Posted by: Mark Nielsen | January 8, 2013

Fightin’ Among the Irish: The O’Brien Crest & Background

Although I do mourn the recent loss by the Golden Domers to the “mobile homers” of Alabama, this is not about football… I’m just an opportunist riding the NCAA’s coattails to divert your attention to something more classic and genuinely Irish: family crests and heraldry in medieval Europe. (Snoooze……. no, wait, stick with me, it might be fun…)

So, consider that a disclaimer… or a confession, if you’re Catholic.

* * *

I was reorganizing some cabinets yesterday and came across a beer mug I had kind of forgotten I had, what with moving a year or two ago. It’s got the O’Brien family crest on it, and I purchased it in honor of my paternal grandmother, Maureen O’Brien. Here’s what the crest looks like:

My mug had only the shield part. So maybe we can call the above composite the Extended Dance Remix version of the crest.

Among other things, I got to thinking: what business do Irish (and/or Germanic… apparently the O’Briens or Ui Briains were a big deal in Munster, Germany) have putting three lions on their coat of arms. Or on anything for that matter? There likely weren’t any native lions in Ireland, Germany, nor anywhere else in Europe. But… a symbol’s a powerful tool, especially for warring tribes looking to psych out the competition.

Which is why the so-called Gaelic motto, seen in the upper ribbon of this crest, was “the strong hand uppermost”. They were bashing each other’s brains in, and military strength counts for a lot among barely civilized people on the outer edges of the Roman Empire.

(I mean, the Irish then were uncivilized… not now. You’re very civilized now, and even economic juggernauts in the new world economy. Please don’t hurt me, brothers…)

As a former English Lit teacher, and an aspiring writer in the English language, I’ve always been kind of an Anglophile. All the complicated history, both within the nation and in its relations with France (the Normans), and Germany, and the weird battles over who the rightful king or queen should be… it’s like an ancient soap opera, really. Which is why some of Shakespeare’s better (but lesser-known) plays are actually the histories that detail the twisted family dynamics and nationalist nutjobs who pepper England’s distant past.

Macbeth was Scottish, but he counts as well. You go back that far, and everyone’s a cousin to someone. I don’t think Shakespeare had any genuinely Irish characters in his plays, but I wouldn’t be surprised. That guy touched on everything.

When it comes to Ireland as a culture and locale distinct from Britain, the biggest way I connect with that heritage is religiously. I’ve become a more than casual explorer of Celtic spirituality, from the mystical connection to nature, to the history and legends of greats like St. Brendan and St. Patrick. Not to mention the ballsy pushback of Irish Catholics against Britons whose former king (Henry VIII) had the gall to establish his OWN religion. As if! God sure lets us get away with murder, doesn’t He? (Thanks, God.) But Anglicans are genuine Jesus People, too… I’m over all that by now. I’ve been civilized.

So… maybe to recover some dignity after that drubbing in football (ahem… American football, that is…), I’m just passing along some genuinely Irish culture and history. Big props go out to :

for the extensive excerpt below. If you have any Irish heritage of your own, I recommend looking up your family’s coat of arms (or crest), and see if it resonates for you. For example, I’ve always been big on lions, myself. Maybe it’s in the blood!

* * *

However, various branchs of the Ui Briains used different symbols such as a griffin, a wolf and the Waterford Ui Briains used a lymphad (ship). On 1 July 1543, the heraldic arms of the Kings of Thomond were changed forever when Murrough “The Tanist” Ua Briain, last and 57th King of Thomond, surrendered his kingdom to king Henry VIII of England, which kingdom was regranted to him with the English title of 1st Earl of Thomond (for life) and later 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 Thomond and created Baron Ibrackan (his live ended 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 Henry VIII granted to Murrough his own personal arms, “gules three lions passant guardant in pale or,” but the arms for Ua Briain were differenced to, “gules three lions passant guardant in pale per pale or and argent.” From an English point of view this was a great honor, but to the Irish, clan and Gaelic Order, it was surrender and defeat.

At this same time the Gaelic spelling of Ua Briain was changed to that of O’Brien by England.

What is interesting to note, is that the ancient arms were not lost but tranferred to become the crest. The only difference was the addition of clouds, which alluded to the Gaelic motto, “Lamb Laidir an Uchtar (the strong hand uppermost).” Soon after Greenwich, the O’Brien arms become 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). The author conjects that the piles may belong to O’Brien-of-Arra, but there are strong circumstantial evidence that the three piles were adopted with a difference from the Anglo-Norman Baron and Knight, Sir Guy de Bryan of Devonshire and Pembroke, who was stationed at Dublin. Sir de Bryan died in 1390 with no male heirs, and possibly King Brian Catha Ua Briain, upon his arrival at Dublin to swear fealty to King Richard II, it is speculated by Ivar O’Brien that the King of Thomond assumed the de Bryan symbol because of name similarity. The de Bryan arms are, “or three piles meeting in base azure.” The O’Brien quarter is differenced as, “argent three piles meeting in base gules.”

When Sir Henry Sidney was sent to Ireland to be Lord Deputy of Ireland, O’Brien again speculate’s that this is when the 3rd quarter of “or a pheon (arrow head) azure,” was added by the Earl Thomond to show loyalty to Sidney, who used in his personal heraldic arms the pheon.

The Gaelic war-cry was “Lamh Laidir an Uchtar.” But in 1613 a second French motto was added, “Viguer Du Dessus,”, meaning “strength from above,” a poor translation of the Gaelic war-cry.

Only a few Irish families have a badge using a Celtic knot as a symbol. Found on a corbel next to the fireplace at Lemenah Castle, is the “O’Brien Knot.” This unique knot is the badge of the O’Brien branch of Lemenah and Dromoland.

Today, The O’Brien, Sir Conor O’Brien, Chief of the O’Brien Clan, has extended the use of the basic O’Brien arms and crest for use by the O’Brien Clan of North America and he included the O’Brien Knot. These arms may be displayed as outlined at the beginning of this article by MacLysaght. The O’Brien also mentioned that the crest and Gaelic motto may be used by all clansmen/women. Together, The O’Brien and Garaidh O Briain, worked on a basic clan badge design using the crest, motto and knot. There is no set design for Irish clan badges as there is in Scotland. Use of the quartered arms, supporters, baronet’s badge, dual motto and baron’s coronet, are strictly for the use by the Chief, The O’Brien, who’s personal arms these various elements are.

The last symbol used by an O’Brien, was the regimental banner of daniel O’Brien, 4th Viscount Clare, who commanded the Irish regiment in the service of France known as “O’Brien’s Regiment, later called Clare’s Regiment (a.k.a., Clare’s Dragoons). This regiment was originally organized by Charles O’Brien, 3rd Viscount, for King James II army during the Williamite Wars of 1688-1690.

When King James’ army was defeated in Ireland, rather then 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.”

Uniforms for the Irish regiments in the service of France in 1762 were basically; white pants, shirt and knee socks, with a red coat that was trimmed in the regiment color with a matching colored vest (black for Dillon, green for Bulkeley, yellow for Clare, white for Rothe, and red for Berwick), a black tri-corned hat with a white cockade (indicating their Jacobite support).


  1. Apparently Easter 2014 is the millennial celebration in Dublin of Brian Boru, the O’Brien patriarch –and for a short time High King of Ireland (from 1007-1014). If I can afford it, that might be as good a time as any to visit “the old sod”. Anyone wanna join me?

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