The surname of O'BRIEN ranks among the ten commonest names in Ireland, with over half the O'Brien families located in the province of Munster. The sept from which these families descend took its name from Brien Boru (Borumha) King of Munster and High King of all Ireland A.D. 1002 who fell at the Battle of Clontarf A.D. 1014. The name means 'High or Noble'. Subsequently the great O'Briain sept then divided into several branches in County Clare, County Limerick, County Tipperary and County Waterford. Those families who have lost their prefix 'O', have for the most part, reassumed it so that Briens without the prefix are now very much in the minority. When the sparse Irish population began to increase, it became necessary to broaden the base of personal identification by moving from single names to a more definite nomenclature. The prefix MAC was given to the father's christian name, or O to that of a grandfather or even earlier ancestor. An eminent member of the name was William O'Brien (1852-1928) the Irish journalist and nationalist born in Mallow, County Cork. A Catholic by birth, he was educated at the Protestant Cloyne Diocesan College, and Queens College, Cork. He became a journalist, founded the Land League journal, sat in parliament as a Nationalist and founded the agrarian United Irish League in 1898. He was nine times prosecuted and imprisoned for two years. He withdrew from politics in 1918, and wrote 'Recollections' in 1905, and published 'The Irish Revolution' in 1923. At first the coat of arms was a practical matter which served a function on the battlefield and in tournaments. With his helmet covering his face, and armour encasing the knight from head to foot, the only means of identification for his followers, was the insignia painted on his shield and embroidered on his surcoat. It has long been a matter of doubt when the bearing of coats of arms first became hereditary and it was not until the Crusades that Heraldry came into general use. Men went into battle heavily armed and were difficult to recognise. It became the custom for them to adorn their helmets with distinctive crests, and to paint their shields with animals and the like. Coats of arms accompanied the development of surnames, becoming hereditary in the same way.
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