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Whilst most McDermotts would be familiar with the general appearance of
the family Coat of Arms and Crest many have asked what, if any, is the
significance of the images and indeed when and from where did the Coat of
Whilst I am no expert on heraldry this is an attempt to clarify the matter.
Most Irish septs (I prefer "sept" to the word "clan" which generally indicates a much larger body or grouping of septs), and certainly all of those who were landowning, today possess a Coat of Arms (in the form of the shield). Of these many, but by no means all, would have an accompanying crest depicted above the Coat of Arms. The importance of the individual sept does not necessarily seem to imply the presence of a crest above the Coat of Arms as those belonging to some of the larger and more influential Gaelic chieftains (such as Maguire of Fermanagh and O'Brien of Thomond) do not appear with crest. Many families would have a motto, either in Latin or Irish, which, it would be felt, would describe in summary form the inherited virtues of a particular family. The motto would usually appear in scroll form under the Coat of Arms. MacDermot shares honours with O'Morchoe (Murphy) in being the only family to have a version of the motto inserted in the crest as well.
The Irish heraldic tradition commenced much later than in England and would appear to have been borrowed lock, stock and barrel from our neighbours. In England and on the Continent of Europe the system of family crests developed in the 12th Century and was a development associated with the wars of the Crusades waged against Islam. The Coat of Arms was precisely that; a uniform of identification worn and born in battle. The Kings of England and France, together with the nobles who fought under their command, would all have had their own individual Coats of Arms emblazoned on both tunic and shield. The Crest would have flown on the pennant. Thus they were instantly recognizable to men under their command. The various crosses, lions and eagles etc. which one sees depicted on these ancient Coats of Arms are symbols of religious and military righteousness and power. The Coat of Arms was also an integral part of high ceremony and would have been prominently displayed at Royal Tournaments and worn proudly by those jousters who took part in competition.
Only Kings, Emperors and Popes could grant Coat of Arms. In a medieval society based on the unquestioned power of the feudal lord the Coat of Arms was a great symbol of obedience, much as the insignia of British army regiments became in later centuries.
Arms first arrived in Ireland in the 12th Century with the Normans and until Tudor times at least were associated with the great Hiberno Norman and Anglo Irish families. However it would appear that the principal Irish (Gaelic) families, having witnessed the customs of their Old English or anglicized neighbours, also developed their own system of heraldic arms before the establishment of the Office of the Ulster King of Arms which was in fact set up in 1552 to oversee the task of granting arms to the more important families in Ireland. The O'Conor's had their oak tree, the MacDermots their three boars. However, the first official record we have of the existence of a MacDermot Coat of Arms dates back only as far as the Grant by King James I (England and Scotland) in 1617. We also know that by that stage MacDermot and many of his Gaelic contemporaries had been educated as wards of the English Court at Trinity College, Dublin, where they would have come into contact with the heraldic traditions of their Anglo Irish colleagues and in fascination adopted it as a trapping of fashionable aristocracy. Certainly there is no evidence to suggest that Coats of Arms and Crests were considered to be of any great importance to the old Gaelic families, a fact which is hardly surprising given that the heraldic symbols represented a culture which had only recently successfully completed the subjugation of those same families. As a footnote, it may also be true that a Coat of Arms accompanying a pedigree would have been of some assistance when seeking their fortunes in Europe following exile.
Like the bearer of a current day passport the bearer of a Coat of Arms would no doubt have been identifiable as being a member of a particular family. My own view, however, is that the Irish coats of arms were mainly decorative. They certainly appear to have little historical basis. In addition the possession of a family Coat of Arms, granted by the Chief Herald, gave a certain air of respectable aristocracy to those who sought to claim it.
Nowadays of course an entire industry has been built up around the Coat of Arms as Identification Tag. Virtually every Irish surname now has its own Coat of Arms and it has been trivialized to such a point that it appears on key rings, coffee mugs and table mats and other such personal and household items. And why not ? When the very principle was likely less than completely serious back in 1617.
The accepted version of the MacDermot Coat of Arms is described as "argent on a chevron gules between three boars' heads erased azure tusked and bristled or as many cross crosslets of the last".
Explanations regarding the content of the MacDermot Coat of Arms, are open to discussion, and I have no undisputable information regarding the choice of emblems. The following is my own interpretation. It could be that MacDiarmada chose the boar symbol because of the legend of the Fianna in which Diarmuid has an encounter with a boar or it could simple be because the boar was considered a symbol of potency and of unswerving and fierce determination. The MacDermot was O'Conor's chief military vassal and therefore would need to reflect this attribute on his Coat of Arms. The lion is a later (non native) addition and would complement the already stated qualities of the boar.
The cross, in its various forms, is a clear affirmation of the piety and observance of Catholic values and virtues of the holder of the Coat of Arms. It is one of the most common heraldic features from the very earliest times.
Whilst the Coat of Arms described above is easily recognizable today as that of the MacDermot Clan, it is likely that the first depiction was considerably more simple. Indeed the James I grant at Coolavin House and the stained glass window at Coolavin House, as well as a few others we have seen, shows just three full red boars, either with or without intermediate red band .
In the article "To be MacDermot or not to be MacDermot" posted recently in the Library, we dealt with several families who were related to the MacDermots. These included O Crowley, McDonagh and Mulrooney. It is interesting to note the similarities between the Coats of Arms of all these families.
O' Crowley has one single blue boar and three red crosses. The O'Crowleys came from a very early MacDermot migration from Moylurg to Cork (13th Century). Does this suggest that the boar had already become our symbol a full 400 years before heraldic arms were officially granted to Brian MacDermot ?
McDonagh also shows the boar,
Mulrooney shows three
If anybody would like to contribute to or dispute this thesis, we would most
welcome your views.
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