A tradition that is often coupled with genealogy is heraldry. Once noted as the “shorthand of history,” heraldry is both an art form and a symbolic language that was once used as a form of identification in certain circles. Today, heraldry is primarily used to represent governments, institutions, and corporations, as well as the achievements of individuals and the heritage of families. It is this latter use that has coupled heraldry to genealogy.
Heraldry & Heraldry in America
Heraldry is principally concerned with the study of armorial bearings or coats of arms. Although the exact origins are unclear, it is known that heraldry in some form was well in use by the mid-twelfth century in England and elsewhere in Europe. First appearing on the tunics, shields, and banners of knights in battle and tournaments, heraldry quickly became a symbolic system of identification.
When Europeans began to explore and establish colonies throughout the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they brought with them the tradition of heraldry. Although often viewed today as “old world,” European, or something that elitists have any interest in, heraldry has existed in the United States since colonial times. Many of the Founding Fathers, for example, had and used coats of arms. Perhaps the most famous of these is the coat of arms of George Washington. Subsequent Presidents have had or used coats of arms since Colonial times, including the Roosevelts, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Additionally, many private individuals have coats of arms. Despite the existence of heraldry in the United States, it has not had as significant a presence as it has had in Europe. There is also no legal authority of heraldry as there are in European countries like the United Kingdom, though there are heraldry organizations like The American College of Heraldry and The American Heraldry Society.
As in Europe, Heraldry in the United States is primarily armorial bearings or coats of arms. Coats of arms can consist of several different elements, though they usually consist of a shield and a crest. Additional elements include mottoes inscribed on ribbons, helmets (helms), mantling, and supporters. It is through the different styling and design of these elements that give coats of arms their uniqueness and what enabled them to be a form of identification in the past. To learn about these different elements and other information about heraldry, read through An American Heraldic Primer by Philip D. Blanton at the American Heraldry Society.
Heraldry & Surnames
A major concern among American heraldic organizations, as well as heraldic authorities in Europe, is the improper use or assumption of coats of arms. In America a common practice, and one promoted by businesses selling “family coats of arms” or “family crests,” is the assumption of arms based on surname. In other words, many assume the right to claim and use a coat of arms because it is identified with a particular surname. However, many heraldic authorities and organizations are adamant that there is no such thing as a coat of arms that belongs to a surname. The College of Arms of the United Kingdom had the following to say on the issue:
“There is no such thing as a ‘coat of arms for a surname’. Many people of the same surname will often be entitled to completely different coats of arms, and many of that surname will be entitled to no coat of arms. Coats of arms belong to individuals. For any person to have a right to a coat of arms they must either have had it granted to them or be descended in the legitimate male line from a person to whom arms were granted or confirmed in the past.”
This standard is maintained by American heraldic organizations, though there are no laws in the United States (unlike in Europe) requiring someone to follow such a standard. The American Heraldry Society, for example, states “a particular coat of arms pertains to a single specific individual and his direct descendants, not to everyone who happens to share the same last name.”
Since the Kernan surname is Irish in origins, it may be more useful to understand what Ireland has to say on this issue. In Ireland, the claim and assumption of coats of arms has generally followed that of the United Kingdom. However, the Chief Herald of Ireland will grant a claim to an existing coat of arms if the claimant establishes legitimate descent in the male or female line from the person to whom a coat of arms were granted or confirmed in the past. Unfortunately this is not an easy task, as many official and genealogically relevant records were lost in a 1922 fire during the Irish Civil War. The loss of these records has resulted in many people of Irish ancestry not being able to trace their lineage back beyond a certain number of generations. In most cases, this excludes the possibility of proving legitimate descent from a person to whom a coat of arms was once granted.
This and other limitations have given some weight to a controversial theory proposed by the first Chief Herald of Ireland, Edward MacLysaght (1887-1986), which is referred to as “sept arms.” The American Heraldry Society describes MacLysaght’s “sept arms” in the following way:
“Under this theory, certain ‘septs’—groups of families originating in the same vicinity and bearing the same surname—have a shared right to use a common coat of arms as a symbol of group identification, if not as individual personal arms. The underlying premise was that people with the same name originating in the same vicinity were likely to share a common ancestor, even if no one was any longer able to trace the actual kinship.”
This theory is controversial and not accepted by all heralds or scholars. Nevertheless, it has provided a kind of precedent for the assumption of a coat of arms by many in Ireland, as well as many with Irish ancestry.
Although it is well established that there is no such thing as a coat of arms that belongs to a surname, and thus a coat of arms that can be assumed by anyone with that surname, it is still interesting to explore coats of arms that have been claimed by Kernans and persons with other variant spellings of the surname. Under MacLysaght’s “sept arms” theory, identification with groups of families originating in the same vicinity and bearing the same surname can give credibility to the assumption of such arms by Kernans in America. However, those wishing to assume arms should do so by seeking a grant of arms from a heraldic authority, as some Kernans have.
Because coats of arms are granted to individuals, moreover, there are several different ones claimed or granted to Kernans, as well as persons with variant spellings of the surname. However, the most recognized shield associated with Kernans is described (blazoned) as “ermine two lions passant gules.” In other words, a shield of ermine with two red lions walking with their tails and right forepaws raised. This shield design has a long history, a could date as far back as the sixteenth century or earlier. It was likely originally granted to McTiernans or McTernans of either County Cavan or County Leitrim. A variation of this shield is described as “ermine two lions passant gules in fess.” The basic elements of this shield design—an ermine shield and two red lions—are present. However, the lions do not appear one above the other, but positioned side-by-side or on the same row in the along the center of the shield (fess).
Over the years since the original grant of arms, there have undoubtedly been many other variations granted to Kernans (or other variant spellings) in Ireland. In the United States, a few are known. One that possibly dates from the eighteenth century is described as “ermine a fess sable between two lions passant gules, three fleur-de-lis Or,” as seen by the shield on the left in the image below. In other words, a shield of ermine with a black band across the middle and three gold fleur-de-lis upon it, and two red lions walking with their tails and right forepaws raised, one above the black band and one below it. Another grant of arms to an American Kernan in 1957 is described as “ermine two lions passant gules, on chief gules three mullets argent,” as seen by the shield on the right in the image below. This coat of arms is associated with descendants of Kernans of Ned, County Cavan.
Perhaps one of the more recent grants of arms, moreover, is to Michael McTiernan of Pennsylvania, who received it in 1998 from his descent from the McTiernans of Sheskin, County Leitrim. This coat of arms differs in many ways from the more recognized design, though it retains similar elements. It is describe as “argent two lions passant Gules a bordure flory of three fleur-de-lys in pairle and three trefoils in pairle reversed Azure.” In other words, a shield of silver with a blue border of alternating fleur-de-lis and trefoils and two red lions walking with their tails and right forepaws raised.
Although several variations of the original coat of arms have been discussed, it is likely that many more both in the United States and in Ireland exist. Nevertheless, it is highly likely that they bear some resemblance to the original design in the same way that those that have been discussed do.
Our Kernan Heraldry
This survey of Kernan heraldry begs the question as to whether or not our Kernan family has a coat of arms and if so, what it looks like. Generally speaking, our Kernan family does not technically have a coat of arms that it legally (under Irish or English laws) has the right to bear. The reason for this is the requirements under which a legal claim to a coat of arms can be made cannot presently be met by our family. As already mentioned above, a legal claim to a coat of arms in the United Kingdom and Ireland requires one of two methods as stated in following:
“For any person to have a right to a coat of arms they must either have had it granted to them or be descended in the legitimate male line from a person to whom arms were granted or confirmed in the past.”
Based on what is presently known about our Kernan family, neither of these two methods for making a legal claim to a coat of arms (or obtaining a grant of arms) can be established. Firstly, there is no evidence of a coat of arms having been granted to any known members of our family or of any member applying for a grant of arms in Ireland. Neither Patrick Kiernan (?-1835) nor Felix Kiernan (1796-1882), who were both born in Ireland, are known to have been granted a coat of arms. This is equally true of their descendants, the majority (if not all) of which immigrated to North America–a fact which makes such a grant all the more highly unlikely. Secondly, tracing descent “from a person to whom arms were granted or confirmed in the past” cannot presently be done as the limitations of Irish records currently prevent tracing the family further back than Patrick Kiernan (?-1835).
Despite the lack of a legal claim to a coat of arms, it is still possible for members of our family to claim a coat of arms, though unofficially, on the basis of “sept arms.” As described above, the position of “sept arms” is that “families originating in the same vicinity and bearing the same surname have a shared right to use a common coat of arms as a symbol of group identification.” Thus, Kernans originating in roughly the same location could adopt a coat of arms. For examples, Kernans in Counties Cavan and Leitrim could adopt the original design of the coat of arms, as it (and variations) are known to have been granted in these counties. Although a connection to these counties have not been established for our family, they are connected to neighboring counties (Westmeath and Louth), where many Kernans are found. Thus, under “sept arms” those wishing to adopt the original design of the coat of arms could do so unofficially if they wished to do so.
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Published 12/31/2017. Last Updated 11/10/2020.