Irish Roots

John Grenham


March 16th

Is it just me, or are there more shops selling heraldic key-rings in Ireland than anywhere else? Why should this be?

There are two sorts of heraldry, the genuine stuff, Norman, feudal, replete with sables, bezants and stags rampant, where a coat of arms is personal property transmitted down the generations through the eldest male child, just like any other possession. Then there's "souvenir" heraldry, where everyone of the same (or remotely similar) surname is apparently entitled to bear identical heraldic place-mats in perpetuity. Elsewhere in the world, the distinction between the two is clear. In Ireland, the border is a bit hazier.

The main reason is the way heraldry has been regulated in this country. Up to 1922, Ulster King of Arms, based in Dublin Castle, regulated the bearing of coats of arms in Ireland. After independence, his Office languished in post-colonial limbo until 1943, when it became the Genealogical Office, and Ulster was replaced by the Chief Herald of Ireland. The first Chief Herald of Ireland was Dr. Edward MacLysaght, a staunch republican given charge of the most intensely Anglo of all Anglo-Irish institutions. With understandable zeal, he set about creating Gaelic Irish versions of some of the Anglo traditions. One result was the debacle of the Chiefs of the Name of a few years ago. Another was the concept of "sept arms", where every member of the same (rather loosely-defined) kin-group is entitled to bear the same arms.

Although the impulse to claim equal status for the Gaels was understandable, and perhaps necessary, the truth is that heraldry just did not exist in Gaelic Irish culture. The distinction between arms as personal property and as group or surname property was almost erased in MacLysaght's classic Irish Families. Hence the proliferation of heraldic tea towels.

Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.


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