THE CLAN McGRATH IN HERALDRY
It is important to note that there is no such thing as a “family coat of arms” . A coat of arms is granted to an individual and can be displayed by him and his descendants with due deference. However in Ireland a clan or sept arms, as recorded in the Office of Arms in Dublin, are generally accepted as appertaining to all members of the Clan or Sept.
Guidance on this matter is taken from Edward MacLysaght’s book, Irish Families, Their Names, Arms and Origins. It must be emphasised that the acceptance of the principle of Clan or Sept arms in no way implies that they are to be used or displayed as personal arms by any individual member of a Clan or Sept.
The Clan McGrath Society’s position is that the arms illustrated on the title header of this website and used on in our correspondence are not and should not be misappropriated, displayed, or put forward as an individual personal achievement of arms. Accepting this guidance, the Clan McGrath has adopted what is generally known as ‘the McGrath Coat of Arms‘ as a graphic representation of our collective clan heritage. The Clan McGrath Society does not make any claim to the arms other than as a symbolic and historic emblem of kinship.
If any person wishes to bear arms in the true heraldic sense, they should become armigerous in their own right. You are strongly advised to seek a grant of arms from the Chief Herald of Ireland or the relevant heraldic authority in your own country.
Records show that the McGrath coat of arms have been in existence since at least the 16th century. These arms were the armorial bearings of Archbishop Miler McGrath and appear on his tomb at the Rock of Cashel dated 1622. However In a contemporary painting of Archbishop Miler McGrath dated 1570, he is shown with arms showing Ar. three lions passant, Gu. that is tree red lions on a white field. These arms are the arms of Miler’s Father, Donncha McGrath, Chieftain of Termonmagrath. Both arms are listed in Irish Pedigrees: The Stem of the Irish Nation by John Hartand and in Irish Families, Their Names, Arms and Origins by Edward MacLysaght. The tree red lions are replicated in the later arms of Archbishop Miler McGrath when they are used by him in the first quarter of the arms of his tomb. It is likely that these arms, reproduced on this website as the arms of the Clan McGrath were adopted or designed for the Archbishop and represent an amalgamation of his Father’s arms and other symbols both religious and secular.
As an Archbishop who spanned the 16th and 17th centuries it was expected that he would hold arms and he is entombed bearing these very arms at the Cathedral Church of the Rock of Cashel.
There are a number of variations on the McGrath arms and there are also differing interpretation of what is meant by the images on the arms.
The arms are recorded in their present form by Sir Richard Carney, Ulster King of Arms. During the Commonwealth which followed the English Civil War and the death of King Charles I, he was made “Principal Herald of Arms of the whole Dominion of Ireland,” an office he held until August 1660. After the Restoration he was appointed, in 1661, Athlone Herald and was made Ulster King of Arms in 1683 and was knighted on 6th April, 1684. He died in 1692. Sir Richard Carney, Ulster, temp. Jac. II., gives the McGrath coat-of-arms as follows, which appears to be identical to those depicted on the tomb of the Archbishop:
1. Argent, three lions passant gules.
2. Or, a dexter hand fesseways, couped at wrist ppr., holding a cross formee fitchee azure.
3. Gules, a dexter hand fesseways, couped at wrist ppr., holding a battle axe or.
4. Argent, an antelope trippant sable attired or.
However, only the herald who granted them or Archbishop Miler himself really knows the true meaning of the arms and the passage of time has meant that much of the significance of the symbolism has been lost to history. However by examining the context of the arms we can piece together an interpretation of what the symbols may mean and they do correspond with Archbishop Miler’s life in the Church.
1. Three Lions Passant have a long history in heraldry and as detailed above three lions are recoded in use by the McGrath Chief in Ulster. Three red lions appear in a coat of arms painted on a a portrait of Archbishop Miler McGrath dated 1570. These were the arms of his Father. The three lions also has a significance among the Dal gCais families and there are many variations on this theme in Irish heraldry. The Clan McGrath are descendants of the Dal gCais and the O’Briens.
2. The Cross Formee Fitchee is often used to denote Bishoprics and Archbishoprics in both the Catholic and Anglican traditions.
3. The Battle Axe possibly a symbol of authority and defence of the faith.
4. The Antelope in medieval heraldry the antelope may have had a religious significance, ‘The antelope’s two horns represent the biblical Old and New Testaments, with which people can cut themselves free of vice’. The antelope has also been used as an emblem of purity and fleetness.
5. The motto: SALUS IN FIDE, Salvation in (or by) the faith.