nastic symbols even though their
dynastic connections predated heraldry per se, which indicates that older dynastic
traditions were applied to post—Norman heraldry. Occasionally the arms themselves are
of truly ancient origin. The arms of the O’Donnells of Tirconnell, for instance, bear
the cross of "the kindred of St. Columba," as do the arms of other families of
that kindred. The ancestor of the O’Donnells was told to bear this symbol on his
shield by the great saint himself, in the sixth century! Other symbols in Gaelic heraldic
practice developed out of ancient tribal totems, reminiscent of primitive magic, learned
druids, and the pre—Christian religion.
Out of this well of Celtic antiquity comes a heraldic symbol of the
great O’Neills and their tribal kin, the sacred salmon, which was originally
considered to be the water-borne manifestation of the "otherworld god" and a
source of his wisdom. As can be seen in the chart on page 94, the O’Neills traced
their descent from Conn Cetchathach ("Conn of the Hundred Battles"). Conn is the
otherworld god, and in this manifestation he is considered the "sun-god" (St.
Patrick once railed against the Irish practice of worshiping the sun).
"Conn" in Old Irish means "head" in the sense of
one’s head being the seat of reason. A divine head needs to see, and from its shape
and brightness, the sun was regarded as the "divine eye of the heavens." In
fact, the Irish word "suil," which etymologically means sun, has acquired
the meaning "eye." "The idea of the sun being the eye of the heavens is a
very old one. When conceived anthropomorphically, the deity was often regarded as a huge
one-eyed being (O’Rahilly 58—59) ... the deified sun, the heavenly Eye, who has observed the doings of
countless generations of men" (O’Rahilly 318).
The "Red Hand of Ulster" is also an O’Neill symbol,
recalling a tale about a severed hand, when a sea race was won by the unnatural touch of
the "Red Hand" upon the shores of Ulster. In this famous tale, the ancestor of
the O’Neills was racing another boat with the object of beating it to and thus claiming a
territory for himself. Falling behind at the critical moment, the dauntless O’Neill
ancestor lopped off his left hand with an axe, and threw it upon the shore ahead of the other boat,
thus winning the land! The royal "lyon" of the Scottish kings, symbol of
Dalriadic royal descent, is reminiscent of a time when there were still lions in the
forests of Europe, and is quartered in the arms of many famous Scottish families.
For other early examples of heraldry, compare the
"proto-heraldic" use of boar-crested helmets, golden banners, etc., as described
in the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) epic poem Beowulf, a pre-literate oral composition
first written down in the eighth century. The boar was considered to be a magical beast,
and was famed for its courage. It appears later on the armorial shields of several Irish
families, such as the O’Hanleys and O’Hanlons. The distinctive boar’s head
arms of the Swintons of Lowland Scotland and their relations, the Gordons and Chisholms,
is made more interesting by the knowledge that the