The Genealogical Office



History of the Genealogical Office


The Genealogical Office is the successor to the office of Ulster King of Arms, also known simply as The Office of Arms, which was created in 1552 when Edward V designated Bartholemew Butler the chief heraldic authority in Ireland, with the title of Ulster. The reasons for the choice of Ulster rather than Ireland remain somewhat unclear; it seems likely that the older title of Ireland King of Arms was already in use amongst the heralds at the College of Arms in London.


Whatever the reason, Ulster King of Arms acquired full jurisdiction over arms in Ireland, and retained it for almost four hundred years until 1943, when the Office was renamed The Genealogical Office, and Ulster became Chief Herald of Ireland, with the same powers as his predecessor.

At the outset the authority of Ulster King of Arms was limited to those areas of the country under English authority; heraldry, as a feudal practice, was in any case quite alien to Gaelic culture. Up to the end of the seventeenth century the functions of the office remained purely heraldic: ascertaining and recording what arms were in use and by what right families used them. From the late seventeenth century Ulster began to acquire other duties, as an officer of the Crown intimately linked to the government. These duties were largely ceremonial: deciding and arranging precedence on state occasions, introducing new peers to the Irish House of Lords and recording peerage successions. In essence, these two areas- the heraldic and the ceremonial-remained the principal functions of the office over the succeeding three centuries, with Ulster becoming registrar of the chivalric Order of St Patrick, instituted in 1783, and continuing to have responsibility for the ceremonial aspects of state occasions at the court of the Lord Lieutenant.

The functioning of the office depended to an inordinate degree on the personal qualities of Ulster, and an unfortunate number of the holders of the position, in the eighteenth century especially, appear to have regarded it as a sinecure, paying little attention to the keeping of records and treating the manuscript collection as their personal property. It was only with the arrival of Sir William Betham in the early nineteenth century that the business of the office was put on a sound footing and serious attention paid to the collection and care of manuscripts. As a consequence, although a number of the official records are much earlier, the vast majority of the office's holdings do not pre-date the nineteenth century.

In the course of carrying out its heraldic functions, the Office inevitably acquired a large amount of material of genealogical interest, since the right to bear arms is strictly hereditary. Nonetheless, the new title given to the Office in 1943, The Genealogical Office was somewhat inaccurate. Its principal function continues to be heraldic, the granting and confirmation of official achievements to individuals and corporate bodies. Up to the 1980s, the Office also carried out commissioned research into family history. This service has been discontinued.


Access to Genealogical Office Records

Access to the Genealogical Office collection is through the manuscript reading room of the National Library at 2 Kildare Street, Dublin, the same building that houses the Office itself. For many manuscripts, in general those in the lower numbers, only microfilm copies are accessible, in the National Library microfilm reading room. A complete listing of microfilm copies can be found at www.nli.ie/en/heraldry-catalogues-and-databases.aspx.
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