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, will have its own distinctive crest somewhere down the line. This family heraldry is laden with symbolism.
In this blog post, I look at different elements you will find on your family crest. For almost twenty years now, I’ve been designing and creating symbolic Irish heritage and family jewelry pieces from sterling silver and gold. It is truly humbling to think that scattered across communities around the world, there are pieces of Irish family 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 my designs would have taken off to the extent that they have. I like to think some may even become family heirlooms one day and will be passed down through the 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 the various symbols meant! Here, I look at some of the most common interpretations behind the symbols which could reveal more about your family’s history.
Irish Heraldry: Origins of these unique crests
Irish 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. Variations were also used on official paperwork and even on wax seals of documents. They were even flown on flags 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.
Later, their use became more popular as they were used by the upper class. Usually, these were wealthy families and landowners.
Gradually they found their 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. This system worked well and 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 were often modified along the way to reflect the individuality of the person. The most important elements of the crest would retain the same. The changes may have been made to the colour, a small addition to the design, or sometimes a different label (a design element within the crest proper).
The process of creating heraldry to represent your family name became more complex once regulations were introduced. 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, Scottish may be different to English and so on.
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 the like). 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 generally animals or plants. These represented the identity of the family. At a glance, you could identify a knight on the battlefield.
- 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.
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 Familie : 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 for 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 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 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.
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 probably the most simple. 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.
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.
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.
At Claddagh Design, we design and handcraft contemporary Irish jewelry.
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You may also be interested in reading our earlier blog post Irish Family names and What they Mean?