The Genealogical Office is an office of the Government of Ireland containing genealogical records. It includes the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland (Irish Príomh Aralt na hÉireann), the authority in the Republic of Ireland for heraldry. The Chief Herald authorises the granting of arms to Irish bodies and Irish people, including descendants of emigrants. His office was constituted on 1 April 1943 as successor to the Ulster King of Arms, established in the England-based kingdom of Ireland in 1552. The Ulster King of Arms’ duties in Northern Ireland were taken over by the Norroy and Ulster King of Arms.
The Genealogical Office was formerly based in Dublin Castle. It was made part of the Department of Education in 1943. The office later relocated to the National Library of Ireland (NLI), and was formally recognised as part of the NLI in 1997. In 2002, it was transferred from Education to the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism.
The tradition of the Irish abroad seeking grants of arms from the Chief Herald continues to the present. Responding to this demand is an expression of the nation’s “special affinity with those of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”. (Article 2, Constitution of Ireland) The Office accepts petitions for grants of arms from the following:
All Irish citizens, male or female
Persons normally resident in Ireland
Persons living abroad who are of provable Irish descent in either the paternal or maternal line
Persons with significant links to Ireland
Corporate bodies within Ireland and corporate bodies with significant links to Ireland but based in countries with no heraldic authority.
At the request of the Irish Government a Grant of Arms was made to U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Bill Clinton in 1995.
Titles of Nobility:
Article 40.2.1 of the Constitution of Ireland prohibits the conferral or of a new title of nobility by the State, and Article 40.2.2 prohibits acceptance by any citizen of any title of nobility or of honour “without the prior approval of the Government.”
The Constitution does not prohibit the grantings of honours, other than nobility, by the State. The Government acknowledges titles of nobility that have in the past derived from the British Crown as the fount of honor then exercising sovereignty over Ireland, and in fact such titles continue to be mentioned in confirmations of arms by the Chief Herald of Ireland.
Chiefs of the name:
When the Kingdom of Ireland was created in 1541, the Dublin administration wanted to involve the Gaelic chiefs into the new entity, creating new titles for them such as the Earl of Tyrone, or the Barons Inchiquin. In the process they were granted new coats of arms from 1552. The associated policy of surrender and regrant involved a change to succession to a title by primogeniture, and not by tanistry where a group of male cousins of a chief were eligible to succeed by election. This was accepted by the new title-holders but not by some of their cousins. Thereafter the chiefs of the name succeeded by primogeniture for several centuries, in a similar way to the clan chiefs in Scotland.
Many other clan chiefs were never given formal titles or knighthoods from the Kingdom of Ireland, but were issued with arms and usually registered their genealogies with the heralds in Dublin, and became a significant part of the landed gentry.
After the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 and the subsequent Flight of the Earls, some dozens of the old Gaelic aristocracy scattered throughout Catholic Europe. Some of their descendants were granted courtesy recognition in 1943 by the Chief Herald as Chiefs of the Name, signifying that they are the senior male line descendant from the last recognized chief of the name.
The issue of the chiefs’ succession arose again after the creation of the Chief Herald of Ireland in 1943. Some Chiefs of the Name favour tanistry while others see primogeniture as a more practical system. In an address to the Irish Senate in December 2006 John O’Donoghue, the then Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism also expressed the opinion that it was a matter for those who bore these titles to decide on the system they used for succession, but that he found it strange that an English system had been used for the succession of titles originally created under an native Irish system.
Following advice from the Attorney General that the recognition of Chiefs of the Name was without basis in law, the practice of courtesy recognition was abandoned in July 2003.
Questions over legal status of the office:
Due reportedly to uncertainty concerning the legal validity of grants of arms in the Republic of Ireland, the post of Chief Herald remained vacant from September 2003 until August 2005. It had been assumed that the prerogatives of the British Crown, including the power to grant arms, had been inherited after Irish independence in 1922, but a series of legal judgments have undermined this view, and doubts over the status of the Office of the Chief Herald are not entirely resolved.
In May 2005 the government enacted section 13 of the National Cultural Institutions Act 1997. This enabled the Board of the National Library to “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, Príomh-Aralt na hÉireann, while performing such duties”. While this was intended to legitimise the granting of arms in Ireland, it actually initiated a debate as to whether any grants made since 1943 were valid.
In May 2006 the Genealogy & Heraldry Bill was introduced into Seanad Éireann to reform the Office and provide a firm legal basis for grants and confirmations of arms.
The Bill was withdrawn on December 12, 2006 with consent of the sponsoring senator, and was referred to the board of the National Library for consideration by John O’Donoghue, the then Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism
In September 2007 a notice was added to the National Library website noting the suspension of grants of arms until the legal situation was clarified. Following the receipt of legal advice, the Board of the National Library was “satisfied that it can exercise the heraldic powers conferred on it by the 1997 Act”, and grants are again being made.
The Board did, however, note that “doubts exist regarding the legal basis of heraldic functions exercised in the State prior to the establishment of the Board” and that “with minor amendment, the wording of the Act could be made more succinct”.
Edward McLysaght (1943-54)
Gerard Slevin (1954-81)
Donal Begley (1981-95)
Patricia Donlon (1995-97)
Brendan O Donoghue (1997-2003)
Post vacant 2003-05
Fergus Gillespie (2005-present)