Historic hand-painted coats of arms are big draw for online gift designer
Brendan McCarey is on the crest of a wave with Painted Clans as plaque sales soar, writes Louise McBride
There is an old Irish legend about a prince from Meath who chased a stag for two days and two nights - to finally catch and kill the stag in Monaghan. Not long after catching the stag, the prince, whose name was Hugh McKenna, decided to make Monaghan his home - rather than to return to Meath.
It is this legend which is often referred to when explaining how the McKennas first came to Monaghan and which is depicted on the coat of arms for McKenna families in Monaghan. It is also this legend which a young Irish designer, Brendan McCarey, decided to incorporate into a wedding gift he created for his friend, Finbar McKenna. Without knowing it, when creating that gift, McCarey was also planting the seed for his business, Painted Clans, which he set up in October 2014.
Painted Clans provides hand-painted family coats of arms - which are framed and sold as wedding, Christmas and birthday gifts.
On the back of each frame is some information about the family history and a column explaining the meaning of each element of the crest.
"One of my best friends [Finbar] is over in Australia and he was one of my first mates to get married," says McCarey. "My parents have an old mahogany coat-of-arms plaque. These mahogany plaques were popular wedding gifts back in the 1980s. I thought that if I could make something like that which was more aesthetically pleasing, it would be a great wedding gift."
So McCarey created a hand-painted coat-of-arms plaque for Finbar and his wife Shona.
"I gave the plaque as a gift and never thought about it again," said McCarey. "Then, through word of mouth, friends of my friends ordered the plaques as gifts. I set the company up in October 2014 and I got bombarded with orders for that Christmas."
One of the appeals of the painted crests produced by McCarey is that they are sentimental gifts - but with a modern and contemporary feel.
"A lot of times, people come to me and say they've been searching for a coat of arms and that everything they see is dated - and maybe even tacky," says McCarey. "They want something that's more modern. All the crests are hand-painted and therefore each one is unique. The double coat of arms are really popular as wedding gifts and I put the wedding date underneath the crests which makes them even more personalised. My style of design isn't over-complicated - it's a clean and geometrical approach to the coat of arms."
McCarey sells his crests online through his website paintedclans.com. He sold over 250 crests in 2017 - compared to 50 in his first year in business. "It was just a part-time business in the first year," says McCarey.
McCarey mainly sells his crests as wedding gifts in Ireland - but people living in the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Australia and Dubai are also buying his products.
Many of those buying the crests from abroad are Irish expatriates. "Most of the expat customers buying my wedding gifts are living in Britain," says McCarey.
McCarey has also being approached by Spanish and Polish people who want him to create his version of their family coat of arms. "I'm trying to figure out how to grow that market," says McCarey. "I don't have a database of crests for Spain. When people like this place orders, they know more about their family history than I do and I use that information to make the crest. There are a lot of Polish people in Ireland interested in getting a crest. However, as I don't have a database of Polish crests, there are a lot of orders that I'm turning down as I have no way of verifying the Polish crest."
McCarey has noticed that people will typically buy his crests for one of two reasons. "Irish people are usually more interested in giving a gift that's personal, whereas people from abroad have more interest in the history of the family crest."
McCarey grew up outside Glaslough in Co Monaghan. His father was a farmer; his mother a stay-at-home mum. It's no surprise, then, that one of McCarey's fondest childhood memories is of growing up on the farm.
"I've got four brothers, so while taking in the hay during the summer was hard work, it was a lot of fun," says McCarey.
The young designer feels that his childhood on the farm may have helped steer him towards his career in design."Dad worked with his hands as a farmer so that may have something to do with my design skills," says McCarey. "I was drawing from a young age."
McCarey studied design and communication in Derry - as well as in Augsburg, Germany.
His business is based in Mullen village in north Monaghan and McCarey is determined to keep it there, despite the challenges often faced by rural businesses. "I've two kids - one is aged five and one is two - and that's one reason I want to stay in Monaghan," says McCarey. "There's also a real buzz around Monaghan for setting up companies. The fact that my business is online is good too - that's how I get away with working and living from Monaghan. If I needed a shopfront, things would be a lot different."
McCarey also feels that it could be difficult for him to work with shops. "The problem with working with shops is they want to order a huge amount of volume. This is a customised product. I don't think it will ever be something you'll see sold [on a large scale] in shops."
McCarey, who is now 30, was 27 when he set up Painted Clans. He is therefore young to be his own boss but he has learned a lot about running a business over the last three years.
"As a designer, I was very much working in the business - rather than on the business," said McCarey. "I didn't have a business head on me at all. I did some work with Monaghan Enterprise Board though and it helped me a lot."
McCarey was among the almost 100 design and craft businesses which exhibited their work at Showcase Ireland in January 2016.
He is developing a new website which once complete, could certainly see his business take off further.
"I would like to have a website with a live feed where you can type in a name and pull up a crest," says McCarey. "There's hundreds and hundreds of crests though so it's a huge undertaking."
McCarey himself says that he has a thirst for history, particularly his own family history.
As a child, his parents had their own family crest - the McCarey and Lynch crest - hanging in the hallway of the home.
Indeed, Painted Clans has become a way for McCarey to explore who he is and where he came from. "The McCarey family history was hard to track down though," says McCarey. "Two of my great uncles moved to America when they were young so we have a large family over there, mostly based in New Jersey. When we dug much deeper, there is a big gap. We think the name originated in Scotland but we can't seem to pinpoint where."
McCarey will no doubt unearth many more family histories and stories as Painted Clans grows and becomes more established.
One of those stories may well be his own - and unveil the early origins of the McCarey family name.
Sunday Indo Business