by Garry Bryant/Garaidh Ó Briain
(Irish armiger, 1992)
[In the last couple of weeks there has been posted some confusion on the O'Brien Clan coat-of-arms. Following is what I have researched concerning the matter of the arms history. At the end is my opinion on the subject of the change for what it is worth (not much, LOL). The one thing to remember in all this is the need to evolve with the times; some traditions are good, even needed, other traditions need to change. There is absolutely no reason this topic should divide the clan!]
Burke’s Peerage has listed that the arms of Irish King Brian Boru are “Gules three lions passant guardant per pale Or and Argent.” Unfortunately this is not correct, and many believe in Burke’s statement. Following is a history of the heraldry of the O’Brien Clan throughout history.
Various annals tell of Irish kings and their banners with symbol and color descriptions that existed before the Anglo-Normans came. But these symbolic banners were not hereditary.
First one must understand the principle of heraldry. Its main purpose was to identify an individual on the battlefield. In time those symbols became hereditary and also associated with property, i.e., nobility. Means of differencing the basic heraldic symbol came into use to show the structure of a family and so that the symbols, although slightly modified, would show relationship to the original arms and give individual identity. The belief that a coat-of-arms belongs to all of a common surname is incorrect in the heraldry of the British Isles. Heraldic arms are granted (in the early days they were assumed) to an individual and his heirs male forever. A difference in this is in Scotland, where each individual must matriculate their arms in the court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms. [The Court of the Lord Lyon, Scottish Crest Badges, leaflet #2. (Edinburgh: 1993.)] In Ireland the letter patent is to the grantee and heirs forever.
Although the heraldic records of Ireland have been in existence since the first herald Sir John Chandos, K.G., in the 1300's, was appointed by King Richard II. Ireland’s rules have followed those of England in most ways. These early Irish heralds were all Englishmen appointed by the king of England, and their grants of arms would have been only to those loyal to the Crown in the English Pale in eastern Ireland, with changes in attitude first beginning in the late sixteenth century.
The first modern Chief Herald of Ireland was Edward MacLysaght, who wrote several books on Irish family history and heraldry. The Chief Herald wrote that the basic arms of the clan didn’t just belong to the chief but to all clan members, and labeled them as “sept (clan) arms.” Under the Gaelic Order the clan lands belonged to the people and not to the chief. So the basic clan arms belong to the people of the clan. This position of MacLysaght has caused great debate in the circles of heraldic research, but the Chief Herald strongly wrote that one could display them on their wall to show clan membership, but if one wanted to use those arms on stationary, silver, etc., as individual arms for identity, then MacLysaght advised that that individual petition for a grant of arms from the Chief Herald’s office in Dublin. [Edward MacLysaght, Irish Families: Their Names, Arms and Origins. (New York: Crown Publishers, 1972) Pp. 10-12. ]
Individual arms are considered a personal matter by the herald’s office. One’s personal arms can reflect the clan arms or be totally different, which is unlike Scotland where if one has a surname of one of the Scottish clans or families, the heraldic design is based upon those of the chief’s arms. Keeping the clan or family in order.
Irish heraldic arms can be found designed in three categories, lending a distinct style to Irish heraldry: [John Grenham, Clans and Families of Ireland: The Heritage and Heraldry of Irish Clans and Families. (Secaucus, New Jersey: The Wellfleet Press, 1993) Pp. 72-73.]
1) Norman - military in origin. Use of three identical symbols. Use of ordinaries, simplicity.
2) Anglo-Irish - Concerned with family relationships and status. Use of ordinaries with Gaelic symbols. A main charge surrounded with three identical but different charges.
3) Gaelic/Irish - Mythological. Use of Gaelic symbols. Simple or complex designs. Main charge often held by supporters.
Tournaments that were held in Scotland, England, and Continental Europe contributed heavily to the advancement of heraldry and its pageantry to promote the individual knight and his heraldic arms. But no tournaments were ever held in Ireland. Heraldry was used on banners and in sealing documents and property identification. One of the unique aspects to Irish heraldry is that the Gaelic symbols are also literary, they are symbols which recall to the viewer Irish mythology and the Emerald Isle’s ancient history. An example is the arm of Nuada, king of the De Danann gods, who’s arm is holding a sword. Nuadu lost his hand in battle. Because he was disfigured, Nuadu no longer could be king, and had to abdicate. The divine silversmith, Dian Cech, fashioned a silver arm for Nuadu and with magic attached it to his body making it possible for him to reclaim his kingship, which he did. The arm (or hand) holding a sword is recalling this event in Irish literature. Nuadu in old Gaelic means “cloud maker.” [Donnchadh Ó Corráin and Fidelma Maguire, Gaelic Personal Names. (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1981) P. 146.]
Other heraldic literary or mythological symbols:
• Boar - Fierceness, food of the Gods.
• Flaming sword - sword of light and truth.
• Hand (with arm) holding sword - story of Nuada of the silver hand.
• Stag - sovereignty.
• Serpents and lizards - rebirth and renewal.
• Hound - Myth heros of Cuchulainn and Curoi mac Daire.
• Tree - kingship and druids.
• Salmon - wisdom. High-Kingship of Tara.
• Hand - the derbfine or true family
• Red Hand - symbol of the O’Neills of Ulster (also the story of a king who cut off his hand and flung it to shore to be the first to touch land making his claim first). [Proinsias Ó Conluain, “The Red Hand of Ulster,” Dúiche Néill. O'Neill Country Historical Society. #5, 1990. Pp. 24-38.]
• Cross - Christianity.
• Hand holding cross - purely a Gaelic charge usually denoting the “Kindred of St. Columcille.”
• Sun, moon and stars - reaching back to pre-Christian times.
The first known symbol of the O’Brien’s was the battle flag of the Dál gCais which is described in the Book of Leinster as being dung (brown), purple, red and gold (yellow). But the design is unknown. The Dalcassians held the right to lead the King of Munster’s army into battle. [MacMahon, Sir Lee. “Some Celtic Tribal Heraldry and Ancient Arms of Ireland,” Irish-American Genealogist. The Augustan Society: Torrance, CA. Annual 1979. Pp. 256-259. Their territory was northern Munster Province called Thomond which today is the counties of Clare, Limerick and northern Tipperary. (See ill. 19.)]
At this same time is the banner of Brian Boru. Two sources give different designs. One design is that he used three lions, yet the other source has a blue flag with an arm holding a sword with a sun. The latter design is possibly correct. [Hibernian Society’s publications in the early 1900s.]
The Chief Herald of Ireland’s office has stated that the first heraldic arms used by the Uí Briain is described as “a dexter forearm holding a sword in pale.” This lends some continuity to Brian Boru’s banner and his grandson's use of the St. James Abbey arms. [Letter from Deputy-Herald Fergus Gillespie to Garry Bryant, 1991; Micheal Ó Comain, Irish Heraldry. (Swords, Ireland: Poolbeg Press, Ltd., 1991). P. 32-33 & 144. NOTE - the first recorded arms of an Irish prince are those of Hugh O’Neill, King of Ulster, who died in 1325. The oldest document relevant to Irish heraldry bears the seal of Roderick O’Kennedy, 1356.]
King Domhanall Mór Ua Briain grave slab (d. 1194) in St. Mary's Cathedral located in Limerick.
If the blazon of the three lions was used before 1543 no source has been found.
At this same time the name of Ua Briain (Ó Briain) was anglicized to that of O’Brien by England, and Murrough and his followers were to stop practice of Gaelic speech, dress, culture, and convert to the Church of England.
If one thinks about it more than likely none of the Gaelic chiefs had registered their arms with Ulster Office in Dublin because it was an English institution, who never granted arms beyond the English Pale during this time. The Irish chiefs would have assumed them.
In the second and third quarters of the quartered O'Brien arms are two other symbols. Author O’Brien believes that this may be an earlier symbol (it first appears in 1543 as the 2nd and 3rd quarters with the lions to Murrough O’Brien, Baron Inchiquin), [Ivar O’Brien, “The O’Brien Arms a speculation of their origin,” The Royal O’Briens: A Tribute. 1992. P. 61. possibly belonging to the O’Briens of Arra in northwest County Tipparary (a branch of the O’Brien Clan who are described as being a law unto themselves) and is "Argent three piles meeting in base gules." However there are strong circumstantial evidence that this was adopted with a difference from the Anglo-Norman family of Devonshire and Pembrokeshire, Wales. This family’s surname is de Bryan, founded by a knight named Guy de Bryan. The de Bryan’s had a branch of the family stationed in Ireland and in time they became the Marshal of Ireland.]
Later the de Bryan descendants settled around Dublin and heavily in County Kilkenny, and a few in County Clare. The main male line became d.s.p. in 1390 A.D., with the passing of Sir Guy de Bryan, K.G. It is speculated by Ivar O’Brien that possibly King Brian Catha Ua Briain, King of Thomond, upon his arrival at Dublin to swear fealty to King Richard II, saw that with no male heirs of the de Bryan family, assumed the de Bryan symbol because of name similarity. The de Bryan arms are, “Or three piles meeting in base Azure.” The O’Brien quarter is differenced as, “Argent three piles meeting in base Gules.” In the third quarter is “Or a pheon (arrow head) Azure.” [Ivar O’Brien, O’Brien of Thomond: The O’Briens in Irish history, 1500-1865. (London: Phillimore, 1986) P. 16.]
Again only speculation to the arrow head’s meaning and author O’Brien suggests that this is to show loyalty to Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland at this time, whose personal arms used the pheon.
The second motto of “Viguer du dessus,” is a poor French translation of the Gaelic motto. The French motto means, “strength from above,” which made its first appearance in 1615. [Ivar O’Brien, O’Brien of Thomond: The O’Briens in Irish history, 1500-1865. (London: Phillimore, 1986) frontispiece.]
On a corbel next of the fireplace at Leamaneh Castle, the Baronet line of the O’ Brien's also carved in stone a unique Celtic knot called “The O’Brien Knot.” This badge symbol is used extensively by the Leamaneh and Dromoland O’ Brien’s, who use this as a badge. [Risteard Ua Croinin, and Martin Breen “Interesting Remains at Lemeneagh,” The Other Clare. Vol/Issue 11: Pp. 46-48.] This fireplace may be seen in Ennis at the Old Ground Hotel.
Sir Conor O'Brien descends from the Leamaneh branch of the O'Brien Clan. Around 1900 a gateway was removed from the Leamaneh estate to Dromoland. This gate stood at the entrance to Leamaneh and on the top stone were the carvings of the arms of Conor (left) and his son Donat (right). Unfortunately the carving of Conor's arms cannot be determined, and those of Donat's are those of three lions, and crest of an arm holding a sword.
Today, The O’Brien, Sir Conor O’Brien, Chief of the O’Brien Clan, has extended the use of the basic O’Brien arms, Gaelic motto and crest for use by the O’Brien clansmen / women and this includes the O’Brien Knot. These arms may be displayed as outlined at the beginning of this article by MacLysaght. (See cover.) Use of the quartered arms, supporters, baronet’s badge, dual motto and baron’s coronet, are strictly for use by the Chief, The O’Brien, who’s personal arms these various elements are. [Meeting between Sir Conor O’Brien and Garry Bryant, 14-15 February 1997. Farmington, Utah, U.S.A.; Kennedy’s Book of Arms. (Canterbury, England: Achievements Ltd.).]
The last heraldic symbol used by a member of the O’Brien Clan is the regimental banner of Daniel O’Brien, 4th Viscount Clare, who commanded the Irish regiment in the service of France known as “Clare’s Regiment (a.k.a. Clare’s Dragoons).” This regiment was originally organized by Charles O’Brien, 3rd Viscount Clare, for King James II army during the Williamite War in Ireland in 1688-1690.
The Jacobites were desperately in need of veteran soldiers and exchanged with France three Irish regiments: Mountcashel, O'Brien, Butler, Fielding, and Dillon amounting to about 4,000 men for 5,000 veteran French soldiers. [McGarry, Stephen, Irish Brigades Abroad, Dublin 2013]
When King James’ army was defeated in Ireland, rather than serve the new king, William of Orange, the Irish soldiers volunteered to follow their king into exile. Many served in the armies of France, Spain and Austria. These regiments were known as “The Wild Geese.” The nickname came about at the sea-ports in Ireland where on the ship manifest the cargo listed as wild geese were actually recruits for the Irish regiments abroad (France, Spain and Austria). The wild geese cargo listing was to fool the harbor-master. The wild geese continued until the units were disbanded at the beginning of the French Revolution in the early 1790s.
Uniforms for the Irish regiments in the service of France were basically white pants, shirt and knee socks, with a red coat's facings & cuffs in the regiments color: Dillon - black; Mountcashel, Lee, Bulkeley - green; Clare - yellow; Berwick - white; Lally - blue; FitzJames Horse - dark blue; etc.. With a matching colored vest and facings. A black tri-corn hat with lacing white or yellow, with a white cockade that indicated their Jacobite support. [Harman Murtagh, “Irish Soldiers Abroad, 1600-1800,” A Military History of Ireland. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) P. 298.]
The Clare regimental flag was quartered with a cross of St. George overall, fimberated white. Quarters one and four were the regimental color of yellow, and quarter two and three were red. A Stuart crown was above a harp which was centered in the cross. In each quarter the crown was bendwise; sinister in quarters 1 and 4, and dexter in quarters 2 and 3. The motto, “In hoc signo vinces” is Latin for “in this sign we shall conquer.” The harp, crowns and motto were in gold. [Jane Urwick, “Banners of the Wild Geese,” The Coat of Arms, IV #115, Autumn 1980: London. Pp. 285 - 289. NOTE - Various drawings of the regimental banners have flipped quarters. This drawing of the banner is based on the flags gifted by France to Ireland.]
Most of the clans that belonged to the Dál gCais have in their arms one or more lions as displayed in the modern O’Brien arms, but there are a few exceptions. The prolific writer, Morgan Llywelyn, has infamously penned the phrase “Lion of Ireland,” which refers to Brian Boru, and this title does justice to him. Yet remember, the modern arms are not Gaelic or Irish at all, for their origins are with England; they are English arms, not Irish.
It appears that it was common among O'Brien families for the shield to remain the same and the crest to be different as a way to show differencing among branches of the clan. This would cause a big problem such as on a battlefield in the Cromwellian War in Ireland in the mid 1600s, one side of the field (hypothetically) would be flying the banner of Lord Inchiquin, and on the other would be flying the banner of the Viscount Clare; both had the same shield, but different crests. Since banners only display the shield; who is who during the heat of battle?
A dilemma on arms
To throw a wrench into this history of O'Brien arms is the dilemma concerning the seal of Thomond who uses an entirely different shield and crest. Have yet to uncover the reason for the difference.
The change of arms in 2002
In 2002 the board of directors of the O'Brien Clan Foundation decided to change the basic clan arms to "Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or." What and how the Chief of the Clan does with his arms is not in question. As stated earlier the O'Brien arms are English in origin, they are not Irish. The O'Brien is "Captain of his nation," as stated in sixteenth century documents. The O'Brien can change his arms if he wants to - he needs not have authority to do so. Now if this was Scotland it has very strict laws governing heraldry, if any clan or chief in Scotland would decide to do so they would 1) get a letter from Lyon Court telling them to cease; 2) pay a hefty fine for not ceasing when told to; 3) serve jail time. In the end the bogus arms would stop. But Ireland does not have this strict of heraldic law. They do have an heraldic office of "The Chief Herald of Ireland." This office is now an appendage to the Library of Ireland, but use to answer only to the Prime Minister of Ireland. If one wants a legal grant of arms then this is the office to petition. However, there is no penalty of assuming arms in Ireland. And there is no law in America at all concerning heraldry; only trademark infringement.
The only caveat that this armiger has with this is changing the arms to look exactly like those of the king of England. The purpose of heraldry is to identify; when I see "Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or." I immediately think of England and not Clan XXX. The same arms can exist in different jurisdictions, but not in the same place. In Ireland's heraldic records "Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or" is recorded belonging to the king of England and has for over six hundred years. Also these English arms have been that of the king of England since about 1155 A.D. with King Henry II. If one is opposed to an English grant, and change that design, why change it to be the king of England's design that one is trying to do away with ?
Perhaps the change of arms was to have control over the design, and with a new design the profits made can be marked to charities, a noble action, understandable. At least make a difference such as "Gules a lion passant guardant between two lions passant Or." This combines the lions from the Máire Rua O'Brien painting and the lion of England. Or whatever! Just don't have it be the arms of the king of England, they are already in use and recorded by every heraldic jurisdiction and office in the world!
A post dated 1 April 2015, by an O'Brien Clan Foundation director stated, ". . . The O'Brien Clan has gold lions on a red shield as its official symbol. We have a sovereign right to chose our Arms, without reference to the Chief Herald of Ireland, or anyone else. The rules that govern Conor's English arms have no bearing on our prerogatives as an ancient Gaelic Clan. ... The O'Briens are the ruling family of the ancient Kingdom of Thomond. The O'Brien Clan is not subservient to any authority for a grant of arms. We answer only to God and history!"
So, feel free in supporting the new change. In this day and age it really doesn't matter, however, if this was 1500 A.D., Thomond, Ireland, that would be a different matter.
But. . .this is my opinion.
My name is Garry Eugene Bryant, or in Irish, Garaidh Eóghan Ó Briain. My O'Bryan family emigrated from Ireland to Canada around 1830. They were devout Catholics and my 2nd great-grandfather, William, was informed by his parents that he was to become a priest like his two older bro-thers. He ran away changed his name by dropping the O' and adding a 't,' and ended up at Black Hawk, Col-orado about 1861. But this story was family tradition, no paper doc-ument to that gives the name change. To the rescue came Family Tree DNA and the O'Brien Surname Project which confirmed that I was not only of the Dál gCais Tribe with the R-L226 & FGC5659 snp marker's, but a distant cousin to Sir Conor M. E. O'Brien, Chief of the O'Brien Clan. So I'm not an English Bryant, but an Irish O'Brien! I have three children, all grown and married, and two grandchildren. I'm a retired photojournalist, am passionate about family history and heraldry.