Ever wondered what your family crest looks like, or what each symbol means?
Almost every family will have its own distinctive crest somewhere down the line, no matter how significant their stature, history, or surname. Family heraldry is laden with symbolism.
In this blog post, we explore the different elements of these unique designs and what they mean.
But first, a little background on how we got here. For almost twenty years, we have been creating symbolic Irish heritage jewellery pieces in sterling silver and gold. It is truly humbling to think these treasured family pieces, made in our little workshop, are now scattered across the globe. In the early days, we wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told us our designs would have taken off to the extent they did. We like to think that someday they may even become family heirlooms to pass down through future generations.
In any case, to engrave these special pieces, we wanted to learn more about the symbols we were engraving. When hand engraving expensive precious metals can be unforgiving at best. There is no room for error. Our aim was to pare back a little of the decorative detailing to create a more contemporary, refined and polished finish. However, it was important to us that we knew what was decorative and what elements must be retained.
Here, we look at some of the most common interpretations behind symbols of family heraldry. Read on to learn more about these symbols. They may reveal more about your family’s history.
Irish Heraldry: Origins of these unique crests
Symbols of heraldry 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 would have been used on official paperwork and on wax seals of documents. They would even have been flown on flags above castles or ships. Anywhere a person or institution would want to be identified. They were also adopted in the 12th century by feudal lords and knights in order for them to identify who was who in battle.
Family heraldry is often associated with the upper classes; wealthy families and landowners.
Gradually, their use spread across medieval Europe. Spreading everywhere from church to town councils, universities and trading companies, and of course, to royalty. A complex system of heraldic symbols began to develop. This system worked well and it was used consistently throughout Europe without any official regulation.
The earliest reference to a herald of arms for Ireland dates from 1382. Since 1552, heraldry in Ireland has been regulated by the government through the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland. In that year, Edward VI set up the post of Ulster King of Arms, Herald of all Ireland. To apply for a grant of arms today, it would need to be granted by the Chief Herald of Ireland.
In England and Scotland, individuals had their own heraldry. These would be passed down from father to son and were often modified along the way to reflect the individuality of the person. The most important elements of the crest would remain the same. Changes may have been a new colour, a small addition to the design, or a different label (a design element within the crest proper).
Once regulations were introduced, the process of creating heraldry became more complex. There are no fewer than twelve elements. However, 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 regions/kingdoms.
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.
The escutcheon which is the crest or shield can be divided into various sections. The background is known as the field. Other elements 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 similar). The supporters hold up the shield. These can be animals, human figures, or sometimes plants or other decorative inanimate objects.
Every design element has a specific meaning, almost like another language. The template of the shield 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 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 is the common charges. These are often animals or plants representing the identity of the family. At a glance, they could be used to identify a knight on the battlefield.
- Lion – heraldic beasts symbolizing fierce courage.
- Similar animals – tigers, leopards, boars, and dragons have similar meanings to the lion
- Fish – In Ireland, a fish denotes someone of regal origin. Derived from the legend of the salmon of knowledge.
- Griffin – Common on Irish arms, they represent vigilance, valiance, and death.
- Stag – One of the most ancient charges, represents an ancestor of the Celts.
- Snake – Fertility, wisdom, and renewal.
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
- Oakleaf to symbolise the most important tree for the Celts
- Fleur-de-lis or ‘flower of light’ is usually associated with Christianity
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
Irish Families : Most Common
Here we’ve taken the ten family crests and provided a brief explanation for each.
The most prominent branch of the Murphy name comes from the Cork/Kerry area. It is red and white (military strength and truth), with four lions in each corner separated by a row of three sheaves of wheat on a black background; wheat symbolises fertility and bountifulness, and black is for wisdom, constancy and prudence.
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 fierce warriors, and the chains are a symbol of service. So, mighty warriors serve the great castle of Kelly.
The O’Sullivan crest is a bit of a 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.
Walsh is another with a red and white colour scheme. It boasts three black spearheads, 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.
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.
The O’Brien crest is one of the more simple designs. On a red background sit three lions in a vertical row. ‘Less is more’ for the O’Brien’s. The front half of each lion is yellow while the back half is white to stand for generous and truthful warriors.
This is another relatively simple crest. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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