Sligo Champion

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Sligo's hare and escallop symbols are 'incorrect and a child's fable'


Credit: Photo Carl Brennan

Credit: Photo Carl Brennan


Credit: Photo Carl Brennan

That's according to local barrister, historian and author Paul Gunning who has developed an intriguing new historical theory on the subject, declaring: "It has remained an almost indestructible myth, but I'm of the firm belief the supposed hare and escallop motifs are in fact a demi-wolf with a heart held between its front paws – this being the crest for Sligo's most powerful medieval Gaelic merchants, the O'Creans."

In a research paper to be submitted to the Chief Heraldic Office, with a view enquiring as to the accuracy the Borough's coat of arms imagery, Mr. Gunning says the symbolic motifs of Sligo's medieval Gaelic merchant princes can now be put forward to claim their rightful place.

Casting doubt over the long-held belief that the Shelly River City's municipal armorial origins centre on the much-loved 'hare and escallop' theory, he claimed the currently offered explanations concerning the anachronistic armorial coat of arms is "quite possibly nothing more than an a convenient historical hoax."

Indeed, Mr Gunning, noted: "It's probable it was never meant to be little more beyond that of a child's fable story."

This seal is a central component to elucidating Sligo's medieval heritage, Mr Gunning, co-author of Down Gallows Hill, stated.

He added: "Unfortunately to date the history of this vital piece of civic history, a composite of Sligo's collective cultural experience, has been largely debated from an incorrect premises. A disproportionate emphasis on the debate as to whether it is Drumcliffe Tower or Sligo Abbey etc has obscured the nub of the issue which is where and how did the animal ie the supposed hare with its paw in a shell, which is pride of place in Sligo's coat of arms, arise as a tale or account of our storied past."

In the wake of a recent controversy which erupted in response the rebranding of Sligo's local authorities using a shell, Mr Gunning states: "I firmly believe the shell as originally drafted never existed on the original Borough's seal. Further the Irish word 'Slig' translated into shell regarding Sligo is most likely an error."

"It may seem heretical to cast doubt on this fanciful hare and escallop tale but my research strongly indicates this to be the case. The animal in question was not a timid hare limping along Sligo Bay in days of yore with a putative escallop clamped to its paw desperately trying to seek sanctuary and escape the impending deluge which threatened to submerge and doom the more ancient settlement at Drumcliffe. What's much more probable is that is rather a wolf and this beast is holding a heart within its paws – this being crest of the coat of arms for the once illustrious Sligo Gaelic O'Crean family," Mr. Gunning exclusively informed The Sligo Champion.

He continued: "The supposed explanation, when offered by Col Wood-Martin, in his book is little more than a jocular tongue-in-cheek explanation, as there is absolutely nothing written anywhere prior to this to support the supposed hare and escallop theory. Col Wood-Martin later pins his colours to the mast declareing the animal is not a hare, believing 'poor puss' was more like an antelope or deer! He also described the shell as akin to a Barret Cap!'

"In the often turbulent Gaelic world of the North-West's history, the O'Creans of Sligo in a more local context can be considered as our version of the Medici family – the banking, trading, ecclesiastical and sometimes military and quasi-legal might of the medieval and early modern Sligo," he noted.

Mr. Gunning continued: "During a wide-ranging discussion with the Chief Heraldic Officer, Mr Fergus Gillespie, I relayed to him my theory and recent findings concerning this conundrum. Crucially important in refuting some of the previous illogical assertions regarding this matter is that research has uncovered previously unpublished primary archive held in England, relating to the Wynne family of Hazelwood from the 1700s, which has important implications concerning Sligo's coat of arms."

The Chief Heraldic Officer has invited Mr. Gunning to present his paper to the Heraldic Office for the inspection of his team of experts to study, and if the theories and historical evidence put before them is proven, he has informed Mr. Gunning that a modified coat of arms can be sanctioned to include the correct symbols, which he contended should be that of a modified O'Crean's crest.

Mr. Gunnng added: "The history as to this intriguing and influential family is there for all to read, simply pick up publications written by Wood-Martin, O'Rourke, Kilgannon, Prof Mary O'Dowd's and John McTernan to discover a variety of references to this once powerful and important family. They were the pride and power of municipal and mercantile medieval Sligo. Regarded generally as men of peace, they were described as opulent and cultured merchants, who were a family who thrived despite the vissisitudes of Tudor Ireland and beyond. They held posts such as the Constable of Sligo along with important religious positions. Indeed the Dominican monk Fr Andrew Crean, while the Roman Catholic Bishop of Elphin, simultaneously sought to be the Diocese's Reformed or Anglican Bishop of Elphin.

"They were intermarried with the cream of Gaelic society, including the O'Rourkes of Breffni and the McDermots of Moylurg, the O'hAirt of Carbury, whilst O'Harte's pedigrees notes they married into O'Dowd and Mattimoe Sligo clans. They also forged powerful alliances with the earliest Elizabethan Sligo settlers in the shape of the Jones family from Derbyshire and the Parkes of Newtown.

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"Importantly they also acted as a bridgehead between counties Donegal and Sligo, hailing from the ancient territory of Maigh gCedne, which ranged from the Bundoran to Lissadell and towards the Erne, thus they enjoyed good relations with the powerful O'Donnell dynasty who vied with the O'Connor Sligo for hundreds of years for the control of Lower Connaught and the Cocket of Sligo.

"Commercially they were amongst the most successful bankers of their day in West of Ireland, with the allpowerful O'Connor-Sligo owing them thousands of pounds in postElizabethan period. The ancient Annals claimed they were amongst Ireland's most generous merchants and had 'fame and name for keeping a guesthouse (in Sligo) for the poor or God and every person of the needy folk 'the least wicked' merchants in Ireland – meaning the most generous.

"In Sligo they owned tanneries along the Garavogue River, chartering trips when trading with France, England and Spain bringing luxury goods, like salt and wine back to Sligo. Indeed, Castle Street is named after their impressive abode. At Market Cross or Bishop Creans Cross, the family had a private stocks and prison for debtors and petty criminals, along with wonderful inscription of the families coat of arms, noting that the Wolf and the Spear watch over. They were one of the few Sligo names to have traders' tokens issued in their name. In short they were the only urban Sligo family, being the most prestigious Gaelic plutocracy that had the wherewithal to have a once ubiquitous coat of arms emblazoned when associated with their affairs.

"Interestingly, I discovered a sketched rubbing taken from a tomb within Sligo Abbey dated 1506 which is a dramatic and vivid example of the O'Crean's coat of arms, which while it predates the earliest Borough seal existent by 200 years, when both are set side by side it is inescapable to comment that both are virtually identical," Mr Gunning added.

He continued: "Additional elements of the armorial crest, which include the Dominican Abbey (which he notes after the 1640s became a Courthouse for Sligo Protestant community) and/or Drumcliffe Tower and the Oak Tree of the O'Connor Sligo, whilst interesting from a cultural and historical perspective, are but mere later additions. These attractive sidelights cloud a proper understanding the origins of the Borough's medieval cultural totems.

"The 1613 Charter of Sligo, creating one body corporate and politic, consisting of one provost, 12 free burgesses and a commonalty, translated from Latin to English, claimed the Charter was made in the 'Name of the Defender of the Faith' James 1 and was primarily granted with a view to resettling and planting, after the manner of Commonwealth in our Kingdom.

"The Borough was to have a Guild of Merchants and one common seal. The Creans were the only native Irish Catholics permitted to sit on this Staple of the Commonalty, with Roger Jones as Provost and three members of their clan, Andrew, Robuccus and William.

"However, in time with the increasing sectarian nature of Irish politics, due to the changing political, military and cultural forces at play, their influence diminished but was not completely erased, as the Census of Elphin 1749 notes the presence of four Creans in Sligo – some still holding prominent commercial positions.

"Archdeacon O'Rourke claims that a Sir Leicester had the seal devised as part of operating Sligo's Fair; however there is no evidence to support this contention and it must be viewed as speculative. Having inspected the indentures and correspondence between the estate of Sir Francis Leicester and General Owen Wynne regarding the sale of his Sligo property for £20,000, upon the expiration the lease held by John Spranger of Dublin and the subsequent indenture regarding the tolls and customs which was entered into in 1721, there is not a scintilla of evidence to support Archdeacon O'Rourke's claims on the subject regarding Sligo Abbey, Sir Leicester's fair and the requirement for a civic motif as ascertained.