On the Common Seals and Devices of the various Municipal Bodies of Ireland (Newry, Drogheda, Carrickfergus)

From the Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 45, May 4, 1833


SIR,--The use of seals has from the earliest period formed the strongest evidence of civilization; we read of them in the history of almost every country, and under every dynasty; they form the strongest rivet in the social compact, and have been invariably used as the bond and sign of authenticity in the most important transactions between man and man; they speak a language that cannot be misunderstood, and not only represent the actual personal identity of the owners or users, but also their most firm resolves and determinations; and the affixing of the sigillum has been, and still is, the fiat of life or death, peace or war, affluence or poverty, honour or dishonour.

There is a class of this description which, I believe, has never yet (at least in this country) been fully brought before the public, namely, the common seals or devices of the different corporations or communities in Ireland; the study of them is calculated not only to interest the enquiring mind, but also to throw much light on our history and customs; and a regular collected series of them, I am convinced would be highly acceptable to the antiquarian or virtuoso. The matter has occasionally occupied my attention, and your readers having been presented, in one or two instances, with copies of those of some of the ancient religious communities, I have ventured to take up the subject in a tangible form, and relying for assistance on the contributions of many of "good men and true," denizens, citizens, and freemen of the various cities, boroughs, and towns corporate of Ireland, I offer to my fellow-countrymen, through you, No. I. of  THE CABINET OF NATIONAL SEALS AND DEVICES.

It is reasonable to suppose, that at the period the charters, and consequently the arms and ensignia of the different municipal bodies, were granted, the devices chosen or conferred were selected as applying in some measure to the character of the place or its relative importance in the commonwealth, and, in some instances to its local situation or history. We also observe that some of those seals consist only of a single device, while others are perfect emblazonments of arms, with escutcheon, crest, motto, &c. Examples in point are here adduced, premising that, although it might be supposed the arms of the city of Dublin should occupy the first place, yet I am inclined to give the post of honour to the most ancient, and shall begin with that of the Lordship of Newry and Mourne, which jurisdiction presents the phenomenon in Irish history of a charter, conferred by an Irish monarch, still in force and still acted upon in its full primeval power and authority. For a translation of this Charter, and important information respecting it, see the 13th number of the Journal.

The seal of the Lordship of Newry and Mourne represents a mitred abbot in his albe, seated in a chair, and supported by two yew trees--the motto, "Sigillum exemptae Jurisdictionis de virido ligno, alias, Newry et Mourne."

Newry was anciently called by the several names of Monasterium Nevoracense; Jubhar-chin-Traigh; in the barbarous Latin of the age, Monasterum de viridi Ligno; and in Irish, Na Juar, or Na Yur, signifying the yew trees. It will be remembered that in the 13th number of this Journal, in the article entitled "The Charter of Newry," it is stated that a tradition exists to the effect that "two large yew trees formerly grew within the precincts of the abbey, from which the place was called, in old English documents, the Newries," the accuracy of which tradition is singularly confirmed by the extract from the annals of the Four Masters, also quoted there, which records that, in the year 1162, "The monastery of the monks of Newry was burned with all its furniture and books, and also the yew trees, which Saint Patrick himself had planted."

The next I shall advert to, are the Arms of Drogheda, one of our oldest corporations, enjoying that distinction since the reign of King John, and held in such repute by the heads of the English power in this country, that the various chief governors, until the reign of Charles II., made it their occasional residence, and there performed many of the most important acts of their government. The arms are azure, a crenelated gate of two towers argent, portcullised sable, surmounted by pennons gules; on the dexter, a ship appearing to sail behind the gate, having St. George's ensign displayed over her stern--on the sinister, three lions of England, issuant or. Crest, on a wreath, a crescent and star, argent; motto, "Deus Praesidium Mercatura Decus."

These arms are a strong evidence of the former strength and importance of this town; and point out the security afforded by its possession to the commerce of England, represented by the ship bearing her flag--and to her military power, signified by the cognizance of their king--both equally secured and guarded by the embattled gate, which also points out the possession of this fortress as the key of the north, and the sallyport from which they might issue, to curb and restrain the province of Ulster, in which division of the kingdom the County of Louth was formerly considered.

The Crest--the half moon and star--is not the least interesting part of the device--being the arms of the prince from whom the Corporation of Drogheda received its charter. They appear in this fashion on all the triangular coins of John struck in this country, and also in sculpture over the thrones in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, which were erected during his lordship of Ireland. That the commerce of Drogheda was, from the earliest period, considerable, is incontestibly proved by the motto; and long may its citizens have cause to say--"GOD is our safeguard, and merchandize our glory."

The last I shall on the present occasion instance, is the common seal of the County of the Town of Carrickfergus, to which I am indebted to Mr. M'Skimin's very valuable history of this town. This represents a castle, crenelated and turretted, the base washed by the sea, with a palm branch on each side; the birds I take to be merely ornamental. This device refers entirely to the situation; for although Carrickfergus is undoubtedly a very ancient corporation, yet it was so exposed to the assaults and insults of an implacable enemy, that it never arrived at any particular importance. Mr. M'Skimin states, that it is said to have been incorporated by King John, and says, that as "it is certain sheriffs were appointed in those counties and cities held by the English, by Henry II., who were confirmed by King John on his visit to Ireland, the 12th of his reign, some of those princes may have created it a county." The sheriffalty was held jointly with that of the County of Antrim. The most ancient patent existing respecting them, is dated September 11th, 1326, the 20th of Edward II.; the words are--"The King to his beloved John de Athye, greeting. Know ye that we have committed to you the office of Sheriff of the Counties of Carrickfergus and Antrim, to hold during pleasure." In the Down Survey, it is called the "County Palatine of Carrickfergus." Counties Palatine were erected immediately after the conquest of the country by the English, and were endowed with "great privileges," in order that the inhabitants, who were "subject to continual invasions," might defend them against the "wild Irish."

I have thus endeavoured to sketch the outline of a plan for the elucidation of a most interesting portion of our national antiquities. Trusting that it will be followed up, I beg leave to subscribe myself, yours truly,