Arms in Ireland
Distinct identifying markings have been used from time immemorial so that warriors could distinguish their own men from the enemy during battle, these markings are known as heraldry or "arms". Heraldry in Ireland published by the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland, says, "There are suggestions that heraldry may have been already in use by at least some of the Gaelic Irish by the end of the twelfth century", though they believe it use was not widespread until later. It continues that, "the Gaelic aristocracy at first assumed arms without reference to any heraldic authority" [i.e., there was no national registration authority] and that "the registration of those arms in Dublin in the sixteenth century was undoubtedly related to acceptance of English rule, which was seldom wholehearted or long-lasting." This national registration of arms, along with the English ideals of who had the right to bear arms, was imposed by the Ulster King of Arms office which was formed in 1552, during the Tudor conquest of Ireland. Many Irish chieftains employed this registration to increase their social status and add legitimacy to their negotiations with the English. That office continues in Ireland today under the name Office of the Chief Herald and, being founded upon English principles of arms, states that arms (as a unique heraldic design) may only be granted or confirmed to "individuals and corporate bodies". As arms granted an individual were considered heritable property, they soon became associated with the aristocracy.
The Irish Concept of Clan Arms
While there's little information about Irish customs of heraldry before the English arrival, there is evidence that arms belonging to a clan or sept did actually exist (though it's anathema to those holding the English principles of arms). Gaelic chieftainship, under the custom of tanistry, was not inherited by primogeniture (the first son), but was open to the most able man within defined parameters of kinship within the clan and was sometimes embodied in a council (Brittanica; Clans of Ireland). Pat Brennan interprets the evidence by saying, "Most of the arms recorded at this time seem to have been 'sept arms' or 'arms of chieftainship.' In other words, they don't appear to be the private property of a particular individual but belonged to either the sept as a whole or to the chief, possibly as symbol of his office."
Finding the O'Dochartaigh Arms
Searching the book "Arms B" (ca. 1650) as well as other existing official registries compiled by Ulster King of Arms held in the National Library of Ireland returned no early registration or grant of arms for anyone bearing any variant of the Ó Dochartaigh name. The Office of the Chief Herald searched their records and confirmed. However, the Herald of Arms, Micheál Ó Comáin, informed us that "The Office’s records prior to 1691 are incomplete. Following the siege of Limerick one of our officers of arms followed James II to France and took with him an unknown quantity of them, now lost, which probably did not survive the [French] Revolution."
With that said, the earliest depiction of the Ó Dochartaigh arms that we've found so far is from Geoffrey Keating's Foras Feasa ar Éirinn dated circa 1634 (translated into English in 1723 as the History of Ireland), which portrays the traditional clann arms of "The Anc(ien)t and Valiant Family of the O'Dohertys" (see image top right). Though we don't know where it the artifact is now, Library Ireland republished an 1862 article from the Illustrated Dublin Journal which, speaking of the era of Henry VIII (1509-1547), states that "a medallion of that date, with the armorial bearings of 'The O'Doherty'" was found near Burt Castle. The Monreagh Heritage Centre further mentioned that the said medallion was "dated to 1525" (Monreagh Heritage Centre). If this is referring to the same heraldic emblem, the medallion indicates use of the Ó Dochartaigh arms prior to the establishment of the Ulster King of Arms. The primary part of the historic arms of the clann Ó Dochartaigh may be described as gules rampant stag in an argent field, vert chief with three stars (learn more about the terminology). This simply means a red jumping horned deer in a white field with three stars in a green bar across the top.
Our Arms Today
While our clann used to be a strong political and geographic entity, due to the spreading of the diaspora and the modern sociopolitical structure, the Ó Dochartaigh clann now works as a loosely united entity primarily focused on the preservation and celebration of our heritage (Association of O'Dochartaighs). Thus, as our clann arms are not owned by one individual, we hope you proudly display the Ó Dochartaigh arms in support of our ancient and valiant heritage. Ar nDutchas!
Click the thumbnails below to open the photos in a larger viewer!
Red Deer (Cervus elaphus). Photo from Wild Deer Ireland. Courtesy of Peter O'Toole.
Symbolism of the Deer
In Celtic tradition the male deer was "related to the sacred and to forests, independence, purification and pride. The stag is the king of the forest, the protector of all other creatures" (Faena). Faena continues, "Like a crown, the antlers grow beyond its body, bringing it closer to the sky and making it sacred. In many cultures, the deer is a symbol of spiritual authority. During a deer’s life the antlers fall off and grow again and the animal is also a symbol of regeneration." According to historian and Ó Dochartaigh researcher, Matthew McDavitt, the stag was "the most prized quarry in the hunt (itself symbolizing warfare)". Thus the arms were chosen to embody the spirit Ó Dochartaighs and to represent their authority and resilience. The Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)—Ireland's national animal and the largest mammal on the island—has an impressively dangerous set of horns which they employ to scrap with other males during the rut, to fight when provoked, and to protect their own; hence symbolizing the historic military policy of our clann.
Our Clann Motto: Ár nDúthchas
Our clann motto, "Ár nDúchas" or "Ár nDúthchas" (pronounced Arr NOO-hus, as the 'n' eclipses the 'D'), is oft translated "Our heritage". Thus we celebrate our rich heritage and memorialize the past glories of our ancestral kin. Perhaps you think of the Ó Dochartaigh heritage as our history; our homeland; the food, music, and stories we share when we're together; the love that connects us while we're apart; or maybe our resilient spirit. Conversely, our clann motto may also be translated as "Our inheritance", which is future oriented. Thus, we continue to preserve, protect, and pass on the strong spirit of family unity and resilience which has been cultivated since the days of yore amongst most our sept.
The Ó Dochartaighs seem to have always been a people proud of their heritage. Most often for Ó Dochartaighs their heritage was more than just a list of ancestor's names, historically their heritage was the land which their ancestors fought for, which provided them with food and a place to live. It was their walk with God. It was their spirit of resilience and pride to be who they were. It was the memories of their family gatherings and making music together. It was the stories who gave life to their ancestors--the stories which had been passed down to them--which they would pass on to their children. Our heritage—our family—is everything. Ár nDúchas!
A Description of Our Ancient Arms
When we think of the arms of Clann Ó Dochartaigh, typically the first image that comes to mind is the white shield with a red stag below three stars across a green chief. It's likely, however, that this emblem we know so well today was developed during the 1500s when the Ulster King of Arms was established as the heraldic authority of Ireland and the Gaelic chieftains received grants or confirmations of arms to increase their sociopolitical legitimacy in light of the English conquest. Little known to many, during the centuries prior to this, Clann Ó Dochartaigh had another standard under which they fought!
In 1842, when John O'Donivan composed his book The Banquet of Dun Na N-Gedh and The Battle of Magh Rath he included a translation of an old Irish manuscript giving a description of the Ó Dochartaigh arms of antiquity. O'Donivan says,
"The Editor has found the following metrical descriptions of the standards of O'Doherty, O'Sullivan, and O'Loughlin, in a MS. in the collection of Messrs. Hodges and Smith, Dublin, No. 208, and he thinks them worth inserting here, as being very curious, though the period at which they were written has not been yet satisfactorily determined. The descriptions of the two former appear to be of considerable antiquity, but that of O'Loughlin savours of modern times, from the languages and measure."
"BEARINGS OF O'DOHERTY"
"Mightily advance the battalions of Conn,
With O'Doherty to engage in battle,
His battle sword with golden cross,
Over the standard of this great chief:
A lion and bloody eagle,—
Hard it is to repress his plunder,—
On a white sheet of silken satin,
Terrible is the onset of his forces."
Artist's rendering of the ancient arms described by O'Donivan.
O'Donivan continues, "The Editor is sorry to find that the O'Dohertys do not at present bear these symbols in their coat of arms; the arms of Chief Justice Doherty, as shows in stained glass on a window in the Library of the Queen's Inns, Dublin, are entirely different." The same account is also preserved on p. 16 of the Journal of the Waterford & South East of Ireland Archaeological Society Vol III.
Being an earlier armorial bearing of Clann Ó Dochartaigh, likely in use centuries before organized heraldry in Ireland, it would've primarily served as a battle standard (as the manuscript indicates). From the description, "his battle sword with golden cross" we envision the primary heraldic charge being a combination of the Holy Cross and a battle sword, being flanked by a lion and bloody eagle (heraldic supports came into usage in the modern era). As you will see below, the emblem of the cross was very significant to the history, hagiography, and legend of the Cenél Conaill (descendants of Conall).
The Legend of the Origin of These Arms
Prince Conal Gulban, the son of High King Niall of the Nine Hostages, was a the paternal ancestor of the Ó Dochartaigh, as well as of the Ó Donnell, and many other families of Tirconnell (County Donegal). In the year 1185 A.D., Sir John de Courcy commissioned Jocelyn of Furness to write The Life and Acts of Saint Patrick (O'Donivan). Preserved in chapter 138 of his work is a legend that St. Patrick struck the shield of Conal with his staff (legendarily known as Bacall Iosa or "the staff of Jesus") impressing the symbol of the Cross of Jesus on it. St. Patrick blessed Conal saying that his descendants who bore that symbol into battle would be victorious and that among his lineage would be many saints and nations.
CHAPTER CXXXVIII. Of Conallus and of his Shield. And Saint Patrick addressed his well-beloved, the Prince Conallus; and he enquired of him whether would he assume the habit of a monk. And the prince replied that his heart was prepared to do whatsoever the saint would command. Then the saint rejoicing at his devotion said unto him, "For the sign of power and protection, and for the proof of thy spiritual worth, shall thou bear thy shield and thy sceptre; the name of a laic shalt thou show; but the mind and the merit of a monk shall thou possess, inasmuch as many saints shall proceed from thee, and many nations shall in thy seed be blessed." And he signed his shield with the sign of the staff of Jesus, declaring that no one of his progeny who should carry this shield in battle should ever by any one be vanquished. And the chronicles of Hibernia declare, and her bards record, that this the saint's prophecy unto Conallus and his seed duly came to pass. (Life and Acts of Saint Patrick).
This ancient tradition of St. Patrick's granting of the arms of the cross to Conal is also recounted in the Lebhar Inghine I Dhomhnaill (the Book of O’Donnell’s Daughter) which was written in the Irish Franciscan College of Saint Anthony in Louvain soon after the Earl O'Donnell and many others (including his sister-in-law Rosa who was the sibling of Sir Cahir O'Dogherty) fled to the continent in the year 1607. Certainly there were a number of saints (including St. Columba and St. Malachy) and a number of nations that are believed to have emanated from him (all the clanns and septs of the Cenél Conaill). Further, it seems his descendants were truly the last of the ancient Gaelic kingdoms to be broken in all of Ireland, when the English finally obtained full control after the 1607 flight of the Earls and the 1608 O'Dogherty Rebellion.
Common Origins to the O'Dochartaigh and O'Donnell Arms
The ancient Ó Dochartaigh heraldic charge of the Holy Cross and a battle sword combined seems to have originated from this legend of St. Patrick pronouncing a blessing over those descendants of Conal who carry the symbol of the cross into battle. It's very likely that the "lion and bloody eagle" mentioned in the manuscript translated by O'Donivan were heraldic motifs added alongside the cross at a later point. Similarly, the arms of the Ó Donnell—a cross upheld by an arm—is believed by many to have originally been simply a cross; the clasping hand and upholding arm being heraldic motifs likely added perhaps in the late 1500s through the influence of O'Donnell's wife, Inion Dubh (O'Domhnaill).
With that said, the Ó Dochartaigh and Ó Donnell were the two most powerful and prominent septs of Cenél Conaill (the descendants of Conal Gulban). Regardless of whether we assume the legend of St. Patrick and Prince Conal true or not, it seems to point toward a common heraldic origin amongst the pre-Ó Dochartaigh, pre-Ó Donnell Cenél Conaill family of Donegal and could suggest use of the Cross of Jesus as their battle standard prior to the formation of distinct clans or families—perhaps as early as the 5th century!