Heraldry in Ireland

Heraldry is the description of coats of arms, and the rights of families to bear these arms.

The use of heraldry is usually believed to have become widely used in the 12th century, when medieval weaponry was developing in Europe. Chain mail and long shields were replaced by full-body armour and helmets and smaller shields. In this way knights were unrecognisable so markings on their shields were vital. So they began to use two or three colours and gradually symbols were added.

During the Crusades of European soldiers to the Far East (there were 8 between 1096 and 1271) Christian symbols like crosses and fleur-de-lys were common. Gradually the need for military recognition decreased and it became fashionable to denote something about the bearer’s territory, title or name. For example, canting arms, where the symbol echoes the surname like three herons used on the Aherne crest became common. Arms were also used as seals for validating important documents. Heralsdry was perhaps like an ancient form of advertising or a precursor to advertising logos!

As the use of heraldry grew throughout Europe, a code was necessary to prevent families using the same symbols and so a stylised vocabulary evolved from Latin, French and English to describe the heraldic features and it is still in use today. Finally offices were created in Ireland in the 15th century  to officially recognise the arms and their bearers.

Evidence of the Use of Heraldry Recorded in the Irish Annals

Despite some theories that heraldry never existed in Ireland, the Irish in fact had a very long tradition of carrying ‘banners and devices’, and our annals tell us of their use long before the Normans came in the 12th century. According to Keating, each chieftain displayed his coat of arms so that the ‘shanachies’ or bards (ancient story-tellers or those who would watch and later recount the events of the battle) would be able to "give a true account of their particular deeds and valour". This was vital in an age where few could read or write. There were certain traditions in English heraldry and Norman heraldry also, but Irish heraldic traditions did not always conform to these.

In the Battle of Moyrath, 637 the Prince of Ulster displayed a yellow lion on a green field. This is evident today on the crest of the MacShanes, a clan descended from the Uí Néill dynasty. 

"For it is there read, that the whole host was wont to be placed under the command of one captain-in-chief, and that under him, each division of his force obeyed its own proper captain; and besides, that every captain of these bore upon his standard his peculiar device or ensign."       

This verse from the Caithrem Thoirdhealbhaigh also tells us " Beneath the supreme chief's standard, uplifted be the spear-points of battle; To display them separately is not proper, but let all flags together form one threatening cloud".

Unfortunately we know little about the use of these ensigns, or whether they were carried separately or as a “threatening cloud” into battle, or indeed who had a right to carry them. But the references that survive allow us to draw some conclusions!

Gaelic Clan Crests - Inheritance and Symbols

According to Gaelic custom, chieftainship or kingship did not pass directly from father to son, but sometimes to a cousin, uncle or other capable family member. (By English custom crests were personal property and passed on by primoegeniture, that is from father to son). Therefore the crests did not belong to individuals but appeared to belong to the sept or clan as a whole. This meant that the sharing of symbols would have been likely. But there must have been a system to prevent the random use of the symbols and one where only the ruling chieftain and his clan could bear these arms.

Many Gaelic clan crests appear to include ancient clan symbols. By the time the right to bear arms was regulated in Ireland 1552, when the Office of the Ulster, King of Arms was established, use of clan symbols was surely widespread and an established custom. By the 1600s, when the Gaelic order had come to an end due to Tudor pressure, it was used proof of nobility despite the theory that heraldry in Ireland did not exist. And so an ancient Celtic system became appropriated and regulated by an imposed law. Today only a few Irish ‘chiefs of the name’ exist, and heraldry use is not widespread. Nevertheless families and those interested in their genealogy are often curious about their associated crests. 

We also know that families or clans who were related used the same symbols. The most familiar is perhaps the Red Hand of Ulster which appeared on the arms or crest of the O’Neills. It also appeared to a lesser extent on some Connaught family banners (Brennan and Mulvihil). The O’Connors’ bore the Oak tree and the MacCarthys’ bore the stag of Munster. The MacDermots used the boar and the blue lion appeared on the MacBranain (Brennan) of Connaught crest.

The use of colours suggests a pattern based on geography also. For example the counties Roscommon, Galway, Clare and Tipperary all use blue as a background colour of a symbol. These families (Brennan, Mitchell, Mulvihill, MacDermot and O’Gara) all used a rampant blue lion on their crest.

Celtic Symbols in Ancient Ireland

The Symbol of the Tree

In Ireland, the Druids, the white-robed Celtic priests, placed much importance on trees and sacred groves. Very little is known about these ancient priests of Celtic Europe, but in ancient Ireland there are references to the druids in Irish legends at the time of the Christianisation of Ireland. They were said to have supernatural powers and were highly respected in society for their divine or magical powers. the Tree as source of life was prominent in their belief, as were other natural features such as the bull which also fetures in many Irish legends. In druidic times there were such things as Chieftain Trees which were revered for their particular qualities and uses.

For example , the oak was revered for its strength, nobility and size; the apple for beuty, and its bark used for tanning, and the holly, for action, whose timber was used for making chariots. Names of trees also feature prominently in the Irish translation of place names and are modern day reminders of the image a place held in ancient times. The druids apparently had the ability to turn trees into warriors and send them into battle

Also, the most ancient Irish alphabet, Ogham, was apparently formed by taking the initial letters from a number of trees!. This ‘tree alphabet’ contained about thirteen consonants and five vowels. Following the lunar year, each consonant and its tree was assigned a month, so trees formed the basis of the Celtic calendar. The Ogham language was used in Ireland and Britain for hundreds of years before the introduction of Latin at the time of Christianisation. Ogma Sun-face of Breas was an early Gaelic god.

The Symbol of the Hand

The symbol of the open hand was also hugely important in druidic times and its parts corresponded to this alphabet. Belinus, the Celtic sun-god can be signed by the thumb, first finger and last finger, and thus links the open hand to the sun as in other cultures throughout the world. In Europe of early Christianity God was represented by an open right hand. At Monasterboice on the cross of St Muredach an open hand is enclosed in a circle, again linking the hand and the sun. In Ireland, the seal of Hugh O’Neill, King of Ulster was the Red Hand of Ulster, and this symbol is evident on the O'Neill crest to this day. 

The Symbol of the Salmon 

According to Celtic or druidic religion, the source of all wisdom was the Otherworld, and its god all-knowing and powerful. For the druids, the otherworld was believed to be beneath the sea or lakes. The arrival of the Vikings from these places would have no doubt added to their dreadful significance, and they were termed the ‘lochlannach’ by the fearful Gaels. The legend of the Salmon of Knowledge, where Fionn acquires supernatural knowledge and wisdom after tasting the fish, has endured as a myth to this day. The fish appears on the crest of O’Neill, as well as the open Red Hand.