St. Patrick’s Day is upon us, which in Boston means loads of Kelly green, a famously-litigated parade, and a huge spike in the consumption of Guinness. The iconic dark stout travels in equally recognizable containers, each emblazoned with a Gaelic harp modeled on the famous 14th-century “Brian Boru’s” harp, currently preserved in Dublin’s Trinity College.
Such harps have been a part of Irish heraldry for over seven hundred years, so when the Dublin-based Guinness Company designed its first bottle label in 1862, using a harp must have been an easy choice. Before the Guinness Company’s harp label, each bottler used their own label, resulting in a presumably confusing mishmash of bottles. The new, brewer-made labels were not only designed to build brand identity, but also as a form of quality control: Guinness forced its bottlers to promise not to sell any other stout in Guinness bottles, preventing adulteration. The campaign proved to be a success, and as bottles were shipped around the world, thirsty consumers came to associate the harp with Guinness and Guinness with consistent, quality stout. In 1876 the harp was officially registered as a company trademark in Great Britain, under the newly-enacted Trademarks Registration Act of 1875.
A century later, the Republic of Ireland found itself mired in a dilemma with respect another of its state symbols, the shamrock. In 1983, a German dairy company registered a blue shamrock mark and proceeded to sue Irish state organizations that used shamrocks to promote Irish goods. Although Ireland would eventually prevail at the German Supreme Court, the lower courts initially ruled for the dairy company. Prompted by this early loss, Ireland sought registration of other Irish symbols as trademarks under the state emblem provisions of the Paris Convention. Ireland turned to Brian Boru’s harp, but a problem immediately became apparent: Guinness had registered its harp mark in 1876, while the Republic of Ireland didn’t gain independence from England until 1922.
We’ve recently written about another brewer in conflict with an allegedly state-owned mark, but this was not to become Ireland’s Alamo. Instead of picking a fight with Guinness, Ireland decided to register only left-facing harps (with the flat soundboard on the right). Keen observers will note that all of Ireland’s official regalia, from the President’s seal to coinage to the coat of arms, now all feature this left-facing harp. Guinness, meanwhile, was left with its traditional right-facing harps, and continues to use them to this day. Take a look when you raise a glass this St. Patrick’s Day — sláinte!