Of the many Irish clans and families only a few have a badge that is a Celtic knot in the family's heraldry. The O'Brien's are one of those families.
The knot is designed to have no beginning and no end in Celtic art; it is one line. Many speculate that the meaning of this kind of knot design, which is seen everywhere in the Celtic world, might mean "life is eternal, there is no beginning and no end." The O'Brien knot is not in this style of design for it takes three lines to complete the design. So in this sense it is not a true Celtic knot, and what the O'Brien knot means is totally unknown.
Knot of the O'Brien's is carved on a corbal of the fireplace at Lemenah (fireplace has been removed to a hotel in Ennis). This castle was the home of the infamous Mary Rue (MacMahon) O'Brien, wife of Conor O'Brien, her second husband, who was mortally wounded fighting Cromwell troops in 1651.
A badge is a distinctive device or emblem which is usually non heraldic using symbols not found in the coat-of-arms or crest (although some use these elements) as a mark of recognition by an individual or family and often worn as a symbol of loyalty by retainers and household servants to show allegiance. Badges used in this way are particularly a heraldic tradition that became fashionable in the late 14th century, at the court of Edward III (1327-1377), king of England. At this time heraldry had become increasingly complex - largely due to excessive quartering's and the use of crests and supporting animals becoming popular. Badges became a simpler and more direct means of identification. They never replaced an individual's heraldry, but were used in addition to it; the badge was more flexible than that of arms. [A.C. Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide To Heraldry. (New York: Gramercy, 1993 edition) P. 454.]
Any armiger (one who uses or is granted a coat-of-arms) may have a badge whether assumed or granted. When applying for a grant of arms beware that it is an added cost in Scotland and England. In Ireland the badge is a separate grant and isn't inherited as arms are. Many armigers have badges and nobody to wear them.
In the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, well-known badges were borne by the followers, retainers, dependents, and partisans of famous and powerful personages and houses, because they were known and understood. (In contrast, the coat of arms was used exclusively by the individual to whom it belonged.) It was not uncommon for the same personage or family to use more than one badge, or for badges to be a rebus - an emblem that forms a witticism by creating a form of visual pun on a surname. [Fox-Davies, p. 455.]
“So nowadays a chief’s crest, when encircled by a strap and buckle bearing his motto, may be worn as a badge by all of his clan." Many chiefs have plant-badges as well, which may also be worn by their clan. [Simple Heraldry, Cheerfully Illustrated, by Iain Moncreiffe of Easter Moncreiffe, O St J, MA, LlB, FSA Scot, Advocate, Kintyre Pursuivant of Arms, and Don Pottinger, MA DA, Herald Painter Extraordinary to the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms (Thomas Nelson and Sons, London, first published 1953). Moncreiffe was later chief of Clan Moncreiffe and a baronet (Sir Iain) as well as Albany Herald.]
However things are different with the display of badges and standards in Ireland where there are few examples to be found anciently.
An Irish standard was captured at O'Cahan Castle in 1542 by Sir John Travers who was 'Master of the Ordinance' in Ireland, sent the flag along with another he had personally taken from an Irish-Scot named Donald Boy, to Bartholomew Butler (former York Herald and promoted to Ulster King of Arms for all Ireland). They look more like a guidon in design than a standard. The two have only charges (symbols) and in no particular order and no motto. Who's standards they are is unknown, and what colors used in not stated in an article by Gerard Crotty. These Irish standards are more in style with the English guidon but are tapered like an English standard and display what appear to be several different badges. ["Heraldry in Ireland: Gaelic Heraldry," by Gerard Crotty, Irish Roots, 1998, #3. P. 22.]
For the numerous Scottish clans there is the clansman/woman badge. Office of the Lord Lyon King of Arms for Scotland writes that anciently a member of a clan wore tied around his arm or on his bonnet a depiction of his chief's crest & motto badge. Today it would have the chief's crest on a crest wreath, chapeau, or ducal crown, surrounded in a circle of a belt & buckle with the motto on it. It is to be stressed that the buckle part of the belt is displayed at the bottom looping over the belt, not under the belt as in times past. The Lord Lyon's Office came under considerable complaints that they were trying to make the badges resemble England's 'Order of the Garter.'
Also in Scotland is the use of eagle feathers to show rank in the clan. Americans beware that the use of eagle feathers is restricted by federal law and strict possession of such. The fact that one is a Scottish armiger will not release one from prosecution, but realistic fake eagle feathers can be purchased. The feather is worn behind the badge on the bonnet. Another feather alternative is to have one cast with the armiger's badge. A chief of a clan is to have three feathers & if a peer coronet of rank; a chieftain has two, and if peer a coronet of rank; and armiger one feather. [ Ill. 4, 5, & 6] Alastair Campbell of Airds, Unicorn Pursuviant in the Court of the Lord Lion of Scotland, wrote that the use of a feather is not reserved only for the Scots. (Below silver work by Ian Grant.)
; New Claddagh style http://kilts-n-stuff.kickassvps.com/kilt-irish/irish-coat-of-arms/
At the time I was finishing my research and writing of the family history and that of my wife when I learned that coat-of-arms were still granted. Like most folks I thought that one coat-of-arms per surname was fact, but I quickly learned that arms are not granted to a surname, but to the individual and their heirs. Each country has there own rules governing heraldry. The most strictest being Scotland's office of the Lord Lyon King of Arms.
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I applied to Lyon office being excited about my Scottish heraldry which comprises some fourteen clans and families. Lyon clerk informed me that since my surname was Irish I must apply to the Chief Herald of Ireland. I did so, and outlined my Bryant/O'Bryan pedigree and then added my maternal line just for good measure since that pedigree could be traced to Glenveagh, County Donegal. Surprisingly the Deputy Herald knew of a family in Donegal by the rare surname and gave each other's address to contact each other. To our astonishment we shared the same ancestor! With this new development I wanted to include some design in the coat-of-arms being drawn up. I also wanted the arms to reflect the O'Brien ancestry and have the design based on that of O'Brien. Problem - my surname was Bryant and not O'Brien, plus there wasn't any document to prove the surname had once been O'Bryan. Hence a new design with allusion to O'Brien, with reference to Donegal.
At the time a hefty sports camera lens I owned was no longer being repaired by the maker for they had redesigned and no longer made the parts. Not wanting to be strapped with an obsolete lens I put it up for sale and sold it for a $600 dollar (US) profit. This paid for the grant of arms. Why get a grant of arms?
To me it was recovering lost identity, my birthright of being of Ireland, lost when my 2nd great-grandfather changed the surname from O'Bryan to Bryant.
On 31 July 1992, my petition for arms was granted.
The following year I noticed will at the Nederland's cemetery (a small mountain town in Colorado) visiting my Bryant ancestral graves that when the dirt was washed of of William O'Bryan/Bryant's tombstone there was etched into the stone below his name and inaccurate dates, a Columbine flower. Interesting! I love this flower for its unique design; it is the only state in America that uses this flower as the state flower which wasn't voted on in Colorado until 1920's. It is also named after the Irish saint Columcille of Donegal. I wished I have somehow included this in my arms design.
Soon I learned that I could assume a badge and I chose the blue columbine with a silver billet (rectangle) between each petal. The billets were referring to a day in April 1873, when US President U.S. Grant walked down a sidewalk of silver bricks which happened to be made from ore of the Caribou Mine, the first silver brick being made by William Bryant, and the rest he was supervisor of the crew. Five billets in all referred to the five generations between myself and William Bryant.
Data has come to light in the last few years that surpasses all documentation. A 67 marker DNA test has revealed that the R-L-226 "Irish Type III" or Dal gCais markers are in my DNA as well as the SNP FGC5628 marker. O'Brien through and through.
If an O'Brien Clan badge had existed back in 1992 I probably wouldn't have applied for my own arms.