A tour of heraldic offices

Peter Berresford Ellis reviews Royal Roots -- Republican Inheritance: the survival of the Irish Office of Arms by Susan Hood, The Woodfield Press in association with the National Library of Ireland, £16 pbk (25 euros)

HIS IS a fascinating study. It’s full of interesting titbits that might appear on a future ‘Mastermind’ quiz show; such as: who designed the flag of the European Union? Answer: an Irishman! The Chief Herald of Ireland, Gerard Slevin (1954-81).

The story of the last hundred years of the heraldic offices in Ireland is one of a little known area of Irish history. However, I can find a number of things to quibble with in this work, especially the sub-title and the concept behind it.

We are told that the Office of Arms is the oldest office of state in Ireland, founded in 1552. But the heraldic office established in 1552 under English colonial rule was the office of the Ulster King of Arms, which still exists (as the Norroy and Ulster King of Arms) in London.

It was an office set up for the colonial administration after Henry VIII declared himself to be King of Ireland, in 1541, and abolished all native (Gaelic) titles. Henry VIII was the first English king to claim to be ‘King of Ireland’. Prior to that, from the reign of Henry II, English kings had claimed the title ‘Lord of Ireland’ while still recognising native provincial kings and Gaelic titles.

The Dublin Office of Arms is, therefore, only 60 years old this year. In 1937, under De Valera’s new constitution, the English monarchy was removed as ‘Head of State’. Following a subsequent period of confusion, in 1943 the Irish government decided to set up its own heraldic office, simply taking over office and records of the Ulster King of Arms in Bedford Tower, Dublin Castle.

The College of Heralds protested at the seizure of the records and artefacts. However, a short while later the Ulster King of Arms was merged with the Norroy King of Arms and an office set up with some duplicate records in London. It still exists.

Another point, which the author quickly moves over, is the legality of the Dublin Office of Arms’ practice of giving courtesy recognition to Gaelic titles under the English law of primogeniture. The same English law, statute and common, decreed and maintained that all Gaelic titles be abolished and extinct, along with the Brehon law system by which those titles ever had validity.

Having had my quibble this remains a fascinating book for anyone interested the heraldic aspect of Irish history. The author has produced an excellent volume.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2003-03-11 11:04:34.
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