26 June 2011

O'Brien Clan Heraldry

History of O’Brien Clan Heraldry

Celtic lion from ring of King Brian Boru.

 by Garry Bryant / Garaidh Ó Briain
(Irish Armiger, 1992)

     Burke’s Peerage has listed that the arms of Irish King Brian Boru are “Gules three lions passant guardant per pale Or and Argent.” This is not correct, and many believe in Burke’s statement, but heraldry as such didn’t exist in 1014 A.D. 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. Following is a history of the heraldry of the O’Brien Clan.
     First one must understand the principle of heraldry. Its main purpose was to identify an individual on the battlefield which is believed to have begun in the early twelfth century. 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.1
     Although the heraldic records of Ireland have been in existence since the first herald Sir John Chandos, K.G., in the 1300s, was appointed by King Richard II. Ireland’s rules have followed those of England in most ways. 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 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.2
     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 heraldically.3
     Irish heraldic arms can be found designed in three categories, lending a distinct style to Irish heraldry:4

1)      Norman - military in origin. Use of three identical symbols, use of ordinaries, simplicity.
                        (See ill. 1)
[ILL. 1]



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.
     (See ill. 2)

[ILL. 2



3)   Gaelic or Irish - Mythological. Use of Gaelic symbol; simple or complex designs.
              Main charge held by supporters. (See ill. 3 & 4)

 [ILL. 3]


[ILL. 4]



     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 during the medieval era. 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, whose hand is holding a sword. Nuadu lost his arm 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.”5
     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).6

  • 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.7 Their territory was northern Munster Province called Thomond which today is the counties of Clare, Limerick and northern Tipperary. (See ill. 19.)

[ Ill. 19] Thomond (northern Munster), Ireland.
     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.8
     Nuadu’s arm was used by the early kings of Munster, who belonged to the Eóghanacht (MacCarthy) dynasty. These Eóghanacht kings throne name was “Mogha Nuadhad,” which translated means, “the slave of Nuada.” This dynasty set up relations with the Schottenkloster of St. James Abbey at Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany. This Irish monastery used the symbol of Nuada’s arms since many of the monks and abbots were from Munster and its benefactors were Munster kings and noblemen. The abbey arms are like that of the province of Connacht and the abbey’s arms are a dimidation of the double eagle of the Holy Roman Empire impalling an embowed arm holding a sword, i.e., the half eagle is for the Holy Roman Empire and the sword arm for the kings of Munster.9  (See ill. 5.) When the Uí Briains became kings of Munster and High-Kings of Ireland in the eleventh century, this ancient Eóghanancht symbol was taken over by the Uí Briains and the abbey arms were used by King Conchobhar Slapar Salach Ua Briain (d. 1042 A.D.).10 (See ill. 6.)

[ILL. 6] Province of Connacht, Ireland.
[ILL.5] St James Abbey.

     The Chief Herald of Ireland’s office has stated that the first heraldic arms used by the Uí Briain family is described as “Gules a dexter forearm holding a sword in pale all proper.” (See ill. 7.) This lends some continuity to Brian Boru’s banner and his grandson’s use of the St. James Abbey arms.11

[ILL. 7] Old O'Brien arms.
      O’Brien heraldic arms were changed on 1 July 1545, when Murrough “The Tanist” Ua Briain, 57th King of Thomond, surrendered his kingdom to King Henry VIII of England, which kingdom was re-granted to him with the English title of 1st Earl of Thomond (for life) and Baron Inchiquin (heirs male), holding all in fee simple. This resignation of Thomond to King Henry VIII took place at Greenwich by the Thames River, in England, with Murrough’s nephew, Donough Ua Briain, in tow being a minor. Donough later became 2nd Earl of Thomond and created Baron Ibrackan (his line ended d.s.p. in 1774, with the Viscounts of Clare). To show this resignation of the Gaelic Order and showing loyalty to the new king and government, the old heraldic arms were discarded and King Henry VIII granted to Murrough his own personal arms, “Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or, and armed and langued Azure,” (See ill. 8) but with a difference. The lions would be split into the heraldic metals of gold and silver, with no blue nails and tongue, for differencing. These new arms would read as, “Gules three lions passant guardant in pale per pale Or and Argent.”12 (See  ill. 9) From an English point of view this was a great honor, but to the Ui Briain Clan, the Irish, and the Gaelic Order, it was surrender and defeat.13

[ILL. 8] Arms of England.
[ILL. 9] O'Brien new arms.
      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, culture, and convert to the Church of England, this included all followers and servants. 13a
     What is interesting to note, is that the ancient arms were not lost but transferred to become the crest. The only difference was the addition of clouds. These clouds allude to the arms Gaelic motto: “Lamh Láídir an Uchtar (the strong hand uppermost).” At this same time the O’Brien arms became quartered with three piles. Author Ivar 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),14 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) 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 (a name that continued in the family for generations). The de Bryan’s had a branch of the family stationed in Ireland and in time they became the Marshal of Ireland.
[ILL.11] de Bryan arms.
[ILL.10] Murrough O'Brien arms 1543.

     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 arms because of name similarity. The de Bryan arms are, “Or three piles meeting in base Azure.” (See ill. 11.) 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.”15 (See ill. 10.)     
     Again only speculation to the arrow head’s meaning and author Ivar 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.16
     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 1615.17 (See ill. 17.)

[ILL.17] O'Brien arms 1617A.D.
       On a corbel next to the fireplace at Lemenah Castle in north-west County Clare, the O’ Briens also carved in stone a unique Celtic knot called “The O’Brien Knot.” This badge symbol is used extensively by the Lemenah and Dromoland O’ Brien’s.18 (See ill. 14.)
[ILL.14a] Lemenah Castle
[ILL.14b] O'Brien knot.
     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. 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.19 (See ill. 17.)
     The last heraldic symbol used by the O’Brien Clan was 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 from 1688-1690.
     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.
[ILL.15] Clare Regt. banner.
[ILL.16] Soldier in Clare's Regt.
     Uniforms for the Irish regiments in the service of France were basically white pants, shirt and knee socks, with a red coat that was trimmed in the regiments color: black for Dillon, green for Mountcashel, yellow for Clare, etc., with a matching colored vest, and finally a black tricorn hat with a white cockade which indicated their Jacobite support.20 (See ill. 16.) 
     The Clare regimental flag was quartered with a cross of St. George overall, fimberated white. Quarters one and four were red, and quarter two and three were the regimental color. 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.21 (See ill. 15.)
     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. Earl         O’Brien used to seal several land deeds a seal charged with a cross Moline, not a single hint of a lion in any form. Letters by his wife, use a seal that appears to be a fox courant (running). Definitely by this time one would think the O’Brien arms of the three lions would be used, but no.
     In the modern era many of the Irish clans have developed a tartan for use in the wearing of kilts at festivals, etc. The use of tartan as a heraldic or clan symbol is not of Irish origin. The Irish did wear kilts, though not of prevalent use as in the Scottish Highlands, but then the Scottish Lowlanders didn't wear kilts either as some would have one believe. The O'Brien Clan does have a tartan designed by an O'Brien who lives in Australia. Concerning Irish tartans, it is one of the earliest (abt. 1995), but it is not officially recognized by the O'Brien Clan Chief. (See ill. 18a & b).

[ILL.18a] O'Brien modern tartan.
[ILL.18b] O'Brien ancient color tartan.
     The prolific writer, Morgan Llywelyn, has infamously penned the phrase “Lion of Ireland,” which was the title of her famous novel about Brian Boru. 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.

O'Brien Clan badge 

     Many of the members of Irish clans are frustrated over not having a clan badge to wear to identify themselves with the clan and to identify themselves to others like those of the Scottish clans. 
     Scott McMillan (a former asst. herald in the Irish Chief Herald's office) and Romilly Squire (Scottish heraldic painter) have devised a badge using the famous Irish Claddagh symbol and the crests of the major 100 or so Irish clans.Personally I like the symbolism for the Claddagh is a well recognized Irish symbol with excellent meaning. (See ill. 21)

     Yet many Irish clans don't have crests to their arms. Celtic Studios out of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, has designed a badge using the Celtic cross as a motif along with Celtic artwork.that is based on the various clan shields or arms. (See ill. 22)
[ILL.23] Texas design.

     A third alternative to the Irish clan badge is designed out of a firm in Texas that uses the arms with the clan name in Gaelic on the top, and on the bottom a shamrock with Celtic knotwork on either side. (See ill. 23) 
     As for the O'Brien Clan for a clan badge they have designed one of their own which can be obtained from the clan shop at the O'Brien Clan website. (See ill. 24)

[ILL.24] O'Brien Clan badge at obrienclan.com.

1  The Court of the Lord Lyon, Scottish Crest Badges, leaflet #2. (Edinburgh: 1993.)

2  Edward MacLysaght, Irish Families: Their Names, Arms and Origins. (New York: Crown Publishers, 1972) Pp. 10-12.

3  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.

4  Lt. Col. Robert Gayre of Gayre and Nigg, The Nature of Arms. (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1961) P. 92.

5  Count of. Clandermond, “Gaelic Heraldry and the Kingdom of Desmond,” Heraldry.  The Augustan Society. Vol. III. 2 (1995): Pp. 4-11.

6  Donnchadh Ó Corráin and Fidelma Maguire, Gaelic Personal Names. (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1981) P. 146.

7  Proinsias Ó Conluain, “The Red Hand of Ulster,” Dúiche Néill. O Neill Country Historical Society. #5, 1990. Pp. 24-38.

8  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.

9 Hibernian Society’s publications in the early 1900s.

10  Clandermond, p. 7.

11  John J. Kennedy, “The Arms of Ireland: Medieval and Modern,” The Coat of Arms IX. #155, Autumn 1991: London. Pp. 91-109.

12  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.

13  Donough O’Brien, History of the O’Briens: From Brian Boroimhe, ad., 1000 to ad. 1945. (London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1947) Pp. 50-54 & 198.

13a   Donough O’Brien, p. 54.

14  Ó Comain, p. 32.

15  Ivar O’Brien, “The O’Brien Arms a speculation of their origin,” The Royal O’Briens: A Tribute. 1992. P. 61.

16  Ivar O’Brien, O’Brien of Thomond: The O’Briens in Irish history, 1500-1865. (London: Phillimore, 1986) P. 16.

17  Ivar O’Brien, O’Brien of Thomond: The O’Briens in Irish history, 1500-1865. (London: Phillimore, 1986) frontispiece.

18  Risteard Ua Croinin, and Martin Breen “Interesting Remains at Lemeneagh,” The Other Clare. Vol/Issue 11: Pp. 46-48.

19  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.).

20  Harman Murtagh, “Irish Soldiers Abroad, 1600-1800,” A Military History of Ireland. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) P. 298.

21  Jane Urwick, “Banners of the Wild Geese,” The Coat of Arms, IV #115, Autumn 1980: London. Pp. 285 - 289.


Cover art of Celtic lion head is reported to be from the ring worn by King Brian Boru.

ill 1 - Norman arms: Roche, Fitzgerald, de Lacy, Burke

ill 2 - Anglo-Irish arms: O’Cullen, O’Lynch, O’Kennedy, O’Hegarty.

ill 3 - Irish arms: O’Malone, O’Donovan, O’Carroll, O’Connor.

ill 4 - Irish arms: MacEgan, O’Keane, O’Neill, O’Sullivan

ill 5 - St. James Abbey, Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany.

ill 6 - Province arms of Connacht.

ill 7 - Ancient Ó Briain arms.

ill 8 - King of England arms..

ill 9 - Modern O’Brien arms.

ill 10 - Murrough O’Brien arms.

ill 11 - Sir Guy de Bryan K.G., arms.

ill 12 - Possible arms of Mac-I-Brian Arra.

ill 13 - Lemenah castle, County Clare, Ireland.

ill 14 - O’Brien knot.

ill 15 - Banner of Clare’s Regiment in the Service of France.

ill 16 - Foot soldier in Clare’s Regiment.

ill 17 - Full achievement of arms for Sir Conor O’Brien.

ill 18a & b - O'Brien modern & ancient color tartans

ill 19 - Map of Thomond.

ill 20 - Related Irish clans to the O’Brien Clan that use the lion passant/passant guardant in the clan arms:
           MacMahon, O’Meara, O’Grady.
FYI: In 2002 Garry Bryant volunteered for an academic study using DNA in genealogy, which is now becoming a very effective tool in genealogy research. In May 2007, he received a phone call from one Kevin O’Brien of Buffalo, NY., to whom he had an email relationship for ten years. Kevin said, “I remember how you often wondered if your surname was Bryant or O’Brien. Well you’re not only an O’Brien, but you and I are cousins.” At the Ysearch website for FamilyTree DNA Bryant’s pedigree was posted with his 37 marker test. O’Brien's and Bryant’s markers matched exactly ... 37/37, making them descending from a common ancestor around the 8th - 10th generation. O’Brien has his pedigree researched and documented to about 1760 at Killernan, County Clare, Ireland (7th generation), and Bryant has his documented to the sixth generation to John O’Bryan who immigrated to Ontario, Canada by 1836. Of the 150 members in the O’Brien Surname DNA project, they are the closest in matches to The O’Brien, being four markers off, which indicate their branch broke off of the main line about 1250-1325 A.D.


  1. Nice and interesting blog. I stil have a lot of reading to do. But I will manage ;-)

    Following and added to my list.


  2. Thank you so much for the in depth research! As an O'Brien, I found it fascinating that the three lions are actually English symbols and not Irish at all. I'll never look at them the same now.