How Ireland lost the battle for the shamrock in Germany


A BATTLE over whether Irish State companies should be allowed to use the shamrock as an emblem in Germany was fought in the courts there in 1981, State papers show.

German company Meggle Milchindustrie had registered a blue shamrock, called a kleebatt, as a trademark on dairy, meat and other products. It claimed Coras Tráchtála, the Irish Export Board, had infringed its trademark rights by displaying the shamrock at trade shows.

Documents show the department of industry, commerce and tourism wrote to other departments seeking evidence of the use of the shamrock in Ireland and other countries as a symbol of Ireland.

Lawyers on behalf of the export board produced evidence in court including the cover of books such as My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories by Frank O’Connor, record sleeves such as 20 Irish Party Songs and Aer Lingus notepaper to demonstrate the use of the symbol.

There was also a debate in the Department of Foreign Affairs about sending a note verbale to its counterpart in Bonn, pointing out that the shamrock was a State emblem. Then taoiseach Charles Haughey even took the matter up with German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, telling him how St Patrick converted the Irish using the shamrock and that it was regarded as a national symbol.

Despite all efforts, however, Meggle was successful in the German courts and obtained an injunction preventing the export board from using the symbol. A parallel case against Hill, a company associated with the Irish Livestock and Meat Board, was also successful for Meggle.

A note in the attorney general’s file made that October, after the German court had delivered its decision, said the government had agreed in principle to notify the World Intellectual Property Organisation that the harp and the shamrock were State emblems of Ireland. It was not until 1985, though, after appeals to the German supreme court, that it became legal for Irish firms to use the shamrock on goods sent to Germany.

Shamrock was also a matter of concern in Canada, documents from the Irish Embassy there show. A letter dated January 7th, from the Department of Foreign Affairs to all overseas missions, requested that orders for shamrock be placed by February 15th.

In response, Michael Baylor of the Irish Embassy in Ontario wrote: “It has been the embassy’s experience in the past that the transmission of shamrock to Canada is highly unsatisfactory. You may drown the shamrock on my behalf on St Paddy’s Day,” he said.