The Irish coat of arms, or family crest, is a design worn by the members of a Irish family or clan to represent their pride in their sept. If you need to apply it to modern day concepts, you may consider it the way you would gang colors or gang symbols. While the loyalty of families protecting their territory was similar, the Irish coat of arms held a deeper meaning. Just as a gang will defend it’s territory, honor and respect, the Irish family crest was meant to represent all things the warrior held near and dear. It answered, “What are we fighting for?” during times of war or hardship.
The Irish coat of arms was typically sewn onto a tunic type vest and worn over a suit of armor. You would also see an Irish coat of arms on flags or other paraphernalia where a family lived. Not a single element of the family crest didn’t have deeper meaning. The key to remember is that while general, assumptive guesses can be taken at the choice of a family crest, deeper historical meaning may apply. The Irish coat of arms to one family, may mean something entirely different to another family. (Yes, two families could have the same family crest. Also, two families with the same Irish surname could have a different family crest.) To establish the heraldry of an Irish coat of arms, let’s look at the elements that make up the highly significant family crest.
Colors Used in the Family Crest
It’s no surprise that the colors on an Irish coat of arms are important. Just as royalty often wears purple, you’ll note colors are carefully chosen to represent a family. Don’t be confined by primary colors, either. An Irish coat of arms could have maroon or gold, too.
Animals including Beasts and Birds
Animals, and multiple animals, were almost always used on a family crest. Keep in mind here that the Irish were historically pagan. Their spirituality was rooted in nature. Therefore, a boar, perhaps meaning fierce fighter on an English coat of arms, was also a prized meat for the pagan Gods. So an Irish coat of arms can have a different meaning by English interpretations. Make sense?
Use of lines
Lines in an Irish coat of arms showed the air, sky or water. Again, some interpretation would be required but you can understand many warriors would fight at all costs to defend their homes. However, a seafaring family may use more representations of water in their family crest than one living off the land in central Ireland.
Shield shape representations
The most obvious shield shapes in a coat of arms would be a cross (horizontal and vertical) for a Christian warrior. St. Andrews Cross (on an axis) represented peace or resolution. You can see how an Irish coat of arms might be more likely to use other symbols, like a triangle pointed upwards, a ‘house’ or protection.
Plants or Nature on the Family Crest
Again, pay attention to family crests which may have Christian meaning (fleur-de-lis) versus those like primrose which would have been a pagan sign of a good Spring. An Irish coat of arms, as in most heraldry, contained numerous plants draping the shield.
Other significant Irish coat of arms symbols
Arms, shells, crowns or ships would all be part of an Irish coat of arms. You’ll note many symbols of status, like a castle for grandeur. It was possible to have a family crest be different for a prestigious member of the family, as well. Pay attention to those meaning eighth son or the like. What would your secret Irish coat of arms symbol have been?
If you take a trip to Ireland, you’re sure to see quite a bit of heraldry. Perhaps, though, you’re just tracing your Irish genealogy for personal reasons. Best of luck interpreting what each element of the Irish coat of arms meant to your family.