The Irish family crest has been in use in Ireland since the 13th century. It began as a result of advancements in medieval weaponry that started in continental Europe and gradually made its way to the British Isles. As the more ancient military technology of chain mail with long shields evolved into plate armor that covered the entire body and head, knights became anonymous in battle and tournaments. In order to identify individual knights who were indistinguishable from hundreds of other knights dressed just like them, shields had to be marked with some distinctive symbols that indicated the identity of the person behind the armor. Thus, the family crest (also known as coat of arms) was born.
The coat of arms evolved at nearly the same time across Europe due to this military necessity. The Crusades were a large determining factor in this evolution. Knights from nearly every country in Europe participated in the Crusades between 1096 and 1271, and the sheer magnitude of their numbers meant that some system of recognition in battle was essential. At first, the symbols drawn on the shields of knights were basic and crude in nature, usually with just two or three colors and some simple, compartmentalized drawings. As time went on, however, the designs became more and more elaborate.
Eventually, the use of coats of arms expanded beyond simple indication of military identity. The designs on the shields began to be used to identify entire families. At first, this use of the coat of arms was limited to only the most powerful knights, or those from prominent noble families. In time, knights of all ranks began using their coats of arms for family identification. In time, coats of arms became hereditary as well. They began being used to identify such things as the name, rank, or region of the family that used them.
As the use of these symbols became more widespread, “canting” arms became a popular variation in the world of heraldry. Canting arms were heraldic designs on coats of arms that were based on what the family name sounded like. This practice was especially popular in the Irish family crest. For example, the Irish Aherne family used a family crest that had three herons on it.
In time, the Irish family crest, as well as coats of arms from other European nations, began being used on nearly everything associated with the families to which they belonged. Coats of arms were used on wax seals on documents to prove their authenticity, and were also regularly used on tombs, personal possessions, and works of art. Of course, the increased use of coats of arms meant that some system was needed to prevent different families from using the same symbols and designs. This need resulted in the creation of the office of the King of Arms (or King of Heralds) in most European countries. The holder of this office was responsible for recognizing a family’s coat of arms, recording which families held which arms, the granting of new coats of arms, and hearing disputes between different families bearing the same arms.
The right to bear the Irish family crest (as well as other European crests) was entirely dependent on one’s ancestry by the end of the 15th century. This meant that the King of Arms, as well as the heads of the families who held these arms, had to be genealogists as well. Today, the use of coats of arms continues throughout Ireland and the rest of Europe, as arms are still passed down through families via hereditary rights. While not every Irish family is entitled to a coat of arms, many are, and yours may be one of them. Even if you don’t come from a noble or wealthy family, if you have an ancestor who was a knight during the Crusades or sometime shortly after, chances are high that a coat of arms was used in your family at one time, and can possibly be re-discovered. If you’re very lucky, that coat of arms has continued to be passed down through the centuries, and is still in use by members of your family today. It’s definitely worth it to find out, so that you can proudly display your own coat of arms in your own home as a symbol of your rich and wonderful Irish family history.