Pomp and ceremony. That’s how some see Billy McGuire’s annual turning of the sovereign seal at the Mansion House.
McGuire, self-proclaimed head of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) since 1967, shows up each year to the lord mayor’s residence and performs a symbolic gesture, one he claims began against the backdrop of revolution.
At Vaughan’s Hotel on Parnell Square, on 21 January 1919, Tom McGuire – who Billy McGuire has said is an ancestor – supposedly turned a harp over a tricolour flag. The proclamation of Ireland was read out, and thus was born Ireland’s sovereignty.
In order to maintain that sovereignty, McGuire turns a sovereign seal each year. Not everyone is keen on this pageantry, though.
“To be honest I think it’s a load of cobblers,” says Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey, who was lord mayor between 2002 and 2003. “I believe we should ban it.”
McGuire requests each year to use the dining room in the Mansion House to reenact this republican ceremony, according to a recent report issued to the council’s protocol committee by Mansion House Manager Fanchea Gibson.
It hasn’t always gone smoothly. Before 2009, it was a sparsely attended private affair, Gibson notes. It was usually McGuire, “a harpist and a number of supporters”. But it’s grown in the years since.
Now, during the annual event, the Mansion House “experiences significant disruption as the ceremony is either taking place inside the residence or outside on the forecourt”, says Gibson. Protestors show up. Gardaí have to assist “to ensure there is no trouble”, Gibson says.
After the ceremony, McGuire declares that he’s the president of Ireland. By allowing the ceremony to take place in the Mansion House, “there could be a perception that we are providing his claim with credence”, Gibson says.
Most historians agree that the official IRB fully disbanded in 1924, though, says historian Owen McGee. “Really it was 1922 because of the Civil War – they split and that was the end.”
The first Dáil, McGee says, met in the Mansion House on 21 January 1919. There was a Declaration of Independence adopted at this meeting, he says.
He is sceptical of McGuire’s claims surrounding his IRB credentials and his sovereign seal. “You can use a name for anything,” he says. “What’s in a name?”
Some lord mayors have banned McGuire’s ceremony in recent years, while others have let it go ahead.
Independent Councillor Vincent Jackson – who allowed it when he was mayor from 2006 to 2007 – put it on the agenda of a recent protocol committee meeting.
Should they let it go ahead in the future?
Making a Ritual
Fine Gael Councillor Naoise Ó Muirí, who was lord mayor from 2012 to 2013, said he let the “contentious” ceremony go ahead when he had the mayoral chains, “but it was done outside and I allowed a relatively small group into the Mansion House itself.”
“It has been going on for so long that it seems to have established its own precedence. But that doesn’t mean that you just keep doing it,” said Ó Muirí. “At a personal level, I felt it was just a bit bizarre.”
It is unclear how and when the turning of the sovereign seal started at the Mansion House. According to Gibson’s council report, there aren’t records of when it began.
The ceremony itself is straightforward. McGuire turns a small bronze harp with 12 strings – an IRB emblem – on a wooden plinth.
The conceit of the ritual is that once the seal is turned “all Irish people became sovereign citizens and were no longer subjects to the crown of England”, says Gibson.
“It also claims sovereignty for the people of Ireland over all the territory, rivers and lakes, seas, fishing, fishing rights, mineral rights, licences and all assets of the state,” the report notes.
Each year, the taoiseach, the ceann comhairle and the chief justice are invited to attend. So far, since 1922, none have turned up.
The seal is one of 32 issued for use in the county courts established by the First Dáil in 1919, the council report says. And the council and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht have written back and forth to determine the legal status of the event, writes Gibson.
“However, no definitive response has been received,” she says.
“I’ll be honest. I wasn’t aware of it until my term,” says Sinn Féin Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh, who was lord mayor between 2015 and 2016.
She let the ceremony go ahead when it was up to her. “There was no hassle whatsoever,” she said.
Former lord mayors, and their party colleagues, remain divided on whether or not to allow the turning of the sovereign seal to continue to happen at the Mansion House.
It’s “unnecessarily controversial”, says Labour Councillor Andrew Montague, who was lord mayor between 2011 and 2012.
There was a huge crowd of a few hundred people his year, he says. “I’d to take them through in batches to let them have a look at this so-called sovereign seal.”
He might not agree with their interpretation of Irish history but there are lots of people he doesn’t agree with, he says. “I’d still let them come into the Mansion House. […] It’s a big fuss over nothing.”
McGuire and his followers should be let in, Montague says. “Let them have their moment,” he says. “If you start getting into censorship, into banning things, then you just stir up discontent.”
The main cause of angst each year, says independent Councillor Christy Burke – who was lord mayor between 2014 and 2015 – is that no firm protocol has been established for the ceremony as of yet.
McGuire should be allowed in on his own without “making a big fuss, rather than create all sorts of conflict, barring people. It shouldn’t be a big issue,” says Burke, who didn’t host the ceremony when he was in Mansion House.
“If it’s straightforward to let a small delegation in, then go ahead. But if it’s going to be a hundred or so you can understand the concerns of staff, health and safety,” he says.
During the recent meeting of the protocol committee at which the issue was on the agenda, councillors agreed to no longer allow the ceremony to take place at the Mansion House.
Technically, it’s still up to the lord mayor each year, says Lacey. However, “if I was lord mayor, and such a recommendation was made, I think I’d take it very seriously,” Lacey says. “But I’m saying that as a twenty-six-county Republic of Ireland person.”
The current lord mayor – Sinn Féin Councillor Mícheál MacDonncha – says he’ll also take the committee’s recommendation seriously. “I’m not going to contest that,” he says.
Though MacDonncha allowed the ceremony take place this year, he says the claims McGuire makes each year “are outlandish”.