A Case Study in American Armorial Assumption
Over the years, the personal coats of arms used by Presidents of the United States have come from a variety of sources, ranging from inheritance to grants from foreign heraldic authorities to the adoption of new arms in conjunction with membership in an illustrious order of chivalry. All of these are valid ways of acquiring arms. Some Presidents, however, have fallen into the same trap as many of their fellow Americans, either assuming or being duped into believing that they are entitled to the arms of a famous family to which they are not actually related. The story of Ronald Reagan's arms is an object lesson in both the hazards of unwittingly usurping someone else's arms as well as in the right way to assume arms in the United States.
In the 1970s, before he was elected President, Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy apparently began using the arms of an ancient Irish noble family from which they had been led to believe Mr. Reagan was descended. As told by the gossip writer Kitty Kelley in her 1991 book, Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography, the Reagans had ordered "an elaborate coat of arms purporting to trace Reagan's descent from Hibernian aristocrats only to learn that it was a fake." It is not clear exactly what the Reagans had ordered, but since the house at their estate in Santa Barbara County, Rancho del Cielo, still has on its front door a commercially produced ceramic plaque showing the arms associated with the mediaeval house of Ó Riagáin of the Irish County of Meath, those are presumably the arms to which Kelley refers. In a nutshell, the Reagans had fallen prey to the myth that everyone with the same family name is entitled to the same coat of arms.
Somehow, Governor and Mrs. Reagan soon discovered that whatever research had been produced to support their right to the arms they had been using was a fabrication. According to Kelley, they wanted to rectify the situation as quickly as possible. They turned to Captain Adolf F. J. Karlovský, a well-known heraldic designer and associate member of the International Academy of Heraldry, who explained that the arms in question actually belong to a particular Irish family, not to everyone who shares the same surname. Ronald and Nancy Reagan had no right to use them since they could not be proven to descend from the Ó Riagáins of Meath. In response, the Reagans asked Karlovský to devise a new coat of arms of their own that made no pretensions to a glorious ancestry.
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Symbolism of the Arms
Based on a taped interview in which the Reagans provided information on their families, interests, and hobbies, Karlovský designed a totally new and distinctive coat of arms, one with no connection to the Irish arms they had previously used. It consists of a gold field with a black bear walking upright carrying a white (or silver) star. On a black chief, a white falcon emerges from a golden coronet. For a crest, Karlovský provided a black stallion issuing from the top of the helmet, charged on the shoulder with a golden actor's mask. The symbolism of some elements of the new arms is quite clear. The bear and star come directly from the state flag of California. The horse in the crest is an obvious allusion to Governor Reagan's love of horseback riding and the actor's mask to his and his wife's movie careers. One element of the design, which is quite popular in the heraldry of central Europe but much less so in the English-speaking world, is that the crest emerges directly from the mantling atop the helmet, with no crest-wreath (also known as a torse) joining the two. The mantling almost appears to be a continuation of the horse's hide, as can be seen in Karlovský's emblazonment of the arms. (For consistency with the other arms in the AHS Presidential Arms series, the image at the top of the page shows the crest depicted in the more conventional fashion, with a torse.)
Adolf Karlovský's emblazonment of the Reagan arms
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Registering the Reagans' New Arms
Karlovský and the Reagans followed several courses to document the former governor's claim to the new design. In 1980, the arms were the subject of a certification by the Spanish cronista de armas (chronicler of arms), Vicente de Cadenas y Vincent. A certification is the document by which a Spanish chronicler of arms guarantees to the recipient the right to use particular armorial bearings under Spanish law; Spanish chroniclers have long asserted a right to issue such certifications to residents of any territory ever under Spanish dominion, as California certainly was. As published by Cadenas in the 1980 edition of Blasonario de la Consanguinidad Ibérica, however, the arms are slightly different from those recorded elsewhere. The Spanish blazon is given as En plata, un oso alzado, andando, de sable, sosteniendo entre sus manos una estrella de cinco puntas. Jefe de sable con un águila, de plata, por un corona, de oro, meaning that the field of the arms was silver instead of gold and the bird in chief an eagle rather than a falcon. The tincture of the star in the bear's paws is also unstated. In 1984, Karlovský had the arms recorded in the Solothurn State Archives in Switzerland, his own country of residence. This is the standard means used in Switzerland for putting arms on record. Finally, the Reagan arms were published by the American College of Heraldry, a private heraldic registering organization, in its revised edition of volume 1 of The Heraldic Register of America (1985).
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Why Didn't President Reagan Have Proper Irish Arms?
Despite numerous reports to the contrary, President Reagan was never issued a grant of arms by the Chief Herald of Ireland, as had been done for President Kennedy before him and for President Clinton some years later. Both the Kennedy and Clinton grants seem to have originated out of Irish political considerations of the time, not on the initiative of the two recipients, and certainly there have been many other American Presidents with Irish antecedents who have not sought grants of Irish arms. In any case, the arms Reagan adopted for himself, as designed by Karlovský were just as authentic and valid in the American context as any that might have been granted by the Irish authorities. In other words, by the time he was President, Ronald Reagan had no need of an Irish grant of arms; he had arms already.
"Sept Arms" of the Irish family of O'Regan as emblazoned on Ronald Reagan pedigree prepared by the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland Source: Ireland of the Welcomes, Sept-Oct 1984
That fact notwithstanding, a pedigree prepared by the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland early during Reagan's presidency managed to muddy the heraldic waters considerably. The pedigree itself appears to be a sound piece of genealogical work. It traces the President's forebears back to his great-great grandfather, Thomas Regan, of Doolis, Ballyporeen, County Tipperary. Given the destruction of many records in a 1922 fire during the Irish Civil War, it is not unusual for that to be about the limit of reliable genealogical documentation for an ordinary Irish family. The problem is that the hand-lettered and illuminated document signed by Chief Herald Gerald Slevin was headed by a full color emblazonment of the arms of the medieval Ó Riagáins of Meath, Or a chevron Ermine between three dolphins embowed Azure, the very arms whose erroneous use the Reagans had earlier abandoned--or almost abandoned, considering that they kept the O'Regan armorial plaque on the front door at Rancho del Cielo. What could be the meaning of this? Were the Reagans actually entitled to these arms after all?
Apparently not. There are two ways that Ronald Reagan could arguably have had a right to these arms. The preferable one would be proven descent from the original O'Regans of Meath. But had there been any records either in the Chief Herald's archives or elsewhere that could support such a connection, Mr. Slevin surely would not have terminated the President's pedigree only five generations back. The other would derive from the concept of "sept arms" originally set forth by the first Chief Herald of Ireland, Edward MacLysaght. 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. There are two problems with this explanation, however.
One is that most other heraldists do not accept MacLysaght's theory of sept arms at all. The other is that, according to MacLysaght's Irish Families: Their Names, Arms and Origins:
Like most of the widespread Irish surnames O’Regan originated independently in more than one place. As regards origin, the more important of these was Ó Riagáin of Counties Meath and Dublin, one of the Four Tribes of Tara, and very prominent in the wars against the so-called Danes. They were dispersed after the Anglo-Norman invasion and their descendants have largely disappeared except in Co. Leix [Laois], to which area they migrated. The other O’Regan sept, Dalcassian in origin, descends from Riagan, nephew of the famous Brian Boru: they were seated in the Limerick area of Thomond. In modern times Regans and O’Regans are found more in County Cork than in Co. Limerick. Fineen MacCarthy, writing in 1595, claims several families of O’Regan, living in Carbery (Co. Cork), as his kinsmen. Keating, Terry and other seventeenth century authorities state that some families in Co. Limerick stem from the Co. Leix O’Regans; and it is a fact that the arms borne by families located in both those areas are the same.
The arms of Ó Riagáin of Meath are thus treated under MacLysaght's theory as the sept arms of families from Laois bearing the surnames O'Regan, Regan, Reagan, and the like, as well as the minority of Limerick O'Regans who are genealogically connected to the Laois line. It is these arms that appear at the top of the pedigree certificate and on the front door at Rancho del Cielo. Yet nothing in the pedigree establishes any kind of connection to the Regans of County Laois, let alone back to the original Ó Riagáins to whom these arms properly belonged. Instead, it traces the President's ancestors to Tipperary, a county lying between Laois and Limerick. While it is possible that President Reagan's family might have stemmed from the Laois family, and thus had some claim to the Ó Riagáin arms on the basis of the sept arms concept, it seems equally if not more likely that they were related to the Dalcassian line of O'Regans from Limerick and thus had no color of claim to these arms under the sept arms or any other heraldic concept.
We are then left wondering why the Chief Herald would have issued a document on Ronald Reagan's ancestry illustrated with a coat of arms to which Ronald Reagan could not be shown to be entitled under any theory of Irish heraldry. Presumably the illustration was intended for decorative reasons only. If so, the decision can only be said to give unfortunate encouragement to the kind of misappropriation of other people's arms that the Reagans had been cautioned about years before.
[Note: The author has asked the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland about the rationale for illustrating the Reagan pedigree with these arms and, after several months, is still awaiting a reply. We will be glad to modify the above discussion on the basis of any information the OCHI may eventually provide.]
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Much of the material above originally appeared in the news section of the previous Society website following the death of former President Reagan in 2004. In addition, I am indebted to Sean Murphy for the information and image of the Reagan pedigree prepared by the OCHI, his comments on a draft of this article, and for locating the image of the pedigree from which the illustration of the Ó Riagáin arms is taken; to Dwyer Q. Wedvick for pointing out the existence of the Spanish certification in a posting in the forum of the Heraldry Society of Scotland (April 19, 2006); to Sebastian Nelson for obtaining confirmation from the OCHI that no grant of arms was ever issued to President Reagan; and to Dennis MacGoff for the material from MacLysaght's Irish Families.
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