Coats of Arms

Crests and Heraldry

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                 Irish Heraldry

  “The harp can be dated as an heraldic symbol for Ireland from the 13th century. The deer at the entrance to an ancient house with four oak trees in the background probably refers to old Irish

traditions and belief regarding the rightful leader of the country.  One legend has the deer being chased into the house of a future king.  The seated king on the flag to the left denoted

the ruler of Ireland in earlier times, under the British regime. The crest design has been repeated in some drawings of the modern era, and of course can refer to British custom and symbolism.”

          First Irish Roll of Arms

  I first compiled the list of names from the Book of Arms compiled by Sir James Terry, Athlone Herald (1690).  Numerous Irish Families are found fleeing to the continent in this era. (‘King James Irish Army List’, by d’Arcy, is of interest for researching these ‘Wild Geese’). They fled to the continent in great numbers after the Fall of Limerick.

   The names in this roll of arms were mostly those that began with an ‘O’, Mc, or Mac anciently.  It is quite different from the other works showing Irish coats of arms.  In fact, up to the 20th century and the coming of the Irish Free State, most names in the heralds books bear other than Irish origins.......

             The Names

  We included the 300+ surnames from Terrys work as a starting point for the native Irish.  The names are familiar:








OConor Kerry









ODonel, Ramaltan

MacGula Padrige

OConor Roe



MacSwiny Duag

OConor, Cocomroe


...and so on in the spelling of the day.

             A Norman Custom

  The 12th century saw the rise of heraldry in Europe. Heraldry arrived in Ireland with the coming of the 12th century Norman invasions.  The Normans used heraldry in the military sense, as an identifying symbol in battle. Note the simple design of the original shield of Fitzgerald.  In contrast the old Irish families did not have the same tradition of heraldry or battling on horseback in armor.  Nor did they hold great jousting tournaments!  We assume that the Irish would begin using formal heraldic design soon after heraldry arrived in Ireland. 


Irish Heraldry; Tartans not; and Coats of Arms

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The Irish Family

Tartan ‘Myth’

Thirty Years of Research shows there were no ‘Tartans’ applied to specific Irish Families.

Clan Tartans were a Scots tradition. (Tartans and Kilts are not the same thing ! )

  1. -Mike O’Laughlin

(play video on the left)

Irish Book of Arms

  The great collection of arms from before and after the Irish Free State.

Kimbers Peerage 1768

DeBretts Irish Peerage 1806

         Armigerous ‘Families’

  It is in the 18th century that we begin the research into the other printed pedigrees and armories of families in Ireland. In the Irish Compendium (1722); the works of Kimber (1768); and the deBrett Peerage (1806); the power structure in Ireland was being confirmed as legitimate. There are, of course, other works that we have not included in this study, but for our purposes it is a good starting point in the study of Irish heraldry.

               Family Names

  Let us now take a look at the family names found most often in part two of this book. The names and number of occurrences are set down below:

Butler: 17                         Hamilton: 15   

Smith & Smyth(e): 13       Moore: 12     

Bourk(e)+ Burke+ DeBurgh: 11

Fitzgerald; Boyle; Brown(e):  10  each

Barry: 9    Coote; Nugent; Stewart:  8 ea.

  Following the above names, are those of Plunket; Dillon; Annesley; Talbot; Gore; Wilson; Percival; Lloyd; King; Knox; and Jones, each with 6 or 7 listings each. Obviously there are no names with 'O' or 'Mac' on the list of the top 20 most numerous armigerous families. 

               Irish or British ?

  As the governing authorities had spilled much blood in the 17th century, lands had changed hands greatly, as documented in Penders 'Census of 1659' and elsewhere.   Consolidation of power and prestige was in full force in the following century.  The era of  titles and nobility was in full swing.  What better way to document the status of 'noble' families than in the publication of peerages for all of Ireland?  The fact that they may have been more British than Irish was precisely the point, the old guard had been replaced..

                 20th Century

  For those interested in the current status of Irish heraldry, it is suggested that the Chief Herald of Ireland be contacted (see address at end of this section.). Many lines of descent from Irish chieftains have died out completely. Others have falsely claimed the name of a chief. A list of ancient Irish families formally recognized in the 20th century as Irish chiefs of the name are as follows:

An Sionnach (The Fox)

O'Brien of Thomand                             


O'Conor Don

MacDermot, Prince of Coolavin

MacDermot Roe

MacGillycuddy of the Reeks

MacMurrough Kavanagh

O'Dochartaigh of Inis Eoghain

O'Donnell of Tirconnell

O'Donoghue of the Glens


O'Grady of Kilballyowen

O'Kelly of Gallagh and Tycooly

O'Long of Garranelongy

O'Morchoe (Murphy)

O'Neill of Clannaboy

O'Rourke of Breffny

O'Toole of Fer Tire

Early Heraldic Design

Notes from the Irish B00k of Arms

Arms from DeBrett,

Kimber, and the

Compendium 1722

are included

O’Brien Lions

O’Donoughue Arms

A brief illustration of arms from this book.

The crest sits atop the

arms themselves. The date and source of the arms  are included for each entry.    (see left).

Click the link below and type in your name to see if it is in the Irish Book of Arms:

         Are these 'your' arms ?

  Treating arms as if they belonged to a family, is a practice which is not entirely proper - for arms are granted to, or held by an individual - not a family in the traditional way of things.  But then, Ireland is not an entirely proper example.  Anciently there was claim of the entire 'Irish clan' to the ownership of the land, and to the naming of a chief.  The Irish clan held the land and the chieftaincy, (and its arms then), somewhat in common. 

             Individual or Clan

  In Ireland, the chieftainship might pass to a cousin, not just the son of the chief. So grew the practice of male descendants using the arms, rather than just the oldest son. Hence comes the concept of arms belonging to the Irish clan as a whole, not just a single individual.  (Your surname is important, as it helps identify you as a part of the clan.).

        Modern Interpretation

  Former Chief Herald, Edward MacLysaght, lent his opinion in favor of the rights of a 'sept' to display the arms of its chieftain.  (In Scotland this would be improper.) MacLysaght was a shining light for bringing some order and organization to Irish family history and genealogy in the latter 20th century.  He was styled as Chief Herald of Ireland in 1943, when the Irish government created the genealogical office out of the former Office of Arms. His work built upon the work of O'Hart, Matheson, Woulfe, and others, adding his own modern day opinions. 

(to be continued)

  1. -taken from the Irish Book of Arms.

   by Michael C. O’Laughlin  ©2012

          Ancient Irish Names

  Armorial designs of the MacCarthy family are recorded in a Vatican necrology at the end of the 12th century.  An eagle and an arm in armor were recorded in that regard.  The two oldest seals that I am aware of are those of Ruari O'Kennedy from 1356 and of Hugh O'Neill (d. 1364).  The latter can be viewed at the National Library in Dublin. By the 16th century Irish chiefs are found registering their arms in Dublin.  This would be bowing to the authority of the crown, but the same chiefs can be found in open rebellion thereafter. The benefits of being an acknowledged leader would doubtless help on either side of the fray.

                War and Peace

  As time went forward, heraldic design became a function of social status, not to identify a man in battle.  In the 16th century we see more complicated and less immediately recognizable arms being granted by the Chief Herald. Many shields displayed arms representing several families, giving increased social status to the individual who bore the arms.  Note also that centuries later some of these arms were made 'simple' again, returning to a more pure form.