By Pat Brennan

"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."       - From the Description of the Battle of Magh Rath (637 AD) in Keating

There is a fair amount of confusion about the use and abuse of "coats of arms." The general rule in England and much of Europe is that a coat of arms can only belong to an individual, not to a family or clan. The use of the arms is typically passed from father to son through the system of primogeniture. From a legalistic standpoint, unless an individual can prove direct descent from the owner of a coat of arms, it is not appropriate for him to use those arms. However, as in many things, the situation is more complicated in Ireland. It is necessary to go back in history to understand why.

Heraldry, as we understand it in modern terms, was brought to Ireland by the Normans. However the ancient Irish seem to have had their own system symbols which they used prior to the coming to the Normans and which they sometimes adapted to the Norman system. This essay is an attempt to look at Gaelic Irish Heraldic Practice over time from a historical viewpoint which is informed by anthropology.


From the earliest times, the Irish used flags and standards which they carried with them into battle. One of the earliest reports of battle flags is in relation to the battle of Belach Duin Bolg in 594 AD. According to the tale, while looking down on an armed camp the King of Leinster mistakes the battle flags of the army for "a great stationary bird-flock of mixed colors, such was the number of banners floating on tall poles over the booths."1

In the accounts of ancient battles, there are a number of references to the banners used by each chief and clan. For example, the account of the Battle of Moyrath (637 AD) describes the banner of the Prince of Ulster as a yellow lion on a green field. O'Doherty's battle standard is described, "his battle blade of golden cross upon their chieftain's banner gleams; a lion and bloody eagle stand on glistening sheet of satin white" (Quoted in O'Mahoney's footnote in Keating, History of Ireland).

The symbol or picture displayed on an Irish banner was called a suaicheantas or samlach. "Every captain bore upon his standard his peculiar device or ensign, so that each distinct body of men could be easily distinguished from all others by those shanachies2 whose duty it was to attend the nobles when about to contend in battle, and that these shanachies might thus have a full view of the achievements of the combatants, so as to be able to give a true account of their particular deeds and valor" (Keating, History of Ireland)

In the Caithreim Thoirdhealbhaigh, a famous medieval Gaelic text, Irish warriors in 1304 are described as "advancing under banners and ensigns of device." So it is clear that the Gaelic Irish had a very long tradition of carrying flags and banners into battle. It is not so obvious whether the symbols and devices on these banners were personal to the particular captain or if they were a clan or sept symbol. Maybe there were several types or levels of symbols and banners. Maybe there were rules about their use. Unfortunately, we have only hints and circumstantial evidence about all this. A verse from the Caithreim Thoirdhealbhaigh gives us a tantalizing glimpse:

Why would it not be proper to display the flags separately? There must have been some governing traditions about the display of symbols and banners. Unfortunately, we don't know what they were. This is important because, in English heraldry, possession of symbols and the right to display them is the key issue.

Map showing distribution of major Septs - circa 1300
Many thanks to the folks at  for the use of the above map


The whole discussion of Irish Heraldry must begin and end with one's definition of heraldry. If one chooses seventeenth century English heraldic practice as the norm, then true heraldry would have to include the following concepts: shield centered, hereditary via primogeniture, systematic, regulated, and feudal. Following this definition, there was never any such thing as "Irish Heraldry" - only English Heraldry as practiced in Ireland. The only problem is that twelfth-century English Heraldry would also have a little trouble suiting this definition.

The Norman's use of heraldic devices seems to have evolved from the need of feudal magnates for recognition in an illiterate age. By the middle of the twelfth century, about the time of the first Anglo-Norman incursions into Ireland, the Norman system of heraldry was starting to become regularized. "By about 1150, a number of knights were painting their shields with pictures or symbols which, at a later date, appeared on the shields of their sons. This was the beginning of heraldry, a system of identification that was enormously elaborated during the middle ages. At first the devices were animals, birds or simple geometric shapes chosen to decorate the shield of the knight, either to identify himself to his companions and followers in the turmoil of battle or in order to distinguish him in the tournament" (Norman and Pottinger, 1966). Important lords also used seals to authenticate documents. There was an obvious value for each noble to develop his own personal symbol. It was also obviously useful for the succeeding son to inherit his father's symbol and continue to use it. These heraldic devices were the precursors of today's corporate logos. Those lower on the social ladder were not slow to recognize their usefulness and, in accord with the laws of human nature, quickly began to imitate their "betters" and use heraldic symbols. "Heraldry was an invention of the noble and knightly classes and evolved partly from the practical needs of combat and partly from a desire to display. A combination of circumstances and ideas - feudalism, the chivalric ideal, the love of abstract decoration, and the desire for recognition in combat - fused together to produce conditions ideal for the development and flowering of heraldry" (Bedington & Gwynn-Jones, 1993).

In the earlier middle ages, arms were assumed by members of the landed gentry without any particular restriction or formality. Of course the Crown could grant arms, but this was always rare. By the fourteenth century the English Crown began to arbitrate in cases of heraldic disputes between people who bore arms. The Crown's agents were the Marshall and the Constable.

Originally, English heralds had been private individuals whose function was to act as master of ceremonies and identify contestants at jousting tournaments or similar events. They also seemed to keep track of rolls of arms and help organize court ceremonies. Over time, they began to fulfill the function of royal messengers and evolved into royal ambassadors. Sometime around the middle of the fourteenth century the English Crown seems to have given certain heralds the right to grant arms or confirm the right to their use in the name of the King. These special heralds were known as "King of Arms" and controlled a particular territory or province. The first formal record of a confirmation of arms was in 1417. By the end of the fifteenth century the Kings of Arms were ambassadors of the Crown, arbitrators in heraldic disputes, and possessors of the faculty of granting arms and recording pedigrees."

Irish infantrymen, called kern
(circa 1550) used little or no armor


Remembering the key concepts of Norman English heraldry (i.e., shield centered, hereditary via primogeniture, systematic, regulated, and feudal), lets return to the situation in Ireland.

At the time the Anglo-Normans introduced heraldry into Ireland, their own customs were still in a state of flux also. The Anglo-Norman "conquest" of Ireland was very incomplete (in fact it wouldn't be completed until about 1603). This incomplete conquest resulted in a cultural patch-work which ranged from pure Anglo-Norman (if there was such a thing, since that culture was evolving at the time) through pure Gaelic. Over time, this patch-work constantly changed shape as many Anglo-Normans were assimilated by the Gaels, some Irish were anglicized by the Anglo-Normans, and the Anglo-Normans themselves turned into Englishmen, or at least Anglo-Irishmen. To complicate things further, there were always "New English" moving into Ireland as the "Old English" became Gaelicized.

We know that some Gaelic Irish kings were using seals as early as 1276. Symbolic designs or devices were certainly used in seals by the fourteenth century. These may only represent a sort of proto-heraldry because these devices are not found on the heraldic shields borne by the same family in later years. On the other hand, these may have indeed been family devices which were used by a few individuals in succession, but died out with a particular family line or were otherwise somehow supplanted. Even in English heraldry there are many instances of families changing their arms over time. Anyway, the record is so sketchy that it's impossible to draw any hard and fast conclusions.

Here is an important fact: There don't seem to be any records that the Gaelic Irish ever carried Norman-type heraldic shields into battle. So Irish Heraldry definitely has a problem with "shield-centered."

Irish Battle Flags. However, there are still those troublesome battle flags to consider. Were they heraldic? In English heraldic custom, a war leader's battle standard did not display the same symbols as his personal coat of arms.3 What about Irish flags? As we have already seen, flags, banners and standard bearers are mentioned in the Gaelic literature throughout the Middle Ages. In 1542 two Gaelic battle flags captured from O'Cahan and MacDonnell were described by the English who captured them (Bartholomew, York Herald, circa 1542, quoted in MacCarthy Mor, 1996). The MacDonnell flag bore devices which were certainly heraldic and hereditary. Of the five separate devices on the O'Cahan flag (a lizard, a salmon, a horseman, a griffon and a hawk), two were later recorded on the arms associated with that family (the lizard and the salmon). The other three were not recorded for that family, but maybe this was an Irish attempt at distinguishing a particular sub-sept from the main clan. Plenty of other explanations could be theorized, but battlefield victors rarely quiz the losers about such subtleties.


Here are some other examples of the Irish using battle flags and standards. They are drawn from the Annals of the Four Masters.

1316   "O'Connor's standard bearer" was killed at the battle of Athenry
1504   After the Battle of Knockdoe O'Donnell is quoted as follows: "A considerable number of our forces have been slain and overpowered, and others of them are scattered away from us, wherefore it is advisable to remain in this place tonight, in token of victory, and also to pitch a camp, for our soldiers and attendants will join us on recognizing our standards and banners."
1561   Clavagh (O'Donnell)...sent his own standard to the town and displayed it on the battlements of the tower so that it was visible to all. The Lord Justice asked whose standard it was that he saw. Calvagh made answer and said that it was his own standard; and that the town was his own, and had belonged to his ancestors from a remote period; upon which the Lord Justice delivered up the keys of the town to Calvagh.
1573   "O'Brien... marched forwards by Sliabh-na-ngroigheadh, keeping Bel-atha-an-Ghobhann on the left hand; and the forces of the country were marching slowly along side of them, to come to an engagement; and they displayed on both sides their winged and broad-tailed standards... "
1597   "The Lord Justice... ordered all the (Irish) chieftains to meet him at the monastery of Boyle... They all accordingly came on that day to the aforesaid place. When assembled, they amounted to twenty-two standards of foot, and ten standards of cavalry."
1599   "The Governor... assembled all those under his control, of the English and Irish who were obedient to the Queen in its neighborhood. Of these (Irish) were... O'Conor Don and ...Mac Sweeny-na-dTuath... They afterwards proceeded from Roscommon to Tulsk, and on leaving that town, which was precisely on the Sunday before Lammas, they had twenty-eight standards of soldiers."
1599   O'Donnell's watchmen "perceived the army taking their weapons, raising their standards, and sounding their trumpet and other martial instruments."
1601   (Battle of Kinsale) "The Lord Justice... sent forth vehement and vigorous troops to engage them, so that they fell upon O'Neill's people, and proceeded to kill, slaughter, subdue, and thin them, until five or six ensigns were taken from them, and many of their men were slain.

Although in two of the above sections the word "standards" could be understood as a unit of men, the record is clear that the Gaelic Irish used battle flags and banners with symbols and that there were probably customs or rules about their use. This could be considered as a sort of proto-heraldry. These symbols may have been used in other ways too, like personal adornment, but we have no particular evidence of this. There is evidence that certain of these symbols were common to specific regions or, clans, septs or other social groups. Whether or not they were ever viewed as the private property of any particular individual is unknown.


Choice of Symbols

When analyzing the arms attributed to the Gaelic Irish, there are some discernible patterns in the use of the various elements and colors. We know that certain symbols (these symbols are called "charges" in heraldic practice) appear again and again in the arms of families who were geographically or genealogically related or otherwise allied. Therefore It seems likely that, at least sometime in Irish history, there were such things as tribal or clan symbols. The most obvious of these are the red hand of Ulster which was incorporated in the arms of the O'Neills, the oak tree of the O'Conors and the stag of Munster and the MacCarthys. Less prominent clans or families may have had less famous symbols like the boar used by the MacDermots and some of their off-shoots. Another example is the blue lion found on the arms of MacBranain of Connacht and also found on the arms of O'Mulvill who once shared the territory of Corca Achlann with MacBranain.

Some of the patterns are not real obvious. The "Red Hand of Ulster" is used as frequently by Connacht families as by those of Ulster. However, the distribution is heavily weighted toward those claiming descent from Naill of the Nine Hostages. It's use is not common in the southern half of Ireland.


Use of certain colors in Irish arms also seems to be geographically weighted. Over half of all families using the color blue in a major charge or background element come from only four adjoining western counties: Roscommon, Galway, Clare & Tipperary.

Only the following Gaelic Irish families use a Blue Lion Rampant:

Brennan (MacBranain, O'Brennan)     Roscommon
O'Mulvhil, Melville, Mitchell     Roscommon
Hand/Lavin (O'Lamhain)4     Roscommon
MacDermot (used only in crest)     Roscommon
O'Gara     Sligo
Mahon, Mohan (O'Mochain, O'Moghan) Killaraght     Sligo
O'Scanlan     Munster (originally Sligo)
O'Mahoney     Munster

The pattern is clear. With the exception of O'Mahoney, all of these families are from a roughly contiguous region in North Roscommon and Sligo. I conclude that the Rampant Blue Lion was a clan or tribal totem/symbol with special meaning to the people of this area and that they later incorporated it into their arms.


From a heraldic point of view it would be interesting to know whether these symbols belonged to the clan or belonged personally to the chief because, if they were the property of the clan, any member of the clan might claim use of them. Conversely, if they were the personal possession of the Chief, it would not appropriate for others to adopt them.5 It is also conceivable that the clan chief had an emblem which applied only to him - but only during his tenure. This would be something like a seal of office and would be symbolic of the office, and only by some extension to the clan as a whole. Such a symbol would pass to the next chief in succession, but according to the Gaelic Irish laws of tanistry, not primogeniture. (In other words, instead of necessarily passing to the chief's son, it could just as well pass to a brother, cousin, nephew, etc.) At the end of the day, we must admit much of this must remain supposition because we simply don't have enough evidence to be doctrinaire about clan or sept arms. Naturally the idea of clan or sept arms is anathema to English heraldic practice (like a lot of other Gaelic Irish customs). However it is not totally unique. "In eastern Europe whole groups of families or territorial areas adopted the same armorial bearings (in) a form of clan affiliation." This was particularly evident in Poland where arms may pertain to a whole group of families and, in one extreme example, almost 600 families bear the same symbol - a horse shoe enclosing a cross (Bedington & Gwynn-Jones, 1993).


In 1552 the office of "Ulster, King of Arms" was instituted in Ireland to regulate the use of heraldic arms. The Ulster Office was "an artificial creation and not the product of any indigenous evolution." It was established solely to further the policy of Anglicization and "Surrender and Regrant." There was no other local need or demand for this office, since the English authority did not extend beyond the Pale and the Gaelic Irish controlled most of Ireland. The Ulster King of Arms was an extension of the English College of Arms and English Heraldry (MacCarthy Mor, 1996).


English heraldry was predicated on primogeniture. Of course this was in direct conflict with the Gaelic Irish concepts of multilateral inheritance within the kin group. More importantly, the idea that only the Crown could grant or confirm the right to bear arms was based on the feudal concept that the English King was the source of all authority and honor. Acceptance of the authority of the Ulster Office indicated a willingness to accept the authority of the Crown. All this was contrary to Gaelic Irish custom. "...Before the seventeenth century, nobility in Gaelic Ireland was defined in genealogical rather than heraldic terms. The concept that nobility could be acquired from an office in Dublin by petitioning for the right to paint a geometric or natural device on a wooden, leather, or metal shield would have appeared shockingly perverse to an aristocracy that regarded pedigree alone as the determinant of social status. Not only was the individual's rank within his Sept determined by his genealogy, but his rights to property and his eligibility of succession to the Chiefship of his Name" (MacCarthy Mor, 1996).

Anthropology instructs us that whenever two cultures are in close contact there is usually a lot of borrowing back and forth. Typically each culture will pick and choose those items from the adjacent culture which it finds useful. The fact that some of the Old English became "more Irish than the Irish" is well documented. Conversely, many of the Irish living in the Pale were highly anglicized. The rest of the island was probably something of a patchwork with significant local differences. No doubt there was a lot of cultural borrowing.

The rate at which Gaelic Irish adopted English-style heraldic practices was probably directly related to the amount and type of interaction which they had with the colonists. In other words, the acceptance of English-style heraldry was a marker for the rate of Anglicization. At the same time, as these more or less anglicized Irish began using symbols for arms, seals, etc., it would only have been natural for them to incorporate the ancient territory or clan symbols or totems. Conversely, the more Gaelic they were, the less likely they were to adopt English customs. The least anglicized Irish probably took pride in NOT using any of the English customs. However this may not necessarily hold for heraldry in the military sense. This is because the Irish nobility was a warrior aristocracy. Their record of adopting and adapting Anglo-Norman military innovations is something of a mixed bag. They adopted certain types of armor fairly quickly. On the other hand, they were extremely conservative in their style of horseback riding. The high degree of elitism and prestige associated with heraldry may have been attractive to the Gaelic nobility. They were extremely elitist.

"From the surviving evidence is clear that whilst the great provincial dynasties and major lords were assuming arms from the late fourteenth century onwards, their minor vassals were still largely unarmigerous at the foundation of Ulster's Office and possibly remained so as late as the mid-seventeenth century. There was a reluctance on the part of the Gaelic gentry to abandon their own cultural definition of nobility, which rested on extreme antiquity of descent, in favor of accepting the possibility that a 'mere churl' who did not know his own grandfather's name could be ennobled by paying Ulster King of Arms for a painted certificate!" (MacCarthy Mor, 1996)

Irish warriors in the 16th century
commonly carried distinctive ring-hilt swords

It is more than a little ironic that the Crown established the Ulster Office to regulate the use of arms and heraldry just about the time that the practice of heraldry as a practical art was becoming obsolete. This same irony pervades the whole history of heraldry. It started as a useful military tool. As warfare and weaponry changed and the heraldic shield became militarily obsolete, it evolved into an extremely useful status symbol. In fact, after a while it became a case of the tail wagging the dog. Originally the landed gentry assumed the right to display arms as a symbol of their nobility. This was perfectly reasonable because nobility and warrior status were one and the same. The symbolic display of heraldic devices on a shield was a mere acoutramount. Over time this military anachronism became, de facto, proof of nobility. Consequently, the requirement that one prove his nobility with a coat of arms became hugely important. Those who could display arms could gain entre to any European Court. Those who could not were "cut off from any hope of preferment." (MacCarthy Mor, 1996). This changed everything.

The importance of regulating heraldry and the power of the King of Arms increased tremendously.6 And, because of the increasing relationship between heraldry and status, the rules governing heraldic display became more and more arcane. Quartering, placing the arms of more than one family on the same shield, became highly popular for the status conscious. In extreme cases this led to unattractive and extremely "busy" shields which were crammed with multiple charges and devices. Although these highly complex arms may have indicated high status, they would have been pretty useless for identification on the battlefield.


"An examination of the heraldic records of Ulster's Office for the period 1552-1620, whether in the form of Visitations, Funeral Entries or general armorials, fails to reveal any substantial interest in heraldry among the Gaelic gentry..." The majority of the Gaelic Irish nobility did not become anglicized until the collapse of the Gaelic society in the 1600s. However, once confronted by the defeat of their culture, they began to attempt to assimilate by taking on English customs, dress, customs and heraldry. "Between 1630 and the early 1640s there was an increase in the number of arms of Gaelic families being recorded in the Office, mainly in the form of Funeral Entries." This was probably the result of the remaining Gaelic nobility beginning to assert their noble status in an anglicized fashion which was acceptable to the new English elite. The Gaelic Irish probably just began to use "shield-centered" heraldic versions of the clan's symbols or chieftain's symbols used previously on banners and battle flags. It is doubtful that they asked their erstwhile English enemies for permission. "Native Irish families that had formed part of the Gaelic aristocracy were unlikely to apply to Ulster for a grant of arms when such application would have been derogatory to their existing nobiliary status" (MacCarthy Mor, 1996)

"By the mid-seventeenth century a large number of gentry families of Gaelic origin were either bearing arms or were familiar with heraldry. Richard Carney, 'Principal Herald' (1651-1660) during the protectorate, compiled an armorial containing literally hundreds of coats of arms that he ascribed to Gaelic families. Strictly speaking, Carney should not have recorded these arms at all unless they were either already known to the Office or had been in use by the families concerned for upwards of eighty years" (MacCarthy Mor, 1996). From the surviving records it is impossible to know what criteria Carney applied to the arms he documented. However, assuming from his name that he was of Gaelic Irish descent, it is possible he was sympathetic to the old Gaelic customs. Certainly he may have had access to other records or previous compilations of arms which have not survived. At any rate, this seems to be the period when most of the Gaelic Irish arms were formally recorded by the authorities.

Why were the Gaelic Irish so suddenly interested in Heraldry at this time? Why the sudden increase of arms recorded by the Principal Herald? By the 1650s it must have become obvious to even the slowest learner that the Gaelic Order was a thing of the past. The New English used Heraldry as a way of distinguishing the nobility. The Gaelic Irish elite would have been pushed into doing the same, if they wanted to distinguish themselves from the peasantry and demonstrate their status. And, as they looked around for symbols, what could be more natural than to use the ancient clan devices.



Most of the arms recorded at this time seem to have been "sept arms" or "arms of chieftainship." In other words, they don't appear to be the private property of a particular individual but belonged to either the sept as a whole or to the chief, possibly as symbol of his office. The evidence for this is that the arms were "undifferenced." (Differencing was the practice of changing a color or adding some symbol to the family arms to personalize it and thereby distinguish it from your father's, grandfather's, brother's, etc. In English heraldry there were fairly elaborate rules about how a cadet line was to do this.)

In Gaelic Irish custom, the chieftainship would not necessarily pass to the eldest son in primogeniture, but to the most qualified family member, who might be a younger son, a brother, a cousin, etc., of the same name. Presumably, the arms could or would be passed along in the same way. The fact that these Gaelic Irish arms did not show "differencing" seems to indicate that all members of these Gaelic ruling families may have felt that they had an right equal ownership or use of the arms (which may have, after all, incorporated their ancient clan symbols). Certainly this attitude of ownership would be consistent with their attitude that all prominent family members had an equal right to succeed to the chieftainship. Another alternative interpretation is that the arms, especially if they were based on ancient clan symbols, were already common to all members of the clan or sept. Or maybe they were common to all the members of the ruling elite of the sept (on a practical basis, the more humble relations would have little use for them anyway).

In seems unlikely that the arms were the personal property of the chief and that other family members, some of them fairly distant cousins, could just assume the arms of the chief without consequences. Because the ownership of arms was so important to status, the Chief would have objected. Such an inappropriate assumption of arms would have amounted to a direct attack on his status and prerogatives. Like any aristocrat, a Chief could be expected to be very touchy about these things. And there was even an office, Ulster King of Arms, for the Chief to appeal to. Significantly, this does not seem to be just the case of just a single chief allowing a liberal viewpoint with a handful of close relatives within his sept. There seem to have been hundreds of individuals claiming the right to arms at this time. It seems highly possible that either (1) the arms had already been in use by these people for some time, so it was too late for the Chief to complain, or (2) the arms did not personally belong to the Chief, so he had no reason to complain, or (3) the arms were so obviously based on the ancient clan symbol that there could be no realistic objection. There maybe another possibility. Maybe the Gaelic Irish gentry held the English heraldic system in such low esteem that nobody much cared or objected to anyone using any arms he wanted. Whatever was happening here, certainly there must some kind of peer pressure or peer acceptance working in the Gaelic community at this time.

The very idea of clan or sept arms would be a challenge to the English system of heraldry. There is no way around this conflict because it is based on a basically different views of inheritance - tanistry versus primogeniture.



As heraldry became the main proof of nobility, all sorts of abuses worked their way into the system as social climbers and the newly rich tried to buy nobility by buying false genealogies that would qualify them for arms. O'Donovan tears apart a "genealogy" done by William Hawkins, Ulster King of Arms, categorizing the claims as "barefaced fabrications," "pure fabrication," "what a perversion of history is here!" "a most shameless fabrication," "shame upon such fabricators!" (O'Donovan, 1843).7 The Heralds of Hawkins' time bore a low character for veracity and were guilty of barefaced fabrications. Their character is given by Blackstone in his Commentaries, Book III, c.7: "The marshalling of coat armor, which was formerly the pride and study of all the best families in the kingdom is now greatly disregarded; and has fallen into the hands of certain officer and attendants upon this court (of chivalry) called heralds, who consider it only as a matter of lucre, and not of justice, whereby such falsity and confusion have crept into their records (which ought to be the standing evidence of families, descents, and coat-armor), that though formerly some credit has been paid to their testimony, now even their common seal would not be received as evidence in any court of justice in the kingdom."



There is a school of thought that claims that there is no such thing as Irish Heraldry, only English Heraldry as practiced in Ireland. There is more than a little truth in this.

Ancient Gaelic culture included customs concerning using symbols or totems on battle flags and banners in a sort of proto-heraldry. There is evidence that certain of these symbols were common to specific regions or, clans, septs or other social groups. Whether or not they were ever viewed as the private property of any particular king or chief is not known. The Normans intruded themselves and their (still evolving) customs of heraldry into this cultural situation. The Anglo-Norman "conquest" of Ireland was very incomplete and resulted in a cultural patch-work. Over time, this patch-work constantly changed shape as each group attempted to assimilate the other. To complicate things further, there were always "New English" moving into Ireland as the "Old English" became Gaelicized.

By about 1650 it was obvious that Gaelic Order was a thing of the past. The New English used Heraldry as a way of distinguishing the nobility. The Gaelic Irish elite would have to do the same, if they wanted to distinguish themselves and demonstrate their status. Now of course there was a problem in that the English custom of Heraldry had become bureaucratic. Arms had to be granted - they could no longer be assumed. Now (under the English system), nobility was conferred - it was no longer enough that one be the descendant of an ancient lineage. Now, the display of arms was proof of nobility - it was not enough to know one's genealogy going back a thousand years. This was cultural conquest pure and simple. What were the Gaelic Irish to do? The chieftains could buy into the English system and (if such a thing existed) assume the clan or family arms as their own. By the English system, this would mean that such arms would descend through the family by primogeniture. What of the other leading members of the clan, those who, by Gaelic custom, had an equal right to inherit the chieftainship? Wouldn't they have an equal right to the clan symbols? Arguably, by Gaelic custom they would. By English law they would not. There's the rub. Two cultures operating on two different systems. Which is right? If might makes right, the English system wins. If ancient custom makes right, the Gaelic.

Of course the English system was triumphant. Meanwhile, some branches of the old Gaelic Irish families made accommodations which allowed them to become part of the new elite. Those who were quick to see which way the wind was blowing had often made themselves useful to the English in crushing their fellow clansmen. History records the British as masters of the rule of Divide and Conquer. During the Elizabethan conquest, English administrators sometimes set up puppet chiefs in opposition to a currently ruling rebel chief, as a way to split a territory. Some of these were even known to history as "the Queen's Maguire" or "the Queen's O'Donnell," to distinguish them from the Gaelic Irish chief of the same name. One way or another, those who accommodated to the changing times bought into English laws and customs.

Eventually, the Penal Laws were instituted to crush any last vestiges of the non-conforming Gaelic elite and grind them down into the peasantry. As the Penal Laws successfully did their work, the issue of Gaelic Irish Heraldry became unimportant. As the Gaelic elite found themselves turned into peasants, they mostly focused their interest on more mundane matters - like survival.



Today all this is academic. Only a handful of "chiefs of the name" remain in Ireland. Some of them actually claim their title by the English custom of primogeniture. Interesting idea: claiming a Gaelic title by right of an English law. The same English law which found Gaelic Irish customs anathema and which spent literally centuries trying to stamp them out.

This brings us to today when anyone can find a "heraldic artist" on the internet or in a shopping mall to crank out his "coats of arms." So who has the right to display arms? Certainly those who are descended from the ancient nobility and who have inherited arms have the right. So do those who have been granted arms by some authority or another (e.g., Chief Herald). What about sept or clan arms? The first Chief Herald of Ireland, Dr. Edward MacLysaght was a bit ambivalent, although he believed in the concept of sept arms. It seem the question goes back to which system you subscribe to, English or Gaelic. By English custom, arms are personal property and are inherited via primogeniture. However, if you are a member of one of the ancient Gaelic lineages and if you choose to display the ancient clan symbols, who is to say that you are wrong?

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O'Donovan, J., (ed) The Tribes and Customs of Hy-Many (Dublin, 1843)

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1     The story is the Borama (The Tribute). It is preserved in the Book of Leinster and the Book of Lecan. Unfortunately the actual transcribing of this story can only be definitely traced back to about the tenth century, so it is difficult to know about the situation before this time. The summary given here is from Joyce, 1913. Another version is quoted in Dillon, 1994.
2     A shanachie was an Irish story teller. In this context, the term probably applies to the ancient Irish poets who were the historians of their time.
3     According to Fox-Davis (1929), "The term standard properly refers to the long tapering flag used in battle, and under which an overlord mustered his retainers in battle. This did not display his armorial bearings." The standard carried "all sorts of devices, usually the badges, and sometimes the crest." Often the standard also displayed the lord's motto. In English custom, flags which display personal arms are called "banners." Fox-Davis goes on to say that, "the armorial use of the banner in connection with the display of heraldic achievements is very limited in this country (England)."
4     Interestingly enough, the arms for the family named "Hand" shows a Rampant Blue Lion and a flesh-colored hand. This looks like a pun. The Irish word lamh=hand and, according to MacLysaght, at least some of the people known as Hand were originally O'Lavin (O'Lamhain). I conclude that this Hand family are actually O'Lavins and that the proper, original O'Lavin coat of arms is probably the about same as that of the Hands, but without the punning hand.
5     MacLysaght (the first Chief Herald of Ireland under the Republic and widely published authority on Irish families) has argued that, contrary to English heraldic practice, in Ireland a coat of arms can belong to the sept and not just one individual. Following his reasoning, it is proper for anyone who is truly a member of a sept to display the arms of the sept. Conversely, it is not appropriate for members of other septs, even if they carry the same surname, to use this coat of arms. MacLysaght is viewed as controversial by those whose who are proponents of English style heraldry and by those who possess a documented right to arms. The value of the elite privilege of displaying arms is certainly diminished by dilution via the widespread use of MacLysaght sanctioned arms.
6     Only in the eighteenth century, after the Cromwellian and Williamite conquests and confiscations had destroyed the Gaelic Irish and Old English nobility and replaced it with a Protestant ascendency, was the Ulster Office able to firmly control heraldic matters.
7     John O'Donovan was the translator of the Annals of the Four Masters and the greatest Gaelic scholar of his age.

The Leitrim-Roscommon Genealogy Site would like to thank Mr. Eddie Geoghegan for the use of his arms graphics which were used throughout this article