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|Cullen Surname Origins|
Part I: O'Cullen of Leinster
compiled by Jim Cullen
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A comprehensive history of the name Cullen is difficult. It can be said with great certainty that one possessing the name Cullen can trace the origins of their family to the British Isles in very ancient times. The greater number of Cullens in the world today can claim the O'Cullen sept of Leinster, in Ireland, as their ancestral family. That there are several origins for the name Cullen in Ireland may be partly due to the original meaning of the name; "cuileann", the Gaelic word for "holly". Though the actual derivation is obscure there is general agreement among authorities on Irish names that "cuileann" is the source of the name Cullen and that the patronymic meaning is "son of cuileann". The holly tree was considered sacred by the druids, having many special properties and so "cuileann" was widely used in the names of individuals and in placenames. This resulted in many references to individuals with names derived from "cuileann" and several occurences of septs or branches of septs that came to be known as Cullen. Trying to recover the histories of the origins of the name Cullen has proven to be a huge undertaking. The records are scarce due to the early time period involved. The O'Cullens, being a minor sept, received relatively little attention from the historians of the day. Various other histories published over the years have been of great help but they often conflict or differ in their interpretation of the source material or contain innocent errors that have added to the already difficult task.
MacLysaght indicates that there were "several quite distinct septs or families of Cullen" and that only one has survived to any great degree and in fact is now quite numerous. MacLysaght was not indicating that all other septs of Cullen are now extinct, only that they have survived in much smaller numbers. Details on the histories of these "former" septs of Cullen have not survived to any great degree either and so the distinction between one sept and another becomes very difficult if not impossible. It has been suggested in some published histories that one or more smaller septs were actually branches of the main Gaelic sept but the records that exist have not able to prove this conclusively. Certainly branches of the family existed and research is encouraged but it's not likely we'll ever be able to prove many of the supposed connections.
The sept of O'Cullen of Leinster has its origins in the northern section of modern Co Wicklow. In fact, the Cullen family is the one that has the longest association with the area and is still numerous to this day. The name survives there in the forms of O'Cuilinn and O'Cuillin as well as in the various forms of Cullen. Spelling has varied over the centuries but lives on in the place of its origin. In modern times the name is still most commonly found in County Dublin with large populations of the name also in the Counties of Wicklow, Wexford, and Kildare. The popular seat of this ancient family is nearly always given as Glencullen (Gleann Cuilinn), on the Kildare-Wicklow border, located about five miles inland and roughly eight miles south of Dublin. It is understood for the most part that Glencullen was not named for the sept of O'Cullen but it should also be pointed out that the sept of O'Cullen was likewise not named after Glencullen. Both the sept name and the place name derive from an earlier origin.
The Feara Cualann
O'Cullen and O'Mulryan were the principal septs of the Feara Cualann or "Men of Cuala", the meaning of which was originally "Men of the Wicklow Hills", meaning the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains to the south of Dublin. Cuala was the territory that corresponds roughly to the diocese of Glendalough and included large portions of the modern Counties of Dublin and Wicklow, particularly the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin. The name Cuala may have itself been derived from the Gaelic word "cual" meaning a heap or possibly a bundle of sticks. Evidently this is a very early description of the local geography or perhaps a description of the habits of the people who dwelt there. The traditional septs of the Feara Cualann inhabited the northern regions of County Wicklow as early as mid-5'th century and held the area in a powerful grip until the time of the Norman arrivals. The Feara Cualann may be thought of as an early example of a clan; a group of septs or families usually ascribed to a common ancestor. More accurately the clan was a group of allied families that occupied the same region and were often related (though not necessarily so). In the case of the Feara Cualann we are describing a group of allied and possibly related septs that occupied the same territory; Cuala. Although it was not common for a family to derive its name from the clan name, in the case of the O'Cullens this seems to have been the case. The O'Cullens were one of the more powerful septs in the clan and so we find the O'Cualann sept that took its name from the Feara Cualann. It should also be noted that the name of Glencullen was taken from the same source and would be understood to mean "Glean Cualann" or "Valley of the Wicklow Hills" as related to the Feara Cualann, not the sept of O'Cullen. However, since the O'Cullens were such a prominent sept of the region and dwelt there for such a long period of time, the O'Cullens came to represent the Feara Cualann by association and so we have come to understand Cualann and Cullen as one and the same. This may be nearly true but the distinction should be made here for the purpose of discussion. We will be looking principally at the territory of Cuala for it is here that we first find mention of the sept O'Cualann, a name more closely resembling their place of origin.
The district of Cualann receives mention by the Irish annalists from the earliest recorded times up to mid-12'th century, reflecting the fact that the events of the earliest times in Irish history can be found to have occurred in the territory of Cuala. The earliest mention in the Annals is for the year of the world 3501, which works out to be about the year 1700 B.C. Here is recorded the erection of Dun Deilginnsi, in the territory of Cualann, by Sedgha. Over a century later in 3656, about 1545 B.C., we find a record for Uchadan, an artificer of the Feara Cualann under the direction of Tighearnmas, who was the first to smelt gold in Ireland. This was done in Foithre Airthir Liffe (eastern Liffey or modern northern Co Kildare). One may scoff at such fanciful tales from Ireland's prehistoric past but there is archaelogical evidence of the discovery of gold in the Wicklow Hills about 2000 B.C. The ensuing gold rush brought new art and industry into the area and sparked feverish trade with ports throughout Europe and as far as Egypt and the Baltic. Cuala extended as far east as Dublin as the Annalists occasionally referred to the future site of Dublin as Ath Cliath or as Ath Cliath i Cualu, after the district of Cualann. In the Gaelic language, Dublin today is still referred to as Ath Cliath. One of the five great roads radiating out from Tara is Slighe Cualann (Sli Culann), or "The path of the Wicklow Hills". This ancient pathway through the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains is now referred to as the Wicklow Way and does pass very close to Glencullen. In this district the most conspicuous feature would have been Glencullen river and valley. The Hills of Cualann are commemorated in an eighth-century poem, indicating also how long the name Cualann has been associated with the area. The text is below, translated by Joseph Campbell.
In the youth of summer
The hills of Cualann
Are two golden horns,
Two breasts childing,
Two tents of light
In the ancient winter
They are two rusted swords,
Two waves of darkness,
Two moons of ice.
Another feature of the district, which surrounded Glencullen river and valley, were large wooded areas which later came to be called Cullenswood or the Wood of Cullen. Later still, the names Nova Colonia and Colon would be applied to the same region. In 1600 the area of Fercullen (spelt variously as Fercuolen or Feighcullen, from the original name of Feara Cualann) was granted to Sir Richard Wingfield and in 1618 he was created first Baron Powerscourt. The area is still known today as Powerscourt.
Published histories of the O'Cualann or O'Cullen sept have perpetuated some errors. According to one history, the sept of O'Cullen of Leinster derive their descent from Cuilin, son of Dubh, son of Eochy Můr, son of Corc, who is No. 89 on the "Line of Heber". This family of O'Cuilin ("cuil": Irish, a couch; "in," little) was possessed of a tract of land in the barony of Dunkerron, Co Kerry, which they held under the O'Sullivans. It is known now that this line of descent actually belongs to another Cullen sept in Thomond (Northern Munster). The line of descent from Corc to Cuilin certainly comes from a mistranslation of O'Hart's Irish Pedigrees and so the author's entire pedigree has been brought into question. It is clear that the author intended us to understand Corc as Conall Corc, son of Lugaid and 3'rd century King of Munster but the time period is questionable and the line of descendants as given does not exist for Conall Corc. In fact, the line of descent for the O'Cullens of Leinster has been discarded as a probable error in favor of the information obtained directly from O'Hart's Irish Pedigrees. However, O'Hart's Irish Pedigrees is itself a questionable source of information. There are many authors who decline consulting it at all in their research.
What has been located is a mythological line of descent for the sept known as O'Cuallan. Although the history below is not considered authentic prior to about the fourth century, it is included here. According to the traditional legend, Heremon, a son of Milesius who died in 1683 B.C., received the northern half of Ireland. His descendants include the northern and southern Ui Neill, King of Meath and Ulster, the Ulaid, the Dal Riada who later founded the kingdom of (Scotland), and the Kings of Leinster. Ugaine Mor was 22'nd in line of descent from Heremon, son of Milesius. Ugaine Mor became the 66'th Monarch of Ireland and according to tradition he had twenty five children. All but two sons were childless. After forty years of rule Ugaine Mor was slain and he died in 593 B.C. From Ugaine Mor was descended, among others, the septs of Kavanagh, Kinselagh, O'Cuallan, O'Kelly, O'Ryan, O'Tighe, O'Toole, and Quirk. A son of Ugaine Mor, Laeghaire Lorc, ancestor to all the Leinster Heremonians, had a son (or grandson depending on the source) named Labraid Loingsech. Labraid Loingsech is the common ancestor of all the peoples and dynastic lines of Leinster that held the Kingship there from about the fifth century onwards. Among the descendant lines were: Ui Bairrche, Ui Chennselaig, Ui Dunlainge, Ui Failge, Ui Garrchon, and Ui Mail. Labraid Loingsech was the 70'th Monarch of Ireland and died in 522 B.C. 30'th in descent from Ugaine Mor, through Labraid Loingsech, was Maine Mal, who lived about the beginning of the 2'nd century A.D. and was the ancestor of the Ui Mail which included the septs of O'Kelly of Cualan (Cualan meaning "of Wicklow"), O'Tighe, and O'Cuallan. The lineage from this point to the era when surnames began to be used (about the 8'th to 11'th centuries) is unknown for the O'Cullens save the lineage, from Corc, derived by another author from the work of O'Hart. There is suspicion however, that the traditional lineage assigned to the sept of the Ui Chuircc or O'Quike (O'Cuirc), the descendents of Corc in Leinster, may apply. In the Eoghanacht genealogies we are told this sept derives from "Cathal, son of Dubhslaine, son of Corcran, son of Corc, from whom the Ui Cuirc family, son of Artghail, son of Drohnall, son of Conall, son of Snedhghus, son of Nadfraich, son of Colgan, son of Failbhe Flann". Failbhe Flann, who is said to have died in 637, is one of the traditional ancestors of the MacCarthys and the O'Callaghans.
Related Septs: O'Byrne and O'Toole
The Kingdom of Leinster around the sixth century comprised the entire southwest region of Ireland but their expansion was held in check by the Ui Neill to the north and the Eoghanachta to the west. This pressure was felt locally as well, in the region just south of Dublin where we pick up again on the history of the O'Cullens of Leinster after the traditional genealogies. This is also about the time the O'Cullens sank into relative obscurity and documentation for them becomes almost nonexistent. To gain some insight into the O'Cullens during this period, the histories of some related septs have been examined to locate information possibly pertaining to the O'Cullens. We first examine the O'Byrnes and the O'Tooles, two septs who dwelt near the O'Cullens in north Wicklow. Afterwards we'll take a closer look at the history of the O'Mulryans (O'Maoilriain) who, along with the O'Cullens, were the chief representative septs of the Feara Cualann.
If the O'Cullens are closely related to the O'Byrnes and the O'Tooles of the north Wicklow hills, a closer look at the tribal descent of these two septs may be helpful. Maine Mal, discussed in the genealogy of the O'Kellys, O'Tighes, and O'Cullans, had a brother named Cathair Mor. According to tradition he was the ancestor of the Free Tribes of Leinster and from him descended the Ui Failge (O'Connor Faly, O'Dempsey, O'Dunne), Ui Crimthainn Ain (O'Duff), Ui Bairrche (O'Gorman), Ui Cheithig, and the Ui Enechglaiss (O'Feary). Cathair Mor also had a son, Fiachu Baicced, from whom descended powerful septs who would rule Leinster up until the Anglo-Norman invasion. Fiachu Baicced had a son Bressal Belach, who had two sons Enna Nia and Labraid Laidech. Labraid was the ancestor of the Ui Dega (O'Hay), Ui Cheinnselaig, and the Ui Drona (O'Ryan). Enna Nia was the ancestor of the Ui Fergusa, Ui Briuin Cuallan (Cosgrave), and the Ui Dunlainge. The Ui Dunlainge migrated from Ossory to north Leinster about the beginning of the fourth century and settled the fertile plains bordering the Liffey River in modern Co Kildare, forcing out the previous inhabitants. The Ui Cheinnselaig, who accompanied the Ui Dunlainge, settled instead in the modern Co's of Wexford and Carlow in south Leinster as challengers of the Ui Dunlainge for the throne of Leinster. The Ui Dunlainge prospered and became numerous until the beginning of the eighth century when the chief of the Ui Dunlainge divided the tribe amongst his three sons, creating then the Ui Dunchadha (whence the Mac Gilla Mo-Cholmog or Fitzdermot), Ui Faelain (whence the O'Byrnes), and the Ui Muiredaig (whence the O'Tooles), the largest of which was the Ui Faelain. With the encroachment of the Southern O'Neill from the north, the increasing threat of the Ui Cheinnselaig to the south, and frequent battles with tribes to the west, survival became a constant struggle. The final blow came with the Anglo-Normans and, about the year 1176, the O'Byrnes and the O'Tooles fled to the Wicklow Mountains where they displaced weaker tribes of the Ui Briuin Chualan, the Ui Enechglaiss, and the Dal Messin Corb. These were the same tribes forced out of the Kildare by the Ui Dunlainge centuries earlier. Which brings us to MacLysaght's description of the O'Cullens who possessed Glencullen in Co Wicklow: "As a power in that land they were overshadowed by the O'Byrnes and the O'Tooles about the year 1300, but they continued to dwell there uninterruptedly up to the present day". One may take MacLysaght's words to suggest that the O'Cullens dwelt in the area of Glencullen prior to the arrival of the O'Byrnes and the O'Tooles. This would, if true, possibly show that the origin of the O'Cullens is to be found with that of the displaced tribes that previously dwelt in modern Co Kildare.
Like the O'Cullens, the sept of O'Byrnes had multiple origins but we will be mainly concerned with the sept that had its early origins in Co's Kildare and Wicklow. The two branches of O'Byrne descended from Bran, son of Maelmorda and King of Leinster who died in 1052. The O'Byrnes and the O'Tooles occupied the plains by the River Liffey of modern north Co Kildare untill the time of the Anglo-Norman invasions beginning in 1169. Strongbow's invasion route to Dublin passed directly through the lands held by the O'Byrnes and the O'Tooles who were easily defeated. By about 1200 the O'Byrnes had resettled in the protective mountainous lands, the eastern and southern slopes of the Wicklow Mountains. The senior Branch, of "Crioch Branach" or "O'Byrnes Land" held the coastal lands from Arklow to Delgany, from the coast to the river Varty. The junior branch settled the rugged mountainous regions to the west. Known as "Gabhal Raghnuill", the seat of the junior branch was at Ballinacor. The O'Byrnes kinsmen the O'Tooles, also dispossessed of their lands in Kildare, settled the mountains in north Co Wicklow. In the sanctuary of the mountains the O'Byrnes increased in size and strength and were notoriously aggressive in their resistance to the English. The O'Byrnes and the O'Tooles were the greatest force south of Dublin and chiefs of the O'Byrnes continued to be inaugurated up until about the year 1600 when Irish resistance to the English was finally eliminated. If the O'Cullens were a sept related to the O'Byrnes and O'Tooles then it could be expected that they shared similiar histories. It could also be expected that they suffered similiar fates during the English and Anglo-Norman arrivals of the late 12'th century. The O'Byrnes and the O'Cullens could possibly claim common ancestors and they may also have been allies at one time. The coats of arms for both septs, devices of the post-Norman era, are very similiar. Of particular interest is the crest of the "mermaid combing her hair", present in the arms of both the O'Byrnes and the O'Cullens. The coastal waters of Co Wicklow in legend were believed to be inhabited by mermaids. This belief was notably held by the O'Byrnes and so attention is drawn immediately to the senior branch of the O'Byrnes which held the coastal lands.
Related Septs: O'Mulryan
Another related sept is O'Ryan, from the now obsolete O'Mulryan. This comes from the Gaelic sept of O'Maoilriain, meaning "descendant of Mavilriain", a name not identified in traditional lineages. The O'Maoilriain and the O'Cualann were the chief representatives of the Feara Cualann or "Men of the Wicklow Hills". There are some similiarities between these two small Leinster septs and a comparison of their respective histories may provide some insight. The O'Maoilriain sept is traditionally described as a Leinster sept that settled in modern Co's Limerick and Tipperary about the 13'th century which would agree with the time period the O'Cualanns and the O'Maoilriains would have been forced out of the area of north Co Wicklow. During this time, before historical records, the O'Maoilriains and the O'Cualanns seem to have been part of some great movement of tribes or septs across Ireland, movements barely discerned in the traditional records. The dynasties of Leinster are said to have expanded into Munster for a time before being pushed back again, leaving some people behind to found new branches of their respective septs in the new territory. The O'Maoilriains settled into their traditional territory about the 13'th century where they became very prominent and are to this day very numerous in the area. This area included the Baronies of Owney (formerly Owney O'Mulryan) in Co Tipperary and Owney-beg in east Co Limerick, rich pasturelands of the Golden Vale on the border between the two Counties. Septs said to be named O'Cullen are also found in this same area and at about the same time, lending some support to the idea that the O'Cullen sept found in County Tipperary was a branch of the O'Cualann sept of north Co Wicklow.
O'Cullen of Limerick and Tipperary
There are problems with the idea of branches of the Leinster O'Cullens in Limerick and Tipperary, and it becomes very apparent when we probe for more detail. When we look further into the above history of the O'Mulryans, we find a branch of the family resettled in rich lands in Co's Limerick and Tipperary. The records also show a sept of O'Cullen present in the Barony of Owney-beg in Co Limerick. In the records we find this sept to be O'Cahalane or Culhane of Ui Cathalain, Lords of Owney Beg (Uaithne Cliach). According to tradition, the Ui Cathalain was named for "Cuilen". His genealogy is given as: Cuilen, from whom descended the Ui Chailein, was the son of Tuathal, son of Flann Lua, son of Laoghaire, son of Criomthann (whence Cinel Laoghaire), son of Eochu (whence Ui Eachach or Ivagha), only son of Cas, son of Conall Corc, son of Lugaid (whence the Eoghanachta), son of Ailill Flann Beag. This is a very early Munster genealogy and not that of the O'Cullens of Leinster. Also in Limerick were the O'Coileain (Collins or Cullane), who were lords of Connello until they settled in Cork in the 13'th century, near Carbery where their kinsman the O'Donovans were also to be found. These O'Coileains were of the Ui Fidhgheinte of west Limerick, allies of the Eoghanachta. The genealogy of this family of O'Coileain is found in the Book of Munster where their connection to the O'Donovans is also to be found. Some from this sept of O'Coileain also took the name Cullen though it is usually Cullane or Collins. Still, this is not the sept of O'Cullen of Leinster. In the very same region of Carbery in Cork where the O'Coileain migrated to was a sept, O'Cuilleain of the Corca Laoidhe, which also was anglicized as Collins. The O'Cuillen (O'Cullen or Collins) are also found in Co Tipperary and were cited as chiefs of Eoghanacht Aradh. These Munster families will be discussed in more detail in Part III: O'Cullen of Munster. Though a few Cullen families are descended from the septs of O'Coileain or (especially) the O'Cuilleain in these areas, most will be found with the name Collins. In fact some of these septs may be extinct as far as the name Cullen is concerned. In this regard we may take to heart MacLysaght's description of the former septs of Cullen and appreciate how difficult it would have been for him to cover the septs in detail.
Branches of the Leinster sept of O'Cullen
In summary, the sept of O'Cullan or O'Cullen is scarcely mentioned after the period of the Anglo-Norman invasions and by 1300 was largely overpowered by the two other septs in the region - the O'Byrnes and the O'Tooles. It is about this time that the name of Cullen began to appear in Scotland with parishes of that name in Banffshire, Ayrshire and Galloway. Though this indicates a possible connection, there may also be a Scottish clan by the name of Cullen distinct from the Irish family, a topic to be covered later.
The name Cullen also appears at about the same time in nearby Co Kildare with the family seated at Kilcullen. The name Kilcullen, not to be confused with the surname of Kilcullen in Co Sligo, is most likely to have been derived from "Cill Chuillinn", meaning "Cuilleann's Church". The remains of an ancient monastic church dating to about the 8'th century still exist in the area along with a nearby round tower. Of special interest are the remains of a celtic High Cross with biblical carvings still able to be seen. The monastary itself was founded by St. Patrick in the mid-5'th century. St. Isernius, who died in 469, was the first Bishop there. An interesting item concerns St. Palladius, St. Patrick's predecessor who died in 432. St. Palladius was consecrated Bishop of the Irish, in the year 431 it is said, and landed in Ireland near the town of Wicklow in the territory of the Ui Garrchon. At this early date it is believed that the tribe of Cualann was already settled in the area and the local chieftan had no use for the missionary efforts of St. Palladius. In fact, the resistance was so fierce that Palladius was terrified to ever return. There were others in the tribe who were more receptive and, as a result, several churches were built in later years commemorating Palladius' missionary work. The annals contain many references to Bishops and Abbots of Cill Chuillinn as well as other items of its history as late as the 16'th century. The church itself was repeatedly ravaged in the 10'th century by the Vikings of Dublin and again ravaged and burned in the year 1114. The New Abbey was founded in 1486 and operated peacefully until mid-16'th century when conflicts with the English brought on the dismissal of the friars. The house was granted to Edmund Spencer in 1582 but fell into disuse after a time and by 1766 had long since been abandoned.
There are other septs of Cullen that may have taken their name by attraction, notable examples according to MacLysaght being O'Cuileamhain (Culloon or Culhoun) of south Leinster and MacCuilin (MacCullen) of Leitrim. I will mention here the Ui Cuilinn (O'Cullen), a sept noted near the parish of Tintern in Co Wexford, in order to point out an observation made concerning the spelling of the sept's name. In the 1659 "census"we find that the Gaelic O'Cullens and O'Cullins outnumber the Normanized Cullens and Cullins nearly six to one. We aren't so concerned here with the relative populations but with the spelling of the names of the families. It's found that references to septs such as O'Cuileain (pronounced "Cullen") or O'Coileain (pronounced "Collin") will almost invariably result in a discussion concerning the Collins and Cullinanes with a notation to the effect that some small number of such septs took the name Cullen. When one encounters references to septs such as O'Cualann or O'Cuilinn, it's fairly certain that names such as Collins or Cullinane will not appear. Similiarly, refer again to the modern spelling generally attributed to the descendants of the Leinster O'Cullens: O'Cuilinn and O'Cuillin. These subtle yet persistent variations in spelling introduce a new possibility for the meaning of the name Cullen, from the Gaelic "cuil" meaning "couch" or "nook" and "in" meaning "little". For these reasons I wouldn't dismiss immediately the belief by some that the Gaelic O'Cullens of south Co Wexford were a branch of the original sept of O'Cullen of north Wicklow who migrated south in the middle ages. Though not dismissed, very little information exists to support this claim. The Cullens of Co Wexford are discussed further in Part Two of this history.
Coat of Arms for O'Cullen of Leinster
It has already been explained that the use of the coat of arms in Ireland was a developement of the post Norman era. Irish heraldry follows after the English system that was introduced by the Normans in the twelth century. The Flemish originated their system of arms from that of the Carolingian Empire in the eighth century. During the Crusades (12'th and 13'th centuries), all of Europe was adopting the use of arms as a means of military identification. In the centuries to follow the powerful symbolism of family and identity developed and was put to use in a multitude of non-military applications. It was during this period that the common conventions of heraldry (so called after the herald who recorded the armorials or blazons) became widespread in Ireland. It was also during this time that the coats of arms for O'Byrne and O'Cullen were granted.
In Ireland, as was true in other areas of Europe as well, there was already a primitive system of heraldry in use. The Irish adopted a system of identification as early as the sixth century in the form of battle standards or flags atop long poles as a means of military identification for the chiefs of the battle. On the banners were colored figures derived from the body of pre-Christian myth and from the complex traditions of the ancient genealogies of the Irish people. The artistic figures ranged from religious symbolism and mythological icons to plants, animals, people, and objects of every variety.
If it were not for the use of primitive forms of heraldry in Ireland in the latter half of the first millenium, the study of the family "coat of arms" would be a futile pursuit for the genealogist. The symbols used on many of the battle standards however, appeared again in the conventional coats of arms that developed later. The figures and their arrangements related the achievements and status of the family or sept concerned; items of historical interest that may date from the 7'th century or earlier in some cases. Although much of this symbolism may pertain to mythological traditions rather than historical facts, it is undeniable that the symbolism contained in the coats of arms represents ideas, relationships, or achievements of great importance to the family that bears it. This qualifies, if for no other reason, why the Irish heraldic system deserves a closer inspection by the genealogist. A word of warning. The meaning of the coats of arms has been lost to time in most cases; the granting of a coat of arms did not include an explanation of the symbolism. There are generic interpretations of the tinctures (colors), charges, and so on but they can only be of minimal assistance in deciphering any one specific coat of arms. Having said this we'll examine the armorials of O'Cullen and O'Byrne.
The traditional blazon of the family of O'Cullen of Leinster is the same as that recorded by MacLysaght: "Gules on a chevron between three dexter hands erect couped at the wrist argent a garb of the first between two trefoils slipt vert. Crest - A mermaid with comb and mirror all proper. Motto: Carpe Diem (Latin: Sieze the day)" The motto may or may not appear, depending on the source. At first glance this may seem to be a rather vague description but the language of heraldry is quite precise and formulated. The above description, given to several different persons well versed in the art of heraldry, would result in several nearly identical copies of the same coat of arms. The recording of arms using this language was far superior to the heralds drawing out in full color each coat of arms they encountered. To the uninitiated the language will seem to be haphazard, especially since the traditional blazon contains no punctuation at all.
A partial translation of the arms is easily accomplished by substituting the heraldic colors with ones we are more familiar with; red for gules, white or silver for argent, and green for vert. We may also at this point replace the word "couped" with "cut off", the word "dexter" with "right", and the word "garb" with "sheaf of wheat". The blazon then reads: "Red on a chevron between three right hands erect cut off at the wrist white a wheat sheaf of the first between two trefoils slipt green. Crest - A mermaid with comb and mirror all proper." The blazon can be further translated with an understanding of the basic formula for the description and with some well placed punctuation. In the blazon, the very first word describes the color of the shield itself. Immediately after is a description of the division of the shield by ordinaries (in this case the chevron) or other partitions. The rest of the blazon describes the placement, color, and exact nature of the various charges (symbols) present on the arms. For O'Cullen, the herald has accomplished the description of the arms in three basic sections. "Red" for the shield itself, "on a chevron between three right hands erect cut off at the wrist white" describing the color and placement of the ordinary (divider) and accompanying charges, and "a wheat sheaf of the first between two trefoils slipt green" for the final group of charges.
The final step for translating the arms is to understand the use of terms for color and placement. The word white applies to everything before it in that section - meaning the chevron and the cut off hands. Likewise the word green would apply to everything in its section including the trefoils and the wheat sheaf but the wheat sheaf has its own color description. The term "of the first" indicates that the first color mentioned, here red, is to be applied to the wheat sheaf. The words "on a" right before the word "chevron" indicates that everything in the last section is to be arranged on the chevron rather than on the shield itself. The chevron being simply "between" the hands indicates that the hands are placed at the three corner areas of the shield; two in chief (at the top) and one in base (at the bottom). Trefoils being slipt about the wheat sheaf means that the trefoils are likewise located at either extremity of the chevron with the wheat sheaf in between. The final translation for the arms of O'Cullen of Leinster may read then something along the lines of "The shield is red. On a white chevron which is arranged between three white hands, there is a red wheat sheaf between two green trefoils. The crest is a mermaid with a comb and mirror." Compare this description to the actual appearance of the arms of O'Cullen and the translation will be found to be quite accurate.
Elements of the Arms of O'Cullen of Leinster
The color red in the arms of O'Cullen is usually interpreted as a sign of military strength and fortitude. White on the other hand signifies peace and sincerity. The chevron, being one of the honorable ordinaries, is granted in recognition of faithful service or military defense. As a mark of honor, the frequency of the appearance of the chevron in Irish heraldry is only about one in twelve. It is somewhat more prevalant in English heraldry. It signifies protection and may have been awarded to those of great achievment or who succeeded in some great enterprise. As the sloping shape of the chevron suggests, it may also have been granted to those who built churches or fortresses. Noted as a minority in the world of Irish heraldry, the appearance of the chevron would in the very least be a mark of some merit.
The Garb or Sheaf of wheat is one of the oldest charges in heraldic history and is found on the arms for O'Cullen of Leinster. The garb is said to have the meaning "The harvest of one's hopes has been secured" though this cannot be held literally. The garb is sometimes used to indicate a profession and is found on some arms for the Weaver family. Usually the garb will be found gold in color and unless stated otherwise is a sheaf of wheat. A more literal translation may be to indicate agriculture and the fertility of the soil in a particular area. In some cases the garb may be used out of respect for St. Kiernan who blessed the cultivation of corn.
The trefoil is also a very old heraldic element, having been used abundantly by the Romans in their own system of heraldry. In Irish heraldry we find the trefoils in two basic varieties; black and green. In the arms of the O'Cullen family, the trefoil is often pictured as black though the blazon states specifically that it is "vert" or green. We find that the possible meanings of the black trefoil are "perpetuity" and "longetivity". If the trefoil is green then it is interpreted as a symbol of Ireland itself. This interpretation may stem from the supposed use of the shamrock by St. Patrick in his illustrations of the Holy Trinity, thus providing the trefoil with a religious meaning as well. There is little difference between trefoils and shamrocks but if shamrocks are intended the herald will have usually stated shamrocks specifically. We find that the shamrock, from the Gaelic "seamair og" or "young clover", is the immature form of the trefoil. Still, green trefoils are often interpreted as shamrocks regardless of the literal translation of the blazon.
Perhaps the most difficult charge on the arms of O'Cullen is the hand. There are two interpretations of the hands, and the proponents of each are adamant. The severed Red Hand of the O'Neills, known in heraldic terms as "a dexter hand couped at the wrist gules", is said to derive from one of several mythical events concerning Labraid Lamhdhearg - "Labraid of the Red Hand". Another similiar narrative is that of the sons of Milesius, who are said to have conquered Ireland and settled on an agreement that whosoever first touched the soil of Ireland should become the ruler over it. One "clever" and evidently determined son removed his own hand with his sword and, tossing the severed limb ashore, won the kingship. Who wouldn't grant the brave lad the status of a king? At any rate, the hand is a present on the arms for many families of the Ui Neill and, in fact, is associated with the entire province of Ulster as a symbol of the covenant between God and Mankind. The appearance of the red hand on the arms of O'Cullen is white on red (reversed) since the red hand would not be visible against the red background. This color variation for the sake of clarity occurs quite often on Irish arms and is to be expected since the very origin of heraldry demands an easily visible and identifiable shield.
The second interpretation of the hands is based on the fact that not all hands in Irish heraldry are the same as the "Red Hand of Ulster" and that if the "Red Hand of Ulster" is intended then it will in fact be red in color. The open hand that appears on the arms of O'Cullen may be another ancient symbol of christianity and as such carries with it a meaning that is symbolized by the sun. An intriguing example is found on the arms of the (Mac)Brady, where a naturally coloured hand points to a golden sun (with facial features), all on a black background. It is also believed that the hand is a symbol for an ancient method of hand communication or sign language that eventually evolved into what is now known as Ogham script. Ogham or Ogam is a word derived from Ogmios, the Irish form of which is Ogma, meaning "honey-mouthed", also found translated as "sun face". Ogma was the classical god of writing, wisdom, and eloquence. The symbolism involves the use of language as a source of great power over men, an early illustration of the proverb- "The pen is mightier than the sword". Lucian of Samosata, a 2'nd century Greek satirist, explains that Ogma "draws a willing crowd of people, fastened to him by slender golden chains, the ends of which pass through his tongue." These followers or devotees were to emerge as the highly regarded "filid" or wandering Irish poets of the times just before the christian era. Comprised of lawyers, historians, and poets, the filid preserved Ireland's histories, laws, royal genealogies, and stories of heroic deeds from Ireland's distant past. Not only were the stories related orally in the bardic tradition, they were also written down by later scribes. Originally, according the the 15'th century Book of Ballymote (which was the key to deciphering the script), Ogham was a secret ritualistic language made up of lines and spaces that consisted of an alphabet of twenty letters, all named after trees. Five more letters were added to make up the complete alphabet of twenty-five letters. Communication with the hand and fingers using this alphabet could be duplicated in a carving or drawing in a type of shorthand notation, seen as a series of short and long lines. Most surviving examples are found carved on the edges of stones used as burial markers. Inscriptions of this earliest form of written Irish dating to the 5'th, 6'th, and 7'th centuries have been found throughout Ireland though mostly concentrated in the south and southwest regions. It is believed that Ogham has its origins in Latin and is tied up in the history of the raiding of the Irish people from southwest County Cork into regions of southern Wales and into the southern regions of England about the 5'th century or perhaps earlier. The durability of Ogham is demonstrated by the fact that there were still isolated incidents of its use as late as the 19'th century.
The crest on the arms of O'Cullen is "A mermaid with comb and mirror all proper". The mermaid, a mythical sea creature, was believed by the O'Byrnes to inhabit the waters of southern County Wicklow in areas such as Mureday which means "the land of the sea Goddess". The mermaid is significant as the image of perfection and goodness and is a symbol of eloquence. The mermaid appears as the crest on the arms of O'Byrne, O'Cullen, and MacInerney. On the arms of MacAuliffe it appears as one of the charges. In the Irish Annals there are several recorded instances from the 6'th to 12'th centuries of fisherman catching mermaids or of dead mermaids washing up onto the shore. Mermaids appear in ancient Irish sculpture as well but the old legends are borrowed by christianity to be presented in a new light. Frequently the mermaid is countered by a symbol of christianity and so, in this context, the mermaid may be viewed as a christian warning against the sins of pride, vanity, and lust. Across the Irish Sea, in the folklore of ancient Scotland, the mermaid with a comb and mirror is known as the "fish goddess", inhabiting the waters of Loch Voil in southern Perthshire. The mermaid appears on the standard of the chief of the MacLarens, the Picto-Gaelic earls from the same area. On the arms of Murray, the dukes of Atholl, the mermaid appears as one of the crests.
"Carpe Diem": Motto of the Leinster O'Cullens
Not every Irish coat of arms is accompanied by a motto. A cursory review of the families that have coats of arms recorded in MacLysaght's shows that only about a quarter of these families have mottos recorded with their arms. It is said that some mottos may derive from family's "battle cry" and in some cases there may be ample evidence to confirm it. In the case of the O'Cullens however, we cannot say for certain how the motto "Carpe Diem" originated. As was stated earlier, the popular phrase is Latin for "seize (or pluck) the day", dating from the Golden Age of literature in the Roman Empire. The idea behind the motto is to seize the opportunities that present themselves today rather than place to place all one's hopes in a better future. Perhaps the original author may relate its meaning with a little more flair. Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known as Horace, lived from 65B.C. to 8B.C. He was a Roman writer, author of "Odes", "Epodes", "Satires", and "Epistles". One of the Odes, now known as the "Carpe Diem" ode, is almost universally attributed as the source of the phrase that would eventually be adopted as the motto of the O'Cullens. The relevant portion from Horace follows:
"Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings LeuconoŽ. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!"
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