The Gorman Coat-of-Arms


What is A Coat-of-Arms

A coat of arms consists of three parts: the Blazon (or what is on the shield), the Crest, and the Motto. In ancient times, Heralds were a prominent class whose profession included the authentication and registry of coats-of-arms. They developed a somewhat cryptic language in which coats-of-arms were described. This description of the Gorman coat-of-arms is recorded in "The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland, & Wales",by Sir Bernard Burke, C.B., LL.D., Ulster King of Arms (1884, originally published 1842): "(A Sept derived from Cathair Mor, King of Leinster, who inhabited the territory of Hy Bairche, in the Queen's county and county Carlow, from which they were driven after the invasion of 1172, and settled under the O'Briens in the Barony of Ibrickan, in Thomond; they derived their surname from Gormain, Chief of the Sept.) Azure a lion passant between three swords erect argent. Crest- An arm embowed in armor, grasping in the hand a sword, blade wavy, all proper. Mottoes- Tosach catha agus deinadh air; and, Primi et ultimi in bello."

In this description, the parenthetical portion is an historical note. The actual description begins with Azure which refers to the background color (blue). Passant describes the position of the lion (passing), and Argent the color of the devices on the shield (silver). In the description of the crest, Proper denotes that the items described are in their natural colors. Mottoes are often given in both Gaelic and Latin, although much is lost in the translation.The motto of the Gormans in Gaelic translates as something like "First in the battle, last in the fight", which is not quite the same as the Latin version, "First and last in war". While some, myself included, are inclined to romantic interpretations of the elements of the coat-of-arms, the truth is, that in most cases the original symbolism is lost.

Origins of Coats-of-Arms

Coats-of-arms evolved for a number of practical reasons, the most obvious is simply the identification of combatants on the field of battle. When one body of warriors engaged another, it became difficult to tell them apart except for their painted shields. War in the Middle Ages was almost entirely hand-to-hand combat, and the ancient Celts were among the most feared and brutal of warriors. The Champions were often driven on to the field in a war cart (the predecessor of the chariots of the Romans) which carried all of their weapons, and were accompanied by their supporters. The champion had the mobility to move along the line of battle, lending his strength where it was most needed, and providing a rallying point when the tide of battle turned against his side. The crest may have evolved from the practice of putting some emblem up on a pole that could be easily seen all over the field. The ancient Celts engaged in a primitive form of psychological warfare: the archaeological record shows conclusively that the Celts made a regular habit of beheading their enemies and displaying the heads as trophies. These heads were often tied onto the war cart, impaled on a pole or upon one's shield, or otherwise displayed as a means of intimidating the enemy. In addition, it is highly likely that clans such as the Gormans cut off the arms of enemy warriors and mounted them on a pole, complete with sword, for similar reasons, resulting in the crest. (Note that Celtic swords were generally straight-bladed - a wavy sword was probably of foreign origin.) And the motto, of course, was the war cry. Later, with the development of metal armor, the coat-of-arms actually became a coat or cloak which was worn over the armor to protect it's wearer from the effects of prolonged exposure to the sun.

Origins of Celtic Surnames

Until the seventh or eighth century, most Celts were known by only their given name. When the adoption of surnames began, the Celts often adapted the name of an ancestor. The prefix "Mac" denotes "the child of", while the prefix "O' " denotes "grandchild of". Thus if a person whose father was not so famous (or was perhaps infamous) wanted to be identified with the mother's side of the family would use the "O' " prefix. These names could also be compounded, so that one could be known as Seamus O'Reilley MacGorman. Other names often denote a profession or place name. During the English oppression of the sixteenth century, the Irish were forced to Anglicise their names by dropping the Macs and O's. When the crown was forced to restore some rights to the Irish, many Irish Gaelicised their names by re-adopting the prefixes. According to my sources, MacGorman was originally the most widely used form of our name, but now O'Gorman is more popular.

The Meaning of "Gorman"

"Gorman" is derived from "gorm", meaning blue. It would be easy to assume that this has something to do with the blue shield. However, among the Celts' psychological warfare techniques was the practice of going into battle naked, carrying only one's weapons. They also introduced the use of woad, a blue dye made from a species of plant of the mustard family. If you saw Mel Gibson in Braveheart, you may remember that his face was painted blue for battle. They also smeared lime paste into their hair to make it stand on end (not unlike the "spiked" hairstyles of our own era). Imagine if you will, a naked Pagan Celt, his body painted blue, his hair standing on end, brandishing a great sword, charging down the field at you, screaming a battle cry... are you going to wait around to see what he does for an encore? I find it very believable that a prominent warrior could have been renowned for this practice, i.e. painting his body blue to intimidate the enemy, and that his sons and daughters could be known as "children of the blue one" - MacGormans. However, there are others who claim that "gorm" means "illustrious".

A Gorman Genealogy


While the Irish have lost much over the centuries, one thing they have kept is their sense of who they are. The Celts are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, races of humankind, and they have preserved the history of their lineage since the earliest time. The pagan Celts traced their origins to various ancestor deities, but on Christianization, managed to find the links all the way back to Adam (through Noah, of course). For the sake of brevity, I will begin my tale at the dawn of the Iron Age.

The Pagans

It is recorded that from 292 - 288BC The 85th monarch of Ireland, Crimthann Cosgrach, ruled at Tara. This Pagan Celt probably believed that he was descended from Óengus Bolg, the god of lightning, and the maker of the Spear of Lugh. Crimthann was one of the Érainn, a group of Celts who arrived in Ireland around 500BC, who were the descendants of Ir, a son of Milesius of Spain. They were able to establish their La Tene culture throughout the island as a military aristocracy because their iron weapons technology was superior to that of the bronze age peoples they displaced. Eight generations after Crimthann came Breassal Breac, who had two sons, Lughaidh (Lugh or Luy) and Conla, between whom he divided his country, thus: "To his eldest son Lughaidh, who was the ancestor of the Kings, nobility, and gentry of Leinster, he gave all of the territory on the north side of the river Bearbha (now the Barrow), from Wicklow to Drogheda; and to his son Conla, who was the ancestor of all the Kings, nobility, and gentry of Ossory, he gave the south part, from the said river to the sea." Around 100AD, three generations after Lughaidh, one Fergus Fairgé, was the uncle of Cubhall (Coole), who was the father of Fionn, commonly called Finn MacCoole, who in the early second century would gain fame as the founder and leader of the Fiana Eirionn or "Fenians of Ireland". Fergus' direct descendant nine generations later, Cathair (Cahir) Mór, became the 109th monarch to rule at Tara, from 119 - 123AD. Cathair was King of Leinster in the beginning of the 2nd century. He divided his great possessions among his thirty sons, in a will known as "The Will of Cahir More", contained in the Book of Leacan and in the Book of Ballymote. His posterity formed the principal families of Leinster. The second son of Cathair Mór was Daire.

The Christians

In the next few hundred years, Ireland would become Christianized... or perhaps it would be better to say that Chritianity would become Gaelicized (for that is the pretext used by Henry II for his invasion of Ireland in 1172AD). Eight generations after Daire, we encounter a Gorman, who was called "King Gormandus" by Geoffry of Monmouth. This Gorman invaded and devastated a large part of Britain around 593AD. His great, great, great grandson was the Gorman for whom I am named. It would appear then, that the Gorman surname originated between 700 - 800AD. The one thing I can only speculate on is exactly what made Gorman so illustrious that his descendants would want to be identified with him. I welcome any information on this subject.

The Invasions

The MacGormans (MacGormain) were lords of the Ui Bairrche, who were originally from South Wexford, in the baronies of Forth and Bargy, but they were driven from this territory by the Laigin of Ui Ceinnsealaigh (Kinsella?), and the main body settled among their allies among the northern Laigin, mainly in the area of the barony of Slievemargy in the southeastern corner of Leix and the adjoining portions of Carlow and Kilkenny.

The Vikings

Probably in the 9th century, they were driven from this territory, most likely because of the Viking (Norman) invasions, which began around 795AD. Until this time, Irish society was largely decentralized - there were no cities to speak of, and even Tara would have been considered a small town by today's standards. Trading was done at fairs, generally held on regularly scheduled days at major crossroads or the like. The Christian church was also largely decentralized as well, being centered around various monasteries scattered throughout the countryside. Perhaps this explains why we have so many chiefs (or lords) in our history. Most of the early Irish cities were the ports established by the Vikings, who used them as bases for raids inland: Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Limerick, to name a few. In this era, the Gorman clan or sept split into two groups, and the main group settled in Monaghan and Clare. The Clare branch became very numerous, and their chiefs became the hereditary field marshalls of the O'Briens. Another group made their way to Meath where, in later years, they built Caislean MacGormain from which Gormanstown takes its' name.
The Vikings would later be driven out when the Irish, united under Brien Boru (from whom the O'Briens are descended), defeated them at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Boru died in this battle, no doubt with many MacGormans at his side. Ireland enjoyed a brief period of relative peace before the next invasion. During this era, one of the Clare branch, Finn MacGorman, was Bishop of Kildare from 1148 to 1160, and directed the compilation of the Book of Leinster, one of the most valuable ancient Irish historical manuscripts surviving today. The Meath branch of the sept produced the celebrated martyrologist Maelmuire (Marian) O'Gorman, who was Abbot of Knock (Cnoc-na-napstol), near Louth, and in 1171 composed a calendar generally known as the Calendar of Marianus.

The British

While the press of our era would have us believe that the "Troubles" in Ireland began in 1968, their roots go back to 1172 when Henry II, under the pretext of a Papal Bull purporting that the British (ecclesiastical) version of Christianity was superior to the Irish (monastic) version, invaded Ireland, beginning the era of British Imperialism. The British attempt to "reduce" the Irish, which continues in our era, was met with much resistance in the form of numerous uprisings. In the 16th century, Henry VIII broke from the Church of Rome, and under his daughter, Elizabeth I, the "Protestant Ascendancy" began, again under the pretext that one religion (and its' adherents) was superior to another. Under the Policy of Plantation, the Irish in Ulster and the "Pale" would be stripped of their land and replaced by Protestants loyal to the Crown. The Gormans of Meath were victims of this policy, but many remained in the region, and were buried in the cemeteries of Monknewtown and Slane well into the 19th century. Continued Irish resistance led, in 1649, to Cromwell's invasion - a campaign of terror, destruction, and pillage unequaled before or since. Upon Cromwell's victory, most of the rest of the Irish were stripped of their land as well, probably including the Gormans of Clare.

The Famine

By the time of the "Great Hunger" (1845-48), most of the Irish had indeed been "reduced" to serfdom under British landlords. They had become dependent on the potato as their main food because everything else they produced went to pay the exorbitant "rents" extracted by the British. When the potato crop failed, the British stood by - nature had come to the aid of their conquest. Relief ships coming from America would pass ships full of Irish grain, beef, butter and milk bound for England, as well as "coffin" ships crammed with Ireland's sons and daughters fleeing to America. Many of these were Gormans.

The Emigrants

It is estimated that between 1820 and 1910 almost 5 million people (one-half the population) left Ireland for America, Canada, Australia, and Europe, and elsewhere. Note that these poor emigrants were not welcomed to America with open arms. Much like today, they were reviled and blamed for every social ill. They survived, however, and today over 40 million North Americans, myself included, claim to be of Irish descent. Among these emigrants were John Peter Gorman and Julia Bunyan, whose son, also named John Peter, was born in 1861 in Springfield, Illinois. His son, William E Gorman was born in 1902 in Britton, South Dakota, and his son, Richard A. Gorman, born in 1928 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is my father.

Other Gormans in History

According to Burke's, the Gorman coat-of-arms was confirmed to the following:

  • 1763, Ulster: Thomas O'Gorman, Esq., fourth in descent from Mahon O'Gorman, of Cahir-Morrughu, descended from Coiebha Mor O'Gorman, Chief of Clahanes and Monemore, co. Clare.
  • 1763, London: Thomas O'Gorman, fourth in descent from Denis O'Gorman, brother of Cahir O'Gorman, of Cahir-Morrughu.
  • a different version, with a red background, and the lion and the hilts and pommels of the swords in gold, was registered to three brothers in France:
    • Timothy Ellis O'Gorman, Esq., Chef d'Escadron aux Lanciers du Prince de Schwarzenberg,
    • Reginald O'Gorman, Esq., Chef d'Escadron aux Dragons de Ficquelmont, and
    • Ferdinand O'Gorman, Esq., resident at Nancy

    Other sources mention:

  • Chevalier Thomas O'Gorman (1725-1808), who joined "The Wild Geese" in the service of France as an officer in the Irish Brigade (fighting the bloody British, of course). He later owned extensive vineyards, but lost his fortune in the French Revolution.
  • Nicholas Purcell O'Gorman (1778-1857), who, as Secretary of the Catholic Association, worked with O'Connell in the struggle for Catholic Emancipation.
  • Richard O'Gorman (1820-1895), who was prominent in the Young Ireland movement.


, denials, attributions, etc.: Numerous sources were used in the preparation of this text. Since I am not a professional writer, and it has been a long time since my last English class, many of them are quoted without proper attribution, for which I apologize. Lots of my material is in the form of photocopies of various articles which I acquired over the years, and I couldn't identify the authors if I wished. Two of my primary sources are:

  • "The General Armory of England, Scotland, Ireland, & Wales", by Sir Bernard Burke, C.B., LL.D., Ulster King of Arms (1884, originally published 1842)
  • "Irish Pedigrees", by John O'Hart, 5th edition (1989, originally published 1892)

Again, thanks to the numerous others from whom I paraphrased, borrowed, and outright stole elements used to produce this page. This page is intended for no commercial purpose whatsoever.

©1996.This page is the product of Richard J. Gorman, who is solely irresponsible for its content. It is not intended to be complete at this time, and your comments and corrections or additions are welcome.

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