Castle in the Clouds
A Fringe Webpage for the 25th International Congress of Genealogical
and Heraldic Sciences, Dublin Castle 16-21 September 2002

Upper Castle Yard, with Bedford Tower on right, location of the former Office of Ulster King of Arms
and later of the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland (Malton Print, 1794)


The custom of organising 'fringe' events during a festival or conference is an established one, which ensures that voices and ideas which may be missing from the official programme can be heard. It seemed to the present writer that it would be useful to add to his existing webpages a new one designed as a fringe event for the 25th International Congress of Genealogical and Heraldic Sciences. The Congress is being held in Dublin Castle from 16-21 September 2002 under the aegis of the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland, a department of the National Library of Ireland also somewhat confusingly known as the Genealogical Office.

The Congress details on the National Library's website were formerly quite sparse, but a list of speakers and topics has now been added. The charge to attend the full series of events is €300, or €80 per day. The Congress Secretary is Micheál Ó Comáin, who may be contacted at the Genealogical Office, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, and the current Chief Herald is Brendan O Donoghue, who is also Director of the National Library. The Office of Ulster King of Arms was located in the Bedford Tower building pictured above until the termination of its remit in the independent portion of Ireland in 1943, and its successor the Office of the Chief Herald/Genealogical Office remained in the Castle until its transfer to Kildare Street in the 1980s. Dublin Castle has recently undergone major reconstruction work, and the Bedford Tower building is now part of the conference facilities, but the scene portrayed above is little changed today.

An interesting exhibition associated with the Congress is currently running in the National Library in Kildare Street, entitled 'In Shield or Banner: 450 Years of Irish Heraldry', to which admission is free. There are display boards with text and coloured illustrations dealing with military heraldry, royal and noble arms, registers of arms, visitations, funeral entries, the Commonwealth period, pedigrees, lords' entries, corporate heraldry and heraldry today. Ten display cases contain selected manuscript volumes and patents in the Office of the Chief Herald/Genealogical Office collection dating from the sixteenth century to the present, most of which will only have been seen before by a select few. The accompanying leaflet states that the exhibition is being held 'to mark the 450th anniversary of the foundation of the Office of Arms in Ireland'. This is a reference to the creation of the post of Ulster King of Arms in 1552, but of course there were Irish officers of arms before that date. Furthermore, the awkward duality that is the Office of the Chief Herald/Genealogical Office was created only in the 1940s, and it is as absurd to equate it with Ulster's Office as it would be to assimilate the offices of President and English Viceroy, or the Dáil and the old Irish Parliament. Yet it must be said that the National Library exhibition does allow the public to enhance its knowledge of heraldry and the rich documentary heritage of Ulster's Office and its successor the Chief Herald's Office.

It is not obvious from the exhibition displays or leaflet, but of course Ulster's Office continues in existence, being combined with that of Norroy in the College of Arms in London since 1943 and still having jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. The current cost of an Irish grant of personal arms, €2,794, should dispose of the idea that the work of the Office of the Chief Herald/Genealogical Office has much to do with ordinary individuals and their primarily genealogical needs. As the Congress proceeds in the glittering surroundings of the Castle, elsewhere in Dublin ordinary genealogists will be struggling with the atrocious conditions in the General Register Office, Lombard Street East, and the less than adequate conditions in the National Library and National Archives. While the Library could obtain Government approval this year to purchase a cache of Joyce manuscripts for €12.6 million, it has not been able to allocate the mere thousands of Euros required to make available in its Reading Room a comprehensive set of genealogical reference CD-ROMs. A week before the Congress, the technically self-styled Military and Hospitaller Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem held its own international conference in Dublin, including receptions at public expense in the Castle, the National Gallery and the City Hall, all of which conspicuous consumption is causing eyebrows to be raised during these times of cutbacks in public funding.

Of Gaelic Chiefs, whose status so preoccupied the first Chief Herald Edward MacLysaght, I can see no mention in the National Library exhibition, which of course is entirely understandable, as opposed to acceptable, in view of the Office of the Chief Herald's less than proud record in the matter. I submitted a proposal for a paper entitled 'Recognition of Gaelic Chiefs Past and Present' to the Conference organisers in the Chief Herald's Office. This was rejected on the grounds of insufficient originality (sic), and the text of the proposal may be read here. The writer's Irish Chiefs webpages provide a more detailed account of the remarkable role of the Office of the Chief Herald in validating Terence MacCarthy and a range of other bogus and questionable claimants to noble pedigrees, arms and titles. It may not be generally known that MacCarthy was not the only bogus Gaelic chief recognised by the Office of the Chief Herald, and as the years pass no decisive action has yet been taken in the now notorious case of his grand uncle, 'The Maguire, Prince of Fermanagh'. There are also unanswered questions concerning other chiefs recognised by the Office of the Chief Herald during the period 1989-95, namely, O Long, O Doherty, O Carroll, O Rourke and MacDonnell. Then there is the matter of the rubber stamping by the Office of the Chief Herald of spurious grants of arms by the bogus Duchess of Braganza, its grants to MacCarthy's partner Andrew Davison, its validation of the so-called Duc de St Bar and its certification of questionable 'feudal titles'. There is a clear case for the institution of some sort of official enquiry into the administration of the Office of the Chief Herald during the period when these acts occurred.

Due to be launched during the International Congress is a quasi-official history of the Office of the Chief Herald and its predecessor Ulster's Office by Dr Susan Hood. The work, somewhat tendentiously titled Royal Roots - Republican Inheritance: The Survival of the Office of Arms, is published by the Woodfield Press, Dublin, in association with the National Library of Ireland. Hood's book is clearly a substantial work of scholarship which provides many new insights, particularly for the period 1853-1981, but it was guided by the current Chief Herald from draft stage (page vii) and has the strengths and weaknesses of an inside account. Thus while the theft in 1907 of the Irish Crown Jewels or regalia of the Order of St Patrick receives the best part of a chapter (pages 25-65), the MacCarthy Mór affair is disposed of in a single paragraph (page 208). The author notes that the decision after Donal Begley's retirement in 1995 to unite the posts of National Library Director and Chief Herald, in the person of Dr Patricia Donlon, gave rise to a flurry of letters of protest to the Irish Times (page 247), but modestly omits to mention that she was one of the letter writers, nor indeed does she refer to the fact that there were those who supported the move. Neither does Hood present any real analysis of the series of problems which effectively rendered unavoidable the decision to abolish the independence of the Chief Herald's Office, in particular, the refusal to function as a department of the National Library and entanglement with bogus and questionable claimants to noble status. The author was also given privileged access to uncatalogued Genealogical Office material 'not generally . . . available to readers' (page vii). This material includes important correspondence between Edward MacLysaght and Thomas Ulick Sadleir (footnotes pages 182-3) which the present writer was not permitted to view when researching his forthcoming book on the MacCarthy Mór hoax. Interestingly, Hood reveals that a century ago the scholar Lord Walter Fitzgerald found his research impeded by Ulster King of Arms Sir Arthur Vicars (pages 57-8), so it is clear that what we have here is a venerable tradition. As institutional histories go, Royal Roots - Republican Inheritance is a PR dream. However, in the last analysis, airbrushing out of the picture scandals such as the MacCarthy Mór affair is not an adequate way to write history.

I should of course take the opportunity to welcome Congress participants to Dublin, especially those from abroad, and trust that they have an enjoyable stay. No doubt when in Dublin Castle they will want to view the heraldic heritage of this historic but in some respects still fearsome building, which for 700 years was the main seat of English government in Ireland. I would recommend particularly the arms of former English viceroys of Ireland in the Chapel Royal, the banners of Knights of St Patrick in St Patrick's Hall and the arms of Presidents of Ireland on the walls of the stair-well leading to the Battleaxe Landing. The official Dublin Castle website contains an interactive map, 360° images and a history, all of which provide a useful virtual tour for those who cannot visit the place (or who turn up on a day when the conferencing and feasting of my lords and ladies place some of the buildings out of bounds to the public). Finally, although it is at some distance from the Castle, the State Heraldic Museum in Kildare Street is also worth a visit. Among the display cases is one dealing with the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels. As for that remarkably similar recent scandal, if you cast your eyes upwards, you may see the vacant space on the wall in the Heraldic Museum where once hung the banner of the disgraced MacCarthy Mór!

Sean Murphy
Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies
1 September, last revised 12 September 2002