Irish Heraldic Traditions

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 mid-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 preoccupation 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. 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 elaborations 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 O'Neills, now also associated with the province of Ulster, in heraldic terms a dexter hand appaumé 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 Lamhdearg, 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, Healy 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 Ború. 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 others - 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 medieval sources 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 to those practiced 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.