(Mac) Geoghegan Coat of Arms and related Heraldry.

Edward MacLysaght, first Chief Herald of Ireland, gives the blazon (heraldic description) of the MacGeoghegan coat of arms as "Argent a lion rampant between three dexter hands couped at the wrist gules. Crest: A greyhound passant or."

In simple English this translates to "on a silver or white shield, a red lion attacking, between three red hands severed at the wrist. Crest - a gold or yellow greyhound walking." The motto "semper patriae servire praesto" is not recorded in Ireland, mat be found in Burke's General Armory. It means "always ready to serve my country". I personally believe that "semper praesto servire" or "always ready to serve", a motto that appears on some Geoghegan coats of arms, is older and more generally applicable. Another recorded motto is "semper praesto" or "always ready".

Burke's General Armoury of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales also list several coats of arms for various Geoghegans, each slightly different but all obviously derived from the original arms.

All images may be clicked to magnify

Coat of arms of Ross MacGeoghegan, Moycashell, Co. Westmeath, Chief of his name and of his descendants.

Coat of arms of Lt. Col. Bryan Geoghegan of Col. William Warren's regiment of foot, descended of an ancient family in Ireland.

Coat of arms from an impalement of Mary Shaen (daughter of Conlie MacGeoghegan).

Coat of arms of Thomas MacGeoghegan, Athboy, Co. Meath.

In 1807, John Geoghegan of Bunowen Castle, County Galway, assumed the surname of O'Neill in lieu of Geoghegan by royal licence. He also adopted a coat of arms based on, but differentiated from, the arms of O'Neill, i.e. "Ermine a dexter hand Gules supported by two lions rampant Azure and in base a salmon naiant in the sea proper. Crest: a sinister arm embowed in armour, graphing a sword all proper". The Bunowen Geoghegans, by the way were transplanted from Westmeath to Galway under the Cromwellian regime - "To Hell or to Connaught".

There are a few more Geoghegan coats of arms that can be found in various places. Two of these are in the form of stone carvings.

The first comes from Donore Castle, near Horseleap, County Westmeath. The stone has now been removed from the castle for it's own protection. It features the familiar "lion rampant" between three severed hands, however, the hand in the dexter chief is a sinister (left) one. Whether this is an error on behalf of the original artist, or an accurate representation of the arms of the Donore Geoghegans is a matter for conjecture. In this connection, it is worth noting that the most ancient arms of O'Neill featured a left hand and that the now more familiar right hand is a later modification.

The second comes from a stone in the wall surrounding a Geoghegan burial plot in Kilcumreragh graveyard. The coat of arms is quite faded, but the details can still be made out by close inspection. Three significant features emerge. Firstly, the lion on the shield is passant rather than rampant. That is to say that it is in a walking position rather than the more usually seen upright stance.
Secondly, the crest is a naked arm grasping a sword or possibly a dagger. This is a quite common O'Neill design, but not often seen on Geoghegan arms. It doesn't appear to be an error, however. Joe Geoghegan of Galway has in his posession an engraved christening spoon which belonged to the Rosemount Geoghegans and it shows the very same (or similar) crest. Finally the motto is a variation on the usually quoted one and reads "praesto semper servire" - "always ready to serve". For various reasons, I strongly suspect that this may be an older and more appropriate motto for the clan than the more usual "semper patriae servire praesto". Assuming that the colour scheme of the this coat of arms is as one might expect, I have created the graphic of how it should appear in its full glory.

In trying to attach signifance to all of these coats of arms, one must look back to the origins of the Geoghegan sept as part of the Uí Neill. The development of the coat of arms can be best demonstrated by looking at the heraldic bearings of the O'Neill family.

Coat of Arms of "O'Neill, Price of Tyrone, Kings of Ulster and several monarchs of Ireland".

Arms are those of O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone that show quartering of the ancient O'Neill bearings with those of Ulster (taken from the arms of Burke)

The arms of Ulster showing the merging of the ancient arms of the province with those of O'Neill.

Arms of The O'Neill of Tyrone. Note the addition of the two lions.

Arms of O'Neill, Baron Dungannon and afterwards Earl of Tyrone. The "bend sinister" indicates the illegitimacy of Fearderagh O'Neill, son of Con Bacach

Arms of O'Neill of the Fews, descended from Hugh O'Neill, second son of Owen O'Neill. Note the addition of the salmon in the sea.

The modern arms of O'Neill - representing a combination of all of the previously seen features.



The severed red right hand is probably the most significant symbol in the arms. It is a feature of many coats of arms for families of the Uí Neill (i.e descendants of Niall). This same symbol is associated with the province of Ulster and appears on the Arms of that province and on the modern flag of Northern Ireland. Despite its modern association with the Loyalist tradition in Northern Ireland, it is in fact a most ancient Gaelic, Celtic and perhaps even pre-Celtic icon. There are at least three explanations of its origins.The first relates to the name of the son of Bolg or Nuadu, the Sun God of the Celts, and by some accounts the divine progenitor of all Celts. This son was know as Labraid Lámhdhearg (Labraid of the Red Hand). The association of the symbolic red hand with the Sun God, therefore makes it an appropriate heraldic icon.
The second relates to Nuada, king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who had his right hand severed by Sreng during a great battle with the Fomorians. No imperfect man being allowed to hold the throne, Nuada was forced to abdicate in favour of Bres. However, a silver hand was fashioned for him and the power of ancient magic was used to cause flesh and sinew to grow back around the prosthesis. When Bres died, Nuada again assumed his royal place.
The third explanation is somewhat more fanciful. The story tells of a pact among the seven sons of Miledh of Esbain, the Celtic king who sons conquered Ireland, that the ruler of the new land would be whoever among them first touch the soil of the island. As the flotilla approached the shore, one of the sons took his sword, cut off his right hand and threw it to land, thus becoming the ruler. He must have been either left handed or pretty stupid (or both), otherwise it is unlikely that he could have thrown the severed hand well enough to accomplish his purpose. Certainly, he was left handed for the rest of his life. The story, if true, may relate to Erimhon who is reputed to have been the first Celtic ruler of the northern part of Ireland. His brother  Ebher ruled the southern half. They were the only two of the seven brothers who survived the conquest.

The other main feature is the lion. While this symbol is common in heraldry and has many meanings, in our case if probably represents a great warrior, or warriors, possibly Niall himself.

Other families of the Uí Neill also show common features in their coats of arms.

Now usually

Fox of Kilcoursy - formely Kearney






Haughey / Haffey

Keogh / Kehoe

(This is not the usual O'Donnell arms that one sees, but nonetheless it is on record)

Shiel / Sheil / Shields / Sheilds
(hereditary physicians to the O'Neills)


I would like, at this point, to say a word or two about rights and wrongs of laying claim to these coata of arms. You will often see statements to the effect that coats of arms are granted to individuals rather than families and that therefore we, as mere bearers of the name, may not claim the arms without first proving direct descent from the original grantee and then having the claim endorsed by the appropriate heraldic authority. While this statement may be true in other countries, in Ireland, the Office of the Chief Herald takes a more liberal view. Edward MacLysaght, the first Chief Herald, states "Many Irish coats of arms may be displayed without impropriety by any person of the sept indicated if he really does belong to that sept. [A sept] is a collective term describing a group of persons who, or whose immediate and known ancestors, bore a common surname and inhabited the same locality." Unlike many Irish surnames, there was only ever one sept of MacGeoghegan and so the coat of arms, which is on record as the sept arms, may be claimed by all Geoghegans. Some will argue that the Chief Herald has no right to take such liberties with the ancient tradition of heraldry which was introduced to Ireland (and England) by the Anglo-Normans. However, it should be remembered that the ancient Irish had their own form of heraldry and symbols like the red hand of the Uí Neill, the stag of the MacCarthys, the oak tree of the O'Connors and so on were borne by the chieftains and their followers in pre-Norman times. Therefore, the Chief Herald is merely reclaiming an ancient Irish tradition. Even Burke's General Armory, a bastion of English heraldic tradition, lists many Irish coats of arms as belonging to a sept rather than an individual.

There is a lot more general information relating to Heraldry and Coats of arm in Ireland here

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