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Coat of Arms
rmorial bearings had a practical purpose in war, providing a rallying point for soldiers to follow their commanders in the confusion of the battlefield. Coats of Arms began to emerge at about the time of the Crusades. As knights had a need to protect themselves from more and more deadly weapons they began to cover themselves with armour.
That made it more difficult to identify individuals on the battlefield, so the practice of wearing colours emerged. Over time the colours were worn on their protective shields. It then became necessary to make even further distinction because the colours of one knight might be similar to those of another. Thus the practice of combining colours with patterns and designs came about, so that the combination was unique to that individual. Arms offices were set up by kings and rulers to regulate the creation of arms designs and protection against the arms of one knight being used by another.

The arms are presented on a shield because that was originally how they were used. An individual knight could be identified on the battlefield by his shield. The arms were sometimes worn on the armour itself, or sometimes on a coat worn over the armour - thus the name Coat of Arms.

As more powerful weapons began to emerge during the 14th and 15th centuries armour was found to be less useful in battle and its use began to decline. However, there was still a need to identify leaders on the battlefield, so that troops could rally to them, so the colours and designs of the arms were sometimes displayed on flags.   By this time Coats of Arms were prized for their decoration and fathers proudly handed down the family crest to their sons.

In most European countries grants of Arms were usually made to individuals, not to a clan or a family as a whole. Where arms were registered to a chieftain only he or his immediate descendants could rightly lay claim to it. Thus the modern-day practice of claiming a family coat of arms simply on the basis that one happens to bear the same name is in most cases quite erroneous. In the case of Irish arms, however, many writers have pointed out that grants of arms were viewed more liberally and the arms could be claimed by someone able to show a clan relationship and not necessarily a direct line of descent as was the case with other European grants.

The MacAuliffe Coat of Arms

It is undoubtedly of interest to those who bear the name MacAuliffe (or its variations) to know that there is in existence a MacAuliffe Coat of Arms. This coat of arms was registered in Dublin in 1709 (I have also seen the date given as 1702; examinatioin of the documents should clear up that confusion) by Dermot MacAuliffe, to provide proof of his status as a noble or gentleman, which seems to have been a necessary qualification for officers in the Spanish army, in which he served.

Dermot was at the time the reigning chieftain of the clan. This was the same Dermot MacAuliffe who commanded the Irish defences at the Seige of Cork and was later to become the first colonel of the McAuliffe Regiment. Dermot initially fought in the service of France against England and its allies, but in 1709  moved to join the Spanish army. Registering the arms was probably necessary in order for him to become an officer in the European armies, signifying his nobility.


The coat of arms consists of a shield on which are depicted three blue mermaids with combs and mirrors between three blue stars, known as mullets. The colours are described as argent (silver) for the shield, while the mullets and mermaids are fess azure (blue). The arms include a while the boar's head crest in couped or (gold).

Constituent Elements

The Boar's Head
D.H Allen suggests that the boar's head could be a reminder of the days when  that  animal  was  hunted  in  the woods of  Clanawley, but  it  could  also have a deeper meaning. The boar appears in  the  O'Callaghan  arms  as  well, and when we consider that Kanturk or Ceann aire, which means "the Boar's Head," was the  centre  of  MacDonagh MacCarthy country it seems likely  that  the boar had historical  meaning  for  the  MacCarthys. We  know  that  the  MacAuliffes  and O'Callaghans  come  from  the  same MacCarthy stock so it is possible that Dermot, in  choosing the boar's head for the crest, was emphasising the MacAuliffe blood  relationship  with the MacCarthys. Heraldry experts also tell us that the boar's head  represented hospitality or signified an hospitable person (from the custom of serving the boar's head in feasts).

The Mermaids
The mermaids may be inspired by Meelin or Mealane of the clan legend. Meelin was looked  upon  by some as the banshee of  the clan; in the  popular mind the banshee is often  pictured  sitting  beside  a  stream combing her hair. The mermaid also represents seafarers or anything to do with the sea. In this case it could imply exile across the sea - as Dermot and others were exiles on the Continent. The mermaid is also said to represent eloquence.

The Mullets
A mullet is a five-pointed star-shape said to represent the rowel of a spur. It differs from a star in that in heraldry a star always has six or more points. The mullet is also said to represent divine quality bestowed by God. It could also be used to symbolise a third son.

The Colours
Colours used in heraldry also had significance. In the McAuliffe arms the shield is argent (silver), a colour that represented peace and sincerity; the couped or (gold) in the crest symbolises generosity and elevation oif the mind; the azure (blue) of the mermaids and mullets is said to symbolise truth and loyalty.

The Motto
Mottos were often recorded with other details when arms were registered and could be displayed as part of the arms. In the case of the McAuliffe Coat of Arms no motto was recorded. There is a motto -"'Vi et armis" ("By strength and by arms") which is often seen with the arms and in some versions appears on the ribbon below the shield. However, since it is not recorded as part of the arms detail it is not correctly a part of the arms, although it can be displayed as part of accompanying ornamentation. The origin of the motto is not clear and it is not certain when it first appeared with the coat of arms, although it can be seen in some quite old books. That it was not a part of the registered coat-of-arms is not so unusual as the same situation exists with some other clan coats-of arms.

Adding to the mystery about the motto is the fact that the term "'vi et armis" is a legal term which has been part of English law for centuries and is still in use today. Examples of its use in English law from as far back as the 13th Century can be seen in the Staffordshire Historical Collections, vol. 6 part 1. This was published in 1885 and contains plea rolls for the Staffordshire area in the the periods 1272-94 and 1218-38. The page contains references to crimes of trespass vi et armis or imprisonment vi et armis.

Why would an Irish clan or its chieftain adopt an English legal term for a motto? Some clue to that can perhaps be found with a closer look at the legal definition. The Dictionary -Reverso (Collins) defines "vi et armis" as "a kind of trespass accompanied by force and violence".  The following definition from the Law Dictionary may futher explain it:
"VI ET ARMIS. With force and arms. When a man breaks into another's close vi et armis, he may be opposed force by force, for there is no time to request him to go away."

It is possible, therefore, that the adoption of this English legal term (which would have been known to the Irish as they had been subjected to English law for a long period of time) was a clever use of the words to indict the English for their attacks (trespass vi et armis) in Ireland and justify meeting force with force.


The way in which the McAuliffe Coat of Arms is depicted varies somewhat depending on where it is seen. This is because when arms were registered they were recorded in text form as opposed to an actual picture. The description given for the McAuliffe arms was as follows:
Blazon: Argent three mermaids with combs and mirrors in fess azure between as many mullets of the last.
Crest: A boar's head couped or.

There were often a number of differerent designs available for each of the objects specified so it is possible for one person to come up with one version of the arms while another could produce one with subtle differences, although both could still be accurate in terms of the prescription. Some samples are shown below.  

In looking at these samples keep in mind that accurate colours can not be displayed on computers; gold can be only poorly rendered as yellow; silver is shown as a light grey.
This is a very simple potrayal of the Coat of Arms. However, the colours are not quite accurate. Motto is not properly a part of the arms. 
An example from a business that sells representations of arms. Their product comes with more elaboration, including the boar's head crest. To visit their site click here.
This is one I've put together myself with a bit of hybridising, trying to get as much accuracy as possible, given the limitiation of computer colours. It includes the Boar's head crest that is part of the registered arms.
A more elaborate depictionn by a business that sells representations of them. Although somewhat ornate, it is reasonably accurate on colours, although the blue of the shield objects  imay be too deep to be described as "azure'. Visit their site here.
What colour is fess azure?
"Of or having a light, purplish shade of blue, like that of a clear and unclouded sky", is how describes azure. Fess azure, as used in heraldry, is presumably the shade of azure that is used in a fess, a fess being "a broad horizontal band across the middle of an escutcheon". An escutcheon, in turn, is "a shield or shield-shaped emblem bearing a coat of arms". Nowadays a fess also refers to a broad band across the middle of a flag.
The blue of the mermaids and mullets on the McAuliffe Coat of Arms is presumably, therefore, the shade of azure (blue) that would have been prescribed for a fess (fess azure). On looking at flags of that described colour I find that the sample to the right appears to be a close interpretation on my computer but it may appear differently on others.
Although the MacAuliffe clan arms were never carried on Irish soil against their English oppressors, the ghosts of the McAuliffe dead must surely have rested more easily when, on numerous battlefields across Europe, Irish fighting men rallied behind the arms of a McAuliffe chieftain to inflict punishment on the English forces facing them.
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Some of the information on this page is derived from
D.H Allen 'The McAuliffes of Clanawley'1991.
If anyone has any more information about the McAuliffe Coat of Arms I'd be pleased to hear about it

MacAuliffe Coat of Arms
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This page last updated 13 May 2011

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