Decoding Irish Heraldry

Tracing your heritage is intriguing for people all over the world. DNA tests are becoming more popular in our quest for knowledge about our roots, and families everywhere enjoying passing down their history in the form of favorite stories about family members. Those treasured stories can take us back a couple of generations, and then if we are lucky and our ancestors left enough clues, genealogy research can take us back a few more. DNA testing can tell us the origins of our ancestors, but it can’t explain much more than where they came from and what traits they had. That leaves a lot of undiscovered family history for most of us. Maybe that’s why so many popular Irish gifts feature a family coat of arms.

Heraldry can give us an idea of what our ancestors did in the world. The symbols and colors used on the family coats of arms we see on Irish gifts ranging from coasters to engraved glassware and wall plaques all have meanings. Every detail can reveal a clue about our family’s past. But it is important to get the correct coat of arms for your surname, which is not always as simple as it sounds.

Some Irish surnames are shared by different branches of a family, and those branches can be very different from each other. So they have different coats of arms. It isn’t easy knowing which one is yours, but if you know what part of Ireland your ancestors are from, that can often clarify it. Our ancestors took heraldry very seriously. Family coats of arms have been documented and regulated in Ireland since 1382. Today, the National Library of Ireland oversees the Office of Chief Herald.

What Heraldic Symbols on Irish Gifts Mean

Every element of a family coat of arms has meaning. They indicate the traits, skills and allegiances of the family. The name itself as well as the symbols on the coat of arms can give clues about the family’s geographic origins too.

The colors used in heraldry are always symbolic. They describe the character of the family. Red indicates that the family was known to be brave, powerful and valiant, particularly in battle. While and silver symbolize peace and honesty. Blue is the color of loyalty and strength. Green was used to say a family was healthy, optimistic and happy. Black, while sometimes referring to grief and loss, also stands for constancy. Gold signifies wealth and generosity. And purple represents royalty and justice.

Many family coats of arms feature animals, and they are all symbolic. Lions, not surprisingly, represent courage. Boars indicate fierceness in battle if the whole animal is depicted. A boar’s head says the family is known for hospitality. Snakes appear in many Irish coats of arms, and they represent wisdom. Stags and deer symbolize a peaceful, harmonious family. Weapons are common symbols in heraldry and tell us the family was known for being warriors. A red hand represents Ulster and tells us where the family originated. Hearts aren’t for romance in family coats of arms; instead they suggest sincerity.

Heraldic Irish gifts have an enduring popularity. They make lovely wedding presents, and family coats of arms can be used to personalize any gift.