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 Arms of Ireland

The traditional and well-known arms of Ireland are Azure a harp or.  They have been used by English monarchs to represent their claim to the island since the time of Henry VIII, who first used a harp on his Irish coinage.  When the office of Ulster was created in 1552, his badge was the harp.  Elizabeth I used a crowned harp as badge for Ireland in her second Great Seal of 1586, although her Irish coinage showed three harps.  Finally, when, in 1603, a new achievement was designed on the occasion of the personal union of England and Scotland under James I,  a quarter  representing Ireland was added (Woodward, A Treatise on Heraldry, p. 383-4).  The quarter is still in the arms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, representing dominion over Ulster, or Northern Ireland (the "six counties").

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
Arms in Medieval Continental Rolls,' Antiquaries Journal xxi (1941), 209-10.  He indicates that the Vermandois roll (a French roll composed in the late 14th c. according to Jéquier) shows : 'Le Roy Dirlande dasur a une porte dor a j chierf de sable encorne dor issant encourans en une lande' (no. 875; azure a door or issuant therefrom a stag sable horned or running out into a plain).  The Sicile roll (c. 1425) has almost the same blazon, except that the 'lande' is blazoned as being vert. Du Cange, in his Historia Byzantina (alias Familiae Byzantinae; Paris, 1680, p. 362) cites a manuscript roll of arms attributing d'azur à une porte d'or, à un cerf issant de sable encorné d'or, issant et courans en une lande; it is probably the Vermandois roll or a copy.

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): 

  • von Lagonie: Argent a hand gules 
  • von Conaxien: Gules three fishes argent
  • von Ultonigen: Or a cross gules 
  • von Ultonigen (bis): Argent a stag or [sic].
These are identifiable as Leinster, Connaught, Ulster and (presumably, although the roll mistakenly repeats the name "Ultonigen") Munster.  The "red hand of Ulster" is attributed to Leinster, instead of the currently accepted "Vert a harp or".  Connaught's present arms (half an eagle and an arm with a sword) do not appear here, but they do appear in a later German roll, the Grunenberg roll of 1483, attributed to "Enbernia".  Finally, the arms attributed here to Munster recall the arms of the MacCarthy (Argent a stag trippant gules).

The Stag Crest

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: 
"Et veez vos celui qui porte 
An son escu pointe une porte?
Si sanble qu'il s'an isse uns cers.
Par foi, ce est li rois Yders."
(and do you see him who bears on his shield a door? It seems that a stag comes forth out of it.  My faith, this is king Yder.)

Gerald Brault (Early Blazon, p. 28) has a long discussion of these arms: 
"If this person [king Yder] is identical with the knight Yder, son of Nut, mentioned in Chrétien's earlier romance Erec et Enide, the arms in question doubtless allude to the famous White Stag episode in that romance.  [footnote: On this episode, see R. Harris, 'The White Stag in Chrétien's Erec et Enide,' French Studies  x (1956), 55-61.]   According to a time-honoured custom, the knight who succeeded in slaying a white stag was obliged to kiss the fairest maiden at court, come what may.  During the hunt organized by King Arthur for that purpose, Erec encounters Yder who allows a dwarf to affront Queen Guenevere.  Erec subsequently avenges this insult and wins the hand of Enide who, brought back to Arthur's court, is declared the fairest damsel of all.  Versions of the White Stag episode appear in the Second Continuation, the Didot Perceval, and Durmart le Galois, but it is a striking parallel in the Perlesvaus which lends support to our hypothesis.  In the latter romance, the hero is recognized by a white stag painted on his shield, plainly an allusion to the episode as told in the Second Continuation.  While Ider's shield in Chrétien's Charrete would appear to be a reference, then, to the White Stag episode in the same author's Erec, the peculiar attitude of the stag issuing from a gate is strangely identical with
the arms associated with Ireland since the end of the thirteenth century.  [footnote: the Collins article. Add Paris, Bibliotheque nationale, f. fr. 18651, fol. 103 recto, and Paris, bibliotheque de l'Arsenal, MS 5027, fol. 190 recto: 'Roys Belsors d'Irlande', azure, a stag gules issuing from a gate argent.]  A ray of light suggesting the possible reason why the stag is depicted as issuing from a gate in the latter tradition is shed by this allusion in Chrétien, but the evidence is, of course, more tantalizing than conclusive."

 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.

Heralds of Ireland

See also the 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 
(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.

  • 1552: Bartholomew W. Butler
  • 1566: Nicholas Narbon
  • 1588: Christopher Ussher
  • 1597: Daniel Molineux
  • 1629: Daniel Molineux and Adam Ussher
  • 1633: Thomas Preston
  • 1655: Sir Richard Carney
  • 1660: Sir Richard Saint George
  • 1683: Sir Richard Carney (again) and George Wallis
  • 1698: William Hawkins
  • 1722: William Hawkins and John Hawkins
  • 1759: James McCulloch
  • 1765: William Hawkins #2 (1730-87)
  • 1787: Gerald Fortescue (1751-87)
  • 1788-1820: Rear-admiral sir Chichester Fortescue (1750-1820), brother of last
  • 1820-53: Sir William Betham (1779-1853)
  • 1853-92: Sir John Bernard Burke (1814-92)
  • 1893-1908: Sir Arthur Vicars (1864-1921)
    removed after the theft of the St. Patrick regalia in 1907
  • 1908-1940: Sir Neville Rodwell Wilkinson (1869-1940)
  • 1940-43 (acting): Thomas Ulick Sadler, deputy Ulster since 1921 (1882-1957)
    Chief Herald of Ireland
  • 1943-1954: Edward MacLysaght 
  • 1954-81: Gerard Slevin (1919-97)
  • 1981-95: Donal F. Begley
  • 1995-97: Patricia Donlon
  • 1998-2003: Brendan O'Donoghue
See: T. Blake Butler: 'The Officers of Arms of Ireland', The Irish Genealogist 1945-55, 2:2-12, 40-46.

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:

  • Burke's Genealogical and heraldic history of the landed gentry of Ireland, Edited by L. G. Pine (4th ed.). London, Burke's Peerage, ltd., 1958.
  • MacLysaght, Edward : Irish families : their names, arms, and origins. 1st ed, Dublin : Irish Academic Press, 1985. 4th ed, Blackrock, Co. Dublin : Irish Academic Press, c1991. 
  • Ó Comáin, Micheál : The Poolbeg book of Irish heraldry. Swords, Co. Dublin : Poolbeg, 1991. 

Other Resources

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François Velde

Jun 15, 2006