Lionárd M. Óg Ó Catháin / Leonard M. Keane Jr
The Ó Catháin

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This article seeks to resolve some long-standing issues regarding the function and composition of Irish Clans, today. In recent years there has been serious concern, and opposition, as to whether an agency of a ‘successor government’, or any private organization, has any real authority to create, judge, recognize, or otherwise approve or disapprove a succession to any Irish Chiefship.

No Irish government agency, or any private organization, can exercise a jurisdiction to determine disputes of competing claimants to a Chiefship or Chieftainship; to quote Lord Aitchinson in the Scottish Court of Session: “Historically the idea of a chief or chieftain submitting his dignity to the arbitrament of it Court of law is really grotesque. The chief was the law, and his authority was derived from his own people.”

Image descriptionSir Arthur Conan Doyle (left)
with Craigie Aitchison KC (Lord Aitchinson), July 1928

In the case of the Republic of Ireland, ‘successor government’ refers to the transfer of rights, obligations, laws, and property from the pre-1922 British colonial administration in Ireland to the Irish Free State, and later to the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Free State / Saorstát Éireann (6 December 1922 to 29 December 1937) was the state established as a British ‘dominion’ under the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed by British and Irish representatives twelve months beforehand. As a ‘British Dominion’, The Irish Free State had the King of England as its Head of State, and the Irish government had limited autonomy from England. The Irish Free State came to an end in 1937. The state was thereafter named the Republic of Ireland (Éire in the Irish-Gaelic language), and a new office of President of Ireland was instituted in place of the King of England and the British Governor-General of the Irish Free State.

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Image descriptionMr T. M. Healy, Governor General of the Irish Free State, circa 1923

In particular, this article seeks to outline an accepted process whereby an Irish family / clan without any historical evidence of a formal Chief as head of an established clan, may achieve a credible Irish nobiliary status and Chiefship.

For the purpose of resolving long-standing issues regarding the function and composition of Irish Clans, the following categories of Irish Clans and Chiefships are identified and given consideration:

1/ An existing Gaelic-Irish Chiefship, either with a current Chief or perhaps one recently dormant, awaiting only the designated Tanist /Tánaiste (the named successor) to assume his rightful role with the acclamation of his Derbhfine (kin group of the Chiefly line extending to 2nd Cousins); or, if the prior Chief did not name a successor, the Derbhfine is duty-bound to confer promptly and select the most suitable successor.

Tanistry was a Gaelic system for passing on titles and lands - in this system the Tanist was the office of heir-apparent, or second-in-command, among the royal Gaelic Patrilineal (agnatic kinship) dynasties of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, to succeed to the chieftainship or to the kingship.

The Derbhfine (pronounced Der-vinn-ah in English) was an Irish agnatic kinship-group and power-structure as defined in the first written law tracts. Its principal purpose was as an institution of property inheritance, with property redistributed on the death of a member to those remaining members of the Derbhfine. Comprising all the patrilineal descendants over a four-generation group with a common great-grandfather. Within a Clan, on the death of its chief or king, the surviving members of its Derbhfine would elect from their number a new chief and/or elect his successor, or Tánaiste (in English, his Tanist). A larger number of clan members, either allies or cousins who were too distantly related to be members of the Derbhfine, would not have a direct say in such an election. The frequent recitations of a clan’s genealogy by its bards was therefore a reminder of who was currently in or out of the clan’s Derbhfine as much as it was a claim to ancient lineages.

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2/ A long-dormant, but prominent, Gaelic-Irish family / clan, historically of Chiefly status, but lacking a fully connected and proven male Chiefly-line. Often such a family will have a tradition of its past role, sometimes including a Chiefship carried on privately, due to being compelled to adhere to the British system of Surrender & Regrant, whereby ancient Irish titles and land tenure were surrendered to the English Crown and then ‘returned’ subject to being transmitted together by Primogeniture. Any other alienation of land or titles was deemed illegal, and subject to seizure and severe penalties. Proving a lineage to a past Gaelic-Irish Chief often will take much dedication, persistence and time … please see Appendix ‘A’ attached, for more detail.

‘Surrender & Regrant’ refers to the legal-mechanism by which Irish clans were to be converted from a power-structure rooted in clan and kin loyalties, to a late-feudal system under the English Crown, during the Tudor conquest of Ireland (c.1540–1603). Surrender and Regrant was led by King Henry VIII (ruled 1509–47) in a bid to extend and secure his control over the island of Ireland. Gaelic chiefs and some autonomous Norman-Irish lords were actively encouraged to surrender their lands to the English king, and then have them re-granted (returned) as freeholds, paying a ‘chief rent’ under a royal charter, if they swore loyalty to the English king. Those who surrendered were also expected to speak English, wear English-style clothes, remain loyal to the English Crown, pay a rent, follow English laws and customs, abjure the Roman Catholic Church, and convert to King Henry’s new Protestant Anglican Church.

Image not found‘Surrender & Regrant’
Turlough Linnach O Neill submits to the English

‘Primogeniture’ refers to the right, by law or custom, of the firstborn child to inherit the family estate, in preference to siblings. In the absence of children, inheritance passed to collateral relatives, usually males, in order of seniority of their lines of descent. The principle has applied in history to inheritance of real property (land) as well as inherited titles and offices.

3/ An Irish family / clan without any historical evidence of a formal Chief
In those cases where there is an established family who have achieved the formation of an honorable community, based on significant contribution by family members to the furtherance of Gaelic-Irish culture, but without any historical evidence of a formal Chief, there is a need for significant clarification to achieve a credible Irish nobiliary status and Chiefship. This may be achieved, by implementing the process of establishing an ‘Ad Hoc Derbhfine’.

But first, some basic ‘ground-rules’ :

An Irish Chiefship is not based upon seniority or Primogeniture. Primogeniture is an English intrusion into an ancient Gaelic-Irish practice to which some clans, past and present, have unfortunately submitted (please refer to explanation above regarding ‘Primogeniture’ and the English “Surrender& Re-grant” system in Ireland) – thus seriously endangering their own Irish royal titles by accepting a new mode of nobility from a foreign ‘colonial’ government in Ireland. (2)

‘Ad Hoc’ Derbhfine:
Recent developments amongst Scottish clans regarding a Chiefly succession system, in the spirit and tradition of old Irish Brehon Law, for those Scottish clans who are without any historical evidence of a Chief, may be adaptable to bring back home to Ireland, for an Irish approach to Chiefly succession for newly-formed clans, but subject to Irish Tanistic succession.

Image descriptionBrehon Laws Document

A family or name group which has no recognised chief, has no official position under the law of Scotland. In Scotland, a clan or family which has a recognised chief or head confers noble status on the clan or family, which gives it a legally recognised status, and a corporate identity.

As this author has always maintained, there can be no submission to any external ‘authority’ – whether it is an agency of a ‘successor government’, or any private organization – which claims to create, judge, recognize, or otherwise approve or disapprove any Irish Chiefship. The Chiefship of an Irish clan must rest solely with the existing family Derbhfine, if one exists. (And it is exactly this historical ‘independence’ of Irish clans within the Old Gaelic Order which frustrated the English colonial administration in Ireland, and ‘successor governments’ which followed after the English.)

If an existing family Derbhfine does not exist for an Irish family / clan, then acting on the premise that every family/clan must have an organized beginning, an Ad Hoc Derbhfine may be established within certain guidelines, in conformity with the Salic form of Tanistic succession. Those guidelines include and require :

(i) A determination, by the most thorough efforts possible, that there is no historical evidence of a previous Chiefly-line having existed, or that if a Chiefly line did exist, it has been extinguished, is extinct, or lost to history, and there is no other traceable descent from a past Chief or Chieftain of the family / clan.

(ii) A desire to reform and correct the tragedy of the loss of a center for the Name and to do so, on a basis which is traditional and which existed in Ireland ‘pre-Kinsale 1602’. (The Battle of Kinsale was the ultimate battle in England’s conquest of Gaelic Ireland. The result of this battle was devastating to the existing Irish culture and way of life, as the old Gaelic system was finally defeated. As the Gaelic aristocracy fled to continental Europe, they left behind a power vacuum that the English eagerly filled.)

(iii) An outreach for Armigers, or those qualified to become Armigers, bearing the surname of the family seeking the new Chiefship, and who are suitable, willing and able to succeed to the Chiefship. In heraldry, an Armiger is a person entitled to use a coat of arms (e.g., bear Arms, an ‘Armour-Bearer’) either by hereditary right, grant, matriculation, or assumption of arms. Such a person is said to be Armigerous. The Latin word Armiger literally means “arms-bearer”. In high and late medieval Europe, the word referred to an esquire attendant upon a knight, but bearing his own unique armorial device.

Image descriptionArms of Colonel Joseph Buckner Sullivan
Knight of Magistral Grace of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller
Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta;
and a Knight of Merit of the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of St. George.

(iv) Seeking Principal Men (potential clan officers) who may bear any family name, title, or claim credible affiliation to any sept or branch of the family / clan.

(v) Forming an Ad Hoc Derbhfine, from which a Chairman and Secretary shall be selected to serve as such for the duration of the Chiefly selection process. Then find from among the Ad Hoc Derbhfine a candidate who is suitable, willing and able to assume the traditional Irish Chiefship, with all its duties. These include on-going application of the Salic form of Tanistic succession, y-DNA management, and all other responsibilities necessary to assure the survival of a viable Irish Chiefship through future generations.

(vi) Voting to select a Chief from among the Armigers bearing the chiefly surname and confirming results in a permanent document, a copy of which shall be provided to all known male-line members of the chiefly family, whether or not they were voting members of the Derbhfine.

(vii) Dissolving the Ad Hoc Derbhfine. The elected Chief then forms his own Derbhfine, with the newly-elected Chief using the title Ceann Cath* for a period of 20 years, to allow for the remote possibility that a descendant of a prior Chief might emerge. After 20 years, he becomes ‘Chief-of-Name’ and his Derbhfine becomes permanent and hereditary, as regards future Chiefly successions. He should name his Tanist as soon as practicable. Should a Ceann Cath die or resign prior to his status becoming hereditary, the balance of the 20 year period will be continued by his Tanist who will also bear the title of Ceann Cath.

* A Ceann Cath (literally “War Chief”) is a traditional term used for a temporary stand-in for a Chief who may not be able to participate in normal Chiefly duties for reasons such as disability, severe injuries, absence, advanced age, or an orphaned youthful Tanist under a regency. It is a proper designation for a candidate who one day will become the hereditary ‘Chief-of-Name’ for a new Chiefship. It should not be used by a presiding officer of a family association, social club or clan society.

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(viii) Making a Public Announcement : immediately following the acclamation of succession by the Derbhfine, a formal public announcement of the succession must be made. The procedure should follow normal practices of public notice, including among other venues, newspaper legal notice, public gathering, and Internet presence on sites likely to be frequented by interested parties.

Given that some potential Derbhfine members may not be sufficiently interested in their Irish heritage, they should nevertheless be made aware that their expected participation is a serious matter within a chiefly family. They must be informed of family relationships and provided, at least in summary manner, with genealogical and biographical documentation for each contender, so they may make informed decisions. Failure to participate, in my opinion, should be taken as an affirmative or not counted at all. This would be a family decision, made known to all concerned.

Appendix ‘A’

A long-dormant, but prominent, Gaelic-Irish family / clan
In cases where there is an appearance of primogeniture, it is not unusual that there has been a history of private Tanistic nomination with Derbhfine concurrence of the nomination of a successor by a previous Chief, prior to the death of the previous Chief. Historians have called the “appearance” of Primogeniture in such cases “pseudo-primogeniture” (1) Proving a lineage to a past Gaelic-Irish Chief often will take much dedication, persistence and time, with no guarantee of success or verification of family history and traditions, and will require a fully documented, historically and chronologically consistent, connected male-line pedigree.

It’s likely that a person who proves a valid pedigree would have the will and seriousness of purpose to assume the role. We now have the additional tool of genetic genealogy using y-DNA testing to establish, with reasonable certainty, proof of a Gaelic-Irish lineage (or not, as the case may be). y-DNA tests only the direct male-line which is ideally suited for such a purpose. A complicating factor to bear in mind is that over many years or even centuries the occurrence of a “non-paternal event” becomes increasingly possible. There are a number of reasons why such an event might occur. Thus, if a person bearing an Irish-sounding surname seeking a connection to X-family’s ancient Gaelic-Irish Chiefly-line yields a clearly non-Irish y-DNA result (such definitive determinations are indeed possible), then he is not Gaelic-Irish in the male line. By scientific determination he cannot be a Gaelic-Irish Chief nor claim to be of the chiefly family. That’s not to say he’s not Irish, as each and every other ancestor may well have been Irish. Nor does it mean that he has no right to his surname. In common usage a person’s name is whatever he calls himself. If a surname clearly suggests a past familial connection, acquired by events such as adoption, marriage settlement, or inheritance requiring taking of a spouse’s surname, and the present family traces to the historic clan territory, there seems little question of a genuine clan affiliation, yet possibly without an actual male-line descent.

Clan and Chiefship:
Historically the principal function of an Irish Chief was to lead his family / clan in battle on land and sea. The Chief and the Chieftain were at one time in Irish history influential political characters, who wielded a large and often arbitrary authority.

Image descriptionA Wexford-based Clan-Gathering commemorating the 1798 Irish Rebellion

The word “clan” or “clanna” literally means “family”, usually consisting of a single surname (variants possible) descending from an original founder. It also may include sub-septs of different surnames, whether directly descended from the founder or historically identifiable with the founding clan as soldiers, supporters, adoptees, or followers in any number of capacities. Any of these categories may have assumed the chiefly surname long ago and descendants may voluntarily associate with a clan headed by a blood-line Chief if their family traditions, place of origin and/or historical affiliations in Ireland suggest such an affiliation. An important fact to bear in mind, confirmed by y-DNA, is that not all persons bearing a specific surname are related to one another in the male line.

Image descriptionHealy Clan Gathering at Belderrig, north County Mayo, Ireland

An Irish Chief is descended from within a family Derbhfine, traditionally a kin-group of the nine worthiest among descendants of a former chief up to 2nd Cousins to a potential successor. The Derbhfine also has been referred to as “The True Family”. The “Nine candidate” practice cannot be an absolute requirement if there are not that many candidates, which is a quite likely situation in modern times when small families are the norm. To assume otherwise could mean the loss to history of a valid chiefly lineage.

Unlike the English and other foreign succession practices, Primogeniture has absolutely no bearing on the choice of a successor for an Irish Chiefship. An Irish Chief’s right to succession is based upon a superior claim, as distinct from a senior or eldest claim. As mentioned, the pressures of an English-mandated system often led to an “appearance” of Primogeniture so that a title and the property could descend together. In the absence of any known family objection, it may be assumed there was Derbhfine concurrence. But, should Primogeniture as a mode of succession be followed within a present-day Irish family, then there is a distinct possibility of the family forever losing its right to its Gaelic-Irish chiefship, simply because they have willingly and improperly adopted a foreign practice of chiefly-succession, and indeed created a new and meaningless ‘nobility’.

The chosen Chiefly heir should ideally be the worthiest and ablest among the Derbhfine and selected by vote of the Derbhfine members. This is the sole extent of any “election”. The entire clan (if that could ever be determined) could not now be assembled anyway, nor historically ever could have been. Ideally, a prior Chief would have appointed Clan officers, not necessarily Derbhfine members, who might be called upon to break a deadlock in the selection process. In early times some Irish Provincial Kings did resolve disputed Chiefly successions of their subordinate clans, but this seems to have been rare. (3)

The place of residence of an Irish Chiefly candidate ought not be a determining factor in his selection. Nowadays, with instantaneous communication, it’s not necessary that a Chief reside in the ancient territory if the most suitable candidate does not live there. He ought, however, to be a person well versed in Irish history and know how and why his direct ancestors and family / clan members interacted among the various factions of the past.

It would be appropriate that anyone seeking an affiliation as a member of any Irish clan (or related sub-sept of whatever surname) first consult with the current Chief, if one exists, or his representative, for guidance to avoid any possible error.

An excellent method of making a correct decision is to take advantage of genealogical y-DNA testing, a very simple, inexpensive and accurate process unavailable prior to the current century. The result may at least help, in conjunction with existing pedigrees and other documentation, to pinpoint the locale of the historical clan and even distinguish it from other families of the same or similar surname.

A critical examination and approval of a claimant’s pedigree by a competent genealogist is a necessity. The genealogist may not be an agent representing any external body or government. He must be a specialist in Irish pedigrees, history, knowledgeable in Irish familial organization and practices, including Brehon Law, the Salic form of Tanistic succession, and the ever-present religious implications of the Penal Laws. Second opinions would certainly be an option for the family in cases where there is significant disagreement with the genealogist’s findings.

A credible ‘coat-of-arms’ (a personal heraldic achievement) is necessary, requiring a proven lineage of at least three generations as the ancient “perfection of nobility” required. (5) “Noble” being defined as having entered the “Port of nobility” by personal accomplishment in virtually any honorable occupation, position or community. Such a status historically would enable one to obtain the heraldic ensign of noble rank, i.e. an armorial achievement, often called a ‘coat-of-Arms’, requiring “nobility”, by descent or occupation – preferably both. There are options and technical assistance available in obtaining a “differenced” version of an existing historical armorial achievement. If Chiefship were obtained, this would be altered to a ‘basic’ Chiefly version – lawfully a Chief’s personal heritable property. Reliance upon the popular souvenir shop ‘heraldry’ – i.e. “Your Name Coats of Arms” – is to be avoided. There is no such thing as a “family name coat of arms” suitable for all persons bearing a specific name !

As with all leadership positions throughout history, a small minority of people seek to take unfair advantage of their role, whether or not honorably achieved, casting doubts upon decently motivated people. The modern understanding of a “Gentleman” is someone of good behavior and manners. We would hope that someone seeking to obtain a valid coat-of-arms, an “ensign of nobility”, is well-behaved and conducts himself as such, but that‘s not the full original meaning of a gentleman. A “Gentleman” is a social rank and, by traditional definition, someone of honorable “ancient” lineage and good standing within his community. Thus it has at least as much to do with a credible and worthy genealogy, as it does with behavior. A knowledge of one’s worthy forebears may well go a long way towards keeping undesirable behavior in check.

This article was written with the support and encouragement
of The Kingdom of Desmond Association

(1) Nicholls, ‘Gaelic & Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages’, p. 27

(2) Keane, Leonard M., Jr., The O’Cahan, ‘Practical Application of Gaelic-Irish Tanistic Succession’ - a brief exposition on the nature of Gaelic-Irish successional practice as it operated under Brehon Law Law pre-1602.2 1

(3) Hogan, James, ‘The Irish Law of Kingship’, p. 199. The disputed Chiefship of Burke, a Norman family but following the Irish mode of succession, was decided by O’Neill in 1595.

(4)Gayre of Gayre & Nigg, Robert, ‘The Nature of Arms’, Edinburgh & London, 1961, pp. 94-95).


General References are Scottish, but offer excellent discussions of Tanistry; the main difference is that the Scots allow succession by and through female lines upon extinction of a male-line Chiefship.

Adam, Frank; Innes of Learney, Thomas ‘The Clans, Septs& Regiments of the Scottish Highlands’ (8th edition), Edinburgh: Johnston and Bacon, 1970.

‘Ad Hoc Derbhfine’ Guidelines
for Irish Chiefly Successions:

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The succession to the chiefship of a name in Ireland has been a problem since the destruction of the Gaelic order of things after the Battle of Kinsale (1601-02), and certainly after the Cromwellian (1641-1652) and Williamite Wars (1689-91). Throughout our history the government of society in Ireland was based previously on our own Brehon Law, which was very precise in terms of the matter of who and why and how society was ‘managed’. Each clan or sept or sub-sept of a ‘name’ had a Chief-of-Name who was elected from a hereditary group within the name itself. The actual election was carried out by the ‘Derbhfine’, who were all those of the chiefly family descended from a common great-grandfather. Normally the election took place during the chiefship of a person, and involved the selection of the ‘Tanist’ or the person who would succeed the chief at his demise or his otherwise being incapacitated.

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The Gaelic system indeed was adopted by a number of Hiberno-Norse and Norman-Irish families, who had in effect become ‘gaelicised’ and handled their own governing via Brehon Law. It must be immediately stated that the Irish practices differed profoundly from the English and Continental systems, which were based on succession to titles by primogeniture. That was a system whereby the eldest son succeeded his father, and it was not at all one in which there was any election.

While not perfect, the Irish approach was based on the premise that the ‘best person’ electable should inherit from the then serving chief. And therefore the electee could be a nephew, uncle, cousin, as well as any son and not necessarily the eldest. Yes, there were disagreements and even battles between an electee and one or more of those who were not selected, but who felt wronged. But by and large it was a very well-functioning system and in keeping with the Irish customs and social mores as well. An Irish Chief-of-the-Name of any clan was responsible for the whole clan … and he himself was not the ‘owner’ of the clan’s land, but rather he was the trustee for the land of the people within his chiefship. Thus avoided was any purely selfish motive of wanting his inheritances of property and lands or whatever to go to his ‘immediate’ family of his own son or sons. Whereas, under English law, the king or other noble was assured, under primogeniture, that his eldest son would succeed him (even if the eldest son was not really the most capable ‘candidate’). And also of course, the English system was based on the king or noble being the owner in fee simple of all the lands he controlled, with the people receiving only what he allowed them to use for cash or other payments under a feudal system. The overlord always retained the power to reject a succession or to simply withhold recognitions, as he saw fit.

One of the main contentions between the English and Irish, from the time of the Norman invasion of Ireland 1169-72, was the differences between the English law of inheritances and tenure of lands, and that of the Irish. The English came to be determined to impose their system on the Irish, and to totally eliminate Brehon Law and its processes of organization of society … to include Irish chiefly inheritances.

We all know that indeed the English eventually succeeded, totally, based on their victory over the Irish at Kinsale (1602); the Flight of the Earls (1607); and the destruction of most of the Irish clan system during the Cromwellian confiscations (circa 1655). The Protestant ‘New English’ invaders accomplished this infamy even though the bulk of Catholic Norman-Irish sided with the Gaelic-Irish in the 1641 uprising, which lead to Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland. Based on adherence to Gaelic values and Brehon Laws, the English invaders lumped all the Irish together, Gaelic-Irish or Norman-Irish, as simply ‘Irish papists’. And all suffered the same consequences of the harsh discriminatory laws imposed against all ‘mere Irish’.

Tanistic succession was specifically ‘utterly and completely abolished’ by a variety of laws stemming from the times of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. The penalties for using Irish practices such as Tanistry and Brehon Law were severe, to include death! Irish ‘chiefly successions’ and usages were absolutely proscribed, and those laws were ruthlessly enforced after the Battle of Kinsale.

Irish Chiefly Successions – The Current Situation

Chiefly succession under the Gaelic system basically ended in Ireland by 1655. And with the ‘Flight of the Wild Geese’ after the Williamite War (1691), Irish Chiefly successions were only carried on in exile, and only within a limited number of families. Within Ireland very, very few chiefly families were able to pass the titles along, as everything had to be done in total secret – which was extremely difficult given the total control of Ireland by the English government.

Image descriptionBattle of Aughrim, 1691
English and European Protestant Forces of King William III (‘William of Orange’)
defeat the Irish Catholic ‘Jacobite’ Army

When the Penal Laws against Catholics and dissenters began to be relaxed, starting particularly in the mid-19th century, a few Chiefs-of-the-Name who managed to survive secretly in Ireland did begin to use their chiefly designations: including Chiefs such as O Donoughue of the Glens, O Long, and O Conor Don. Then, when Ireland secured some vestige of freedom as the Irish Free State in 1922 there began to again be some interest shown in ‘the Gaelic Order’ and the historic Irish chiefships. Of course the ‘new’ Ireland was – and still is – republican; and the Republic of Ireland adopted English Common Law as the basis of its legal system – and did not revert to the historic Irish Brehon Law. Those are complicated subjects which it is not within the scope of this article to discuss, dealing as we are with chiefly successions specifically.

By 1944, the government of Eamon DeValera saw that some sort of recognition should be given to those who claimed to hold ancient Irish Chief-of-the-Name titles/designations. The responsibility for the control and administration of this policy was passed to an official in the National Library, and the office of ‘Chief Herald of Ireland’ came to be created. When Ireland appointed its first new Chief Herald, it did not reintroduce Irish Tanistry. The Irish state granted ‘courtesy recognition’ to Irish chiefs based on ENGLISH primogeniture, from the last known chief. From 1944 until 2003, the office of ‘Chief herald of Ireland’ indeed made the final decisions regarding which chiefships were correctly held, and which were not. But the office made a number of errors, and actually should never have been involved in Irish chiefly successions in the first place. As the Irish State does not recognise titles, including those of its own historic nobles: and, in any case, under Brehon Law it is only the Derbhfine of the clan which has control over the approval of the Chief-of-Name! By 2003, the government of Ireland recognized the problems and contradictions associated with Irish chiefly successions, for which the Chief Herald was responsible, and so the government ordered the office of Chief Herald to cease to involve itself in chiefly recognitions. Thus the policy of ‘courtesy recognition’ ended.

As of now, 2014, therefore, here is the situation in a nutshell: in 1989 there was an initiative which led to the formation of Clans of Ireland, Ltd. This was certainly an excellent step forward, in terms of helping to organize ‘clans’ of people with the same surname. The organization continues to do good work, and there are about 70 or so clans which are members of Clans of Ireland, Ltd. Clans of Ireland Ltd has membership criteria, helps with meetings and general advice. That advice includes the recommendation that a ‘chief’ be elected from among those people who are active in the administration and management of the clan. The great majority of Irish clans do not have a hereditary chief; and thus the election of a chief is strictly ‘honourary’ and is, of course, outside of historic Brehon Law. Most elections are for a set period of a year or two, when another election takes place for the appointment of a new honourary chief.

Image description‘Clans of Ireland Ltd’ Board Members, 2014

In addition to Clans of Ireland Ltd, the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains also came into existence (1991). This council is composed of the limited number of Chiefs-of-the-Name, who indeed have been able to prove descent from a former Chief-of-the-Name existing under the Gaelic order of things, pre 1691 … continuing secretly in Ireland or in exile. There are now about 16 or 17 members of the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains, though a few these are inactive and do not attend meetings. (e.g. The Fox; The O Donnell; etc.) The council relied on the office of Chief Herald to vet eligibility, and made admissions based on that office’s approval of family descent. That processed ceased in 2003, when the Chief Herald was removed by government action from continuing the policy of ‘courtesy recognitions’. Since then, the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains has not made any admissions (even though several applications for admission to the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains were submitted a number of years ago). The Council has made clear that it still wishes some sort of Irish government ‘approval’ system with regard to hereditary chiefships; if not by reintroducing the system of ‘courtesy recognitions’, then at least by the Chief Herald registering chiefly descents. Besides the few hereditary chiefs on the council, there are approximately 10 or so other claimants to hereditary titles, who appear to indeed have valid claims to a chiefship or chieftainship of a branch of the name. A few recognized Chiefs-of-the-Name, for their own reasons, did not choose to become members of the council and have not applied for membership (e.g. O Neill Mor of Spain; O Carroll of Oriel; and the current and legitimate MacCarthy Mor).

A few of the clans within Clans of Ireland Ltd, a few only, are headed by their hereditary Chief-of-Name, who also belong to the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains (e.g. The O Brien; and The MacDermott Prince of Coolavin).

In summary, only those chiefs on the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains can be said to be in continuity with the historic Brehon Law practices (though many of those succeeded under primogeniture versus Derbhfine selection). That is, they maintain the historic ‘center of gravity’ which is of the essence in terms of the perpetuation of a name/clan --- election within a particular family via its Derbhfine and its descent from a formerly-reigning chief during the Gaelic order of things. It is only with a hereditary center that a clan can truly be reflective of historic Irish practices. The election of ‘honourary chiefs’ via Clans of Ireland Ltd is fine. And, there is no reproach if that is what an individual clan wishes to do, but now there is an alternate approach to chiefship succession, which can be fully in accord with Brehon Law. Brehon Law, which does not have to stay ‘dead’, but it indeed can be reactualised and modified realistically for our own modern day use. And, in the light of the tragedy of the thousands of Irish names which have lost their centers of gravity due to the wars and persecutions, and to overcome the loss of their hereditary chiefships, a new system to reactualise the Brehon Law process of chiefly succession is urgently needed. The Scots know this, and it is now time to speak of the ‘Ad Hoc Derbhfine’ approach used in Scotland to overcome what the Scots regard as a great shame and an historic incorrectness: a clan not having a hereditary chief.

The ‘Honourable Community’

In Scotland, as in Ireland prior to the demise of the Gaelic order by the end of the 17th century, a ‘clan’ (children, family), is known as an ‘Honourable Community’. This is the Gaelic culture, and organization, historic from time-immemorial. The English invader of Scotland didn’t succeed in totally eliminating Brehon Law and Tanistry, as the English did in Ireland. And, under Lord Lyon King of Arms, some compromises have been introduced so that the clan system was able to continue. Of course, English common law was an ‘umbrella’ over the Scots, but Tanistry and the historic value system of the clans did survive. And, in Scotland, the clan indeed is recognized as a nobiliary body; and the chiefship as an incorporeal hereditament, reflective of the historic Gaelic system.

Of course, with no overall Great Britain/U.K. encouragement, as well as the effects of wars and massive emigration, the Scots – as in Ireland – ‘lost’ knowledge of descents from most of their hereditary chiefs-of-the-name. But in slightly more liberal times, at the beginning of the 19th century, there was a revival of interest in the Highland Gaelic Order and its Clans. Some of this actually stemmed from Lowland Scots, and Sir Walter Scott was influential via his writings and his involvement in organizing the pageantry for King George II’s State Visit to Scotland in 1822. And it must be said that the revival was also helped along by Queen Victoria’s interest.

Image descriptionSir David Wilkie's flattering portrait of King George IV,
in kilt during the Royal Visit to Scotland in 1822

with lighting chosen to tone down the brightness of King George’s kilt and his knees shown bare,
without the pink tights he wore at this event.

In summary, the clan practices of ancient Gaelic Scotland did not die, and are ‘accepted’ within the U.K. today, as modified for modern times and as maintained by Lord Lyon. (Lord Lyon is an officer of the British crown, and thus his guidelines and practices have the force of law.)

It should be said before we get into guidelines for Ireland, that our situation is different: we have no ‘crown’ or fons honourum for titles in republican Ireland; indeed titles are not granted in Ireland. When an Ad Hoc Derbhfine election takes place in Scotland, it is a requirement of law to have the election approved by Lord Lyon. For Ireland the Derbhfine is the final approval, and no governmental approval or approval by a body such as the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains is required; though there should be a ‘courtesy’ notification, as will be explained below in ‘Note 3’.

Also included later, will be a few references which go into detail concerning the Scottish system, with great emphasis on how the Honourable Community can only really exist as historic: that is with a hereditary center-of-gravity, via an hereditary chief.

Suggested Guidelines for an Irish ‘Ad Hoc Derbhfine’

Obviously, a member or group of members of a clan/name must have interest in the whole idea of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine being a viable alternative for the selection of a chief. Versus the near impossibility of finding any more persons proved conclusively to descend from a chief or chieftain of name existing while the Gaelic order existed. As said, there was just too much lost due to the wars, penal laws, and deliberate extirpation of our system of Irish Brehon Law and Tanistry by the English. And the election of an ‘honourary’ chief, while very worthwhile in terms of clan revivals, is not grounded on the historic Gaelic system.

The guidelines follow, to include certain steps which must be taken:

1. An organizing committee should be formed, to include a President and a Secretary. This is easier to do of course for those clans which are already members of Clans of Ireland Ltd or for those who are already otherwise organized, have their own website, etc. There are indeed a number of clans which are so organized but which are not members of Clans of Ireland Ltd, e.g. the Clan MacCarthy Foundation, the Doyle Clan, etc.

2. There should be a minimum of nine members for the proposed Ad Hoc Derbhfine.

3. Wide publicity about the effort should be undertaken, via every possible means. That is, via the clan internet site, phone calls, mailings, whatever it takes to get the news ‘out there’ among those of the Honourable Community; in order to inform that an Ad Hoc Derbhfine is in process of happening

4. All known ‘armigers’ (those currently possessing a Coat of Arms) are ipso facto to be members of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine. Therefore, the organizers must do a thorough search worldwide to identify its armigers. This means contacting the office of Chief Herald of Ireland, Norroy and Ulster King of Arms in the U.K., as well as other heraldry offices such as in Canada, South Africa, etc. The objective would be to ‘find’ the names of the armigers and then contact them, with a view to explaining the Ad Hoc Derbhfine idea and soliciting their support.

Image descriptionArms of Ryan Patrick Doyle
Canada, 2006

5. Additionally, a list should be made of ‘principal people’ who, because of keen interest in clan affairs, could be invited to sit on the Ad Hoc Derbhfine. In short, the final composition of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine will include the armigers and acknowledged ‘leaders’ of the name (principal people – who should be encouraged to apply for a Coat of Arms by the organisers). Those eventually sitting on the Ad Hoc Derbhfine may be male or female, though according to Irish Brehon Law only a male may be elected as chief or chieftain of a name. The Scots system based on Pictish history always allowed female successions but that was never the case in Ireland (could the updating of Brehon Law allow for female succession?: it certainly could be considered, though not as part of this article.)

6. Once the organizers have determined that they have done all that can be reasonably done in terms of locating the prospective members of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine, then that fact should also be communicated to clan members as widely as possible. It should be stated that the organizers must keep very detailed and precise record of all tasks undertaken, of all the people contacted and their responses, etc. This is to show that no rocks have been left unturned and that a true strenuous effort has been completed.

7. A date for the Ad Hoc Derbhfine meeting and vote should be then set. The meeting need not be in Ireland (as the Scots require that the meeting be in Scotland). Indeed there need not be a face-to-face meeting, but it can take place via emails or Skype or telephone.

8. The secretary of the organizing committee will solicit candidates from among those appointed to the Ad Hoc Derbhfine, as to who wishes to put his name forward for election as chief/chieftain. Individuals may nominate a person other than themselves, but only those ‘leaders’ of the clan appointed to the Ad Hoc Derbhfine may be nominated. Obviously, there needs to be a period of time, a few months at least, between the setting of the date of the meeting and vote and the deadline for nominations. The secretary shall ensure that anyone nominated by another is in accord with being nominated, and that they will serve as chief if elected. Place of residence is not a consideration.

9. On the date of the election, each individual voting will send his vote to the secretary; who will then do the count and announce the result to the members of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine. And the secretary will then propagate that result far and wide within the clan.

The ‘electee’ will take the title ‘Ceann Cath’ (Commander) and not immediately that of chief or chieftain of the name. A period, normally up to 10 to 20 years, should elapse before the Ceann Cath is proclaimed as hereditary Chief-of-Name or Chieftain-of-the-Name of a branch of the clan. This is to allow time for any counters to the election; that is, for someone with a proved hereditary descent to come forward with a counter-claim. The proposed minimum 10 years may be further reduced to a 5 year period by decision of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine, if the person elected has held the position of elected honourary responsibility with the clan for a significant period of time. Upon succession to the chiefship, the new hereditary chief has the right to the undifferenced original and historic Coat of Arms of the clan.

Image descriptionChiefly Arms of The O Sullivan Mor,

Naturally any candidate for election to the hereditary chiefship should be well versed in traditional Gaelic practices. That is, he should understand the Gaelic order of things that existed prior to the end of 17th century. And most importantly, he should understand the differences between a Gaelic/Irish chief and a noble of other European countries, where primogeniture succession was the absolute norm. With that system, the immediate concern of a king, or duke, or baron, or whoever, was focused on his own immediate family, his own sons and daughters. The others of his family, outside of the immediate descendants, were not of his concern relative to inheritances. In the Gaelic system of an ‘Honourable Community’, the chief was not the owner of anything! He was a trustee, for ALL the family, all the clan, and could leave nothing to his own sons or daughters, other than what he may have possessed personally. He did not own the clan’s land; it belonged to the whole community, and he was responsible to the whole community, and was not in any manner an absolute ruler. He was bound by the Brehon Law. His successor would be from a wider range than his own immediate descendants: from the Derbhfine of all descended from a common great-grandfather. Succession was by ‘Tanistry’, with the Derbhfine choosing the ‘best man’ to succeed and maintain the clan and the Gaelic traditions which governed Gaelic society. So, the election by Ad Hoc Derbhfine is the taking on of responsibility for the family; and the title of Chief-of-the-Name is one of responsibility to all of the name, everywhere, highest to lowest. And the projects the new chief undertakes should indeed be similar to what chiefs did when Gaelic rule was actual: projects that benefit all as per historical Gaelic practices, to now include endowments for various purposes of help to clan members.

Image descriptionChief-of-the-Name of the Clanaboy O’Neills (right)

Hugo O’Neill of Clanaboy, Chairman of the ‘Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains’,
whose exiled family have resided in Portugal since the 1700s.

Image descriptionArms of The O’Neill of Clanaboy


1. For a full exposition of the Scottish Gaelic-based system, there is nothing better than the book by Frank Adam, introduction by the then Lord Lyon of Scotland, THE CLANS, SEPTS & REGIMENTS OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS. 8th edition, Stirling, Scotland, 1984, of the original 1908 publication. Additionally, you can see on the internet (typing in ‘Ad Hoc Derbhfine’) various articles on the process. These include recent case histories for the Ad Hoc Derbhfines of the Maccauley and Duncan clans, where new chiefs were indeed elected to long-dormant chiefships.

2. For an Irish perspective, there is the recent article written by The O Cahan, Chief-of-the-Name, on Irish chiefly successions, which may be accessed at the MacCarthy Clan Foundation website at The article speaks to the Ad Hoc Derbhfine process, very clearly. Title is ‘Irish Chiefly Succession in the 21st Century’.

3. As said, the Irish Derbhfine is the ultimate approval authority over succession within a particular name/clan. As a courtesy, and per ancient practice as well, the succession should be communicated to the ultimate overlord of the territory in which the clan historically existed. Thus a newly elected chief/chieftain should advise as follows, in our opinion - but again, not as any ‘approval’ but simply for registration and future communication: Clans within Desmond – to MacCarthy Mor; within Thomond – to The O Brien; within Leinster – to The MacMurrough-Kavanagh; within Connaught – to The O Conor Don; within Ulster – to The O Neill Mor or The O Neill of Clanaboy. As one exception, in that Louth was never under a MacMurrough or part of Leinster during the time of the Gaelic order, so the notification for chiefly successions regarding any County Louth clans should be to The O Carroll of Oriel, as that family were important major kings at the time of the 1169-72 Norman invasions and Louth was quickly overrun. Thus this relates to the traditional four provincial kingdoms that existed at the time of the demise of the Gaelic order – Munster, Leinster, Ulster, and Connaught, with the one exception for County Louth. And it should be noted that the Chiefs-of-the-Name of these formerly-reigning royal families are all extant.

Image descriptionArms of The O’Conor Don
Argent an oak tree eradicated and adorned proper.
For a crest, An arm embowed in armour holding a short sword entwined with a serpent all proper.

As a Chief of the Name, the O’Conor Don has the privilege of bearing two rampant lions as supporters in his armorial achievement

4. As an aside, when a Scottish person is proclaimed and certified by Lord Lyon as chief of his clan, he is ‘full-fledged’. That is, he is then the same as those who are chiefs by proved hereditary descent, and can take his place on the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. In Ireland, as said, there is no ‘governmental’ approval, but it is hoped that the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains will see fit likewise to ‘admit’ a person proclaimed as hereditary representative of his name. On that group, it is also hoped that the word ‘Irish’ in its title will come to mean ‘all’ Irish: for as of now it will only admit Gaelic-Irish, and excludes Norman-Irish and Hiberno-Norse Irish, etc. This we regard as incorrect. There are even now several proved chiefs-of-name/captains-of-the-nation who are Norman-Irish chiefs, whose families were Gaelicised and which operated under Brehon Law and Tanistry during the Gaelic order of things. “More Irish than the Irish themselves”, as the saying goes. Thus there is no reason why a Duke of Leinster (FitzGerald), or a Viscount Gormanston (Preston), or a Barry or Burke or deCourcy, or the Knight of Kerry (another FitzGerald) should not be admitted. They are chiefs/chieftains of the name per the Gaelic order of things. These families provided many of the leaders of ‘The Wild Geese’, (e.g. Dillon’s Regiment, Regiment Clare, etc) to struggle on for Ireland while in exile. One must recall that there are upwards of 100 million of Irish name in the ‘diaspora’ and 5 million Irish in Ireland.

Image descriptionMembers of the Irish Standing Council of Chiefs and Chieftains
meeting with President Mary Robinson in October 1991

This article was written and published by
with the support and cooperation of
It reflects the positive attitude of the two groups concerning the process known as ‘Ad Hoc Derbhfine’.