Ever wondered what your Family Crest looks like, or what the symbols on it mean?
Every family name, no matter how significant their stature, history or surname, has its own distinctive crest! These family crests or coat of arms are laden with symbolism.
In this blog post, I’ll explain what the different elements of your family crest mean.
But first, a little background into what got be interested in this topic in the first place. For almost twenty years now, I’ve been creating Irish family crest jewelry. It is humbling to think that scattered across Irish communities around the world, there are now countless pieces of Irish family crest jewelry that I have made. In the early days when I opened my little silversmiths workshop here in County Cork, I don’t think I would have believed anyone if they had told me that these handmade Irish family crests pieces would have taken off to the extent that they have.
I like to think that some of these pieces may even become someone’s family heirloom one day and be passed down through the generations. It all began with word of mouth and as demand grew, I decided it was time to do more research into most common Irish family names and celtic family crests.
Since there are so many different variations of crests (many families will even have more than one) I wanted to gain a better understanding of these symbols before I put my silversmiths makers mark on them.
So here is what I’ve learnt about some of the most common coat of arms symbols and a directory of the most common Irish surnames. Hopefully, you’ll find your name in there!
Origins of Family Crests
Crests, or Coat of Arms, have been used since medieval times as identifiers for certain important leaders, names or institutions. They were worn by knights on their armour or shield when riding into battles, printed on paperwork or used on wax seals of documents, emblazoned on flags flown above castles or on ships, and in any other manner where the person or institution needed to be identified. Initially they were adopted in the 12th century by feudal lords and knights to identify who was who in battles.
No doubt it would have been somewhat difficult to keep track of who was winning if everyone was running around in armour without any sort of marker. The use of crests became more widespread when high class, wealthy families who usually owned significant amounts of land adopted them. This was probably done for territorial purposes as well as pure vanity!
Gradually the adoption of a coat of arms found its way all across medieval Europe and spread into such areas as the Church, town councils, universities, trading companies, and of course, royalty. A complex system of heraldic symbols began to be used and, surprisingly, this stayed mostly consistent throughout all of Europe even without much official regulation at the start.
In England and Scotland each individual had his own coat of arms. They were passed down from father to son and slightly modified along the way to reflect the individuality of the person, but the most important elements of the crest remained the same. Usually this was a colour change, an addition to the design, or sometimes a different label (a design element within the crest proper).
Since 1552, all coats of arms in Ireland have been regulated by the government through the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland. So if you want to reformulate or design your own brand new family crest to represent your lineage, you have to go through him first!
Elements of a Coat of Arms
The process of creating a totally new coat of arms to represent your family name became far more complex once regulatory bodies got involved. On an authentic coat of arms there are no fewer than twelve different elements, and countless variations on design within each element, all of which 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. It’s no wonder there are now academics who study family crests full time!
Starting from the bottom, the first element of the design is the family motto written on a scroll. If the family has received any order of merit, it is placed above the motto. Above that is the escutcheon, or what we would call the crest or shield itself.
This can be divided into various sections. The background is known as the field, and other elements that may have been featured include ordinaries (a simple geometric shape running from top to bottom or side to side of the shield) and common charges (symbolic representations of the person or family).
Every design element on a coat of arms has a specific meaning. It’s almost like a complete language – it even has its own name, ‘heraldry’.
Even colours have their own names and meanings. Tenne is orange and means ‘worthwhile ambition’. Gules is red and means warrior, marytr and military strength. Purpure is purple, meaning justice and sovereignty, to name just a few. The template of the crest too has its own specific meaning, as do the shape of the lines that adorn it.
There are literally an infinite number of possible shield designs and meanings!
The most important element of a shield was the common charges, usually animals or plants. This is what showed the identity of the family at a quick glance, which is all most knights would get on the battlefield. One extremely common heraldic beast was the lion, which symbolizes fierce courage. As seen below in these Farrelly Family Crest Cufflinks we created.
Similar animals like tigers, leopards, boars and dragons mean more or less the same thing. In Ireland, a fish (as in the Tie Clip above) denoted someone of regal origin, after the legend of the ‘salmon of knowledge’.
A Griffin was another common Irish appearance, and was associated with vigilance, valiance and death. The Stag was one of the most ancient charges and represented an ancestor of the Celts, and the snake was a popular symbol for fertility, wisdom and renewal.
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 and are usually animals, human figures, or sometimes plants or inanimate objects. Above the escutcheon any or all of the following can be found; a coronet (small crown), helm (helmet) with mantling (draped material used by knights in battle) attached, a torse (twisted rope of fabric around the top of the helm to tie mantling to), and finally, a crest (a repetition of the design or one of the elements in the shield).
Some other non-animal charges that were regularly seen on Irish shields included a red hand (like the Breen Family Crest cufflinks above), the mark of a baronet and strongly associated with the province of Ulster; a sun or other celestial bodies since these were worshipped by the Celts; the shamrock, for obvious reasons; an oak leaf, to symbolise the most important tree for the Celts, and the fleur-de-lis or ‘flower of light’, usually associated with Christianity.
Most Common Family Coats of Arms
Feel free to share this post with family or friends whose names are featured here! Based on our earlier post about the most common Irish family names, we’ve taken the ten family crests and provided you with a brief explanation for each.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 a wide range of Fine Irish Jewelry, from Irish Family Crest Rings to Family Crest Pendants in Sterling Silver and 9ct Gold.
Would you like to have a piece of Custom Jewelry created specifically for you?
You may also be interested in reading our earlier blog post Irish Family names and What they Mean?