State Papers: Row over registration of Irish emblems

‘Who’s Who in Ireland’ had harp design as‘an exact reproduction of the official crest’

The registration of the harp and the shamrock as Irish emblems was delayed because of a row between departments over who should carry the costs.

The State papers also reveal while officials were considering whether to prosecute the publishers of the best-selling Who's Who in Ireland for using the harp on its cover, its author Maureen Cairnduff had already been assured the issue was "a storm in a teacup".

A note for then taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, from the Office of the Taoiseach file, said in September 1983, the government authorised then minister for foreign affairs Peter Barry to submit the harp and the shamrock to the World Intellectual Property Organisation for registration as trademarks.

Discussions about it had been ongoing since 1981. There had been an assumption that the cost of the artistic reproductions of the emblems would be borne by the Department of Industry, but that department believed the cost should be borne by the taoiseach’s office. The bill, from trademark agents Tomkins, was £6,850.


In one lengthy letter from the assistant secretary at the Department of Industry to the secretary at the Department of the Taoiseach the author said the question of ability to pay was "quite irrelevant".

“When a department has responsibility for something it is up to that department to seek to provide itself with any funds necessary to discharge this responsibility,” the author said.

He added that the minister, John Bruton, had agreed the contents of the letter.

By May 1984, the issue had not been resolved and the emblems had not been registered.

In a note dated May 9th an official said the taoiseach’s primary concern was to ensure the work was done without delay. He directed the Department of Industry to complete the notification immediately, pending a solution to the payment problem. The responsibility for payment was “not a clear cut situation” and thought an equal division of the costs “may be the most equitable”.

Separately, a letter between the Department of Industry and the Department of the Taoiseach dated December 7th, 1984, complained Who's Who in Ireland contained a harp design on the cover which appeared to be "an exact reproduction of the official crest". The effect of its use was that the book appeared to be an official government publication, the letter said. It urged action.

Mrs Cairnduff, a journalist and socialite, was well known at the time for hosting parties for the great and good with her husband Ian at their home on Waterloo Road, Dublin.

The Patents' Office wrote to the book's publisher, Vesey Publications Ltd to complain, threatening possible legal action. In early January 1985, Kevin Kelly from Vesey replied, saying they were unaware they needed permission to use the harp.

A copy of a newspaper social column, dated January 9th, was also included in the file. It said at a New Year's Eve ball in the Shelbourne Hotel Mrs Cairnduff had revealed the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Sean Donlon, had told her the harp issue was "a storm in a teacup" and she need not fear prosecution.

A letter dated February 18th, from government secretary Dermot Nally, to the office of the attorney general, acknowledged the continued use of the emblem could erode the rights of the State. However, if the publishers were to undertake not to repeat the unauthorised use they might, on an exceptional basis, be allowed to dispose of existing stocks without action.

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist