Coat of Arms

The Mystery of the McQuillan Coat(s?) of Arms

Figure 1. Three different helmet crests for coat of arms.
Figure 1.  Three different helmet crests have been described in association with two distinct McQuillan coats of arms. (a) a demi-dragon azure; (b) a refulgent sun or on a wreath proper; (c) a demi-lion gules.

In published books about Irish arms and families, and all across the internet, the heraldry of the McQuillans appears clear and well-established. But like so much about the McQuillans, a first glance can be deceiving. On closer examination of the evidence, there is much about McQuillan heraldry that is confusing and controversial. There are in fact two very different coats of arms which are described as belonging to the McQuillans. In the absence of primary evidence, we can’t really be certain why this is so, or which of them might have been borne by the “Lords of the Route.”

This page is intended to provide a very brief background and introduction to some of the issues surrounding the McQuillan arms.

Heraldry in Ireland

The practice of decorating a warrior’s shield is an ancient one, and most likely arose from a practical purpose – identification – a particularly important issue where a warrior’s face might be partially or entirely covered by his helmet. But a regular system of hereditary coats of arms was a medieval innovation, which first appeared in western Europe about the middle of the 12th century.

This new system of heraldry came into Ireland with the Anglo-Norman invasion in the late 1200s. In 1392, King Richard II appointed a herald for Ireland, the Irish King of Arms. The office lapsed about 1485, and there is little evidence its holders made any attempt to record or regularize heraldic practices in Ireland. The office of Ulster King of Arms was then established by King Edward VI in 1552. There have been official heraldic offices and records for Ireland continuously since that time, northern Ireland now being under the jurisdiction of the Norroy and Ulster King of Arms, while the Republic of Ireland has established the office of Chief Herald of Ireland.

At first, use of heraldry in Ireland was largely confined to Anglo-Norman families. The native Irish clans continued to use banners and other military symbolism based in a pre-existing native Irish tradition of clan symbols about which only a very little is known. But over time, many of the native Irish chieftains adopted the more formal style of arms, sometimes incorporating their old clan and lineage symbols as heraldic charges. As heraldic practice became more a matter of prestige than military necessity, the use of heraldry also spread to those of the Anglo-Irish and native Irish middle classes of sufficient means and station to obtain grants of arms.

In the Anglo-Norman heraldic tradition, a specific coat of arms was deemed to be the personal property of its original bearer, and the right to use those arms descended to just one person at a time, through the rules of patrilineal inheritance. But Edward MacLysaght, a former Chief Herald of Ireland, offered the theory that some Irish arms had by long tradition become “sept arms,” which could be displayed by any person belonging to the sept. While the theory of “sept arms” is somewhat controversial, it is noteworthy that MacLysaght listed the MacQuillans of the Route among those clans having sept arms.

What Coat of Arms did the McQuillans Bear?

The character of a coat of arms associated with an Irish family can sometimes give clues to the family’s origin and connections. Accordingly, it would be very interesting to know when and in what forms McQuillan coats of arms first appear.

The arms of the McQuillans as usually shown: Gules, a wolf rampant argent.
Figure 2.  The arms of the McQuillans as usually shown: Gules, a wolf rampant argent.
McQuillan arms described by Edward McQuillan in 1823: Argent, a lion rampant gules.
Figure 3. McQuillan arms described by Edward McQuillan in 1823: Argent, a lion rampant gules.

MacLysaght and other heraldic authors show a coat of arms like that in Figure 2, right, as attributable to the McQuillans of the Route. We will refer to this coat of arms as McQuillan Type I.

MacLysaght also describes an accompanying helmet crest: “a demi-dragon azure” (the upper half of a blue dragon). This crest is shown at the top of this page as Figure 1a.

The Type I arms are widely available for purchase as the McQuillan arms on plates, rings, plaques and other novelties at Irish souvenir shops and from online purveyors of heraldic-themed products.

Unfortunately, MacLysaght and other published sources neglect to tell us specifically which primary sources they relied upon in attributing this coat of arms to the McQuillans, or what individual McQuillans can be shown to have borne them. In his book “Irish Families,” MacLysaght tells us only that the arms in it were based on the files of the Chief Herald’s office. A more recent work, O’Laughlin’s “The Irish Book of Arms,” tells us that a manuscript book of arms from 1690, now in the collection of the Chief Herald’s office, includes the name “Mac Quylin” among its list of names of Irish septs. But O’Laughlin’s book does not clarify whether that manuscript described or depicted a coat of arms associated with that name, or if such a description agreed with that of the Type I arms.

Unfortunately, there is a puzzling discrepency between the arms shown by these and other published heraldic authorities and those mentioned in the McQuillan family literature. Edward McQuillan, a lineal descendant of the last McQuillan chief of the name, wrote a manuscript history of his family in 1823. In it, he gave a very different description for his family’s coat of arms:

ARMS, a lion rampant gules; CREST on a wreath proper, ‘geal greena’ (a refulgent sun) or; SUPPORTERS, dexter, Justice with sword and scales; sinister, Hope, leaning on an anchor; MOTTO in Irish ‘Bus ria astrinor;’ in English ‘Death before dishonor ….

After their conversion to Christianity the crest was changed to a demi-lion and the Irish motto to the Latin “Malo mori quam foedari;” and in the year 1605 the supporters were resigned for the present, till the King and Parliament of the British Empire shall re-instate me in the honours and estates of my ancestors.

– Edward McQuillan, as quoted in D’Alton’s “King James’ Army List”

For reference purposes, we will denote this coat of arms, with or without the supporters, as McQuillan Type II. Figure 3, above, is an illustration in color of the basic Type II version of McQuillan arms. The full achievement of arms as described by Edward McQuillan is shown, without its colors, in Figure 4. The two crests, the sun on wreath and the demi-lion, are shown in color in Figure 1, as 1b and 1c.

Part of Edward’s account is rather problematic. For one thing, his claim that the McQuillans changed crests and mottos after converting to Christianity makes no sense. The McQuillans were undoubtedly Christians long before heraldry ever came into use. There is a similar problem with his account of the resignation of the supporters. Supporters, though occasionally in use by the late middle ages, were at first usually beasts or, very occasionally, “wild men” or other recognizable types of men or women. Allegorical figures of the type described by Edward normally represent a rather late style. It seems questionable whether supporters of this type would have been used by the McQuillan chiefs of the Route in the 1500s.

By Edward’s day, the use of supporters was generally considered a prerogative only of peers of the realm. Elsewhere in his manuscript, Edward claimed that the McQuillans were hereditary “Princes of Dalriada.” The idea that supporters had been used by the McQuillan chiefs may have come into his family tradition in association with that claim rather than from any surviving family evidence of their use during the McQuillans’ tenure in the Route.

The full McQuillan achievement of arms described by Edward McQuillan in 1823, including the supporters: Justice and Hope.
Figure 4. The full McQuillan achievement of arms described by Edward McQuillan in 1823, including the supporters: Justice and Hope.

A black and white illustration (reproduced at the foot of this page) in Lynn’s “Notes on the Ruins of Dunluce Castle” also shows the Type II arms as those of the McQuillans. Although the McQuillan manuscript (as quoted by D’Alton) does not specify the color of the field under the red lion, Lynn’s illustration, which designates colors by an accepted system of heraldic crosshatching, shows it as argent (white or silver). Lynn’s book also fails to tell us his source, and we are left to wonder whether the illustration of the McQuillan arms was based on Edward’s manuscript or some independent source.

Similarity to the MacDonnell Arms

A red lion also appears as the first quartering in the arms of the MacDonnells of Ulster (see Figure 5). It was the MacDonnells who defeated the McQuillans in the late 16th century and took over their territory, the Route. In the MacDonnell arms, the field beneath the lion is “or” (yellow or gold) rather than argent. Since Edward McQuillan’s description of the McQuillan arms omits the color of the field, it is possible, though perhaps unlikely, that the McQuillan arms he was describing were identical to this quarter of the MacDonnell arms.

The arms of the MacDonnells also show the red lion.
Figure 5. The arms of the MacDonnells also show the red lion. Image © Eddie Geoghegan. Used courtesy of ARALTAS

In heraldry, quartering frequently represents a combining of the paternal arms with those of a maternal heiress. Was the lion in the MacDonnell arms intended to represent the MacDonnell’s claim to the McQuillan lands by descent from Eveleen McQuillan, who was the daughter of an early 16th century McQuillan chief?

Probably not. First, it would be very unusual for the maternal arms to be placed in this position in quartered arms, as the first quarter is usually reserved for the paternal coat of arms. Second, and more importantly, the MacDonnell arms rather clearly follow a regional pattern commonly seen in western Scotland and the Isles, where the clan originated. In this pattern, seemingly quartered arms instead represent an indivisible grouping of certain clan symbols, usually including some combination drawn from a lymphad or galley, a hand holding a cross, a salmon, a rampant lion, or a castle.

It is also possible that the Type II arms described by Edward McQuillan were in fact inadvertently derived from this part of the MacDonnell arms. If the parts of the MacDonnell arms were ever depicted separately, perhaps on Dunluce castle or elsewhere in the old McQuillan territory, someone could have mistakenly assumed that one of these individual quarters represented the arms of the MacDonnells’ predecessors, the McQuillans.

Again this seems unlikely. This theory requires us to assume that a mistake of this kind somehow came to mislead Edward or someone in his ancestral family. While this is possible, it does not seem probable. If the MacDonnell arms are in fact indivisible, rather than comprised of four separate quarters, then it seems highly unlikely that the first quarter would have been depicted individually in such a way as to give rise to such an error.

The Red Lion as a Reference to Dalriada?

Lions are a very common heraldic charge in both Ireland and Scotland, and particularly so a red lion in Scotland, where the royal arms are a red lion on a gold field within a tressure flory and counterflory. It is thus certainly possible that the common elements of the red lion in the McQuillan Type II arms and that in the first quarter of the MacDonnell arms may be merely coincidental.

The most likely answer to the use of the lion in both arms may lie in the existence of a symbolic meaning of the red lion itself. There is some evidence that, during the middle ages, a red lion was believed to have been the royal symbol of Dalriada, from whose early rulers the kings of Scotland and many of the leading noble families in the region claimed descent. Since the original territory of Dalriada in Ireland was roughly co-extensive with the later Route of the McQuillans, the use of the red lion in both arms may have arisen independently from these families’ respective claims to the territory of the old kingdom of Dalriada.

Unanswered Questions

At present, we cannot determine whether one of these two coats of arms was ascribed to the McQuillans in error. Or, if there were in fact two separate traditions of McQuillan arms, we cannot explain how the two arose or differed in usage. Perhaps a new coat of arms was assumed by one of the descendants of the chiefs as personal arms in preference to an earlier traditional coat of sept arms? Or perhaps one of the coats of arms discussed here is actually that of one of the other distinct clan groups from which a McQuillan surname sometimes derives? Hopefully, answers to these and other questions may lie among the records of the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland, to be uncovered through further research. Until then, the story of the McQuillan arms will remain a mystery.

Anyone having information, corrections or suggestions about the material on this page is encouraged to contact us.