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Response to 'Coat of Arms' Charges


The writer's review of Susan Hood's 'Royal Roots, Republican Inheritance' was published in the Winter 2003 edition of the 'Coat of Arms'. A response by Cecil R Humphery-Smith which contained several serious charges against the writer was published in the Autumn/Winter 2004 edition of the journal. Mr Thomas Sweeney, whose claim to the chiefly title of 'The Mac Sweeney Doe' I have challenged, has reproduced Mr Humphery-Smith's piece in full as part of an unpleasant personalised attack on his website at As 'The Coat of Arms' no longer publishes correspondence, I submitted a letter to its sister publication, the 'Heraldry Gazette', which adequately disposes of Mr Humphery-Smith's charges. My book review, Mr Humphery-Smith's critical letter, and my letter of reply are reproduced below, together with extracts from some relevant documents. As is usually the case, the truth here requires some thought and effort in order to be understood.


Coat of Arms Review

The following is the text of a review by the present writer published in the Coat of Arms, Volume 15, Number 204, pages 167-72:

Royal Roots, Republican Inheritance: The Survival of the Office of Arms (A Book Review Article)

By Sean Murphy, Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies

Susan Hood, Royal Roots-Republican Inheritance: The Survival of the Office of Arms, Woodfield Press, in association with National Library of Ireland, Dublin 2002, xxv plus 285 pages, illustrated, €25/£18.50.

As it is not absolutely clear from the title, one should start by pointing out that the work under review is essentially a history of the Office of Ulster King of Arms from 1853 to 1943, and of its successor the Genealogical Office/Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland from the latter date until the present, both of which offices have been loosely and unofficially termed the Irish 'Office of Arms'. Given that the only substantial published history of Ulster's Office is a not wholly reliable one from the pen of Terence MacCarthy, the self-styled MacCarthy Mór, one should welcome the appearance of Hood's work, which is in the main scholarly and well referenced.

Hood's book is published in association with the National Library of Ireland, and it can fairly be described as an official, or at least a quasi-official history, with the strengths and weaknesses of an inside account. Certainly, the book was compiled in close co-operation with the current Chief Herald, who is thanked for his encouragement and comments on early drafts, also the Deputy Chief Herald, who provided access to uncatalogued records 'not generally available to readers', and former Chief Herald Donal Begley, who gave the author 'a job . . . as a student during the 1980s'. Given that access to known Genealogical Office records has long been a vexed question, it is an interesting revelation to say the least that there exist further uncatalogued caches of documents, to which special entry can be arranged by a favoured few.

The title of Hood's book also demonstrates that she has a case to argue. She believes firmly that there is essential continuity between the present arrangement and the old Ulster's Office, that the Genealogical Office/Office of the Chief Herald is in fact 450 years old and therefore the most ancient office of state in the Irish Republic. This is equivalent to saying that the current Dáil and the old Parliament which met in College Green in Dublin are one and the same, or that the offices of President of Ireland and former English Viceroy are coterminous. While the present writer would agree that the designation 'Genealogical Office/Office of the Chief Herald' is indeed 'redundant', I would dissent from Hood's suggestion that it should formally be replaced by the antiquarian title of 'Office of Arms'. Rationalisation should proceed on the basis of provisions such as those in the Cultural Institutions Act of 1997, still not implemented for whatever reason, which are designed to ensure that the National Library has properly functioning departments dealing in an equitable and efficient manner with both heraldry and genealogy.

It had been anticipated and indeed advertised that Hood's work would span the entire history of Ulster's Office, but the period from its foundation in 1552 until 1853 is dealt with very summarily in a short introductory section. In the latter year, the 'legendary' Sir William Betham was succeeded as Ulster King of Arms by Sir Bernard Burke, of the Peerage family. Basing herself on little worked Genealogical Office manuscripts, Hood documents Burke's 'efficiency and attention to detail', his acquisition of some of Betham's manuscripts, his expansion of the range of records in Ulster's Office in Dublin Castle, and his triumphal management of ceremonial duties on behalf of the Viceregal court, referring as well to his role in the creation in 1867 of a national archives in the form of the Public Record Office of Ireland. Mentioned also are Burke's well-known deficiencies as a genealogist, in particular, the tendency to include in the Peerage and other publications 'spurious accounts of the early generations of prominent families'.

Burke was succeeded as Ulster by Sir Arthur Vicars in 1893, whose tenure, despite a promising start and some positive achievements, was 'a story of bickerings, scandal and neglect', represented in particular by the catastrophe of the theft of the Irish 'Crown Jewels' in 1907. These valuable items were in fact the regalia of the Order of St Patrick, which were in the official custody of Ulster when not in use. While the identities of the thieves have never been conclusively established, it is now widely accepted that Francis Shackleton, brother of the famous explorer Sir Ernest and holder under Vicars of the post of Dublin Herald, was implicated. A commission of enquiry found Vicars negligent, but strangely went out of its way to exonerate Shackleton, perhaps because of threats of revelations of scandalous behaviour in Ulster's Office which involved prominent persons. Vicars was scapegoated and dismissed from the post of Ulster in 1908, later dying at the hands of the IRA in 1921 during the period of terror and counter-terror which preceded Irish independence. Unsurprisingly, Hood does not solve the mystery of who stole the Jewels, but her detailed trawl through surviving records in Ireland and England adds to our knowledge of the affair, and indeed it is true as she concludes that Ulster's Office 'was never quite the same after the events of 1907-8'.

Vicars was succeeded by Sir Nevile Wilkinson, an archetypal 'safe pair of hands'. While Wilkinson was a talented artist who contributed to standards of armorial work in Ulster's Office as Hood shows, he was not a scholar, and furthermore preferred to live in England and leave the bulk of work to deputies, successively George Burtchaell and Thomas Sadleir. After the granting of Irish independence in 1922, Ulster's Office did not immediately come under the control of the new government, but remained an anomalous remnant of the departed British Raj in Dublin Castle. Interestingly, Hood claims that 'ancestral research for the diaspora' was becoming an important aspect of the Office's work from as early as the 1920s, but there is no doubt that the place retained a certain gentlemanly or exclusive air.

It was only after Wilkinson's death in 1940 that the governments on both sides of the Irish Sea dealt with the anomaly of Ulster's Office. In 1943 it was agreed that the physical premises and records in Dublin Castle should be passed to the Irish State, and that the post of Ulster King of Arms should henceforth be combined with that of Norroy in the College of Arms in London, with reduced jurisdiction confined to the six counties of Northern Ireland. After some deliberation, the Irish government created a Genealogical Office which was placed under the Department of Education and attached to the National Library of Ireland, appointing Dr Edward MacLysaght as the first Chief Genealogical Officer. At this point there clearly were no plans to continue the heraldic functions of the old office in what had become a republican environment, but this attitude would soon change.

Acting Ulster Thomas Sadleir had been running his Office on a shoestring for many years, and MacLysaght was appalled by the arrears of work he had to deal with on his appointment. MacLysaght set to work to tackle the backlog, and although he was initially unenthusiastic about heraldry as opposed to genealogy, Hood's account indicates that the receipt of applications for new work (and one suspects the potential fees) inclined him to maintain the provision of heraldic services. Government approved this course of action, and in 1946 MacLysaght received the additional title of Chief Herald of Ireland, from which date there has existed the awkward and not well thought out duality that is the Genealogical Office/Office of the Chief Herald. While the College of Arms was initially unenthusiastic about the creation of a new Irish heraldic authority, Lord Lyon appears to have been more supportive, and actually suggested the title 'Chief Herald'. Yet it is an undeniable fact, not much considered by Hood, that the implications of noblesse and social superiority implicit in the granting of arms sit ill with the egalitarian ethos of non-monarchical states. Indeed Ireland and South Africa are the only republics with state-run heraldic offices, and one suspects that the attraction of revenue to needy post-colonial regimes provides the principal explanation, initially at least, for the retention in both countries of such fundamentally ancien regime establishments.

MacLysaght eventually became frustrated by the limitations of his post as Chief Herald, transferring instead to work building up the National Library's manuscript collections. MacLysaght's successor as Chief Herald was Gerard Slevin, who served until 1981, when he in turn was succeeded by Donal Begley. With the transfer in 1987 of the Office of the Chief Herald from Dublin Castle to new premises in the National Library complex in Kildare Street, certain latent tensions between both bodies were heightened. Indeed, the main problem was that the Office regarded itself somewhat pretentiously as a venerable and independent office of state merely sharing facilities with the Library, while the Library considered it to be a department which should be subject to the authority of the Director. The conflict was effectively decided in the Library's favour when government resolved in the wake of Chief Herald Begley's retirement in 1995 to appoint the Director Dr Patricia Donlon to hold the post in addition to her own.

Hood's hitherto detailed narrative of events becomes rather sparse with regard to the reasons for this dramatic development. However, she does cite a 'flurry' of letters to the Irish Times in 1995 criticising the perceived downgrading of the Chief Herald's Office and refers to a palpable 'unanimity of expression' in the heraldic and genealogical communities. Hood neglects to mention that she was in fact one of the letter writers, and chooses to ignore expressions of opinion by those who supported the appointment of the Library Director as Chief Herald, because of course there has not been unanimity on the subject.

While the full story remains to be told, some of the reasons for clipping the wings of the Chief Herald's Office were provided by the extraordinary revelations surrounding the MacCarthy Mór affair. Briefly, the above mentioned Terence MacCarthy somehow persuaded Chief Herald Begley and his Deputy to sign a certificate in 1992 recognising him as a Gaelic Chief with a pedigree going back to the fifth century. Additionally, Chief Herald Begley had issued a letter in June 1988 which effectively rubber stamped MacCarthy's sale of 'Gaelic feudal lordships'.

MacCarthy was exposed as an impostor in June 1999 as a result of evidence gathered by the present writer and others. Chief Herald Brendan O Donoghue stripped MacCarthy of recognition a month later and amended the records of his office accordingly. However, it has since emerged that other chiefs recognised by the Chief Herald's Office between the years 1989-95 are also bogus or at least questionable, and that significant numbers of spurious pedigrees, arms and titles were infiltrated into the records, for example, 'feudal lordships', grants of the 'Duchess of Braganza', and so on. A combination of bureaucratic inertia and unspecified 'legal issues' have left these matters unresolved, years after they first came or were brought to the attention of the Office of the Chief Herald. While Hood devotes the best part of a lengthy chapter to the Irish Crown Jewels scandal, the MacCarthy Mór hoax receives merely an eleven-line paragraph, which is hardly adequate.

Debates over the future of heraldry and indeed of genealogy in Ireland are sure to continue, while the failure to deal in a timely and decisive fashion with the MacCarthy Mór and allied scandals have merely prolonged the negative consequences for the Office of the Chief Herald. As to Hood's book, we conclude by stating again that it is marked by strengths and weaknesses. Official co-operation and unrivalled access to records have enabled her to construct a scholarly and generally objective account of Ulster's Office and its successor the Genealogical Office/Office of the Chief Herald from the 1850s until the 1980s. However, her closeness to the Office of the Chief Herald and somewhat protective attitude have inhibited her from providing a rounded account of its more recent history and current problems, so that the latter part of her book in particular is noticeably partisan and incomplete.


Humphery-Smith Criticisms

The following is the text of a letter from Cecil R Humphery-Smith in the Coat of Arms, Volume 15, Numbers 207 & 208, Autumn/Winter 2004, pages 346-48:

Sir: In preparing a new edition of Kennedy's Book of Arms, I was tempted by claims, substantiated by 'evidence', to invite a foreword from a certain Prince of Desmond, to whom I was introduced by the late Chief Herald of Ireland, Donal Begley. I became somewhat suspicious of the claims of the 'prince' when I read his scholarly piece though I had not been unfamiliar with Irish factions, prejudices and readiness to indulge in disparagement of each other. That I imagined was an unkind and unjustified generality on my part, soon dispelled once I met Donal Begley. Somewhat later I had read the contribution of John Brooke-Little, then Norroy and Ulster King of Arms, to an Irish publication. However, further suspicions arose with the publication of a useful book on Gaelic Titles and Forms of Address by the Lord of Duhallow in 1990.

It took me some time to look into the matter. A visit to Dublin for the splendidly organised 24th International Congress of Genealogical and Heraldic Sciences in 2002 led to a meeting with Dr. Susan Hood and Mr. Brendan O Donoghue.

Readers of the Coat of Arms (Winter 2004, pp.167-72) may be interested to discover that statements made by Mr Murphy in his review of Dr. Susan Hood's book Royal Roots - Republican Inheritance: The Survival of the Office of Arms, are inaccurate. They may be regarded as slanderous since the civil servants cited are not able to defend themselves. I am certain that the editors cannot be aware of what goes on within the portals of the Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies, but simple enquiry might serve to correct the totally wrong impression of the circumstances. The 'Centre' does not have any connection with the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland. It does not appear to have any staff or members apart from the author of the review article.

It became necessary to ask the question: was the Prince of Desmond signing himself 'The MacCarthy Mór', genuinely Chief of the Name and all that he pretended to be. The then Chief Herald, the late Gerald Slevin, who occasionally joined me for a meal when he ventured to London, had accepted at face value what purported to be proofs of descent from Terence McCarthy. He entered the descent on the Register in 1973. The Pedigree Registers show that the Chief Herald was in no way departing from the long-established practice of his Office and predecessors as Ulster kings of arms.

Mr McCarthy requested a certificate from Mr Slevin's successor, Mr Donal Begley, recognising him as 'Chief of the Name' M(a)cCarthy Mór. That document was signed by Mr Fergus Gillespie per pro the Chief Herald of Ireland on the instruction of Mr Begley in 1992. Mr Gillespie is the present Deputy Chief Herald, but as Mr Murphy is apparently well aware, he has not been invited to research Mr MacCarthy's claim. The truth is that Fergus Gillespie as deputy to Donal Begley obeyed the instructions of his senior office in the service. It is entirely false to suggest that he was persuaded to sign the certificate. Subsequently, Mr McCarthy asked Mr Begley to endorse the certificate and, as requested, the Chief Herald, Donal Begley, added his own signature.

Mr. Brendan O Donoghue, who was appointed Chief Herald from 1999 to 2003, instigated an investigation into Mr McCarthy's claim on being approached by a second individual claiming to be M(a)cCarthy Mór. This was some two years before the appearance of Sean Murphy on the scene and did not rely on the evidence of any statement from Mr Murphy. Indeed, Mr Murphy applied to Mr O Donoghue for information concerning this case after he had stripped McCarthy of courtesy recognition. Surely, because Mr Murphy had requested access to files under the Freedom of Information Act, he had a duty to disclose any information on the case other than that contained in the files at the Office. He might then have contributed to Mr O Donoghue's already extensive investigations. He disclosed no such prior knowledge of it.

These misrepresentations of facts have now been brought to the notice of a wide readership in your learned magazine, a readership that has a particular interest in these matters. I cannot but feel that, whether Mr Murphy's article was requested by you or volunteered by him, the Editor of the Coat of Arms bears some responsibility for the errors contained therein and owes an apology to Mr Brendan O Donoghue, to Mr Fergus Gillespie and to Dr Susan Hood (disparagingly referred to throughout Sean Murphy's article as 'Hood'). Mr Murphy owes an apology to the Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland.

Yours &c., Cecil R. Humphery-Smith, Canterbury

The editors of the Coat of Arms appended the following note to this letter:

The caretaker editors thank Mr Humphery-Smith for his letter and, although not in a position to apologise for something published before their tenure began, regret any bad feeling caused. They believe, however, that Mr Murphy's review (while certainly pugnacious) would be defensible on the hybrid grounds of fair comment and justification. To say his remarks 'may be regarded as slanderous since the civil servants cited are not able to defend themselves' (sc. by going to law) is by definition to ask one to accept an unproveable claim. Mr Murphy may care to respond, but if so he must find a different forum; the corrrespondence (like all other correspondence in the Coat of Arms, controversial or otherwise), is hereby closed.


Letter to Heraldry Gazette

Following the advice to seek an alternative forum, the writer submitted a letter of reply to the Editor of the sister publication of the Coat of Arms, the Heraldry Gazette, and the letter was duly published in the June 2005 issue of the Gazette, page 11:

Sir: If I might be allowed to reply briefly to Cecil R. Humphery-Smith’s charges that my review in 2003 of Royal Roots, Republican Inheritance contains ‘inaccurate’ and ‘slanderous’ statements. I reject these charges and stand over the accuracy of my review, particularly in regard to the circumstances leading to the withdrawal of recognition from the spurious Gaelic chief known as ‘The Mac Carthy Mór’. Mr Humphery-Smith further alleges that I disclosed no ‘prior knowledge’ of the case and applied to Irish Chief Herald Brendan O Donoghue for information ‘after he had stripped McCarthy of his courtesy recognition’.

Mr Humphery-Smith has, I think, been misinformed, as I first applied to the Chief Herald in January 1999, seeking access under the Freedom of Information Act to records relating to Mac Carthy Mór, going on to warn the Chief Herald of a ‘brewing scandal’ in March and continuing to supply him with summary details of my voluntary research in the months following. On 16 June 1999 I issued a report showing 'Mac Carthy Mór' to be a bogus chief, the Irish Edition of the Sunday Times published an exposé on 20 June citing my report, and one month later the Chief Herald finally acted and struck the impostor's name from the Register of Chiefs.

To bring the story up to date, the procedure of recognising chiefs has now been entirely discontinued, while the post of Chief Herald has been vacant since September 2003, with the result that no Irish grant of arms has issued since then.

Sean Murphy,
Windgates, Co Wicklow, Ireland

    In addition I wrote a letter to Mr Humphery-Smith on 11 May 2005 rejecting his charges, standing over the accuracy of my review, and asking why he chose to publish such damaging allegations without making any effort to contact me with a 'simple enquiry' as to their veracity. After a delay caused by recovery from injuries received in a traffic accident, Mr Humphery-Smith replied on 15 July, indicating that he was aware that I had reported on Terence MacCarthy's hoax before the Office of the Chief Herald took action, but failing to withdraw the utterly false charge that I had disclosed no 'prior knowledge' of the case. It can further be observed that Mr Humphery-Smith's Coat of Arms letter confirms the existence of a campaign of negative briefing and, yes, slander against the present writer, in retaliation for his exposure of maladministration in the Genealogical Office/Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland. The process whereby the hoaxer Terence MacCarthy managed to secure the signatures of both the then Chief Herald and his Deputy (appointed Chief Herald in August 2005) on the certificate recognising him as 'The Mac Carthy Mór' in 1992 is not yet fully understood, particularly as most documents of the period are still being withheld by the Office of the Chief Herald. The present writer is satisfied that the gentlemen in question are not such poor genealogists and heraldists that they were unaware of the falsity of MacCarthy's claims even as they signed the infamous certificate (see copy below). Rather than being a routine administrative act, it is the writer's understanding that the signings took place under conditions of arm-twisting and pressure which can probably only be elucidated by some sort of official enquiry into the operations of the Office of the Chief Herald. The writer is currently being pressed to 'apologise' to this Office for what he has written: if apologies are due from anyone, it is from those public officials who validated Terence MacCarthy and other bogus and questionable claimants. In conclusion, the following extracts from such documentation as has been secured do throw significant light on the process whereby MacCarthy managed to extract recognition from state officials, these together more than adequately proving the writer's contention that it involved actionable maladministration at the very least:

Confirmation of Arms to Terence Francis MacCarthy, 18 December 1979, Registered Pedigree of MacCarthy of Belfast, about 1980, both issued by Chief Herald Gerard Slevin, who however did not describe MacCarthy as 'Mac Carthy Mór'.

Having considered the matter we do not propose to stand in the way of your disposal of the aforementioned hereditaments. (Chief Herald Donal Begley to Terence MacCarthy, 16 June 1988, addressing him as 'Mac Carthy Mór' and approving sale of 'feudal lordships'.)

I need not labour my academic work on the history of the Office of Arms, the many important donations or loans I have made, the time I have devoted to your problems. . . . . . I have been more than patient in a matter of considerable importance when other persons might have approached the Prime Minister's Office for redress or an Order of Mandamus. (Terence MacCarthy to Chief Herald Donal Begley, 26 September 1989, complaining of the delay in recognising him as chief.)

We are challenging not only Terence, but Samuel Trant McCarthy's right to claim the title of MacCarthy Mór. Data has been sent to the Chief Herald and I have been given other authorities to appeal to if we make no headway there. (Letter of Mrs Valerie Bary to Mrs Neill, 25 April 1991; Mrs Bary's correspondence of the period to the Chief Herald has reportedly disappeared from the files.)

I do not wish to be described as 'of Belfast' as I am ONLY of 'Tangier in the Kingdom of Morocco'. Belfast has such a notorious name I do not want it spoiling my pedigree! (Terence MacCarthy to Deputy Chief Herald Fergus Gillespie, 27 October 1991, specifying alterations to his pedigree and the description of himself on his forthcoming certificate of recognition as a chief, and proving the Deputy's close involvement in the process; see full copy of letter.)

Terence Francis, resident in Tangier, Kingdom of Morocco, Mac Carthy Mór, Chief of the Name
Donal Begley, Chief Herald
Fergus Gillespie, Per Pro Chief Herald of Ireland
Official seal
(Extracts from Certificate of recognition of Mac Carthy Mór, 28 January 1992. The sequence of events appears to be that having succumbed to MacCarthy's relentless pressure, the Chief Herald first had his Deputy sign the certificate on his behalf, and following further demands from MacCarthy, felt unable to refuse the addition of his own signature. The copy of the certificate in the Office of the Chief Herald is unsigned, and a copy of the signed document was provided to the writer by a third party.)

This is to state that Mr T McCarthy's case made to the Chief Herald's office for recognition as chief of the name was not ratified. . . . . . On the contrary ratification of his case was deliberately withheld because of doubts about his credentials. (Statement of former Chief Herald Donal Begley, October 2001, denying, rather improbably, that Terence MacCarthy had been recognised as a chief.)

Now it is a fact that the first people approached by MacCarthy to join the Niadh Nask went to the Chief Herald both in person and by correspondence and were told clearly that Terence MacCarthy was the legitimate MacCarthy Mór. (William F K Marmion, writing in Irish Roots, Second Quarter 2001, page 13.)

I would have refused to sign. (Writer to Deputy Chief Herald Fergus Gillespie, 12 February 2002, on the subject of the signing of Terence MacCarthy's certificate of chiefship.)



Sean J Murphy MA
Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies
3 June 2005, revised 16 September