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Ireland: Laws for Use of Flags on Vessels

Last modified: 2011-08-27 by rob raeside
Keywords: ireland | yacht ensigns |
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The Mercantile Marine Act

Section 10.3 of the Mercantile Marine Act, which I quote below, contains the salient information about use of Irish flags at sea:

National colours for Irish ships.

10.(1) The proper national colours to be worn by Irish ships shall be the national flag or that flag with a white border except that

( a ) in the case of State-owned ships for which a special flag is prescribed under subsection (2) of this section, the proper national colours shall be the flag so prescribed, and
( b ) in the case of ships in respect of which a special flag is authorised by flag warrant under subsection (3) of this section, the proper national colours shall be the flag so authorised.

(2) The Minister may prescribe a flag to be worn in lieu of the national flag by State-owned ships or by specified classes of such ships.

(3) The Minister may, by flag warrant issued to any body of persons, authorise the members of the body to use a flag in lieu of the national flag on specified Irish ships, and may by any such warrant impose conditions and restrictions on the exercise of the authority thereby conferred and may revoke any such warrant.
Vincent Morley, 25 November 2001 

Question: the flag with a white border

Is this a pilot ensign? Is it authorized as alternate national ensign?
Željko Heimer, 25 November 2001

That provision has puzzled me - I remember it being discussed some years ago. There is nothing in the legislation to limit the use of the white-bordered flag to use as a pilot ensign, but that may have been the intention. I must say that I have never seen such a flag, although I live in Ireland's largest port.
Vincent Morley, 25 November 2001 

Question: a flag to be worn in lieu of the national flag

Is there any such flag authorized?
Željko Heimer, 25 November 2001

Not to my knowledge.
Vincent Morley, 25 November 2001 

Question: accountability and supervision of use

Do the regulations say if someone is required to hold account on what warrants were issued and eventually supervise the usage?
Željko Heimer, 25 November 2001

It's not stated explicitly, but I imagine the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources must keep a register of the warrants issued. There is a Freedom of Information Act, so it might be interesting to make an application under its provisions.

With regard to enforcement, article 11 of the Mercantile Marine Act may be interest:

"Prohibition on hoisting colours other than national colours. 

11.(1) No flag distinctive of nationality shall be hoisted on an Irish ship other than the proper national colours.

(2) The flying of a flag by way of courtesy only, in accordance with accepted international usage, shall not be a contravention of this section.

(3) Where there is a contravention of this section, the master of the ship concerned shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on summary conviction thereof to a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds.

(4) Any officer on full pay holding commissioned naval rank in the Defence Forces, or a member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of Inspector, or any officer of customs and excise, or any diplomatic or consular officer may board any ship or boat on which any colours or pendant are hoisted contrary to this Act, and take away the colours or pendant which shall thereupon be forfeited to the State."
Vincent Morley, 25 November 2001

The Law about Yacht Ensigns in Ireland

Yacht ensigns are granted under warrant by the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, as provided for in section 10.3 of the Mercantile Marine Act, quoted above.

With reference to a query about the Wexford Harbour Boat Club's wish to commission its own flag, the following reply was received:

As far as a yacht club burgee is concerned (and by extension club officers' flags), the club is free to design a flag of its choosing (by tradition, custom and expectation --a pennant), provided that it does not infringe on an existing design and contravene any regulation (i.e., copy one of the international code of signals or copy something such as a pilot flag or distress signal). This basically involves checking with a burgee register and having a look at books. It also (often) involves the input of one who is somewhat versant in the design of workable flags.

I do not believe that in Ireland, there is any formal recognition of burgees by any heraldic authority, but the possibility exists that under Irish intellectual property law, the design might (perhaps) be the subject of registration.

A privileged ensign is a separate issue that is indeed regulated by authority. Under the Irish shipping act of 1955, the minister in charge of shipping is the authority who grants the permission for clubs to make use of special ensigns (which are, to date, either the Irish White Ensign or the Irish Blue Ensign). These are defaced with the badge of the club in the fourth quarter. The club would have to approach the Irish authorities for this. To date, only a handful of clubs have done this.

If this is the Wexford Harbour Boat & Tennis Club, it appears that the Club may be using a white pennant charged with the club seal (which is circular). The seal appears complex, but it certainly has design elements that could be featured in a (simpler) and effective burgee. See (then go to the "w" section). If a burgee and derivative officers' flags are what is desired, probably a chat with a flag designer to ensure a smart, workable design, and then correspondence with the director of Burgee Data Archives to ensure (as much as is reasonably possible) that the selected design does not duplicate or appear deceptively similar to any established yacht or sailing club, especially those in the British Isles. Note that a commodore's flag is a swallow tail version of the burgee; and vice and rear commodores defaced the version with balls; so the design should be reasonable adaptable to this form of presentation.

I have not been aware that Irish Sailing Assn. record these matters, but if they do, sending a copy of the design to them would help establish it. Royal Yachting Association stay well away from this area and so do US SAILING. And of
course, getting the design as widely published as possible in yachting circles is key: MacMillan and Silkcut Yachtsman's Handbook; the Internet ( and club's own website) helps in this regard. Ireland may have something similar to Solent Book. US intellectual property law does not allow for the patenting of a flag qua flag. Irish Republic law may differ. However, this is simply a case of establishing rights in a design -- the patent office will not design you a flag or burgee.

I am uncertain of the role (if any) of Ireland's heraldic authority; but even if Ireland's authority does get involved, it would not hurt to have a good design in hand when speaking to a herald. I know that some Irish YC burgees were designed by the clubs themselves.

The Wexford Boat Club was founded in 1873, so they may be of sufficient antiquity and size to be in the hunt for an Irish special ensign. The club should understand that the special ensign concept is entirely separate from the burgee. Again, I do not know the qualifications for the award of a special ensign in Ireland (nor do I know why white is used by clubs such as the Malahide YC instead of blue). This said, it would not be wrong to design the club burgee with the concept in mind that the chosen design element should at least be able to be placed (in future) on the blue ground (or white?) of an Irish
Republic Blue Ensign (if a special ensign is desired and available). And perhaps the burgee could be designed so that it might harmonise with the predominate colours of any special ensign (i.e., avoid pink, chartreuse, purple, and lime green). Yachtsmen love crossed flags emblems.

David Prothero, 25 October 2001

List of Irish Yacht Clubs with a Yacht Ensign

The National YC, the Royal Cork, the Royal Irish YC [white], the Malahide YC [white], the Skerries Sailing Club, the Howth SC, the Lough Derg SC, and perhaps one or two others are known to me to have them.
David Prothero, 25 October 2001

I can only add the Clontarf and Royal St George clubs which have blue ensigns charged with a red bull and a royal crown respectively.
Vincent Morley, 25 November 2001


I belong to the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland and we have a warrant to wear a defaced ensign on our boats. The ensign is the tri-colour in the upper quadrant with an azure blue background defaced with the Green & Silver waves from the original burgee. (Green and Silver representing the inland waterways and being derived from the name of a book by LTC Rolt that sort of inspired the association in to 50s.) You can see the flags at My question to you is do you know what the correct etiquette is for wearing these flags?
Colin Becker, 26 July 2003

I suggest the following. It is based on a guide to flag etiquette published by BP in conjunction with the Royal Yachting Association, and modified on the assumption that even on a lake, the Inland Waterways boats would not be out of sight of land.

In general: if the boat is under way the ensign should be hoisted when there is enough light for it to be seen. If it is not under way ensign should be hoisted from 0800 local until sunset or 2100 local, which ever is earlier. In winter from 0900 local until sunset.

Special Ensign: subject to anything stipulated in the warrant permitting the special ensign, the special ensign should be hoisted only when the owner is on board, or if not on board is in effective control when the boat is in harbour or moored/anchored near the shore. The associated club burgee should always be flown when special ensign is flown. If it is necessary to hoist an ensign when the owner is not on board or in effective control, the special ensign should be replaced by the Irish national flag.
David Prothero, 27 July 2003

I did a bit more research myself, and contacted the Deputy Chief Herald, The Department of the Marine and the Taoiseach's Office (Protocol Section) and the conclusion is that there is no procedure laid down in statute for the wearing of defaced ensigns by a ship or yacht. It seems that the practice of lowering a ships colours at sunset arose in the Royal Navy many years ago purely as an economy measure. No one could see the things at night so they pulled them down to save wear and tear. Indeed the man in the Dept. of the Marine felt that they should be worn all the time so that the nationality of the vessel could be identified readily.
Colin Becker, 28 July 2003