Heraldry in Ireland

Heraldry is the study and description ('blazoning') of coats of arms, and of the rights of individuals and families to bear arms. It has its origins in the first half of the twelfth century, when knights in continental Europe first began to use markings on their shields to identify themselves in battles and in tournaments. This became necessary because of developments in medieval weaponry and armour. Coats of chain-and-link mail, with long shields, gave way to full-body plate armour and helmets encasing the entire head, with smaller triangular shields. As a result, the individual was completely anonymous; the urgency of knowing whether the large, armour-clad individual galloping at you was a friend or an enemy is self-evident.

At first, military necessity was paramount. Large, clearly identifiable patterns, involving two or three colours divided into a number of compartments related to the physical construction of the shield make up the earliest arms. Later, when animals and other symbols were added, the necessity for easy, quick recognition again meant that a large degree of stylised convention was used, so that the heraldic lion, for instance, bears only a slight resemblance to the real thing. The military origin of arms is also the most likely explanation for their emergence at almost exactly the same time in England, France, Germany and Italy. The eight Christian crusades against Islam between 1096 and 1271 involved knights from all of these countries, and, combined with the changes in armour, provided a context in which a system of military recognition was essential. The endurance of heraldry is no doubt partly due to the fact that it spread over the whole of Europe virtually simultaneously. Crosses and fleurs-de-lys, Christian symbols par excellence, also take their origins in heraldry from the Crusades.

But heraldry would long ago have died out completely if the only need it met was military. Individual recognition and family identity are both powerful and universal human needs and, towards the end of the thirteenth century, a further change came about as the social and non-military aspects of heraldry evolved and it became established that coats of arms were personal and hereditary. The symbols used could now relate to the name, the office or the territory of the bearer, and were dictated less by the imperative of immediate recognition. One of the results from this period on was the creation of so-called 'canting' arms, based on a pun on the name - in Ireland, the arms of the Aherne family, displaying three herons, are an example. The main non-military use of arms was on seals, as a means of proving the authenticity of documents, and the practice of using birds or animals to fill empty space around the arms on these seals gave rise to 'supporters', now regarded as part of the arms of peers. Eventually, arms were also used on tombs, and then on works of art and possessions.

The symbols used in heraldry have a variety of origins: in the Christian nature of the crusades, in the (supposed) character of the individual or family itself, in some event which is identified with the family. There is no strict attachment of significance to particular symbols, although the reasons for some symbols are self-evident; the lion is conventionally regal, the unicorn is a symbol of purity, the boar is a Celtic symbol of endurance and courage, and so on. As arms proliferated, a natural need arose for rules to prevent different individuals and families using the same or similar symbols and arrangements of symbols. The first result was the evolution of the peculiar technical vocabulary used in describing arms, a highly stylised and extremely precise mixture of early French, Latin and English, still used in heraldry today. Then came the creation of the offices of King of Arms or King of Heralds throughout most of Europe in the fourteenth century. The principal functions of these were the recognition of arms, the recording of the possession of arms, the granting of arms and adjudication in disputes between bearers of arms. By the end of the fifteenth century, since the right to bear arms depended on family and ancestry, they had also become genealogists.

Arms first arrived in Ireland with the Normans, who brought with them all the social structures on which European heraldry depended; up to then, although some evidence of the use of military symbolism among the Gaels survives, heraldry in the true sense did not exist. Norman heraldry shows clearly its military origins, with a preponderance of clear, simple devices, (known as 'ordinaries') designed for easy recognition. Examples of these are found in the arms of the de Burgos, de Clares, Fitzgeralds and other families of Norman extraction.

A separate heraldic tradition is found in the arms of the Anglo-Irish. This can be dated to the sixteenth century, when the Tudor monarchs of England began to address themselves seriously to taking possession of Ireland, and establishing the full panoply of English law. Accordingly, the Office of Ulster King of Arms, with authority over all arms in Ireland, was set up in 1552 as part of the household of the Vice-Regal Court, the administration of the English King's deputy in Ireland. Inevitably, the early records of the Office contain many examples of Anglo-Irish heraldic practice, characterised by great elaboration, with individual shields often containing as many as a dozen charges, reflecting the preoccupations of the Anglo-Irish with family relationships. Whereas Norman arms are clearly military, the arms of the Anglo-Irish are part of a much more settled society, concerned above all about status.

The third tradition of heraldry in Ireland relates to the original inhabitants, the Gaelic Irish, and is more problematic, since heraldry was a natural aspect of the social life of both Normans and Anglo-Irish, but originally had no part in Gaelic society. (There is evidence disagrees somewhat with this view - see "Protoheraldry in early Christian Ireland" - Eddie). The characteristics of the arms in use among the important Gaelic families do have a number of common features, however. In part this is due to the role of genealogy in early Irish society; the myth of a common origin was a potent means of unifying the different Celtic and pre-Celtic peoples of Ireland, and the enormously elaborate Gaelic pseudo-genealogies, tracing every family in the country back to the same individual, were designed to reinforce that myth. In addition, on a more mundane level the nature of Gaelic law meant that, in effect, what you could own depended on who you were related to. These two factors, the importance of the origin myth and the property rights of the extended family, are reflected in the heraldic tradition which grew up in Ireland from about the fifteenth century. Unlike the military simplicity of the Normans or the conventional elaboration of the Anglo-Irish, the symbols used in the arms of Gaelic Irish families tend to relate to pre-Christian myths, often in quite obscure ways. Thus, for example, the Red Hand of the 0'Neills, now also associated with the province of Ulster, in heraldic terms a dexter hand appaume gules, also occurs in various forms in the arms of other Gaelic families. The reason would appear to lie in the name of the son of Bolg or Nuadu, the Celtic sun-god, in some accounts the divine ancestor of all the Celts. This son was known as Labraid Lamhdhearg, or 'Labraid of the Red Hand'. The association with the ancestral power of the sun-god is clearly a very good reason for the choice of symbol. In a similar way, the stag which appears in the arms of many Munster families - MacCarthy, O'Sullivan and many others - relates very clearly to the kingship myth of the Erainn peoples. In this myth, the legitimacy of the ruling house is confirmed when a stag enters; the animal is hunted, and the border of the territory is defined by the chase; the future ruler is the individual who eventually slays the stag. What the many families displaying the stag in their arms have in common is that they were originally part of the great Eoghanacht tribal grouping which dominated Munster until the time of Brian Boru. The stag was self-evidently an appropriate choice of symbol. As in Ulster and Munster, so in Connacht the arms of the ruling family, the O'Conors, and of a whole host of others connected with them - Flanagan, O'Beirne and many more - all display a common symbol, in this case the oak tree. Again, the reason lies in pre-Christian belief, in the old Celtic reverence for the oak, and its resulting association with kingship; the medieva1sources record ruling families having at least one sacred tree outside the family's ring-fort .

As well as the association of heraldic symbolism with pre-Christian myth, the nature of the property relations within the extended family meant that arms were used in ways quite different from those practised among the Normans and Anglo-Irish. In particular, most of the arms were regarded as the property of the sept (defined by Dr Edward MacLysaght as 'a group of persons inhabiting the same locality and bearing the same surname'), rather than being strictly hereditary within a single family, as was and is the case under English and Scottish heraldic law.

In summary, two of the three heraldic traditions in Ireland, the Norman and the Anglo-Irish, form part of the mainstream of European heraldry, while the arms found among the Gaelic Irish have particular characteristics which set them apart. The Genealogical Office is the successor to the Office of Ulster King of Arms which, as noted above, was created in 1552 with full jurisdiction over arms in Ireland. Ulster retained this power for almost four centuries, until 1943, when the title was transferred to the College of Arms in London and the office of Chief Herald of Ireland was created to continue to fulfil the functions of Ulster in independent Ireland. The new name given to the Office of the Chief Herald, 'The Genealogical Office', was somewhat inaccurate, since its primary concern continues to be heraldic rather than genealogical. Over the first 150 years of its existence, the Office was almost exclusively concerned with Anglo-Irish heraldry, recording, registering and legitimising the practice of arms that had grown up. From the start of the eighteenth century Ulster began to acquire other duties, as an officer of the crown intimately linked to the government. These duties were largely ceremonial, deciding and arranging precedence on state occasions, as well as introducing new peers to the Irish House of Lords and recording peerage successions. When the chivalric Order of St Patrick was introduced in 1783 as an Irish equivalent of such long-established English institutions as the Order of the Garter. Ulster became its registrar, responsible for administering its affairs. He also continued to have responsibility for the ceremonial aspects of state occasions at the court of the English Viceroy. The heraldic and ceremonial duties of Ulster continued down to the twentieth century. Today the Office of the Chief Herald remains principally concerned with the granting of arms to individuals and corporate bodies, the ceremonial aspect having lapsed with the establishment of the Republic of Ireland. One aspect of the Office's work today is perhaps connected to this, however. This is the practice of recognising Chiefs of the Name, instituted in the 1940s by Dr Edward MacLysaght, the first Chief Herald. The aim was simply to acknowledge the descendants of the leading Gaelic Irish families, and this was done by uncovering the senior descendants in the male line of the last Chief of the Name duly inaugurated as such under the old Gaelic laws. The practice is a courtesy only; under Irish law no hereditary titles are recognised. One final aspect of the contemporary Genealogical Office is worthy of mention. This is the State Heraldic Museum, established in 1909 by Sir Neville Wilkinson, then Ulster, and continued by his successors, including the present Chief Herald. Now housed in what was the old Kildare St Club, the Museum shows the diversity of arms in use in Ireland, as well as demonstrating the variety of uses to which heraldic designs have been put, including livery buttons, postage stamps, heraldic banners, signet rings, coins and notes, corporate and county arms, bookbinding, heraldic china and porcelain and much more. It is a permanent reminder that heraldry retains an important and familiar place even today.

(from "Clans and Families of Ireland, by John Grenham)