hoofed gold" (see, e.g., Boutell's Heraldry, 1950 ed., p. 217).
Curiously, the same arms appear in a fictional work of c. 1180, le
Chevalier de la Charrete by Chrétien de Troyes, at verses 5799-5802,
as knights arriving for a tournament are being observed:
Gerald Brault (Early Blazon, p. 28) has a long discussion of these arms:
It may be that the MacCarthy stag was somehow mixed up by some herald with king Yder's fictional arms (Chretien's romances were extremely popular at the time), and the error was then repeated for several centuries and preserved in an English crest. One could well imagine a herald thinking that Ireland is "Yder's land"; so, when coming across a MacCarthy stag, he would have added the door.Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland.
Edward Doyle helped me with this page; remaining errors are mine.
Fox-Davies (Complete Guide to Heraldry, p. 33) cites a Ireland King of Arms mentioned by Froissart in 1382, and states that "a regular succession of officers" continued until the death of Edward IV. What happened after is unclear.
The office of Ulster Herald was created by Edward VI, in 1552. This herald was independent of the English COllege of Arms in London. As shown in this grant of arms to Belfast in 1890, he was appointed under the Great Seal of Ireland (even after the union of 1801) and made grants of arms by his own authority, contrary to the English kings of arms who need a warrant of the Earl Marshal of England.
What happened to that office when Ireland became the Irish Free State is a bit of a mystery. It is often stated in reference books that a clause in the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 allowed the incumbent Ulster Herald, Neville Wilkinson, to retain his position until his death, or that the office of Ulster Herald was reserved as Crown office (Brooke-Little in his annotations to Fox-Davies' Complete Guide to Heraldry). However, no such clause can be found in the treaty.
On the British side, the office of Ulster was joined with that of Norroy to become Norroy & Ulster.
On the Irish side, the Executive Powers Act of 1937 stated that "Every power, function, duty, and jurisdiction which, immediately before the passing of The Principal Act, was, by any means whatsoever, capable of being exercised or required to be performed by the King or by the Representative of the Crown (whether on advice, nomination, appeal, or other communication or without any such communication) shall be and be deemed to have been, as from the passing of The Principal Act, transferred to and (as the case may be) capable of being exercised by or required to be performed by the Executive Council, save where and in so far as the exercise or performance of such power, function, duty, or jurisdiction is, by virtue of an amendment of the Constitution effected by The Principal Act or by virtue of the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act, 1936 (No. 58 of 1936), conferred or imposed on some other person." Thus the royal prerogative in heraldic matters would seem to have passed to the Executive Council of Ireland.
On April 1, 1943 the collections and materials of the Ulster Office-of-Arms were turned over to the Genealogical Office of the National Library of Ireland, at which time was appointed a Chief Herald of Ireland. Meanwhile, England continues to appoint an Ulster King of Arms (the office is jointly held with that of Norroy).
The National Cultural Institutions Act of 1997 (section 12) provides that the Board of the National Library of Ireland "shall have all such powers as it considers necessary or expedient for the performance of its functions under this Act including, but without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, the following powers: [...] ( b )to facilitate, encourage, assist and promote the carrying out of genealogical research, ( c ) to facilitate, encourage, assist and promote the granting and confirming of coats of arms [...] ( q )to acquire and make use of copyright, patents, licences, privileges and concessions as may be appropriate in relation to any matter connected with the functions or activities of the Board [...]". It also states (section 13):
(1) For the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby declared that the Genealogical Office is a branch of the Library. (2) The Board shall, from time to time as occasion requires, designate a member of its staff to perform the duty of researching, granting and confirming coats of arms and such member shall use the appellation Chief Herald of Ireland or, in the Irish language, PríorahAralt na hÉireann while performing such duties. (3) The Board shall be entitled to any copyright subsisting in coats of arms granted or confirmed under this section. (4)(a)The Board of the Library shall as soon as may be after the Library establishment day appoint a committee to be known as the Committee on Genealogy and Healdry (referred to subsequently in this subsection as "the Committee") to perform such of the functions of the Board, as in the opinion of the Board, may be better or more conveniently performed by it and are assigned to it by the Board. (b)There may be included in the membership of the Committee such number (not being more than half of the membership of the Committee who are entitled to vote) of persons who are not members of the Board. (c) The appointment of a person to act as a member of the Committee shall be subject to such conditions as the Board may think fit to impose when making the appointment. (d) A member of the Committee may be removed from office at any time by the Board. (e) The acts of the Committee shall be subject to the approval of the Board. (f) The Director of the National Library and the Chief Herald of Ireland shall be included in the membership of the Committee but shall not be entitled to vote. (g) The Board may regulate the procedures of the Committee but, subject to any such regulation, the Committee may regulate its own procedure.(See articles by Edward Doyle on the newsgroup rec.heraldry).
A bill is currently before the Irish legislature: the Genealogy & Heraldry Bill, 2006 which is posted on the Irish Parliamentary website under "bills". Some background on this bill may be found on the website of the Genealogical Society of Ireland.
The Genealogical Office maintains a State Heraldic Museum.
All Irish statutes are available online.
It is common for the President of Ireland to receive arms toward the end of his or her term. The coat-of arms is then displayed on a shield hung on the grand staircase of Dublin Castle leading to St. Patrick's Hall, scene of Presidential inaugurations. The Chief Herald has also granted arms to foreign personalities of Irish descent, such as John Kennedy and Bill Clinton (see the armory of famous Americans).
The arms granted to Mary Robinson on Jan. 29, 1997 are described in an article of the Irish Times, along with a picture which gives a vague idea of the general design, but not much more.
Gerard Slevin, Chief Herald of Ireland from 1954 to 1981, has been credited with the design the flag of the European Union according to his obituary in the Irish Times (28 March 1997), although the story seems difficult to substantiate.
Edward MacLysaght, Chief Herald for many years, has written extensively on Irish names, genealogy and also on heraldry. One can consult:
National Heraldry Page | Search Heraldica | Heraldic Glossary | Contact