A contextual paper, May 20th 2017

              M-P O’Crowley

Many papers have been written on Irish heraldry. Of course, the subject is dear to everyone of Irish descent as coat of arms display is an attractive artistic and historical significance of an Irish lineage carrying a romantic element. We will here endeavour to place Irish heraldry in its historical context, replacing preconceived ideas. Irish heraldry is more complex than it seems, its role has been pivotal in the recognition of Gaelic traditions and culture.

Heraldry is a science which developed in continental Europe over the course of the 11th and 12th centuries. Initially the need to identify knights, lords, and their retinue on the battlefield through visible and clearly identifiable symbols required the elaboration of simple rules of symbols, figures and colours display. At the same time a need arose to register these combinations corresponding to one individual and ensure that not two individuals would bear the same display of figures. This task devoted to the Herald who registered these in the form of armorials. Heralds acted on behalf of a Lord over a defined geographical jurisdiction, they were of the learned class, trained at law, they conducted embassies, negotiated treaties or contracts, kept genealogies and oversaw that the right to land or fief was rightful. In this sense, the Herald was often designated as Judge at arms.

One factor often overlooked is that the spread of usage of heraldry on the continent was through the learned class, of which the Lords’ wife, clerks and lawyers played an exclusive role. Through their correspondence, they used seals as a secured vehicle of identification, these seals bearing the respective coat of arms. By this official usage arms became legal, representing the name but more importantly the fief or lordship. While heraldic seals became the first form of secured “identity” we must stress that in early middle age arms represented lordships and not family names. Hence, while for the oldest lordships and associated families these are one and the same, many instances are recorded in the 13th and 14th centuries that when a lordship changed ownership the new owner would adjoin his/her coat arms with arms of the lordship. With the advent of Renaissance, the reform of Feudalism this practice disappeared and arms became essentially associated with names. However, to this day the arms of royal families, princes and dukes throughout Europe do represent feudal lordships.

With the legal dimension of coat of arms, it quickly became essential that registers had to be maintained, that arms had to be unique. In summary only the legal supra authority could confirm or grant arms. In feudal Europe, the legal authority rested in the King, the independent Lords, and the sub Lords which had by custom and laws the right of Justice at each of their level, managing their feudal holdings as a state of its own. They carried a fons honorum empowering them to dub a knight. For example a comte or lord could dub a knight, entitle a baron within his own fiefdom in return for “knight’s fee” that is military obligation, notably protecting the bestowed manor. They had their own heralds who maintained their armorials and had for the powerful ones their own order(s) of Knighthood. In Ireland for example, the Earl of Kildare, Desmond and Ormond are historically credited for having their own herald wearing a tabard with their respective arms. Arms were either acquired by tradition, sustained usage, or granted by the lord through its herald. The diplomatic network of heralds across Europe ensured that arms were not duplicated across countries.

When the Cambro-Normans came to Ireland heraldry was well established in Europe. The Norman knights carried with them their own heraldry, codified, with its own singulars using geometric figures, or beasts particular to continental heraldry such as the eagle or lion, leopard.

In contrast the Gaelic Irish had for a long time used tribe or clan symbols. Gaelic poems and annals describe at length, the striking multiple display of battle flags, assigning each of them to a clan or its leader. This highlights the importance attached to these symbols which were a combination of Celtic rooted symbols and Christian devotion. They will be later integrated in codified heraldry when adopted by Gaelic chiefs.

As Professor Katharine Simms demonstrated (From Kings to Warlords, 1987, 2000, The Boydell Press), Gaelic chiefs had households to administer their clan and their lordships. Depending on the importance of the clan the household was more or less sophisticated. The household certainly included a “herald”, an officer performing diplomatic, legal, contracting functions, keeper of genealogies, knowledgeable in clan or sept symbols. The Brehon or lawyer in the Chief’s household performed this role. This household officer, often a hereditary position, had a prominent role in Gaelic Ireland. O’Daly, O’Dineen and O’Canty were families holding this hereditary office among the leading clans of Desmond. Indeed, land distribution amongst the clan families was a movable element. At each new Chief election land was (townlands) redistributed according to blood relationships, sept or branches according to their importance, subordinate clans according to their power. Thus, the Brehon played a pivotal role in administrating the land distribution as he held genealogies and the relationships from the chief family to the most humble one. Historical studies regarding the O’Sullivan and O’Leary clans are very illustrative of this process in Desmond. We know as well that Gaelic chiefs and their Brehons used seals in the same way seals were used by lords in continental Europe. To that point, the National Library of Ireland has one of the most extensive collection of medieval seals in Europe. The Gaelic chiefs had shields with heraldic figures on their seal, the oldest ones date from the 14th century (O’Kennedy, O’Neill). Hence, the Gaelic Lords and their Norman counterparts in Ireland held court or households which included the function of a herald very similar in both instances but acting within different legal systems, feudal and Gaelic.

For the families of Norman or Old English extraction the regulation of heraldry was extremely important as the heralds maintained and confirmed genealogies, deaths and births, and therefore right of inheritance to lordships which had to be confirmed by the king. The first Ireland King of Arms was Chandos, 1392, his office and his successors were confined to dealing with non-Gaelic families, a reflection of the dual system existing within the Irish lordship. With Henry VIII becoming the king of Ireland in 1541, de facto elevating the Lordship of Ireland to a Kingship (until then legally held by the Papacy) the role and duties of the herald in Dublin had to be strengthened to reflect this change. The office denomination and powers will be changed in 1552 with the appointment of Bartholomew Butler by Edward III as Ulster King of Arms having the whole of Ireland as his jurisdiction, encompassing both Old English and Gaelic families. The name Ulster is of particular interest, Edward III seems to have chosen the name in order to show his power over the York family which held the Earldom of Ulster, still remaining a threat to the Tudor/Lancastrian dynasty. The Ulster King of Arms had a full office, with a Pursuivant at arms in each province empowered to apply heraldic law, confirm genealogies of the nobility and gentle class. A pursuivant position was created in Cork (Munster), Dublin (Leinster), Athlone (Connacht).

For the vast majority Gaelic Chiefs remained out of the codified heraldry until 1542. Though the chiefs extensively used arms from the 13th century onwards, it is really through the application of the “Surrender and Regrant” policy of Henry VIII that their coat arms required to be officially recorded since the Gaelic Chiefs receiving English titles with grant of lands had to be associated with appropriate coat of arms. It is interesting here to note that the coat arms were associated with named individuals and not feudal lordships.

The jurisdiction of the Ulster King of Arms was a dependency of the English crown and therefore heraldry followed English heraldic rules and governance. Thus, in principle marks of cadency were applied to differentiate arms between members of the same family. It appears, however, that Gaelic chiefs did not use marks of cadency, and the same arms were used by individuals across different branches of a clan or sept. Therefore, the English practice of allowing use of arms only for descendants of an original grantee was very rarely used by the Gaelic Irish, a reflection of the clan system. For example; it is worth noting that the MacCarthys used the same arms across their different houses, MacCarthy Mor, MacCarthy Reagh, MacCarthy of Gleannacroim, MacCarthy Duhallow. It is only from the mid 17th century that marks of cadency started to be used, for example the surviving MacCarthy of Muskerry, Viscount Muskerry used a differentiation through the adjunction of a crescent gules in the chief dexter.

With the end of the Nine Year War, the beginning of English law enforcement, Gaelic Chiefs were compelled to be recognised in the English legal system and have their arms recorded, a mark of nobility. A further factor for Chiefs to have their arms recorded was the question of land ownership. Gaelic titles to land were questioned by the English administration influenced by adventurers sitting in the Commission for Defective Titles and endeavoured to acquire land or settle planters. The office of the Ulster King of Arms became a vehicle for the Gaelic Chiefs to have their status confirmed. Through the death registration in the Funeral Entries there was an easy opportunity to have coat of arms recorded and thus consolidate a de facto status without going through the grant process. For example in 1627 the death of Donough O’Leary’s, chief of his clan, was recorded to the initiative of his wife and his heir (per Brehon laws). The lands of the O’Leary clan had been declared forfeit but never planted due to their remoteness. By this process the O’Learys consolidated their claim to lands. Most of the funeral entries of the period pertaining to Gaelic chiefs or members of the chiefly family fulfilled the same objective. This unique wealth of information can be found at the National Library Ireland or on line (

It is worth quoting as an example the recording of the death of a member of a minor clan the O’Madden. “ John O’Madden of Derrehewny in the county of Galway, gent., eldest sonne and heire of Daniel O’Madden of the same eldest sonne and heire of Brazill O’Madden of same sonn of Farragh sonne of Donogh sonne of Cahall O’Madden of Derrehewny alias Longford aforesaid ; chief of that name. The said John had to wife Fenela daughter of Conner O’Horan of Faha in the country of Gallway Cheife of his name…….The said John O’Madden departed this mortall life at Derrehewny aforesaid the 5th February 1639 …. Thomas Preston Esqx ULSTR King at Arms the 16th day of May 1640”.

By far the period from 1602 to 1641 represents the peak of Gaelic families’ registration of coat of arms through the funeral entries. It must be said though, heralds had an interest since their received a fee for the entries but also for funerals of the noble class. Technically the Ulster King at Arms, its pursuivants and officers managed funerals ensuring that the etiquette was strictly followed, including the procession which had to carry heraldic banners and standards, tabards, the place of individuals according to their rank. In addition to the set fee Ulster received all the material used for the funeral.

The recording of the Gaelic coat of arms reflected the particulars of Gaelic society, translating the symbols representing the link with an eponymous ancestor of the clan. It is interesting to note a few unique particulars to Irish heraldry. The arms are quite simple, depicting one main symbol or two, sometimes associated with minor ones. The field of the shield is in majority white (argent), and indication that the heraldic charges were originally used on battle flags or Chiefs’ flags embassies. Septs or branches stemming from a major clan bear a common symbol or charge (for example, the stag of the MacCarthy, the boar of the MacDermot, the oak tree of the O’Connor of Roscommon, the red hand of the O’Neill, are largely used by their collateral clans or septs). The figures are often issued from the Celtic tradition and mythology. Very well-known are the wild boar, stag, Celtic deities of nature’s strengths from immemorial times. Less known in Europe are the salmon, snake or lizard (the Gundestrup cauldron depicts amongst other figures a man wearing antlers – the god Cervanos – holding in one hand a snake and in the other a torc). The lizard in the Celtic mind was a symbol of knowledge and wisdom. Finally, many Gaelic coat of arms have figures affronte holding a charge. This is a translation of initial supporters which would initially have been used but could not be granted nor recorded since in English heraldry these were reserved to peers. Thus they were incorporated into the shield charges (Ó Comáin, Micheál, The Poolbeg book of Irish heraldry, Dublin, 1991), good examples are the O’Kelly, O’Neill, O’Reilly, O’Flaherty arms. Finally, the usage of ducal crest coronets and antique crowns as an indication of the rank within Gaelic society is also of interest.

All those Gaelic particulars were integrated by the English heraldic authorities acting in Ireland through the Ulster King of Arms. The process embodied Gaelic customs and lineage (extensively recorded in the registers) including the title of Chief. Heraldry became a factor of integration within the English context, respecting Gaelic nobility. Ultimately Gaelic arms through their simplicity are strikingly different from English arms of the time. They are very close to the oldest heraldic achievements of the ancient continental Europe families of the 12th century, a testimonial of their own ancestry. Ulster sent copies of the funeral entries to the College of Arms in London to ensure proper registration at court level. These records can be consulted at the College of Arms in London.

The events of the 17th century will bring an even more fundamental role for heraldry and the Ulster King at Arms. In 1667 by an act of parliament Charles II had to dismiss all catholic officers from his household and guard. These by large went to the continent joining the King of Spain or France armies. For those electing to join the French King’s household they had to provide proof of nobility. It must be stressed here that we speak of nobility and not title. The status of nobility does not require a title, it is a state of being. With this necessity to provide legal proofs the Ulster King at Arms started to play a prominent diplomatic and legal role for the exiled Irish who left with little of their belongings. Corresponding with their Spanish or French counterparts by providing such proofs of nobility, Ulster with the help of Gaelic genealogists or former Brehons helped to have the Gaelic traditional genealogies integrated in the process. Hence, O’Dineen who was chief genealogist to the MacCarthy migrated to the continent and provided many pedigrees transcribed directly from the Gaelic tradition.

With the treaty of Limerick in 1692 and its massive influx of Irish on the continent and more specifically in France, the role of heralds increased further. The exiles after a preliminary phase of seeking financial security through either establishing trade or soldiering in the French King armies, looked at securing their social standing by obtaining recognition of noble status by the French court. James II herald, James Terry, Athlone pursuivant (1690-1725), resided in Saint Germain and established correspondence with the Ulster King at Arms in Dublin and helped the Irish exiles obtaining proofs of their nobility allowing them to be integrated in the Second Order. Athlone over his time in office confirmed or granted over 150 arms.

But it was a strenuous process since in France proofs of nobility rest upon the individual, whereas in Ireland and Great Britain proofs of nobility rest within the Herald offices and archives, a point difficult to understand for the French Heralds and genealogists of the King’s Orders. D’Ozier and Cherin dealt with this discrepancy between the two systems by requiring testimonials in Ireland of 7 or 8 gentlemen confirming the petitioner’s status, land holding, recognition within society. Hence, Gaelic titles were integrated into the provided genealogies and documents. Furthermore, d’Ozier and Cherin required to have the petitioner’s coat arms and affiliated families painted and marshalled on their genealogy tree. It is interesting to note here that despite the political situation the Ulster King at Arms willingly corresponded with James Terry and the French heralds. A testimonial to their role in diplomacy and legal matters. It is a clear demonstration of the power of the heralds’ network (Patrick Clarke de Dromantin “les refugies jocabite dans la France du XVIII siècle).

With their genealogies officially recorded, recognition of their noble status in France the Irish exiles were admitted as members of the “Second Order”, benefitting from considerable advantages, tax exemption, access to royal offices. For many, courtesy titles were bestowed, the most used were “Knight” and “Comte”. These titles were courtesy recognition of the individuals’ status within the nobility, they were not feudal title in the proper sense expect for few rare exceptions (for example Florence O’Donoghue became the Marquis de la Ronce – The castle of the de la Ronce was formerly the propriety of his uncle Miles Marianus O’Crowley which he inherited, Miles was styled Comte O’Crowley, his sister Mary was styled Comtesse).

Once these Irish exiles had been recognised into the nobility, the last stage of their integration was to be naturalised French. This entailed the commitment not to return to Ireland nor bear the arms against the king of England.

During this whole period Ulster played a pivotal role in the recording and recognition of Gaelic genealogies, lordships and chiefships. It is thus a paradox that Ulster, an English herald mandated by the crown, contributed to such an effort at a time of the Gaelic system and laws eradication. Indicative of the ambiguity of the period all grants performed by the Athlone Pursuivant James Terry while acting in exile in France were recognised by the crown through an act of the British parliament.

Ulster sustained correspondence with the French and Spanish heralds to the purpose of noble confirmation or arms until the revolution. During the 19th and 20th centuries Ulster work was confined to grants and confirmation of arms by large to individuals who had conformed to the state religion, an indication of the societal radical change. In 1943 with the advent of the Irish Republic the powers of Ulster was transferred to the created position of Chief Herald of Ireland. Edward MacLysaght was the first to hold that position within the Genealogical Office. Ulster ‘s power became limited to Northern Ireland and was consolidated with Norroy, a regional herald of England (Norroy and Ulster).

When MacLysaght came to office he endeavoured to adapt heraldic rules to reflect the Gaelic clan heritage. He recommended that clansmen would be allowed to display at home in the form of a plaque the coat of arms of the last recognised chief. In the same way Scottish clansmen may display the Chief’s crest in a buckled strap (originating from a British military custom to display the regiment number or symbol) the practice would allow Irish Gaelic clansmen to advertise their clan. MacLysaght though very appropriately stressed that clansmen could not use these coat of arms as their own, meaning usage on a seal, stationary, banner and standard is prohibited. The full use of these coat of arms resting upon the owner, that is direct descendants from the original grantee.

At the time MacLysaght was in favour of granting supporters to recognised Chiefs, a list of which was compiled. The compiled list recognised the dual English and Gaelic practice of Chiefship depending on the clan. Some clans or families used the English primogeniture rule whereas others used the traditional Derbfine election process (for example the O’Connor). This point is quite interesting as it reflects that the choice between the two systems is a purely internal and an exclusive private practice to the clan.

However, one may argue that Irish Gaelic chiefs recognition should follow Gaelic law. Such a position may be too orthodox not integrating the historical process which affected Ireland notably with the creation of a class of Gaelic chiefs who accepted the “surrender and regrant” bearing both a British title and being Chief of their name and thus clan. In all logic if recognising titles derived by primogeniture we must also recognise the Gaelic system of election. In fact, to our day it is still in existence per the very nature of clans who are incorporeal hereditaments bodies as much as the name is and the coat of arms. However, with regard to heraldry an elected chief even through the formal process of a derbfine council can only bear his personal coat of arms and not the assimilated clan generic coat of arms per the devise of MacLysaght. On that particular point, it is worth referring to the very good practice introduced in Scotland by King Lyons whereby a clan derbfine may appoint a “Captain” who in due course will become the “Chief” of the clan. This practice should resolve the issue or armigerous clans or chiefless clan. In Scotland, all clan chiefs should have arms in order to be recognised and conferring to the clan the title of “noble community”, the chief being the embodiment of the clan.

The Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland today continues its policy of responding to the exiled Irish community. For example, the office may grant arms to anyone residing abroad advancing proofs of Irish descent or being eligible to be an Irish citizen. The office though no longer issues supporters nor recognise the status of chiefs nor any other title. The coat arms retain to this day their original status, they are intangible propriety of the bearer as is the patronymic and are indissoluble with it.

To that point one may hear that coat of arms maybe assumed and registered as a logo or patent with the status of intellectual propriety and are thus protected. This is a miss conception. Registering coat of arms at a patent office would not associate the arms with the patronymic in an indissoluble way and be an incorporeal hereditament to be transmitted, nor would it guarantee that the arms are unique and thus usage be protected. A famous case arose in France when the grandfather of the French president assumed the name d’Estaing (on account of his own grandmother) and was officially granted the right to change his name to Giscard d’Estaing. However, he could not use the arms of d’Estaing since a descendant of the Marquis d’Estaing forbade him to do so through a court appeal.

With the exiled Irish communities from the 17th to the 18th centuries in Europe we find Irish families arms registered in these countries. The descendants of the Wild Geese do bear arms according to their country’s practice. Hence, in France all members bear the same arms without marks of cadency or differentiation. They also display nobiliary crowns and supporters. These last in many instances have been assumed over time, indeed supporters in France for example are not the subject of heraldic grants. Thus, reflecting history there is as much wealth of information on Irish coat of arms on the continent as in Ireland.

As we have seen earlier Kings, Princes and Lords had the power to dub anyone, grant arms and grant land. The power of the “fons honorum” or the “Fount of Honour” still rest in these families whether still reigning or not. With the constitutions of states monarchs claimed to be the only source of “fons honorum” through the state powers.  In fact, this claim is not founded as per international law the “fons honorum” rests upon the person or heir and not the state. While for example it is strictly forbidden to wear knighthood insignias which are not issued by the French Republic, per his “fons honorum” the heir to the crown of France continues to bestow titles, coat of arms, knighthoods into the Royal Order of the Holy Spirit (Ordre Royal du Saint Esprit). The “fons honorum” is an incorporeal hereditament resting in the person, all formerly reigning houses, whether royal, princely or ducal and to some extent comital have this right which they may exercise privately.

It is unfortunate that in Ireland the practice of derbfine election per King Lyons recommendation is rarely followed, it would secure for the longer term the actual existence of clans. By the same principle, the elected chief should have his own arms appropriately granted either from the Chief Herald of Ireland or the Chief of the Name of a Gaelic Royal or Princely house, a right issue from their incorporeal hereditament. It would also be complying with heraldic tradition to accompany the coat of arms with insignia of the Chieftainship, either as in Scotland with two feathers or for example with a wand or staff behind the shield. In so doing continuity with the initial role of the Irish heralds to integrate, recognise Gaelic clans, their Chiefs, would be performed. A nice historical thread over a number centuries respectfully bridging two systems for the best future and integrity of cultural identity.



Examples of coat of arms with affronte figures, in fact incorporating assumed supporters into the shield.





Wealth of information may be found on the continent. Here the seal of Mies Mariannus O’Crowley from his will 1699, found the notary archives.




Example of a confirmation of arms 1771; Hawkins, Ulster to Pedro Alphonso O’Crowley esq. a resident of Cadiz, with the pedigree tracing him to Cormac O’Crowley Chief in 1552 . Subsequent to this confirmation of arms by Ulster he was styled Don Pedro Alfonso O’Crowley.