'Tanistry' - Gaelic succession

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The succession to Gaelic Irish (and Gaelicised Norman-Irish, also known as the 'Old English of Ireland') chiefships of name was restricted to the 'derbhfine' of the individual family ... and was not dependent on any 'approving authority' such as existed and exists under English law. The derbhfine of a family included those males of the chiefly line stretching back to a common great-grandfather, and all were eligible for election. This did not bar a son of a current chief, but at least as often the successions went to an uncle, cousin, or nephew of the chief. (Thus the Irish clans selected their most able leader.) The successor was usually designated in the chief's lifetime, and approved by the derbhfine. That successor was called 'the Tanist' and Gaelic succession was called 'Tanistry'. It confounded the English for it differed entirely from their feudal system of primogeniture (the English system whereby the first-born son inherited leadership and ownership, even if he was hopelessly inept).

This Irish system of Tanistry operated from the beginning of time until the Gaelic system of chiefships and inheritances was almost completely overthrown following the Battle of Kinsale in 1602, when the Irish and their Spanish allies were catastrophically defeated by the English at the conclusion of the 'Nine Years War'. (Following the Irish disaster at Kinsale, the English proceeded to vigorously implement a programme of 'ethnic cleansing' through Gaelic Ireland.)

What was left of the Irish system of Tanistry, was finished off totally by the end of the Williamite War in 1691. (Also called the Jacobite War in Ireland and, in Gaelic, Cogadh an Dá Rí - meaning 'War of the Two Kings' - it was a conflict betwImage descriptioneen Catholic King James II and the Protestant English Parliament, who had invited the Protestant Dutch prince, William of Orange, to replace James II as King of England, Ireland, and Scotland.) The Williamite victory in the war in Ireland had two long term results: first it ensured Catholic James II would not regain his thrones in England, Ireland, and Scotland by military means; plus it also ensured total British and Protestant dominance over Ireland. Until the 19th century, Ireland would be ruled by what became known as the 'Protestant Ascendancy', the mostly English Protestant ruling class. The majority Irish Catholic community, as well as the 'Ulster-Scots' Presbyterian community, were systematically excluded from power, which was based on land ownership. For more than a century after the Jacobite war in Ireland, Irish Catholics maintained a sentimental attachment to the Jacobite cause, portraying James II and his Stuart Royal House as the rightful monarchs who would have given a just settlement to Ireland, including self-government, restoration of confiscated lands, and tolerance for those who remained loyal to their Catholic faith. For more than 100 years, vast numbers of Irishmen continued to leave Ireland each year to serve the Catholic Stuart monarchs in exile; they did so by joining one or other of the famous and prestigious regiments of the elite Irish Brigade of the French Army. These legions of young Irishmen became internationally famous as the 'Wild Geese'. Until 1766 France and the Papacy remained committed to restoring the Stuarts to their British Kingdoms, and Irish soldiers in the French service fought in numerous campaigns and battles all over Europe … the Irish 'Wild Geese' even fought as part of the Jacobite army in Scotland against the English, during the Jacobite uprisings up to and including the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

'Courtesy Recognition' of Irish Chiefs

There had been several hundred 'chiefs of name', to include the royals: O Conor Don; MacCarthy Mor; O Neill; MacMurrough-Kavanagh; and O Brien. With the destruction of the Gaelic system, history lost the great great majority of hereditary chiefs and chieftains. But with the coming of Irish freedom/Image description independence in 1922 (and partially before), some chiefs began to come forward, 'proclaim' and again use their historic Gaelic titles. Finally in 1944 the successor Irish government (based then and now on English Common Law) authorised a form of recognition of the old titles/ chiefships, which was referred to as 'Courtesy Recognition'. This system operated until 2003, but was illegal in the first place ... which was finally recognised by the Irish government, and the 'courtesy recognition' business then stopped altogether. It had been abused with one totally false person being certified as a chief, and there were perhaps a few others whose claims were not studied too carefully. In short, the system operating within the Office of Chief Herald was a mess, and this has brought great embarrassment on the Irish government and to many people who acted on its advice. But it was considered 'the approving authority' for claims to a chiefship of name, and indeed its approval was taken as absolute proof of legitimacy – and entitled the person to automatic admission to the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains (founded in 1990 in order to promote the interests of its members and Irish culture in general).

So, with the Office of Chief Herald no longer being 'the' approving authority from 2003, many naturally (though in ignorance) turned to the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs as the 'new' approving authority.

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Irish Standing Council of Chiefs and Chieftains with President Mary Robinson, October 1991

Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains

However, the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains has no approving authority over successions to Chiefships. It never did, never should, and never will. All it has is approval authority over its own admissions. And, since 1999, it has admitted no one ... even though there have been applications from at least four or five chiefs who have proclaimed based on their proofs and genealogical reports. In short, the Council has walked away from any responsibility to anyone attempting to be admitted, etc. It appears to not want any accountability even for its own admissions, and a few people have reported that they haven't even had the courtesy of reply to their submissions.

The reputation of the Council has fallen significantly and the only thing it appears to do is to offer an annual prize for an essay on a Gaelic subject. It maintains no website and, as said, seemingly gives out no information. Composed of less than twenty 'chiefs of name', most do not live in Ireland and it is unclear how often they even meet anymore. Nonetheless, there are indeed some very very qualified individuals who are still members. But, all in all, the organisation has been invisible in terms of taking any position on a number of subjects, and has not responded to any of the attacks on its members which certain people have carried out.

Clans of Ireland Ltd

An organisation that does exist, and is public, and has a website, is Clans of Ireland Ltd. which is based in Dublin. This organisation was started in 1989 with the help of the Irish government and has done good work in helping 'clans' organise (that is people with a common surname). They have encouraged groupings, and clan rallys in Ireland, and the election of 'honourary' chiefs. 'Honourary' because those elected would not be of the Derbhfine line, and would therefore not be hereditaries as on the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs. (Though certainly an honourary would step aside, if a true hereditary descent were to be proved in a family.)

It is not a responsibility of Clans of Ireland Ltd to publish a list of hereditaries versus honouraries.

Chiefs of the Name and Chieftains Currently Proclaimed

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Sir Neil O'Neil (1680), by John Michael Wright

There is no point in considering which chiefships or titles were previously approved by the Office of Chief Herald from 1944 until 1999, or those which are currently members of the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs. That is all irrelevant now. It really was then.
The following are those chiefships/ chieftainships/ titles which the Clan Doyle believes are currently extant and legitimate:-

The O Brien, Prince of Thomond

The O Cahan, Prince of Fir-na-Craebh

The O Callaghan, Lord of Clonmeen

The O Carroll of Ely

The O Carroll of Oriel, Prince of Oriel

The MacCarthy Mor, Prince of Desmond

The O Conor Don, Prince of Connaught

MacDermott, Prince of Coolavin

The O Dogherty of Inishowen

The O Donnell, Prince of Tyrconnell

The MacDonnell of the Glens

The O Donoghue of the Glens, Prince of Glenfesk

The O Donovan of Clan Cathail

The Fox

MacGillicuddy-of-the-Reeks, Lord of Doonebo

The O Grady of Kilballyowen

The O Kelly of Gallagh and Tycooly

The O Long of Garrenelong

The O Morchoe

The O Neill Mor, Prince of Tyrone

The O Neill of Clanaboy, Prince of Clanaboy

The MacMurrough Kavanagh, Prince of Leinster

The O Ruairc of Breifne

The MacSweeney Doe

The O Toole

Joyce of Joyce Country(a Norman-Irish chief, unfortunately the only Norman-Irish to date)

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Heraldic achievement of Liam Trant McCarthy
The MacCarthy Mor

Other Legitimate Chiefs

We also believe the following are most probably legitimate, but it should also be noted that some of the following were 'recognised' by primogeniture (English law) when in fact all successions should be by Tanistry (Irish Brehon law), and thus if recognised by English primogentiture, then each family should also have had a Derbhfine election before final confirmation:

The O Dowd

The O Gara

The O Hara

The O Higgins of Ballynary

The MacLachlainn

The O Meehan

The MacShane

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ADDITIONALLY: the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains actually excludes all those who do not have Gaelic surnames. This excludes a very very high percentage of 'Irish' people, of original Viking, Norman-Irish, or of whatever other background, whose family histories show adoption of the Gaelic system and 'gaelicisation' to include succession of chiefships. And even the King of England recognised the 'old English of Ireland' (Norman-Irish) as 'more Irish than the Irish themselves' – families such as Barrett, Barry, Burke, Costello, Cusack, FitzGerald, FitzSimons, Keating, Marmion, Prendergast, Roche, Savage of the Ards, etc. etc. It is our view that the Standing Council should live up to the 'Irish' in its title and admit ALL Irish chiefs of name, and captains-of-their-nations, or change its name to 'Standing Council of Gaelic Chiefs'.

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Irish titles and inheritances are back (finally, some would say), back to where they always were and should have stayed: in the possession of the individual families ... to settle their successions (or as was also the Irish practice, to fight it out among rival claimants).

The key today is that the government of the Republic of Ireland is out of the 'recognition' business, over which it never had any authority in the first place. And, the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs - even if it ceases to be 'invisible' - is not, and never will be, an 'approving' authority. There is only one approving authority: the Derbhfine of the individual family.

Yes, it is a shame that so many bloodline descents have been lost over the centuries due to the destruction of records by the invaders, emigrations, and loss of 'Irish identify' as fostered by the imposed government of the British. But it is comforting to see that so many Irish families have taken to the clan movement, and many are indeed searching for their surviving chiefly lines, with a view to having a hereditary chief once again!

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