Irish Coats of Arms

Lots of heraldry in Ireland too. The cities of Dublin, Derry, and Belfast all make extensive use of their coats of arms. 

1. The arms of the City of Dublin feature three towers, often in flames. Numerous theories exist about about them: that they are watch towers outside the city walls, that they represent Dublin Castle repeated three times, and they are actually three gates into the ancient Viking city.

The arms themselves were granted in 1607 by Daniel Molyneux, Ulster Herald of Arms, acting on royal authority, but were based on something older. Above is the thirteenth-century seal of Dublin Corporation, scanned from a pamphlet I picked up at Dublin City Hall (the floor mosaic above is also at City Hall). The seal shows that the three towers of the coat of arms were originally just one tower with three turrets, and that each turret had a crossbowman defending the city.

Apparently, the crossbowmen are symbolic; they don’t refer to an actual siege that Dublin endured. And in a similar way, the fire of the three towers in the coat of arms is also symbolic, referring to the zeal of Dubliners to defend their city. This fits nicely with the motto, which means “the obedience of the citizens is the happiness of the city.”

The majority of streetlight posts feature Dublin’s coat of arms, sometimes painted over, other times with all the details in different colors. It’s always a pleasure to see such civic pride on display!

The flames are not necessary, though – in fact, the three towers can be extracted and displayed as a minimalist logo.

Photos of these and of many, many other versions of Dublin’s coat of arms may be seen in a delightful book I discovered in Hodges Figgis: Michael English, The Three Castles of Dublin: An eclectic history of Dublin through the evolution of the city’s Coat of Arms (Four Courts Press, 2016). 

2. According to Wikipedia, the arms of Derry may be blazoned:

Sable, a human skeleton Or seated upon a mossy stone proper and in dexter chief a castle triple towered argent on a chief also argent a cross gules thereon a harp or and in the first quarter a sword erect gules

These were confirmed by Daniel Molyneux in 1613, around the time that the city was renamed “Londonderry.” This would explain the chief of these arms, which are in fact the arms of the City of London: the cross of St. George, with the sword of St. Paul in the upper left. (St. Paul, of course, is the patron of London’s cathedral.)

Here’s a rendition of these arms on the Tower Bridge that I snapped in the week following our trip to Ireland.

You’d think, therefore, if “Londonderry” is so offensive to nationalists, that they would efface the chief of the arms of the city, just as they blot out the “London” part of “Londonderry” on road signage. But this does not seem to be an issue.

Instead, what matters is the harp at the fess point of the chief. It’s recorded in Molyneux’s 1613 blazon, but it fell out of use over the years, as it has on this streetlight pole.

 This one also doesn’t have it…

…but this one does, along with most of the other versions I saw. (The council officially restored it in 2003.) Apparently defacing the arms of London with an Irish harp counts enough!

But that’s not the really interesting part of these arms. What on Earth do the tower and skeleton mean? As with the arms of Dublin, numerous theories exist:

• The castle refers to the early fourteenth-century castle of Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster, and the skeleton is that of his cousin, whom Richard had starved to death in the dungeon in 1332.

• Others hold that the skeleton refers to Cahir O’Dohertythe last Gaelic Lord of Inishowen who, after serving the English, launched an ill-fated rebellion against them and was subsequently executed in 1608.

• In the twentieth century, Roman Catholics used to joke sardonically that the skeleton was a Catholic waiting for help from the local council.

But in 1979, after thoroughly studying the question, the city council determined that the skeleton refers to no identifiable person.

Be that as it may, it is great that Derry still uses these arms, which are wonderfully enigmatic, as good heraldry often is.

3. The arms of Belfast are described as:

Party per fesse argent and azure, in chief a pile vair and on a canton gules a bell argent, in base a ship with sails set argent on waves of the sea proper.

The motto is taken from Psalm 116 and may be translated as “For so much, what shall we repay?”

The arms themselves date from 1613 when Belfast became a town, but were only officially granted in 1890 when Belfast became a city. I do not know what the “pile vair” in the chief refers to, but the bell is canting on Belfast, and the ship is an obvious reference to the city’s status as a port, and to its shipbuilding industry.

As bad as things can get between the two “communities” in Belfast, it does not appear that the coat of arms is an issue, as it is in Derry.

Addendum

The Central Fact of Irish ecclesiastical history can produce some heraldic confusion: both the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland claim legitimate descent from the pre-Reformation church. They both sponsor identical diocesan structures, with identical names and coats of arms (although the Church of Ireland has amalgamated its dioceses to a greater extent than the Roman Catholic Church has).

In Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

In St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, Dublin.

Here are two coats of arms of Archbishops of Dublin, one Protestant, the other Catholic. As you can see, they both bear Azure, an episcopal staff in pale or, ensigned with a cross pattée argent, surmounted of a pall of the last, edged and fringed of the second charged with five crosses pattée fitchée sable. A bishop impales his personal arms with the arms of his diocese, so in the first photo we have the arms of Joseph Ferguson Peacocke, Archbishop of Dublin 1897-1915 in the Church of Ireland, and in the second John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin 1940-1971 in the Roman Catholic Church.

Fortunately, the churches use different peripherals – the Church of Ireland adheres to the older custom of placing a bishop’s mitre over the shield, while the Roman Catholic Church tends to show an archbishop’s hat, which is green, with ten tassels depending from each side.