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Genealogy and heraldry are sister sciences, yet while no heraldist could
avoid developing an interest in pedigrees and ancient families, the reverse
does not usually apply and it is to be regretted that the fascinating world
of coats of arms and crests remains unexplored by most genealogists. No
doubt, this is partly due to the fact that heraldry is an essentially aristocratic
phenomenon whereas the desire for knowledge of ancestry is universal. Another
factor is the false aura of mystery with which heraldry has been invested
by obscurantist writers in the past. In reality its basic principles can
be enjoyably mastered in a few hours with a good textbook.
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Heraldry, in the broad sense of the word, encompasses all the duties performed
by heralds, the household officers retained by medieval kings and powerful
lords to marshal armies, act as emissaries in peace and war, oversee tournaments
and knightly ceremonies, cry defiance or demand surrender in time of siege,
and identify those fallen in battle. Many of these duties required familiarity
with the emblems carried by each knight on shield, banner or surcoat, and
it is from the herald's function of recording these that the word 'heraldry'
has acquired its more usual meaning: the science of coats of arms and other
As a system, heraldry arose in the early twelfth century in response to
the need for a means of identifying knights in the field, since by that
date they were clad in mail from head to toe. This date is significant as
it means that heraldic emblems were in use at the time of the Norman invasion
of Ireland though they had not yet come into existence at the conquest of
England a century earlier. Yet, a long time was to elapse before the native
Irish would begin to make extensive use of heraldry.
The special visual flavour of heraldry comes from the characteristic contrast
of bright colour and metal. Normally only five 'colours' - red, blue, black,
green and rarely purple - are used, with two 'metals,' gold and silver,
these latter often represented in heraldic paintings by yellow and white.
The colours and metals, together with certain conventional 'furs' are known
The term, 'coat of arms' usually refers to the device on the shield but
recalls the practice of repeating this on the surcoat worn over the armour.
More loosely, 'coat of arms' may imply the shield together with the crested
helmet and other accessories. This fuller composition is more correctly
called the achievement. One error which is all too common is to refer to
the achievement, or the shield itself, as the crest. The crest, in fact,
is the three-dimensional device displayed on top of the helmet. Thus, while
the arms of O'Kelly of Uí Máine show two lions supporting a tower, the crest
is an improbable and hybrid creature called an enfield. The arms of O'Conor
Don are an uprooted oak tree but the crest is an arm in armour, the hand
holding a sword which is sometimes entwined with a serpent. The enfield
is so distinctive that it can be regarded as exclusively an O'Kelly emblem,
but the swordarm-and-serpent motif is a very common crest device among the
old Gaelic families.
While it is convenient here to illustrate the crests directly above the
shields, in fact this is a rather abbreviated form of heraldic display.
The crest belongs on top of a helmet, which is understood to be an essential
part of most achievements and should, strictly, be included. A cloth mantling
hangs from the top of the helm and is usually of the principal colour of
the shield, its lining being of the principal metal, though there is a long-established
Irish custom of using red mantlings lined silver, irrespective of the tinctures
on the shield.
To conceal the joint between crest and helmet a twisted wreath of silk,
normally in the principal colour and metal of the arms, was often used.
Sometimes we find a crest coronet instead. This has nothing to do with the
coronets of rank seen in the arms of peers and can take several different
forms. Yet another option is the chapeau or cap of maintenance, usually
of crimson velvet lined with ermine.
Shield, helmet, mantling, wreath and crest together with a motto make up
the normal achievement of arms. The motto is some simple phrase, frequently
expressing a pious sentiment or ideal. In older examples, it is often the
war cry, such as 'Crom Abu' or 'Shannet Abu' of the Kildare and Desmond
Geraldines, urging the garrisons of Croom and Shanid castles to victory.
I have often wondered whether the war cry of the O'Mahonys, 'Lasair Romhuinn
go Buadh' (A flame before us to victory), might not preserve a hint of some
very old custom, recalling not only the French royal Oriflamme or flame-like
battle flag, but the far more ancient custom - at the other side of the
Indo-European world - whereby the Parthian kings were accompanied into battle
by their sacred fire altars as a means of ensuring victory.