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Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland
II. Gaelic Society


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


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