IRISH CHIEFLY SUCCESSION IN THE 21st CENTURY
M. Óg Ó Catháin
/ Leonard M. Keane Jr
The Ó Catháin
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
‘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
‘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.
Irish family / clan without any historical evidence of a formal Chief
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
some basic ‘ground-rules’ :
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)
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.
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.
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.)
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
guidelines include and require :
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 /
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.)
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
Men (potential clan officers) who may bear any
family name, title, or claim credible affiliation to any sept or branch of the
family / clan.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
A long-dormant, but prominent, Gaelic-Irish family / clan
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
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.
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
“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.
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.
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’.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
The Kingdom of Desmond Association
‘Gaelic & Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages’, p. 27
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
(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
discusssions 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.
IRISH CHIEFLY SUCCESSION:
‘AD HOC DERBHFINE’ GUIDELINES
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 an
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
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
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 based on succession to titles by
was a system whereby the eldest son succeeded his father and 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.
For a Chief-of-Name of any
clan was responsible for the
whole clan and he himself was not the ‘owner’ of the land but rather
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, again, under English law, the king or other noble
was assured under primogeniture that his eldest son would succeed
him (even if not really the most capable).
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 entry into Ireland in
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 and to totally eliminate Brehon
Law and its processes of organization of society to include Irish
We all know that indeed the
English eventually succeeded, totally, based on their victory at
Kinsale (1602), the Flight of the Earls (1607) and the great part
of the Irish clan system was already gone due to Cromwellian
organization and confiscations (circa 1655).
The invader accomplished
this infamy even though the bulk of Norman-Irish sided with the
Gaelic-Irish in the 1641 uprising leading to the entry of
Cromwell. Based on adherence to Gaelic values and Brehon Laws the
invader lumped all 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 thoroughly enforced after Kinsale.
Irish Chiefly Successions – The Current Situation
As said, 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) was only carried on in exile, and that only
within a limited number of families.
Within Ireland only a 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 control of the English government.
When the Penal Laws against
Catholics and dissenters began to be relaxed, starting
particularly in the mid-19th century, a few
Chiefs-of-Name who managed to survive secretly in Ireland did
begin to use their chiefly designations.
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 chiefships.
Of course the new Ireland was and is republican, and
adopted English Common Law as the basis of its legal system – and
did not revert to the historic Brehon Law.
Those are complicated subjects which it is not within the
scope of this article to discuss, dealing as we are with chiefly
By 1944 the government of
Eamon DeValera recognized that some sort of recognition should be
given to those who claimed to hold ancient Irish Chief-of-Name
responsibility for the control and administration of the policy
was passed to an official in the National Library and an office of
Chief Herald of Ireland came to be created.
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
From 1944 until 2003 that office indeed made the decision on 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. This is
given that 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 recognized the problems and contradictions and
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. Clans of Ireland
has membership criteria, helps with meetings and general advice.
That advice includes the
recommendation that a ‘chief’ be elected from among those active
in clan work. The
great majority of clans do not have an hereditary chief, and thus
the election of a chief is strictly ‘honourary’ and, of course, is
outside of historic Brehon Law. Most
elections are for a set period of a year or two, when another
election takes place for a new honourary chief.
In addition to Clans of
Ireland, the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains also
came into existence (1991). This
council is composed of the limited number of Chiefs-of-Name who
indeed have been able to prove descent from a former Chief-of-Name
who existed under the Gaelic order of things, pre 1691 –
continuing secretly in Ireland or in exile.
There are now about 16-17 members, though a few are
inactive and do not attend meetings, etc., e.g. The Fox, The O
Donnell. 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 has ceased since 2003
when the Chief Herald was removed by government action from
continuing the policy of ‘courtesy recognitions’, as said.
Since then the council has
not made any admissions (though there are several applications
which have been submitted, a few a number of years ago).
It has made clear that it still wishes some sort of Irish
government action as regards the hereditary chiefships, if not
restarting ‘courtesy recognitions’ then at least registering
descents. Besides the
few hereditaries 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-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, the current and legitimate
A few of the clans within
Clans of Ireland, a few only, are headed by the hereditary
Chief-of-Name who also belongs to the Standing Council of Irish
Chiefs, e.g. O Brien, MacDermott Prince of Coolavin.
In summary, only those
chiefs on the Standing Council 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 an
hereditary center that a clan can truly be reflective of historic
Irish practices. The
election of ‘honourary chiefs’ via Clans of Ireland is fine.
No complaints if that is what a 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. 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.
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:
not having an hereditary
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
invader of Scotland didn’t succeed in totally eliminating Brehon
Law and tanistry, as he did in Ireland.
And made some compromises
so that the clan system was allowed, under Lord Lyon King of Arms,
to be continued. English
common law of course was an umbrella over it but tanistry and the
historic value system did survive.
And the clan indeed is recognized as a nobiliary body, and
the chiefship as an incorporeal hereditament.
And as reflective of the
historic Gaelic system.
Of course, with no overall
Great Britain/U.K. encouragement, wars and massive emigration, the
Scots likewise as in Ireland ‘lost’ knowledge of descents from
most of their hereditary chiefs-of-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 it must be said that the revival was helped along by
Queen Victoria’s interest. In
summary, the clan practices of ancient
Gaelic Scotland did not
die and are ‘accepted’ within the U.K., as modified for modern
times and as maintained by Lord Lyon.
He 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 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
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, deliberate extirpation of our system of Brehon Law and
tanistry. 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:
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 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, e.g. the Clan MacCarthy
Foundation, the Doyle Clan, etc.
There should be a minimum of nine members for the proposed Ad Hoc
Wide publicity about the effort should be undertaken, via every
possible vehicle. 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
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 &
Ulster King of Arms in the U.K., possible other heraldry offices
in such as 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
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?:
certainly could be considered though not as part of this
Once the organizers have determined that they have done all that
can be 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.
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
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 will serve if elected.
Place of residence is not a consideration.
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
he 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 of normally 10 to 20 years should elapse before the Ceann
Cath is proclaimed as hereditary Chief-of-Name or
Chieftain-of-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
minimum 10 years may be further reduced to a 5 year period by
decision of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine, if the person elected has been
of a 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.
In closing, naturally any
candidate for election should be versed in traditional Gaelic
practices. That is, he
should understand the Gaelic order of things pre 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 land; it belonged to the whole community, and he
was responsible to the whole community, and 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
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-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 per historical Gaelic practices, to now include
endowments for various purposes of help to clan members.
Thank you for your interest
in this article.
For a full exposition of the Scottish
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
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.
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’.
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 under the Gaelic order, the
notification for 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 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-Name of these
formerly-reigning royal families are all extant.
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 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, to struggle on for Ireland in
exile. One must recall
that there are upwards of 100 million of Irish name in the
‘diaspora’ and 5 million Irish in Ireland.
This article was written and
published by THE KINGDOM OF DESMOND ASSOCIATION, with the support
and cooperation of THE CLAN MACCARTHY FOUNDATION (2014).
It reflects the positive
attitude of the two groups concerning the process known as ‘Ad Hoc