Genealogical Office - Questions Over Legal Status of The Office

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.

While many functions had passed under the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act 1922 to the then Provisional Government of Southern Ireland in April 1922, the pre-existing office of the Ulster King of Arms continued unchanged until 1943.

In May 2005 the government enacted section 13 of the National Cultural Institutions Act 1997. This enables 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. These would include the 1945 grant of the coat of arms of Ireland to the state itself.

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The Bill was withdrawn on 12 December 2006 with consent of the sponsoring senator, and was referred to the board of the National Library for consideration by John O'Donoghue, the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".

While the issue of the legality of grants of arms by the Chief Herald may have been resolved to a certain extent, no penalties or jurisdiction have yet been legislated for to discourage anyone from designing and using a new coat of arms. Such self-designed arms would be protected by the current copyright law of Ireland.

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