The Roots of Irish Heraldry


One of the most popular Irish gifts, especially for weddings, is heraldic ware.  Whether it is a traditional plaque featuring one or both family crests or a set of mugs with the Irish coat of arms, heraldic symbolism is a great way to connect to your heritage even if the details of your Irish ancestors have been lost to time.

European heraldry goes back to the Crusades and became more detailed over time.  Irish coats of arms began as a way to recognize who was who on the battlefield or in a tournament, much like sports jerseys today.  Fairly quickly Irish heraldic crests were also used to identify property and authenticate documents.  Of course, they had the same appeal to people then as they do now as symbol of a specific family, a visual reminder of a family’s identity and connection making them some of the most truly timeless Irish gifts.

The symbolism in Irish coat of arms designs is intriguing and can reveal some of the family’s history.  Occasionally, there will be two branches of the same family with different designs to distinguish between them.  Some of the symbolism is religious, such as crosses, and some is pre-Christian, such as the oak tree, which held spiritual significance to the druids.  While common heraldic symbols can have different meanings, usually in Irish coat of arms, the boar represents courage and a red hand indicates a link to the O’Neil family or Ulster.  Some symbols can be very obvious.  Weapons can indicate a successful military past.  Colors can have meaning as well.  Red can symbolize strength, particularly military strength, and purple usually indicates royalty.   White represents peace, while black can represent grief or constancy.

Irish surnames often have various spellings.  For example, Sullivan can be O’Sullivan or O’Suileabhain.  At a minimum, expect an Irish and an Anglicized version, but there can several spelling variations.  Remember, the names go back much to times when few people could read and write, so the same individual’s name could be written differently at different times by different people.  But the different spellings will usually all trace back to a common origin and a common coat of arms.  Of course, when the Irish emigrated and arrived in new counties around the world throughout history, many of their surnames got a spelling makeover upon arrival.

Irish heraldry has roots stretching back through the centuries.  Today, the National Library of Ireland oversees the Office of Chief Herald, but the office existed long before the library, which was established in 1877.  Coats of arms have been regulated in Ireland since 1382.  The Office of the Chief Herald was founded in 1552 and has been keeping the official Register of Arms ever since.  While its popularity might wax and wane, Irish heraldry is not exactly a passing trend.  If you are looking for Irish gifts that are meaningful and will stand the test of time, elegant glassware, wall plaques and hip flasks featuring the recipient’s Irish coat of arms are treasures that can be handed down to future generations.

IrishShop has over 100 Coat of Arms items to choose from!