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Irish Chiefs

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Clann DubhGhaill/ Clan Doyle presents the following information for the interest and information of all who have an Irish heritage.

‘Tanistry’  -  Gaelic succession

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   - meaning ‘War of the Two Kings’ - it was a conflict between 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/ 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).


Arms of The Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland

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.  

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.


Clans of Ireland Ltd


Chiefs of the Name Currently Proclaimed

Arms of Liam Trant McCarthy,
The MacCarthy Mor

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/ titles which the Clan Doyle believes are currently extant and legitimate:-

The O Brien, Prince of Thomond

The O’Byrne, Lord of Gabhal Raghnaill                                     

The O Cahan, Prince of Fir-na-Craebh

 The O Callaghan, Lord of Clonmeen

The O Carroll of Ely                                                                 

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 Garrenelongy

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)      


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

ADDITIONALLY:   as a Viking descended people, the Doyle Clan objected and objects that 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’.



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!



Irish Kings and Clan Chiefs

The use of the word 'The' as a prefix to a surname, to indicate that the user is the head or chief of a sept comprising the bearers of that name, is a comparatively modern practice.   To understand this, one must glance back to the early mediaeval period when Ireland was administered by one legal system viz. Brehon Law … Brehon being a word formed from the Irish ‘breitheamhan’, the genitive of ‘breitheamh’, meaning lawgiver or judge.   That profession was of great importance and was usually the prerogative of certain Irish families, such as the MacClancys for the O'Brien dynasty, and the well-known O'Dorans of Leinster.

Irish Brehons

Brehon Law differed in some essentials from the feudal system which obtained in western Europe.   A class system, with degrees of status strictly laid down, was basic to it, but the idea of nobility as deriving from royal prerogative was absent … and so was the concept of primogeniture absent.

There were more than a hundred petty 'kingdoms' in the country, that is to say their rulers were termed ‘Rí’, the Irish word for ‘king’.   They were in most cases no more than chiefs who were subject to overlords, to whom they paid tribute in the form of cattle, corn etc, and, in most cases, these local ‘kings’ were also liable to supply a certain number of armed fighting men to assist the overlord when he was engaged in warfare with some other, usually neighbouring, ‘Rí’.   


The titular position of  ‘Árd-Rí’ (High-King) was, generally speaking, more or less nominal.   

The 'kings' of the northern half of Ireland (‘Leath Cuinn’) recognised the hegemony of the O'Neill overlord who was based on Tara, and those ‘kings’ of the southern half of Ireland (‘Leath Mogha’) recognized the ‘Rí’ who happened to be in power at Cashel.   



Hill of Tara


Rock of Cashel

When one refers to an O'Neill or a MacCarthy in this connection it is necessary to remember surnames of the hereditary type did not come into being until the tenth century, and not widely until later.   Thus the collective term ‘Uí Néill’ denotes descendants of an ancestor named Niall.

A good example of how things worked in those far-off days is to consider the King of Connacht (Connaught), O Conor Don, who at one time was paramount as ‘Árd-Rí’ of that province.   The four provincial chiefs ranking as 'royal lords' under the O Conor Don, giving the modern form of their names, were:  O Mulrennan, O Finaghty, O Flanagan and MacGeraghty.   Lesser chiefs associated with O Conor Don had traditional functions in his service.   That these were of importance is clear from the inclusion of O Kelly (steward of the jewels), O Malley (naval commander), MacDermot (army commander) and O Mulconry (chief poet).   

‘Niall of the Nine Hostages’ and Ruler of Tara

The term ‘Árd-Rí’ does not appear in those early Brehon law tracts which specify three grades of king:  (i) of the local ‘tuath’ or tribal kingdom;  (ii) of a larger territory and overlord of the local ‘tuaths’;  and (iii) king of a province.   Although the genealogists trace the high-kingship back to ‘Niall na naoi ngiallach’ (referred to in English as Niall of the Nine Hostages) in the fifth century, it did not become an actuality until much later, and even such successful high-kings as Brian Boru (killed by Doyle-Vikings at Clontarf in 1014 AD), who stands 45th in their list, were far from exercising the undisputed authority associated with most monarchs in France and England.   The effective kingship or principal overlordship was that of the ‘righte’ of what were called the ‘Cúig Cúigi’, i.e. five fifths or provinces, Connacht, Leinster, Meath, Munster, and Ulster (to use the modern names) … which, in fact, later  became sevenprovinces, due to the rise of Oriel and the further division of Ulster into two.   

As might be expected, with so many semi-independent kings or chieftains, sporadic warfare was frequent and it sometimes occurred within the ‘tuath’ or mini-state itself.   (Avoid using the word 'tribe' to translate ‘tuath’, as it has connotations foreign to its use in this connection.)   In cases of that kind, fighting usually arose from the existence of rival claimants to succession after the death of the head of the group concerned.   One of the main differences between the Brehon system and the feudal system was the non-existence of the principle of primogeniture in the former.   The heir could be any one of the males comprised in the ‘deirbhfhine’, i.e. the descendants of a deceased chief to the fourth generation.   The method of election varied.   Tanistry, by which the heir or ‘t[EJG1]áiniste’ was chosen in the lifetime of the chief, was later introduced, but even so such disputes were by no means eliminated.   There were complicated rules which governed succession to the leadership in the various grades of social status.   All were meticulously laid down in Brehon Law.   

These minor wars had little effect on the cultural development of Ireland over a period of five or six hundred years before the coming of the Cambro-Normans in 1169 AD.   Poetry, art and genealogy flourished … and missionary expeditions helped to keep Christianity alive in other parts of Europe where it had been largely eliminated by the Goths and other barbarian marauders.   


Even the frequent incursions of the Norsemen (Doyle-Vikings), which caused much destruction – especially to monastic buildings and treasures – had no affect the social system of Gaelic Ireland.   The Vikings, however, were responsible for one innovation in a community which was essentially rural:  the establishment of the first towns in Ireland … and they founded several;  notably Dublin, Wicklow, Arklow, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, and Limerick.


Viking ransack of an Irish monastery

The introduction of this Viking element in the population of Ireland - not throughout the country, but in isolated coastal settlements - did little to unite the Irish kingdoms in opposition to it.   For example:  at the famous battle of Clontarf (1014 AD), while the Irish forces under Brian Boru finally ended any hope the Vikings had of dominating Ireland, it should also be remembered that some Irish septs actually fought alongside the Vikings, against their own ‘Árd-Rí’ (Brian Boru).


Clontarf 1014 AD

 Brian Boru (‘Boroimhe’ - of the tributes) was the first man of any lineage other than O Neill or O Conor to become High-King, and this position was obtained by force.   His race, the ‘Dál Cais’, were originally a comparatively small population group located in Thomond (‘Tuadh Mhumhain’, in the north of the province of Munster), mainly the present County of Clare.

Up to 1169 AD, while predatory expeditions had from time to time been made by Irish raiders in Wales and even England (there is even evidence of Irish colonies being established in North Wales), Ireland had seldom – if ever – been subjected to incursions by English forces.   It was an Irish king, Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster, who was responsible for what was indeed a turning point in the history of Ireland, when he sought and obtained the aid of the Norman King Henry II of England.   MacMurrough travelled to England and to Normandy looking for Henry II, for the purpose of requesting military assistance to support his own struggle for the retention of the Irish kingdom of Leinster.   Henry’s assistance to MacMurrough resulted in the invasion of Ireland, under Richard de Clare (Earl of Pembroke, known as ‘Strongbow’) … the subsequent permanent settlement of Normans in Ireland followed.   


These twelfth century invaders, it should be remembered, were French-speaking Cambro-Normans from Wales.   Their coming heralded the first significant change in the composition of the aristocracy in Ireland.   King Henry II of England and Normandy, with the imprimatur of Pope Adrian IV (the only Englishman ever to become Pope), assumed the title of ‘Lord of  Ireland’ … and many of the Irish ‘kings’, regarding it as no more than a formality, acquiesced in this but then continued to rule their own territories as they had done previously.   

The high-kingship, however, was at an end:  the last of their line was Ruaidhri Ó Conchobhair (Rory O Connor) who died in 1189 AD.   The Norman element thus introduced became possessed of vast landed estates in various parts of Ireland - less in Ulster than elsewhere – but, by a gradual process, they became part of the Irish nation (though of course the modern concept of ‘nationality’ was then as yet unthought of).   This process of the local Normans becoming ‘Irish’ was threefold.   Some became completely integrated, giving rise to the well-known phrase 'Hiberniores Hibernis ipsis' (more Irish than the Irish themselves).   These Normans formed septs on the Gaelic-Irish pattern, headed by a chief.   Thus, the head of the Norman family of Wall, in County Limerick, was known as ‘An Fáltach’ (The Wall), and the head of the Condons was known as ‘An Condúnach’ (The Condon).    Other Norman families in this category were, inter alios, the Mandevilles, who became ‘MacQuillan’;  the Archdeacons, ‘Cody’;  the Berminghams, ‘Corish’;  and the Nangles, ‘Costello’.   With the destruction of the Gaelic order by the English during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they suffered the same fate as the indigenous Gaelic septs.

Other great Norman families which did not go so far as to adopt the Brehon system nevertheless became essentially ‘Irish’ and were unaffected by the Statutes of Kilkenny (1367 AD), which vainly sought to prevent the descendants of the Norman invaders from dressing and riding in the Irish fashion, or playing Irish games, or marrying Irish women, or speaking the Irish language.   Naming the most notable of the Hiberno-Norman families, such as Barry, Dillon, de Lacy, Plunkett, Power, Prendergast and Roche would inevitably result in omitting some of equal importance, but it is generally agreed that FitzGerald, Butler and Burke were the most important.



heraldic arms of FitzGerald, Duke of Leinster

There were two main branches of the FitzGeralds, the heads of both bore titles of nobility (Earls of Desmond and of Kildare), which were conferred on them by the King of England as Lord of Ireland.   In 1582, the Desmond branch of the FitzGeralds were responsible for a major revolt against the extension of English power in Ireland … which resulted in defeat, and in the devastation of much of the province of Munster.   Apart from the earldom, there were two other hereditary titles borne by the FitzGeralds of Kerry and Limerick, conferred in the fourteenth century, not by the King of England but by his representative in Ireland, which are unique and are still extent and fully recognized; the Knight of Kerry and the Knight of Glin.   The FitzGeralds of Desmond (‘Deas Mhumhain’, South Munster) eventually conformed and were prominent in the aristocracy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.   The Kildare branch found no difficulty in acknowledging the English sovereign's overlordship.   One of them, Garret FitzGerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, became the viceroy of King Henry VIII (the first English sovereign to be styled ‘King’, rather than ‘Lord’, of Ireland).   Garret became so powerful in that capacity, he was deemed to be a threat to royal supremacy in Ireland.   Summoned to London, he languished in captivity till his death … and his son, known as ‘Silken Thomas’, then renounced his allegiance to the English King, and went into rebellion.   In 1537, ‘Silken Thomas’ (aka Thomas FitzGerald, 10th Earl of Kildare) was eventually executed in London, with no less than five of his uncles.   The family, however, was not thus entirely annihilated and later regained their position as one of the leading noble families of Ireland … and, having become Dukes of Leinster, they occupied their mansion at Carton in County Kildare until quite recent times.



‘Silken Thomas’ attacks Dublin Castle


A third category are typified by the Butlers of Ormond (County Kilkenny and east Tipperary) whose titles (finally Marquis of Ormond) were equally the creation of an English monarch. While they made no attempt to become integrated, they perforce became Irish in many ways - in speaking the Irish language for example:  one of them acted as interpreter at the Parliament of 1541 AD, which was attended by the Irish-speaking chiefs as well as the English faction.   For the most part, the Butlers regarded themselves as representing that section of the population having historical ties with England but distinct from the English people.   To give a fair picture of them, it should be added that a number of individual Butlers are to be found in accounts of pro-Catholic activities and in the ranks of the Irish 'Wild Geese' fighting in Irish regiments of the major European Catholic powers.

Duke of Ormonde

At this point it would be appropriate to refer to those prominent immigrant families who had no connection with the Cambro- or Anglo-Normans and did not come to Ireland till the sixteenth century;  such as the Bagenals, Edgeworths, Fleetwoods, Goldsmiths, Gwynns, Sigersons, and Springs, just to mention a few of them.   Perhaps the most remarkable of these were the Browne family.   (Not the Brownes of Camus, County Limerick, of whom were the famous Maximilian Ulysses Browne and other prominent 'Wild Geese', nor to those who in Connacht/ Connaught who got the title Oranmore, nor again the Brownes who were one of the 'Tribes of Galway'. )   The Browne family referred to for the moment are the Brownes of Kerry, Earls of Kenmare. They started as intrusive foreigners, but following intermarriage with the O'Sullivans, MacCarthys and other great Gaelic families of the area, they became before long uncompromising Catholics and suffered in their turn as such, though by reason of unusual circumstances related in The Kenmare Manuscripts regained and retained their vast estates in Counties Kerry and Limerick up to present times.   They, however, were never prominent in the political arena.   Unlike the Brownes of Kerry, most of this class conformed to the English Protestant Church at the Reformation, and constituted a not inconsiderable element in the Anglo-Irish gentry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.   This category were, in the seventeenth century, termed the ‘New-English’ to distinguish them from the descendants of earlier invaders and settlers who had become ‘hibernicised’ (adopted Irish culture, dress, sports, language, and had inter-married with the Gaelic Irish) and espoused the Catholic cause in the wars of Cromwell and William of Orange.   These were termed the ‘Old-English’.


When considering the great Gaelic-Irish families, take the province of Connacht (Connaught) as an example of the lordships of a province which had to a considerable extent fallen under the domination of Cambro-Norman invaders in the earlier period … these, however, had become ‘hibernicised’.   Typical of the less important of these were the Nangles (de Angulo) who adopted the name ‘MacOisdealbhaigh’ (modern Costello), incidentally the first non-Gaelic surname to use the Gaelic prefix ‘Mac’.   At that time, the province of Connacht (Connaught) included the modern County of Clare (Thomond), now in Munster, and much of Breifni (County Cavan, usually reckoned to be in the province of Ulster).   The families constituting these Lordships were, according to the ‘Anála Locha Cé’:  Ó Ceallaigh (O Kelly) of Uí Maine;  Ó Conchobhair (O Conor) in its three branches - Don (‘donn’, brown) Roe (‘ruadh’, red) and Sligo;   MacDiarmada (MacDermot) of Moylurg;  Ó Ruairc (O Rourke) of Breifni;  Ó hEaghra (O Hara) of Leyney;  Ó Dubhda (O Dowd) of Tireragh;  Ó Flaithbheartaigh (O Flaherty) of Connemara;  and Ó Briain (O Brien) of Thomond … together with the three powerful branches of the de Burghs (Burke) - MacWilliam Iochtar, MacWilliam Uachtar and the Earl of Clanrickard, whose family were not so much ‘hibernicised’, as the other Burkes of the province of Connacht (Connaught).

In presenting a picture of the Chiefs old ancient Ireland, briefly consider one of those old Gaelic families as an illustration, and for that purpose the O'Briens of Thomond would be suitable because they were to some extent of divided allegiance.   The lineal descendants of Brian Boru were hostile to the early invaders:  Donal O'Brien, King of Munster, with his Dalcassian followers, was a leading figure in the successful battles against the Norman leader ‘Strongbow’ in l174 AD, and against the Norman-English Prince John in 1185 AD.   They retained the designation, ‘King of Thomond’ (‘Tuadh Mhumhain’, north Munster), and often used ‘King of all Munster’ until 1543 AD, when Morrough O Brien surrendered his 'captaincy and principality' to the English King Henry VIII who, in accordance with the principle of 'surrender and re-grant', created him Earl of Thomond.


Turlough Lynagh O'Neill and the other Irish kerne kneel to Sir Henry Sidney, Lord-Deputy, in submission 1575 … as part of the ‘surrender and re-grant’ process.   In the background Sidney seems to be embracing O'Neill as a noble friend.   Note that O'Neill wears a native version of English costume and sports an English haircut, though his entourage still wears distinctive Irish costume.


It may be noted that, in the deeds conferring titles on Irish Chiefs who accepted the English principle of ‘surrender and re-grant’, the Irish recipient was almost always referred to as 'chief of his name' or 'captain of his nation'.   

Murrough O Brien also conformed to the new Protestant English Church, accepting King Henry VIII instead of the Pope as head of the Church.   The main branch of the O Briens were thereafter no longer champions of the Irish cause but, unlike many others similarly circumstanced, they did not become absentee landlords, but remained in County Clare, with the lesser title of Baron Inchiquin, to end as landlords of the better type.   

The junior O Brien branches, however, produced men who were notable as Irish patriots. Two were on the Supreme Council of the Confederation of Kilkenny (l642) and one of the most renowned regiments in the Irish army of Catholic King James II against William of Orange was ‘Clare's Dragoons’ - Clare being Daniel O'Brien, 3rd Viscount Clare.   

Officer of Régime de Clare, Irish Brigade of France, 1767


Régime de Clare (Clare's Dragoons)

This regiment later became famous on the Continent and the O Briens in it, together with those who fought in the service of France at Fontenoy and elsewhere, can be counted among the more prominent of the exiles who constituted the Irish 'Wild Geese'.    

The flight of the Wild Geese began in earnest with the episode known as the 'Flight of the Earls' when Hugh O Neill (Earl of Tyrone) and Hugh Roe O Donnell (Earl of Tyrconnell) took ship with 99 other leading Ulster Gaels, going first to Flanders and then to Rome … where the two great chiefs died.    However, they left sons who, while remaining exiles, kept in touch with their own country … and their descendants were prominent in the ‘Wild Geese’ Irish regiments of the Spanish Empire.


From the beginning of the seventeenth century, the history of Ireland has been overshadowed by its religious or rather its denominational aspect.   Up to that time, Ulster had been the most thoroughly ‘Irish’ part of Ireland, less affected than any other province by subversive English incursions.   The O Neills and O Donnells had maintained their real independence (even though they did accept titles of nobility from the English crown).   Then, in spite of a remarkable victory over the English at the battle of the Yellow Ford in 1596, they were defeated six years later at Kinsale … which was the last and conclusive battle of that campaign (a long and bloody campaign which came to be known as the ‘Nine Years War’).  


The catastrophic defeat of the Irish and their Spanish allies at Kinsale, resulted in the aforementioned 'Flight of the Earls'  … and what followed became known as the ‘Plantation of Ulster’;  the confiscation of the O Neill and O Donnell estates, and the settlement thereon of Lowland Presbyterian Scottish as well as Protestant English settlers.   This 'plantation' differed from the others inflicted on Ireland, in that not only the landowning class was wiped out but the smaller occupiers of land were forced to move from their holdings to patches of unprofitable mountain and boggy land.

Forty years after the destruction of the old Gaelic order in Ulster came the ‘Cromwellian Transplantation’ to province of Connacht (Connaught) and to County Clare, which resulted in the confiscation of the estates of great numbers of Catholic landowners and their settlement in smaller holdings on poor land in the West of Ireland … or, in many cases, their exile to continental Europe, or worse, their transportation as slaves to the West Indies.   Though it was found impracticable to carry our the ‘Cromwellian Transplantation’ with the full severity originally intended, it did amount to a national upheaval … and in those cases where the victims did not voluntarily find their way to exile in France and other European countries, it inevitably resulted in a reduction of their social status in Ireland (or slavery on English sugar farms in the West Indies).   This policy had first been attempted in the previous century with the Plantation of Laois and Offaly, then re-named Queen's County and King's County in commemoration of Queen Mary I and her Spanish husband, Philip.   Though it caused much temporary disturbance it had little permanent effect on the majority of the inhabitants; and two chiefs concerned, O More and O Conor Faly never submitted, but the latter died, and the O Mores went to County Kerry where they sank to minor importance.

The third war in Ireland of the seventeenth century was fought between Catholic King James II and William of Orange … for the crown of England, and nominally of Ireland too.   Patrick Sarsfield's heroic exploits, after James II had fled to France following his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, secured the just Treaty of Limerick.   

Limerick was long called the 'city of the broken treaty' because the terms of the Treaty of Limerick were not kept by England … and because the enactment of the very severe anti-Catholic ‘Penal Laws’ soon after, completed the debacle.   Consequently Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan, and his Irish army (together with thousands of their women and children) became yet another major contingent of the 'Wild Geese', when they left Ireland for France, to become an Irish army-in-exile.


In the early years of the English Civil War, a French traveller in England remarked that the Irish 'are better soldiers abroad than at home'.   Between 1585 and 1818, over half a million Irish were lured from their homeland by promises of glory, money and honour in a constant emigration romantically styled 'The Flight of the Wild Geese'.   Throughout this period, the Irish Brigades in France and Spain participated in conflicts ranging from the wars of the Spanish and the Austrian Successions through to the Napoleonic Wars.

The overall position is concisely presented by Stephen Gwynn in his History of Ireland (p. 327) where he says,  “what happened in the seventeenth century was not merely the transfer of property from certain persons to others, nor even the penalising of one religion which was that of the vast majority, and endowing that of a minority at the general expense.   It was the destruction of a ruling class in a country which was still aristocratic; it was depriving Ireland of its natural leaders - that is, of those leaders whom Ireland willingly recognized”.   Literally hundreds of thousands of Irish men went to Europe, mainly to France and Spain, in the century and a half that followed after the Cromwellian war in Ireland, and this continued until the French Revolution;  plus there were many Irish of high social rank who became officers of distinction in the armies of Russia and Austria.


Count Francis Maurice von LACY, a famous Irish-Austrian Field Marshall

With regard to the present members of the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains:  the question of these titles, or rather designations, has been discussed in one of the introductory articles of ‘Burke's Irish Family Records’ (1976), where it was explained that those who had in the past been recognised by the Chief Herald of Ireland* were descended by the English system of primogeniture from the last formally inaugurated Irish Chief.

Up until 2003, any hereditary Chief or Chieftain of a Gaelic Irish Surname recognised as such by the Chief Herald of Ireland, and published in Clár na dTaoiseach (the Irish Government Gazette), could be admitted to membership of The Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains, provided that proof of hereditary origin was vetted by the Chief Herald and that the Name was approved at an Annual General Meeting of the Standing Council.  

In 2003, following a scandal caused by formal recognition of a fraudulent ‘Chief’, the Chief Herald of Ireland was directed by the Government of Ireland to cease providing courtesy recognition to Irish Chiefs of the Name, and consequently the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains has admitted no new members since that time.

 *    The Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland, formerly known as the Genealogical Office, and before that known as the Office of Arms, was founded in 1552 AD.   It became, during the period of ‘the Union’ (the political ‘amalgamation of England, Ireland, and Scotland during 1800-1921), a British Government Office, and so during the long years of English rule in Ireland it did not recognise Irish chiefs, except in one case:  in 1900 The O Connor Don was granted supporters to his heraldic shield, and at the coronation of Edward VII he was officially appointed to carry the standard of Ireland during the ceremonies on that occasion.

Before the final submergence of the Brehon system there were, needless to say, many more recognised Irish Chiefs than those listed by the Office of the Chief Herald in 2003 when ‘curtesy recognitions’ ceased … some of those ‘lost’ Irish Chiefs have substantiated their claim in recent times.   

Sixteenth century sources, such as the State Papers and the Fiants, show that, apart from the ‘hibernicised’ Norman families already mentioned, the heads of the following families were there referred to as chiefs:  MacArtan (now MacCartan);  MacAuliffe;  MacAuley;  O Beirne;    O Boyle (no connection with the English name Boyle, borne by the Earl of Cork);  O Brennan;  O Byrne;    O Cahan (Kane);  O Carroll; MacCarthy Mór;  MacCarthy Reagh;  MacClancy;       O Clery;  MacCoghlan;  O Connell;  O Connolly;  O Conor Faly;  O Conor Roe;  O Conor Sligo;    O Daly;  O Dempsey;  O Devlin;  O Doherty;  MacDonagh;  O Dowd;  O Doyle;  O Driscoll;    O Dunn;  O Dwyer; O Farrell;  O Flaherty;  O Folane;  O Gara;   MacGeoghegan;  MacGilpatrick (FitzPatrick);  MacGorman;  MacGrath;  MacGuinness;  MacGuire;  O Hagan;   O Hanlon;  O Hara;  O Heyne;  O Keeffe;  MacKenna;  O Kennedy;  MacKiernan;  MacKinnane (Ford);  MacLoughlin;  O Loughlin;   O Madden;  MacMahon;  O Mahony;  O Malley;              O Mannin;  MacManus;  O Melaghlin;  O Molloy;  O More;  O Mulryan (Ryan);  O Mulvey;  MacNamara;  O Nolan;  O Phelan;  O Reilly;  MacRory;  O Rourke;  O Shaughnessy;                O Sheridan;  O Sullivan Beare;  and O Sullivan Mór.


The first modern Irish ‘clans’ (family name societies) were established in the latter half of the twentieth century.   Today such groups are organised in Ireland, the USA, Australia and mainland Europe.

In 1989, Rory O'Connor, the elected Chieftain of the ‘O'Connor Kerry Clan’, set out to bring about a revival in the organisation of the Irish Clans.   To this end, he wrote to newspapers, cultural organisations, and individuals across Ireland encouraging people to begin to organise themselves in clan associations. He was successful in requesting and obtaining support from Mr. Martin Dully, then Chairman of Bord Fáilte (Irish Tourist Board) as well as the Irish Minister for Tourism at the time. 

Since 1989, there has been a great upsurge of interest in the old Irish chieftainries and clans.    Many 'Clan Societies' have now been formed and some of these have revived the practice of appointing Chieftains.   This has been actively encouraged by the Irish Government.


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 Last updated 18 December, 2011