Irish family crests - what they mean and how to trace yours


The Irish family crest is a long and proud tradition. 

For centuries, Irish families have used crests to show their allegiance to a clan or sept, and to show their family's history and heritage. 

Today, many people around the world still use them as a way to show their Irish pride. 


Here, we'll take a look at the history of the Irish family crest, and some of the most popular crests used by families in Ireland today. 

The first recorded use of crests in Ireland was in the 12th century, when they were used by the chieftains of clans and Septs to show their allegiance to a particular king or lord. 


 Septs - back to where it all began



An Irish sept is a clan or family group with a common surname found in Ireland and in other parts of the world where people of Irish descent live. 

The term sept is derived from the Latin word septum, meaning "seven," and in Ireland originally referred to the seven main families of the O'Neill clan. 

Over time, the term came to be used more broadly to refer to any clan or family group with a common surname. 

Septs were often located in the same area of Ireland and were bound together by kinship, marriage, and other ties.


 Irish family crests emerge from septs

In the centuries that followed, the use of crests spread to other families and septs, and became a way to show off one's Irish heritage and most importantly, an individual family’s achievements and identity that separated it from the original family (sept).

The most popular type of Irish crest is the coat of arms, which is a design that includes a shield, sometimes a motto, and often a crest symbol in addition to the shield, like an animal or symbol of weaponry (but not always).

These crests would often be displayed on the family's coat of arms, and would be used to identify the family in times of battle. Over the ages, the crests became more elaborate, and were often used to show the family's wealth and status in normal times.


 What the crest colors can say about you

There are many colors used in Irish family crests, but some of the most popular are green, white/silver, and gold. While these colors are today part of the Irish flag, they were used for different reasons in medieval Ireland. 

Green, known as ‘Vert’ in heraldry, symbolizes family members loyalty in love and hope for the future. 

Gold, referred to as ‘Or’, represents the historical generosity of a respective family, something of significant importance in ancient Ireland as trust and reputation meant everything among such a territorial landscape.

Silver, known as ‘Argent’ in heraldry, signifies sincerity and peace and symbolizes a family’s willingness to make ties and build alliances with other families, for example, trading, protection and longevity. 


What the symbols on irish crests might say about your ancestors


While there are dozens of common symbols and hundreds in total, Irish family crests tend to feature a few common symbols. 

These symbols were used to communicate the values or beliefs of a family in ancient times. 

In general, the aim was to tell a complete story of a family’s history while communicating one or two main strengths for which they were known or to be feared. 

Often these symbols emerged to mark a particular victory over a rival family in war. 



Crosses - symbolizes Christ's rise from the dead to claim victory over sin. A connection to many Irish family's early religious associations.

Lions  - represent ferociousness, bravery and valour, one of the most desirable family crest symbols. 

Wolves  - signify valour, similar to lions but with the added connotation of a family that was victorious in long sieges in ancient times.

Stags  -  symbolize people of a peaceful and harmonious nature. Those who will not fight unless provoked.

The trefoil symbol - represents ever-lasting qualities. A symbol with strong connections to ancient Ireland.


Some of the most popular Irish family crests

To see how these symbols were used in practice, below are some of the most popular and best examples of Irish family crests.

Sullivan family crest 

O’Neill family crest

Cullen family crest

Moore family crest

Ryan family crest

Discover your family crest today

Looking for a way to show off your Irish heritage? consider using an Irish family crest.

Crests&Arms specalize in researching original family crests from Ireland and other countries based on armoury records, manuscripts and private documents. 

See our range of family crest products or get in touch to find out more.