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How to Interpret your Irish Family Crest

Irish Family Crest

 

Ever wondered what your Family Crest looks like, or what each symbol means?

Every family name, no matter how significant their stature, history or surname, had its own distinctive crest. These family crests or coat of arms are laden with symbolism.

In this blog post, I explain the different elements of your family crest.

First, just a little background into how I became interested in Irish family heraldry. For almost twenty years now,  I’ve been creating Irish family crest jewelry. It is truly humbling to think that scattered across communities around the world, there are pieces of Irish family crest jewelry made by me. In the early days, when I opened my little silversmith’s workshop here in County Cork I wouldn’t have believed if you’d told me that these handmade pieces would have taken off to the extent that they have. I like to think some may even become family heirlooms one day, to be passed down through generations.

In any case, to engrave these special pieces, I needed to learn more before I stamped them with my maker’s mark. Engraving by hand on any precious metal can be unforgiving at best. On such a small surface space, there really is no room for error. I knew if I could just pare back a little of the decorative detailing, I could achieve a more polished and refined finish.

The problem was I didn’t know what was decorative or what any of these symbols meant!

Here, I share some of the most common hidden meanings behind our family coat of arms to reveal more about our families history.

 

Irish Heraldry: Origins of Family Crests

Irish heraldry or coat of arms have been in use since medieval times. They were used as identifiers by important leaders, names or institutions. Worn by knights on their armor or emblazoned on shields when riding into battle. They were also used on official paperwork and even on wax seals of documents. Your family crest may even have flown on a flag above a castle or a ship. Anywhere, a person or institution would want to be identified. We also know they were adopted as far back as the 12th century by feudal lords and knights in order for them to know who was who in battle.

 

McGovern family crest cufflinks

McGovern Family Crest: Hand Engraved Custom Family Crest available to order on my online shop

Later, their use became more popular as they were used by the upper class. Usually, these were wealthy families and landowners.

Gradually the adoption of a coat of arms found its way all across medieval Europe. Spreading from the church to town councils, universities and trading companies, and of course, to royalty. A complex system of heraldic symbols began to develop. Surprisingly, this system worked really well. It was used consistently throughout Europe without any official regulation.

Since 1552, heraldry in Ireland has been regulated by the government through the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland. Today, if you were to change or design your own coat of arms to represent your lineage, you’ll have to apply for a grant of arms.

In England and Scotland, each individual had his own heraldry. These would be passed down from father to son and slightly modified along the way to reflect the individuality of the person. However, the most important elements of the crest would retain the same. The changes might be made to the colour, a small addition to the design, or sometimes a different label (a design element within the crest proper).

 

Ornate Irish Family Crest cufflinks and jewelry

 Irish Family Heraldry

 

Elements of Your Coat of Arms

 

The process of creating a  new coat of arms to represent your family name became more complex once regulations were introduced. On an authentic coat of arms, there are no fewer than twelve elements. There can be countless variations on designs within these elements, all of which will have different meanings.

To complicate things further, certain design templates are associated with different kingdoms. For example, the Scottish coat of arms may be different to an English one.

 

The Family Motto

 

Starting from the bottom, the first element of the design is the family motto written on a scroll. If the family has received an order of merit, it is placed above the motto.

 

Douglas Family Crest Motto Engraving, Jamais arrière meaning Never behind

Douglas Family Motto – ‘Jamais arrière’ meaning ‘Never behind’ engraved above the family crest

 

The escutcheon which is the crest or shield can be divided into various sections. The background is known as the field. Other elements that can be featured here include ordinaries. This is a simple geometric shape running from top to bottom or side to side of the shield. The common charge is a symbolic representation of the person or family.

Flanking each side of the escutcheon is a supporter, which stands on a compartment (usually grass, rocks, or the like). The supporters hold up the shield. These can be animals, human figures, or sometimes plants or other decorative inanimate objects.

 

Heraldry Family Crest Cufflinks

Heraldic beasts like the lion symbolize fierce courage

 

Heraldry

 

Every design element on a coat of arms has a specific meaning, almost like another language. It even has its own name, ‘heraldry’. The template of the crest too has its own meaning, as do the shape of the lines that adorn it. There are literally an infinite number of possible shield designs and meanings!

Colours

Colours also have their own names and meanings.

Tenne is orange. It’s meaning is ‘worthwhile ambition’.

Gules is red and means warrior, marytr and military strength.

Purpure is purple, meaning justice and sovereignty.

Plants and Animals

 

The most important element of a shield is the common charges. These are generally animals or plants. These represented the identity of the family. At a glance, you could identify a knight on the battlefield.

 

Farrelly Family Crest

Farrelly Family Crest

  • Lion – heraldic beasts symbolizing fierce courage.
  • Similar animals – tigers, leopards, boars and dragons mean more or less the same thing.Fierce courage
  • Fish – In Ireland, a fish denotes someone of regal origin. Derived from the legend of the ‘salmon of knowledge’.
  • Griffin – Often seen on Irish coat of arms, represents vigilance, valiance and death.
  • Stag – One of the most ancient charges, represents an ancestor of the Celts.
  • Snake – Fertility, wisdom and renewal.
Family Crest; Fish Represents the legend of the 'Salmon of Knowledge'

Family Crest; Fish Represents the legend of the ‘Salmon of Knowledge’

Non-animal charges

 

Here are just a few other charges regularly seen on Irish shields.

  • Hand as shown on the Breen Family (above) and the mark of a baronet are strongly associated with the province of Ulster
  • Sun or other celestial bodies are added as they were worshipped by the Celts
  • Oak leaf to symbolise the most important tree for the Celts
  • Fleur-de-lis or ‘flower of light’ is usually associated with Christianity
Coat of Arms Breen Family Crest Hand

Breen Coat of Arms: Hand

 

Above the escutcheon on your family crest you may also find one or more of the following;

  • Coronet  – Small crown
  • Helm – A helmet with mantling. This was draped material used by knights in battle
  • Torse – Twisted rope of fabric around the top of the helm, used to tie mantling to
  • Crest – A repetition of the design or one of the elements in the shield

 

Most Common Family Coats of Arms

 

Here we’ve taken the ten family crests and provided a brief explanation for each.

 

Murphy:

The most prominent branch of the Murphy name comes from the Cork/Kerry area. Their coat of arms is red and white (military strength and truth), with four lions in each corner separated by a row of three sheafs of wheat on a black background; wheat symbolises fertility and bountifulness, and black is for wisdom, constancy and prudence.

 

Kelly:

The Kelly coat of arms is particularly striking. On a blue background (blue meaning loyalty, chastity and faith), a castle is held up by two chains held by two lions, one on each side of the castle. The castle means safety and strength, the lions (again) are for fierce warriors, and the chains are a symbol of service. So, mighty warriors serve the great castle of Kelly.

 

O’Sullivan:

The O’Sullivan crest is a bit of mixed bag. It features yellow, red, green, black and white colours, and four different animals; two lions, a snake, a deer and a boar. The snake stands in between the two lions and is held by a red hand, while the deer and boar stand alone below them in their own sections. The boar, deer and snake all have strong Celtic associations, so this is a very historical crest.

 

 

O Sullivan Family Crest

O Sullivan Family Crest

 

Walsh:

 

The Walsh crest is another with a red and white colour scheme. It boats three black spear heads, meaning ‘readiness for battle’. The shield shape is a chevron which has two meanings; both protection or roof, and died in battle! There is often a swan depicted on top of the shield, which in Ireland was regarded as the bird that bore the spirit of Celtic Chieftans into the afterlife.

 

Smith:

 

As there are so many different branches of Smiths, there are a crazy number of different Smith crests. The most common in Ireland appears to be two or three arms holding a torch. In this case the torch signals zealousness and service while the depiction of the arm means an industrious person. So the smiths were hard working, dedicated people.

 

O’Brien:

The O’Brien crest is probably the most simple of the most important Irish family crests. One a red background there a three lions in a vertical row, and that’s it! Clearly the O’Briens were fans of the saying ‘less is more’. The front half of each lion is yellow while the back half is white, meaning that they are generous and truthful warriors.

 

O'Brien Family Crest

O’Brien Family Crest

 

Byrne:

This is another relatively simple crest by comparison with some of the others. Like the Walsh crest it is in the chevron format and instead of three spearheads it features three white hands. The white hand symbolises faith, sincerity and justice. In Ireland it had a particular meaning of communicating through the ancient Ogham Language, and also signified the sun.

 

Ryan:

Irish families apparently really favoured the red and white colour scheme on their coat of arms, because the Ryan crest is another one that sports it. Against the red background are three white or silver griffin heads. The griffin is another ‘valiant soldier‘ animal, but is not as often used as the lion or boar in Irish heraldry, making the Ryan crest quite unique.

 

O’Connor:

There are three main O’Connor crests, all relatively similar and featuring green, white and yellow colour schemes. The most popular is a green background (symbolising abundance and loyalty) and a single yellow lion. There is also a white background with a fruit tree, meaning freedom and peace, or a green background with a single white deer. All mean largely the same thing.

 

O’Neill:

The O’Neill crest is unusual as it is one of the few family coats of arms to feature water. On a white background, the bottom half of the crest features a white fish in blue water (the fish being the Irish symbol for royalty), while the top half is a red hand on a white background. In some variations the hand is also flanked by two red lions with a row of three red estoiles (six pointed wavy stars), which symbolise god’s superiority.

 

At Claddagh Design, we design and handcraft contemporary Irish jewelry.

See our custom Irish Family Crest Cufflinks or contact us to inquire about ordering your own family signet ring, bracelets or pendants

 

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Custom Jewelry

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You may also be interested in reading our earlier blog post Irish Family names and What they Mean? 

 

9 Responses to How to Interpret your Irish Family Crest

  1. Scott December 19, 2016 at 7:21 pm #

    I had no idea that if you wanted to make a coat of arms in Ireland you had to go through the Chief Herald of Ireland. I can see why this would be important to be aware of if you are wanting to do it. I don’t know if my family has any coat of arms or crests. I’ll have to do some research and look into it. It seems like a good way to connect with the past.

  2. Bethany Brant December 7, 2017 at 1:05 am #

    I have a family crest I am trying to find the meaning for it was my grandfather’s. It has a Helmet on top of the shield with a crown that looks likes leaves coming all the way down on both sides of the sheild. Also in the shield there is a design that is shapes like /\ but I don’t know how to explain the design also there is three bulls one on top left corner one on top right corner and under the design in the middle of of the crest. Can you help me figure out what it means. Family name is Buckley. Thank you

    • Paula @ Claddagh Design December 7, 2017 at 11:16 am #

      Hi Bethany, thanks for your comment. Leave it with me and I’ll ask Eileen, our designer & silversmith, if she can shed any light. She’s the expert on family crests! 🙂

  3. Tami Murphy March 8, 2018 at 5:02 pm #

    Hello,
    I am looking for a men’s tie clip that says “Mo Anam Cara” and I wanted to incorporate a small pearl (our 30th wedding anniversary gift). Is this possible – and if so, how much?

    I would like yellow gold.

    Thank you!
    Ms. Murphy

    • Paula @ Claddagh Design March 9, 2018 at 1:38 pm #

      Hi Ms Murphy, Anam Cara tie clip is a beautiful idea for your 30th wedding anniversary. I will drop you an email in just a minute with further info. Many thanks, Paula!

  4. Ryan Murphy May 2, 2018 at 2:02 pm #

    Hello, I’m just wondering if I am allowed to use my family crest, and when I should use it. If I come to Ireland for a visit wearing my family crest t shirt, are some fellas gonna yell “oi, whattareya doin fella”. Hehe, thanks appreciate it.

    • Paula @ Claddagh Design May 13, 2018 at 2:34 pm #

      The Murphy Family crest is great Ryan. If anyone yells at you, you’ll know they’re just jealous ;D

  5. Linda Dziubala May 13, 2018 at 1:52 am #

    What does the Hickey crest look like?

    • Paula @ Claddagh Design May 13, 2018 at 2:11 pm #

      Hi Linda, thanks for getting in touch! I can’t share images here but found a link here to IrishSurnames.com Google image is usually a good resource also. Hope this helps 🙂

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