Great Seal of the Irish Free State

Design of the face of the 1925 "internal" Great Seal

The Great Seal of the Irish Free State (Irish: Séala Mór do Shaorstát Éireann) is either of two seals affixed to certain classes of official documents of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann):

  • the "internal" Great Seal, used from 1925 for "internal" documents (of domestic law) signed by the Governor-General
  • the "external" Great Seal, used from 1932 for diplomatic documents signed by the British king.

A new seal, for documents signed by the President of Ireland, replaced the internal seal in 1937, when the Constitution of Ireland came into force; it replaced the external seal in 1949 when the Republic of Ireland Act came into force.

Internal Great Seal

The Great Seal of Ireland was used in the English king's Lordship of Ireland, which in 1534 became the Kingdom of Ireland. The seal was retained by the Acts of Union 1800 for use by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in the business of the Dublin Castle administration. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 retained the Lord Lieutenant and Great Seal for use by both Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. The 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty envisaged an Irish Free State to replace Southern Ireland, with a Provisional Government and Provisional Parliament until the Free State's constitution was enacted. The draft constitution replaced the Lord Lieutenant with a Governor General but made no explicit mention of the seal.

In August 1922 the Provisional Government's civil servants sought ministerial approval to adopt a seal. It was thought necessary for legal reasons:[1] the treaty and draft constitution specified that the Irish Free State would have the same constitutional status as Canada, which had its own Great Seal since its Confederation in 1867. The letters patent[nb 1] issued on 6 December 1922 constituting the office of Governor-General said:[2]

There shall be a Great Seal of and for the said State which We do hereby authorise and empower Our said Governor-General to keep and use for sealing all things whatsoever that shall pass the said Great Seal. Provided that, until a Great Seal shall be provided, the private seal of the Governor-General may be used as the Great Seal of the said State.

The wording matched the 1900 letters patent for the Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Australia.[4] The Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act 1922 also created a separate Governor and Great Seal for Northern Ireland.

The physical seal was in theory in the custody of the Governor-General for his personal use; in practice the Executive Council kept and used it.[5]


The Great Seal features an image of a Celtic harp surrounded by Celtic knotwork and the words "SAORSTÁT ÉIREANN" in Gaelic script. The die comprises an inscribed copper matrix to be placed over the document to be sealed, and a counterpart relief steel patrix to be placed under it.[6]

Regarding the design of the Great Seal, an approach was made by Hugh Kennedy, the Attorney General, to Thomas Sadleir, Registrar of the Office of Arms at Dublin Castle. In his reply Sadlier noted that he was "satisfied that the harp was very early in the 12th century an Irish badge...". The 1919–1922 seal of the revolutionary Dáil of the self-proclaimed Irish Republic showed a harp surrounded by the words "Sigullum Reipublicae Hibernicae — Seala Saorstáit Éireann".[7] By contrast, the 1922 Provisional Government's seal was a quartering of the arms of the four provinces.[8] The Provisional Government's private secretary suggested to Hugh Kennedy a similar seal for the Free State: "If considered desirable to symbolise in the design the present partition of Ulster, this could be done by leaving the Arms incomplete and broken at the corner.".[9] George Sigerson, the President of the National Literary Society, recommended to Tim Healy, the new Governor-General, that the harp should be adopted as the symbol of the Free State. His view was that:[1]

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 is now within the power of an Irish Independent Government to place this emblem of humanising harmony in its high place of honour, unique and not undistinguished amongst the lions, the leopards, and the single and double headed Eagles of the rest of the world.

On 28 December 1922 a meeting of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State decided that the Celtic harp should be adopted.[1] Later, in August 1923 the Executive Council determined that the "Brian Ború" harp in Trinity College, Dublin, would be the basis of the new seal. Archibald McGoogan of the Art Department of the National Museum perfected the design,[1] Final authorisation was given by the Executive Council on 17 October 1924 for the provision of the various seals, including ministerial seals which had the Brian Ború harp circumscribed with "Saorstát Éireann" and the ministerial title in Irish and English. The knotwork was a direct copy of the base of the Ardagh Chalice.[1] McGoogan's original drawing was sold at auction in 2007 for €17,000.[10] Mabel McConnell, from a family of heraldic artists, was contracted by the Executive Council to make the sketches which the Royal Mint in England used to cast the die matrix for the seal.[11] The Colonial Office objected that the design ought to have been pre-approved by the King-in-Council: that is, submitted to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, which would advise the King to issue an Order in Council for formal approval. In 1925 the Mint fulfilled the commission despite the lack of such an order.[12]

External Great Seal

In 1931, a separate External Great Seal or Royal Great Seal[nb 2] was created to be used on diplomatic documents which required the signature of the monarch in London rather than the Governor-General in Dublin. Up to 1931, such documents had been transmitted to the Dominions Office and the British Great Seal of the Realm was applied alongside the signature.[18] At the 1930 Imperial Conference, the Free State proposed that a Dominion should be allowed to send documents via its High Commissioner in London, bypassing the British government, and to affix its own seal rather than the British one.[19] The conference subcommittee on seals resolved, "The subject should be postponed on the understanding that the whole question should be left for further discussion between Governments should occasion arise".[19] In January 1931 the Free State government tested its proposed procedure; it applied the 1925 Free State seal to the instrument of ratification for a 1929 treaty between the Free State and Portugal, and sent it to High Commissioner John W. Dulanty to transmit to King George V.[20] Dulanty was refused an audience, the British objecting on the grounds that the change in procedure had not been agreed,[19][21] and that the 1925 seal was not in fact a "great seal" within the terms of the 1922 letters patent, but merely a "private seal of the Governor-General", since it had never been formally approved by the monarch.[22] A compromise was negotiated whereby the Free State would use a separate "external seal" in the custody of its Minister for External Affairs.[23] Although Arthur Berriedale Keith claimed in 1934 that "this drastic change in Commonwealth relations was carried out without any discussion in the British Parliament or intimation by the British Government of the change",[24] in fact Sir William Davison asked J. H. Thomas, the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, about it in April 1931; Thomas referred to the Balfour Declaration of 1926.[25]

The external seal, designed by Percy Metcalfe, had on its reverse the same harp image as the 1925 "internal" seal. It was similar in size to the British Great Seal of the Realm,[26] and had on its obverse the same image of the monarch enthroned as that seal,[27] except for the quartered royal arms above the throne, where the English arms in first and fourth quarters were switched with the Irish arms in third quarter.[28] George V formally presented the external seal to John W. Dulanty on 18 January 1932 at Sandringham House.[29] Keith commented that this marked "the final establishment of the complete international sovereignty of the Free State and the elimination of any British control".[30]

The External Great Seal was used only on ratifications and Full Powers, and not always on the latter.[31] Lesser seals were used on lesser documents:[14]

Whereas the UK's Crown Office Act 1877 permits a small wafer Great Seal to replace the cumbersome wax Great Seal, the Free State's wax seal had no wafer equivalent.[32]

The first use of the External Great Seal was not until 1937, when George VI gave Francis T. Cremins Full Powers to sign the Montreux Convention Regarding the Abolition of the Capitulations in Egypt on behalf of the Free State.[33] Successive governments minimised the use of monarch and the External Great Seal.[34] The state typically conducted bilateral agreements at inter-government level rather than the nominally more prestigious head-of-state level, so that the Minister for External Affairs would apply his departmental seal to any documents.[35] After signing some multilateral treaties that would have required the External Great Seal for ratification, the state chose instead to wait until the treaty had come into force and then become a party to it by accession rather than ratification, as the internal Great Seal would suffice for accession.[36][nb 3]

After the Statute of Westminster 1931, following the Free State's lead, the Union of South Africa in 1934[15] and Canada in 1939[38] passed laws permitting themselves to use their own Great Seals for diplomatic functions.[17] South Africa, like the Free State, created a new seal for these purposes, whereas Canada simply extended the use of its existing domestic seal.[39]


The fact that the Free State was a monarchy rather than a republic was politically controversial, and caused the 1922–23 Irish Civil War. Although the republicans lost the war, Free State leaders sensitive to the controversy gradually abolished the Governor-General's formal powers, or transferred them elsewhere. The Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924 created a separate Executive Council seal, similar to the Great Seal but with Ard-Chomhairle (Irish for '"Executive Council"') added to the inscription.[40] When republican Civil War leader Éamon de Valera became President of the Executive Council after the 1932 Irish election, sidelining the Governor-General accelerated, until the Constitution (Amendment No. 27) Act 1936 abolished the office altogether and transferred its remaining functions to the Executive Council. Rather than using the internal Great Seal in connection with these functions, the Executive Council seal was used. In 1937 de Valera said "I have no idea of what sort of seal that [the internal Great Seal] was. As well as I remember, I never saw a document sealed with it."[41] The die of the internal Free State seal is now on public display at National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History in Dublin.[6][42]

Ancilllary to the abolition of the Governor-Generalship, the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act 1936 continued the use of the External Great Seal by the King.[14] The distinction between the two Great Seals was not always clearly understood. In 1932, Hugh Kennedy, by then Chief Justice, was under the impression that the internal and external seals were in the custody respectively of the Executive Council and Governor-General.[43] The 1937 Constitution of Ireland created the office of President of Ireland, and the Seal of the President was created for the President's formal signature of official documents in the same manner as the internal Free State seal had been used, and having the same design except substituting "Éire" for "Saorstát Éireann", since the constitution had changed the name of the state.[44] The text on the reverse of External Great Seal was changed likewise, and the British monarch, George VI, continued to sign diplomatic documents using it.[14] This dichotomy reflected ambiguity over who was head of state. The Republic of Ireland Act 1948 transferred diplomatic functions to the President, rendering the External Great Seal obsolete.

See also


  1. ^ These letters patent were themselves issued under the UK Great Seal of the Realm.[2] The commissions appointing T. M. Healy and his successors as Governor-General were each issued under the "Royal Sign Manual and signet".[3]
  2. ^ The form "External Great Seal" was used in internal government documents when needed to distinguish it from the pre-existing "internal" Great Seal.[13][14] The form "Royal Great Seal" was used in South Africa's 1934 statute creating a similar seal,[15] and adopted by foreign scholars to describe the equivalent seal in any Commonwealth Dominion including the Irish Free State.[16][17]
  3. ^ One instance was the aforementioned 1937 Montreux Convention: despite using the king and External Great Seal for Full Powers in 1937, the state did not accede to it until after it had come into force in 1938.[37]



  • "DIFP — Documents on Irish Foreign Policy". Royal Irish Academy.
  • Hanley, Hugh (2015). "'The Last Shadow': Negotiating the Great Seal and Direct Access to the King, 1931". Irish Studies in International Affairs. Royal Irish Academy. 26: 257–274. doi:10.3318/isia.2015.26.13. JSTOR 10.3318/isia.2015.26.13.
  • Hood, Susan (2002). Royal Roots, Republican Inheritance: The Survival of the Office of Arms. Woodfield Press. ISBN 9780953429332.
  • Morris, Ewan (2005). "'Silent ambassadors of national taste': seals, stamps, banknotes and coins of the Irish Free State". Our Own Devices: National Symbols and Political Conflict in Twentieth-century Ireland. New directions in Irish history. Irish Academic Press. ISBN 9780716526636.
  • Sexton, Brendan (1989). Ireland and the crown, 1922–1936: the Governor-Generalship of the Irish Free State. Irish Academic Press. ISBN 9780716524489.
  • Stewart, Robert B. (1937). "The Great Seal and Treaty Making in the British Commonwealth" (PDF). Canadian Bar Review. XV (10). Retrieved 15 March 2020.
  • Stewart, Robert B. (1938). "Treaty-Making Procedure in the British Dominions". The American Journal of International Law. Cambridge University Press. 32 (3): 467–487 : 480–485. doi:10.2307/2191164. ISSN 0002-9300. JSTOR 2191164.


  1. ^ a b c d e Swan, Ciarán (2008-03-28). "Design and change: The Oireachtas Harp and an historical heritage". Design Research Group. Retrieved 2008-11-24.
  2. ^ a b Sexton 1989, Appendix A
  3. ^ Sexton 1989, Appendices C, E, F
  4. ^ Stewart 1937 p.753; "Letters Patent constituting the office of Governor-General of Australia". Virtual Reading Room. National Archives of Australia. 29 October 1900. Article II. Retrieved 15 March 2020.
  5. ^ Sexton 1989 pp.95, 207 fn.39
  6. ^ a b
  7. ^ "Marching on the Road to Freedom: Dáil Éireann 1919". National Museum of Ireland. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  8. ^ "Search Collections". National Museum of Ireland. Search for "HH:1928.85". Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  9. ^ "Hugh Kennedy Papers" (PDF). University College Dublin. P4/1300.
  10. ^ ""Independence" (17 April 2007): Lot 411". Adams Auctioneers. Dublin. Retrieved 13 March 2020.
  11. ^ Hood 2002 p.121
  12. ^ Hanley 2015 pp.263, 265; Hood 2002 p.121
  13. ^ DIFP 1937 No.96
  14. ^ a b c d DIFP 1937, No.97
  15. ^ a b "Royal Executive Functions and Seals Act, 1934". Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  16. ^ Stewart 1937 p.753; Stewart 1938 pp.481–482
  17. ^ a b Jones, J. Mervyn (1946). Full Powers and Ratification. A study in the development of treaty-making procedure. Cambridge University Press. pp. 45–46, fn.4.
  18. ^ DIFP 1931, No.539
  19. ^ a b c DIFP 1931, No.513
  20. ^ DIFP 1931, No.527
  21. ^ DIFP 1931, No.523
  22. ^ Hanley 2015, pp.264–265
  23. ^ "Irish Free State — To Have Its Own Seal". The Argus. Melbourne. 30 March 1931.
  24. ^ Keith, Arthur Berriedale (1934). "Introduction: The Constitutional Development of the British Empire in Regard to the Dominions and India from 1887 to 1933". In Palmer, Gerald E. H. (ed.). Consultation And Co-operation In The British Commonwealth. Oxford University Press. p. xlii. Retrieved 10 March 2020.
  25. ^ Hansard HC Deb 1 April 1931 vol 250 cc1095–1098
  26. ^ Stewart 1937 p.754
  27. ^ DIFP 1931, No.536; DIFP 1931, No.550
  28. ^ Hanley 2015 p.266
  29. ^ DIFP 1932, No.625
  30. ^ Letter to The Scotsman, 19 January 1932; cited in "The Republic of Ireland Bill, 1948 : Second Stage". Seanad Éireann (6th Seanad) debates. Houses of the Oireachtas. 9 December 1948. Retrieved 25 January 2019.
  31. ^ Stewart 1938 p.484 "In certain instances governmental full powers of Ireland ... are exchanged against heads-of-states full powers of other countries"
  32. ^ Stewart 1937 pp.754–755
  33. ^ Stewart 1938 p.485; Bevans, Charles I. (ed.). "Abolition of Capitulations in Egypt" (PDF). Treaties and other international agreements of the United States of America, 1776–1949. 3: Multilateral, 1931–1945. p. 412. LCCN 70600742.
  34. ^ Stewart 1938 p.483 "It is a policy of the Irish Government to avoid the use of the King in treaty-making wherever possible."
  35. ^ Stewart 1938 pp.482–483
  36. ^ Stewart 1938 p.484
  37. ^ "International Conventions—Motions of Approval". Dáil Éireann (9th Dáil) debates. Oireachtas. 18 May 1938. Retrieved 15 March 2020.
  38. ^ "The Seals Act, 1939 [3 George VI c.22]". Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  39. ^ Mallory, J. R. (1956). "Seals and Symbols: From Substance to Form in Commonwealth Equality". The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science. 22 (3): 284. doi:10.2307/138434. ISSN 0315-4890. JSTOR 138434.
  40. ^ de Valera, Eamon (24 November 1937). "In Committee on Finance. — Presidential Seal Bill, 1937: Committee Stage". Dáil Éireann (9th Dáil) debates. Houses of the Oireachtas. Retrieved 25 January 2019.
  41. ^ de Valera, Eamon (24 November 1937). "In Committee on Finance. — Presidential Seal Bill, 1937: Committee Stage". Dáil Éireann (9th Dáil) debates. Houses of the Oireachtas. Retrieved 25 January 2019.
  42. ^ Decorative Arts & History (PDF). Guide to the National Museum of Ireland. National Museum of Ireland. pp. 27, 26. ISBN 0-901777-55-2. Retrieved 2 November 2017.
  43. ^ Sexton 1989 p.137 No.10
  44. ^ "Presidential Seal Act, 1937". electronic Irish Statute Book (eISB). Retrieved 25 January 2019.

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