Proto-Heraldry in Early Christian Ireland

The Battle Standards of Gaelic Irish Chieftains

Patrick M. O'Shea

Interestingly, the tradition of armorial bearings seems to have much earlier precedents among the Gaelic Irish. It is well known that Roman legions carried distinctive standards into battle, which bore various symbols and totems particular to that legion. This practice of identification by banners or standards was not unique to the Romans, with examples found among the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Hebrews. (1)

Medieval heraldry, it is now believed, appears to have evolved from the civil personal marks, or seal devices, of the Flemish descendants of the Emperor Charlemagne.

The adoption of personal symbols or marks eventually spread to the Normans from the Flemish around the time of the Norman Conquest of England, it seems, but appears to date back at least as far as the 8th century. (2) Such devices were "of necessity, hereditary," since they were "common to families or groups linked by blood or feudal tenure." (3)

It may be surprising, then, to find much the same practice in Ireland in the early part of the 7th century, but an account of the Battle of Magh Rath (a plain in what is now County Down) clearly describes the battle standards of the Gaelic Irish chieftains. According to Keating:

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. . .(4)

In his notes to the 1857 translation to Keating's history, John O'Mahoney explains further:

Device or Ensign; in Gaelic, Suaithentas (soohentas). It is evident from all the ancient Irish accounts of battles that the Gaels carried standards to distinguish them in war, from the very dawn of their history; but it is not certain when they first adopted armorial bearings, though it is probable that they not only used banners, distinguished by certain colors and badges, at a very early epoch, but also armorial bearings or escutcheons. . . It is probable that the Irish families received the complex coats of arms they now bear from England; retaining on the shield, in many instances, the simple devices which their ancestors bore on their standards. . ."(5)

The notes go on to cite several examples, notably that of O Suileabhain:

"I see, borne valiantly over the plain, The flag of the race of the noble Finghin; 'Tis his spear with a venomous adder entwined. (6)

The modern O'Sullivan arms feature prominently a sword, entwined with a serpent.

Another case of an ancient familial symbol being adopted as an heraldic charge is demonstrated by the MacCarthys of Munster. The modern arms of the MacCarthy Mór depict a Stag, an animal sacred to the Eóghanacht (the kinship group from which the MacCarthys descend) for centuries before the adoption of modern heraldic conventions. The MacCarthy Mór, in his recent book, explains the use of the Stag:

It is the sacred stag of [Dagda], an ancient totem of the Eóghanacht dynasty, which features as the sole charge in the arms of the house of MacCarthy Mór. . . Dagda was the patron god of the druids and druidism and the sacred stag of Dagda is closely linked to the royal origin legends of the Eóghanacht dynasty. . .(7)

Other branches of the MacCarthys also feature the stag as the principal charge or one of several important charges in their arms, but the arms of MacCarthy Mór contain the stag alone

It seems clear, then, that the use of personal standards, belonging to the chief of a sept, which passed to his successors, had long been practiced by the time of the Battle of Magh Rath (A.D. 637 - Annals of Tigernach), and that the adoption of the English system of heraldry was merely an evolutionary step in an already well-established Gaelic tradition. Keating asserts that "it was, indeed, long before this time, that the Gaels. . .had adopted the custom of bearing distinctive devices upon their standards. . ."(8)

It is not possible to say exacly when this system of proto-heraldry came into being, but Irish heraldry does appear to have native roots at least five centuries older than the system introduced by the Anglo-Normans in 1169. Today's Irish coats of arms descend from an English tradition, which was probably Flemish in origin. The Flemings were, it is believed, preserving traditions from the 8th- and 9th-century Carolingian Empire.

The Carolingians, it is known, valued the teachings and culture of the Irish. (9) Perhaps, then, the 'introduction' of heraldry to Ireland in the 12th century was not a novelty, but rather the completion of a cycle.

(1) Friar, Stephen and John Ferguson. Basic Heraldry. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993).
(2) Woodcock, T. and Robinson, J.M. The Oxford Guide to Heraldry. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990): 5-6.
(3) Friar & Ferguson, 10.
(4) Keating, Geoffrey. The History of Ireland, edited by John O'Mahoney. (Reprinted, Kansas City, MO: Irish Genealogical Foundation, 1983): I, 471-2.
(5) Ibid, 472n.
(6) Ibid, quoting notes to The Battle of Magh Rath.
(7) MacCarthy Mór. Historical Essays on the Kingdom of Munster. (Kansas City, MO: The Irish Genealogical Foundation, 1994): 181.
(8) Keating, 473.
(9) Kinder & Hilgemann. The Anchor Atlas of World History. (New York: Anchor Books, 1974): I, 127.

The above article was taken from the excellent Uasal Website