Design and change: The Oireachtas Harp and an historical heritage.


An enduring aspect of design practice is that implementing designed identities, indeed justifying the necessity or otherwise of same, can be extremely difficult.

In the last six months the Irish Parliament, the Oireachtas, has seen the gradual introduction of a new corporate identity. This has seen an update of the traditional symbol of the state, the harp, with a more stylised version set within concentric circles. The response has been, to some at least, predictable. As reported in the Irish Times recently:

The curse of corporate mumbo-jumbo has landed at Leinster House, but angry politicians, marshalled by their furious party whips, have united to repel the attack. They say a new logo for the Houses of the Oireachtas, designed at a breathtaking cost of €63,000, was foisted upon them without consultation. And they’re having none of it.

A number of issues are evident immediately. Firstly this story is treated as a ‘colour’ piece and in a humorous fashion. This despite the fact, referenced in the article, that the design cost €63,000 and would presumably result in subsequent extra costs as it was implemented across a range of areas.

Whether that humorous approach is in part due to the nature of the institution and fits into a broader societal discourse of cynicism towards governing and representative institutions is an intriguing question. Yet, it also appears to appropriate other narratives. Note for example how it is framed within ‘the curse of corporate mumbo-jumbo’. Indeed the rationale presented for the corporate identity is characterised as follows:

This will disappoint the authors of a 39-page booklet – which also has the politicians spitting fire – about “a corporate identity system” for the the Oireachtas. “We have developed this unique harp symbol which will become associated with the Houses of the Oireachtas,” it trumpets. “Our new identity system will deliver on the relevant objectives in our Corporate Business Plan.”
Wha’? Unique? “Our corporate identity is an indispensable investment in our future and like any investment it requires careful management to protect it and to allow it to grow in valueOur new identity system expresses a suitably confident and engaging appearance for the Houses of the Oireachtas.”

And continues:

By the way, the harp has been “specially drawn” in gold ink “which best represents the stature and position of the legislature”. Furthermore, the green circles are in “a lighter, fresher colour which adds a modern quality to our new modern identity”. Here’s the best bit: “We can claim ownership of this harp.”
They say there’s one born every minute, and at the moment, they’re all members of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. That’s €63,000 down the drain. The logo is toast.

The process by which this new identity was arrived at is not entirely apparent from the report. Consider again the complaint that this

… was foisted upon them without consultation.

If correct that would represent a serious obstacle to this enterprise. One of the crucial aspects of the successful introduction of an identity is the sense on the part of an organisation adopting it that it does indeed have a sense of ‘ownership’, this sense cannot simply be claimed, it has to be explicated at every stage of the design process and after. And consultation is the primary route to achieving that end.

Government Chief Whip Tom Kitt is seething over the introduction of the logo, which is a washed-out version of the existing gold harp. The only way it differs from the original logo is by the addition of a few green circles.
“They went off on a quest to adopt ‘a new corporate brand’ as part of a wider ‘communications strategy’,” says Kitt. The result, in his view, “diminishes the dignity of the original harp logo. It looks like something you’d see on the top of a restaurant menu. It’s just not right. I will definitely be recommending to my parliamentary party that we reject it.”
Here’s Labour whip, Emmet Stagg: “The whole thing is nonsense, rubbish, a load of codswallop and a woeful waste of taxpayers’ money.” He says he brought up the matter of the logo with his party colleagues and they prefer the classier original. “We won’t be using the new logo.” He pointed out that the Oireachtas went to the trouble of purchasing a special machine for embossing the gold harp onto stationary. “That wouldn’t have come cheap.” Fine Gael whip, Paul Kehoe, is adamant his party won’t be touching the new logo either. He sees it as a disgraceful use of funds which could be used to better purpose.


What is interesting is that in the criticisms above no mention is made of the actual antecedents of the pre-existing harp, a symbol which has a remarkably complex history. But what is that history, and how is it that in the furore no one has thought to address it?

To gain some understanding of that question we have to consider genesis of the earliest state iconography and how that directly led to the emblems used today. And central to this is the Great Seal of Saorstát Éireann. This was used to validate documents and acts. Hugh Kennedy, then Chief Justice of the Free State wrote in 1924:

The Seal of the Saorstát [used to validated official documents] must be individual and characteristic, at once recognisable as of Ireland, and it must be dignified and worthy to speak for an ancient nation. There are several emblems commonly associated with our people, some indeed through tawdry sentiment and sickly verse, but one stands out and is recognised everywhere, whether mute in subjection or ringing out a note of hope in liberty, as the symbol of our country. It was not necessary to seek out a device. The harp has been and is the National device and symbol of Ireland and every design of a seal for the Saorstát must start from that fact.

Kennedy was quite correct. While the tricolour was the de facto national flag, and was in time to become the pre-eminent national symbol, in 1924 it was relatively new and still competing with the symbols of antiquity – indeed it’s remarkable to consider that outside of the rules and regulations of the Army the tricolour had no official standing until the 1937 Constitution. The harp by contrast was a symbol that as Kennedy states was recognised widely as a symbol of Ireland. However Kennedy goes on to provide an interesting rationale for the use of the harp:

Modern European national devices, coats of arms, and flags are largely the product of the curious and quite artificial science of Heraldry, a body of quaint laws regarded as very imperative by the archaically-minded persons who choose to bend the knee to their authority, Norman and feudal in their development. The Ireland of the Gael, however, throws back to ancient chivalry of its own, and the Government of the Saorstát felt there was no compelling reason for bending the design of the Seal of the State to the strange code and jargon which has no history in this country. Indeed, had the Government acted otherwise, they should first have scrapped the tricolour which had been the flag of our fight for freedom during the three-quarters of a century, for it shocks the Heralds by flouting one of the fundamental laws of their code.

In fact as early as August 1922 the issue of official seals had been raised by the Ministry of Economic Affairs to the Acting Secretary to the Provisional Government. In a letter the Ministry sought approval of designs to be adapted for a seal which was thought necessary on the advice of the Law Officer. The subsequent reply from the Acting Secretary is indicative of a different approach to the symbolism of the new state. Detailing that the designs were not approved the letter indicates that:

In general it is not considered desirable that symbols such as “The maid of Erin”, “The Round Tower”, “The Wolfe Dog”, “The Harp” and similar emblems which have received undue prominence in connection with political movements in the past should be embodied in the Official Seal.

Clearly the traditional emblems of the 19th century were no longer seen as appropriate at the highest levels of the Provisional Government. What is particularly of note is the fact that the harp emblem was seen as redundant at this early point in the existence of the state.

An approach was made by Hugh Kennedy to Thomas Sadleir, Registrar of the Office of Arms at Dublin Castle. In a letter dated December 1922 Kennedy enquired as to the device used as a standard prior to the Norman invasion. Sadleir in a reply to Kennedy pointed out that since Heraldry developed after the Crusades there was no significant information extant as to the nature of the emblems used prior to that time. He went on to posit that, ‘Two Irish chiefs appear to have used personal emblems…I am satisfied that the harp was very early in the 12th century an Irish badge…’. It is clear from this point that Kennedy decided, unlike the correspondent quoted earlier, that the harp was indeed a symbol that could be legitimately used by the new state. In a revealing aside Sadleir notes curtly at the end of his letter that ‘We have no information respecting the Tricolour’. This curtness clearly demonstrates an antipathy to the republican flag.

Sadleir outlined the development of the Arms of Ireland from the middle ages in an accompanying report. He proposed that:

If a new flag is to be instituted, it would seem to be a pity to omit the golden harp in its original form. It could be placed on a blue or tricolour background, though the latter might be objected to as retaining the orange for Ulster. Perhaps a golden harp on a blue and white background might be suitable.

Sadleir appears to have been under the impression that Kennedy, and by extension the Executive Council, were looking for a symbol to supersede the tricolour, but it is clear that the government was more interested in a printed symbol representing the new Irish state. Further, it is important to recall that the tricolour, while entirely suitable as a flag, was less useful in print as an emblem of the state. Colour printing processes were limited and expensive at this time and therefore a simple symbol easily reproduced in black and white was required. Furthermore the Free State had the example of Britain, which used the royal emblems on printed material in preference to the national standard, the Union flag. Whether Kennedy also sought, as did his colleague Kevin O’Higgins in later years, to replace the tricolour is unlikely. Yet as has been seen, the tricolour was only instituted as the national flag in 1937, so the question remains open.

Dr. George Sigerson, the president of the National Literary Society who had advised the Irish Volunteers on their emblems, recommended in December 1922 to the Governor of the new state, T.M. Healy, that the harp should be adopted as the symbol of the Free State. He discounted the tricolour since it ‘represent[s] division of a country not a United Nation…[it] is unknown abroad’. He continued, and this document is worth reproducing at some length because it provides an insight into the then prevalent attitude to such imagery:

There is however a Symbol which has been identified with Ireland for ages, which is well-known to other nations, and welcomed in all our provinces. In my youth, it was still frequent on the current coin in many counties, and it still stands in Paris and elsewhere over our exiled colleges. I mean The Harp of Ireland.
The harp was the common and sacred symbol of the Protestant Volunteer of 1782, of the Presbyterian and Catholic United Irishmen of 1798, of old and young Ireland and of men of after days – it is in no sense a party or sectional symbol but one which represents the entire Nation.
…It was the only symbol sanctioned by our last Independent Parliament, this too Irish Symbol has been carefully put away, and out of sight…
It is now within the power of an Irish Independent Government to place this emblem of humanizing harmony in its high place of honour, unique and hot undistinguished amongst the lions, the leopards, and the single and double headed Eagles of the rest of the world.

Sigerson’s and Sadleir’s enthusiasm for the harp clearly influenced those in positions of power, for on 28 December 1922 a meeting of the Executive Council decided that the Celtic Harp should be adopted. This was noted in a memorandum from Secretary to the Executive Council in January, which also detailed that: ‘the inscription ‘Saorstát Éireann’ will appear in all cases in the inner circle while the outer circle is reserved for the title of the Ministry’

The reasons for the adoption of the harp symbol are perhaps obvious. The tricolour, was still regarded by some, at this early point in the history of the state, as a ‘party’ flag. By contrast the harp could be used as a ‘national’ symbol. The historical antecedents of the harp allowed for a certain ambiguity, as it had been used by all partisan interests in Ireland over the centuries, yet it was recognisably an Irish symbol, and as Sigerson makes clear this had an international currency. The opinion of the Executive Council had changed since August 1922 when the Acting-Secretary had recorded that there was no wish to adopt the harp ‘which [had] received undue prominence in connection with political movements in the past’. The full weight of academic opinion as represented by Sigerson and Sadleir had thrown itself behind the harp as the outstanding emblem of the nation.

Still, this was not an unproblematic choice. Quite apart from the historic aspects of the harp, it had also been used by the Royal Irish Constabulary as its emblem and was bound to evoke certain negative resonances. Furthermore, and perhaps more important, in 1922 and 1923 it also appeared in a quadrant of the British Royal arms. This could lead to the interpretation of the harp, and by extension the Irish Free State, as merely a subsidiary of the British state. On the other hand, the widespread use of the harp as a symbol of 19th century nationalism perhaps provided some counter-argument against such charges.

Indeed, a more subtle argument has been made by historian G.A. Hayes-McCoy when he says that ‘one feels that the real reason for the retention of the harp as the device of state in the disillusioned twenties was this, that it gave satisfaction to display it without the crown.’ There is then some irony in the fact that the design for this Seal was sent to the Royal Mint in London to be cut, and this procedure was overseen by Kennedy. Indeed Kennedy noted in a letter to W.T. Cosgrave, President of the Executive Council that ‘[Mr. Johnson] the Deputy Master of the Mint admires the design very much and considers that it can be cut with success.’

The widespread use of the harp by the state was to take a considerable length of time. However it is the period of six months, between August 1922 and January 1923, which was crucial to the future prominence of the harp. It is remarkable that these discussions took place at the height of the Civil War and at a time when the new government had lost both Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins only weeks before.

In August 1923 the Executive Council determined that the “Brian Ború Harp” would be the basis of the new seal. The photograph of the harp, provided by Hugh Kennedy was taken by George Atkinson Headmaster of the School of Art on behalf of Archibald McGoogan of the Art Department of the National Museum. This had also been decided as the symbol on the cover of passports. This harp was in the collection of Trinity College Dublin, while a replica was on display in the National Museum. The instrument was thought to be at least two to three hundred years old, and some stories made out that it was a harp given by Henry VIII to Ulick de Burgo in 1543.

Elements of the Ardagh Chalice were incorporated into the design of the Great Seal. Hugh Kennedy noted that the bands around the seal were ‘exact replicas of two bands on the Ardagh Chalice.’ The choice of the Ardagh Chalice was deliberate, in that it was regarded as an example of ‘the highest perfection of Irish Art in decorative metal work.’ Elizabeth Crooke in her history of the National Museum has noted that ‘claiming ownership of the past was necessary to create a sense of place and to symbolise power’. Discovered in 1868 the Chalice was perhaps instrumental in increasing the flourishing interest in all things Celtic during the latter part of the 19th century. The selection of the design, while entirely appropriate for a seal, is perhaps a little unusual in the light of the initial wish to avoid ‘Celtic’ imagery. Presumably the uniqueness and craftsmanship of the Chalice set it above such considerations.

Final authorisation was given on 17 October 1924 for the provision of the various seals. These included Ministerial Seals, using the ‘Brian Ború’ Harp and with “Saorstát Éireann” and the Ministerial title arranged around the harp in both Gaelic and English. The rope pattern was a direct copy of the base of the Ardagh Chalice.


The Great Seal of Saorstát Éireann, designed by Archibald McGoogan, was an impressive artifact. In design terms it was clearly an amalgam of Celtic and heraldic styles and yet uniquely Irish. The decorative work taken from the Ardagh Chalice was highly ornate, but offset to some degree by the arrangement of the harp at the centre of the Seal. The words Saorstát Éireann, inscribed in a Gaelic typeface were arranged on either side of the harp. Note the use of the ‘fada’ or (´) symbol used in Irish.

It is evident that a small number of individuals were involved in the process which led to the adoption of the harp as the symbol of the state. On the government side Hugh Kennedy took a profound interest in the design of the new emblems, as did Richard Mulcahy. Dr. George Sigerson and Thomas Sadleir were pivotal in deciding upon the harp. The influence of McGoogan in the National Museum in designing the new seals was crucial to the adoption of the ‘Brian Ború’ harp. In broader terms it cannot be denied that the Executive Council, and individual departments within the government were well aware of the necessity for a new visual vocabulary for the state.

The pioneering work conducted in these first two years of the Free State was to influence much of the imagery developed on the part of the state in latter years. The very simplicity of the harp emblem, provided a ready made symbol that could be used in a variety of media, print, stone and metal. Hugh Kennedy writing in 1924 said that the harp was chosen ‘as the foundation of the National symbol or device for all purposes.’ As can be seen the harp could easily be encapsulated within a circular motif. Coinage, letterheads and medals would all utilise the symbol in subsequent years, and it appears reasonably clear that some time and effort was devoted by the government into what symbol was most suitable. The incorporation of the harp and elements of the Ardagh Chalice was deliberate. This was an attempt to discard the history between the Norman conquest and the establishment of the Free State – and draw upon a Celtic Christian heritage. Whether this was an ahistorical reading of the past was quite irrelevant. Ronan Fanning in his history of Ireland following independence makes the interesting point that there was ‘a common concern of church and state to establish a national identity in the face of political disillusion…though the treaty remained the ‘dream that went bust’, though the island remained partitioned and the republic a mirage, there remained Catholic ideals to bind together a riven nation…Catholicism, always central to so much of Irish nationalist ideology, thus took on additional significance in the search for national identity’. Brian Kennedy makes a similar point when he quotes the poet Thomas MacGreevy as arguing that ‘Our first need in Ireland if we had realised it was not a political republic, but a cultural republic. We made a mistake. We must rectify it.’

The ‘mythic’ associations of the harp merged seamlessly with the Christian elements of the Ardagh Chalice. The ‘myths’ of a Celtic Christian Ireland were easily understood by the general population. They were also readily acceptable by the Catholic church and acceptable amongst a broadly conservative population. This led to a concentration on a narrowly defined version of Irish identity. The Great Seal was the visual manifestation of the conjoining of various ‘myths’ of Irish nationhood: a sovereign, independent and Catholic Ireland.

Yet it is also true that the design was the result of the Celtic Revival filtering into a broad social aesthetic consciousness. As such it was testimony to a paucity of imagination (however beautiful the Ardagh designs were) at developing a new imagery for the new state, and an indication of how limited the parameters of previous cultural achievements the Free State was willing to draw upon. Hugh Kennedy made explicit the connection between Irish antiquity and the new state when he wrote:

Thus, the first Great Seal of the Saorstát will carry its message, that though the state be young, the Nation is old: that it is worth while to pick up the threads of our own arts and culture, and, jumping the years between, to restore continuity of inspiration and, progressing from what was perfection or very near perfection in its own day, to cultivate and labour for perfection without losing individuality in the arts and crafts to our hands in our day and time.

The Great Seal can be viewed as representing the ‘invention of tradition’ in the sense that term is used by Eric Hobsbawm. The Great Seal is an invented device, both in itself and in the imagery that it projects. It sits within the range of devices such as national flags and anthems that Hobsbawm links to nation-building projects of nations and states from the 17th century onwards. That this example of nation-building rests at the start of the 20th century is quite irrelevant. The function of such imagery and ‘invented’ traditions is much the same, regardless of when it occurs. In fact Hobsbawm makes this explicit when he notes that such ‘invented traditions’ all ‘rest on exercises in social engineering which are often deliberate and always innovative, if only because historical novelty implies innovation…Israeli or Palestinian nationalism or nations must be novel, whatever the historic continuities of Jews or Middle Eastern Muslims, since the very concept of territorial states of the currently standard type in their region was barely thought of a century ago’. This is as true of Irish nationalism in the 20th century as Israeli or Palestinian nationalisms.

Benedict Anderson’s concept of the ‘imagined community’ as a foundation of nationalism is also applicable with relation to this example of high state imagery. The Great Seal admits of a single interpretation of Irish nationality, an essentially Catholic, Celtic tradition. This represents one aspect of an Irish nation, and one that was clearly in the ascendant in 1922. But it excludes other facets of the Irish nation. This sits within Anderson’s own definition of the ‘imagined community’ as limited in both geographic and cultural terms. Quite simply the boundaries of those who saw their identity as belonging within the Irish nation were self-evident. However, an interesting aspect of this is that there were two competing versions of that nationality, in the form of the Irish Free State and those who took the Republican side in the Civil War. The fact that an opposing vision existed underscores Anderson’s concept of nationalism as being ‘imagined’ and therefore open to interpretation. It is also worth pointing out that such simplicities are perhaps inherent in visual imagery. They must, of necessity, attempt to communicate information, messages or even ‘myth’ in the simplest form. The iconic nature of such imagery must allow for a loss of subtlety. The purity of these ‘myths’ as presented by the Irish Free State became, in the form of the Great Seal, a relatively simple signifier of nationality, yet one that reaches to the heart of the state-building project.

The adoption of the Harp emblem as the symbol of the state on letterheads with the words Saorstát Éireann printed directly beneath it is pivotal . This formulation was usually accompanied by Departmental names and addresses printed in both Irish and English. The introduction of a discrete emblem is intriguing. Clearly the ascetic minimalism of the earliest years of the state was no longer considered suitable. In some respects this appears to indicate that there was a realisation that the provisional nature of the state was changing as the years passed. Sovereignty – however limited – was a reality and therefore the state was required to project itself both domestically and externally. The reaction to British rule was ending as the memory of that rule began to fade. The selection of the Harp was logical. This was the highest expression of state sovereignty as seen on the Great Seal, and therefore the most suitable candidate for the predominant visual signifier of sovereignty. That the name of the state was set in Gaelic type was merely a reinforcement of the overall ‘Irish’ nature of this imagery. It provided more evidence that this was a state apart from the political United Kingdom and the cultural dominance of the English language.

Although the imagery is insular – it does represent a significant step forward in the development of a general southern Irish state imagery. There was no mediating symbolism that might serve to bridge the distance between the Irish Free State and the United Kingdom, nor even the previous aversion to symbolism. Instead this was the reality of an independent Ireland made manifest in visual form. Future developments – such as the replacement of ‘Saorstát Éireann’ with the name ‘Éire’ in 1937- would serve only to demonstrate changing political circumstances, not an alteration in the inherent ‘mythic’ significance of the appropriation and usage of the Harp. The name Éire was a derivation of the Greek word Ierne and the Latin Hibernia. Ériu was the Old Irish form of Éire and the name of a divine incarnation of the country.

Eventually the harp would be strong enough to bear the weight of significations accorded it by both state and people and in general usage the name of the state could be stripped away to leave the symbol unadorned by either text or other imagery.

This is not an inconsiderable history. A series of decisions that were taken in consultation with a variety of expert authorities at that time as regards what was the most appropriate symbolism for the state.

It is difficult to assess the virtues, or otherwise, of the new logo at this remove. One would need to see how it is intended to be implemented across a range of materials before arriving at a clear judgement. However, while it is true that corporate language can obscure as much as it can assist, it is also true that it is unwise to dismiss out of hand the necessity or efficacy of corporate identity solutions. The situation as regards the Oireachtas harp has clear ramifications for less exalted identity solutions and how they are implemented. Whether the new logo is ‘toast’ is open to question. But this example provides a fascinating example of the sort of identifications that people can make with the symbols that are used to represent them and how the history behind those symbols can be ignored or forgotten.

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