Irish Chiefs
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Irish Chiefs: Historical Background and a Register


Historical Background

Following the final conquest of all Ireland by the English in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the independent political structures of Gaelic Ireland were brought to an end. Put simply, centralising Tudor monarchs such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I would not tolerate power structures which might threaten their authority. After Elizabeth's death in 1603 and the succession to the English throne of the Scottish monarch James I, defeated Gaelic lords such as O'Neill and O'Donnell hoped for a time to come to terms with the new order. Alas, they found that they could not, and in 1607 departed Ireland from Lough Swilly with their followers in the famous 'Flight of the Earls'. Of course Gaelic influences, particularly in the cultural sphere, survived these catastrophes, and continue to the present day, but it is important to remember that the political stuctures of Gaelic Ireland ceased to be.

The English had paid special attention to ending the Gaelic method of appointing Chiefs of their ruling families, and indeed insisted that they surrender their Gaelic titles and rights and accept English ones instead. Hence, for example, O'Brien became Earl of Thomond and O'Neill became Earl of Tyrone. The Gaelic system of appointing Chiefs or leaders was called 'Tanistry' by the English. The word itself is derived from the Gaelic Tánaiste, which effectively means Chief-in-waiting or successor to the serving Chief. In contrast to the English and feudal system of primogeniture, whereby the eldest son succeeds to office, under the Irish Brehon Law system the right to appoint a new Chief lay with the extended kingroup or derbfine, pronounced 'der-vi-neh', with a short 'i'. The derbfine was composed of the male descendants of a common great-grandfather, and its choice was not limited to the eldest son of a serving Chief, although of course he could be and not infrequently was selected to succeed his father.

While primogeniture generally made for smoother succession, Tanistry could be a cause of instability and conflict, as different power groups within the derbfine struggled for ascendancy. Indeed some historians have claimed that the system of primogeniture or succession of the eldest son had made some headway in Gaelic areas. Alhough there is much talk of Irish 'Clans' and 'Clan Chiefs', it is also important to remember that the Irish did not have a clan system exactly like the Scots, despite the many elements of Gaelic culture common to both countries. The term 'clan' is best reserved for the Scottish kin-based unit, while the anglicised term 'sept' is more appropriate for the more disparate and less feudalised kingroup system of the Irish. The great authority on Irish surnames, Edward MacLysaght, advised against the use of the term 'clan' in the Irish context, but his words have been little heeded.

In the wake of the collapse of the Gaelic order, and despite the fact that chiefdom as a real political institution had ceased to exist, nevertheless a small number of families continued to claim the titles, prominent examples including O'Brien and O'Conor Don. Probably in imitation of Scottish practice, the custom grew of affixing the definite article before the names of Irish Chiefs, for example, The O'Brien, but in Gaelic no prefix was used, hence Ó Briain. Incidentally, although it is now standard practice to write English versions of Gaelic surnames with an apostrophe after the 'O' prefix and with the 'Mac' prefix joined to the name, perhaps it is time to consider revising this custom, writing instead O Brien, Mac Dermott, and so on. It is important to stress that most Irish Chiefly titles fell into disuse, and indeed war, flight abroad and destruction of records meant that most aristocratic Gaelic lineages became obscured from the seventeenth century onwards.

In the course of the Gaelic revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of individuals laid claim to chiefly titles, including The O'Mahony and The O'Rahilly. Alas, these gentlemen appear to have fallen victim to wishful thinking and fantasy, for no satisfactory genealogical evidence was produced to justify their claims. At the same time there was increasing interest in organising Irish 'Clans', and this culminated in the 1950s in the activities of the enthusiastic but not very scholarly Eoin 'The Pope' O'Mahony. In 1943 Edward MacLysaght was appointed as first Chief Herald of Ireland and head of the Genealogical Office (the latter has now been subsumed into the Office of the Chief Herald, which is a branch of the National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin). MacLysaght took it upon himself to endeavour to regulate Chiefly titles, in an effort to counter the significant number of questionable Chiefs, including a bogus O'Brien, Prince of Thomond. Now it can be argued that MacLysaght's intervention was inappropriate in a country which was well on the way to becoming a Republic, but then as now, there was a pressing need to exert some control over the activities of fakes and fantasists.

In 1944, MacLysaght established a system of 'courtesy recognition' of Irish Chiefs, as of course formal recognition of titles is forbidden by the 1937 Constitution. MacLysaght rightly considered that Tanistry, which as we have seen is selection of Chiefs by the derbfine or kin group, was no longer a practical system after a lapse of so many centuries. As a compromise MacLysaght therefore adopted primogeniture, or senior male line descent from the last inaugurated Chief, as the basis for recognising a modern successor. This decision remains controversial today, but in the present writer's opinion provides the only practical basis on which to determine Chiefly succession. Of course, we should realise that the title of Chief is now more honorary than real, as the system that produced it is gone forever and can never be revived. And just as the method of Chiefly succession has been adapted to primogeniture, so too it is not impossible that in time female Chiefs will be recognised, as is already the case in Scotland.

Following fairly exhaustive research, some 15 Chiefs were recognised by MacLysaght in 1944-45. There then followed a gap of 45 years, when between 1989-95 an additional 7 Chiefs were recognised. Unfortunately, MacLysaght's standards were largely abandoned during the latter period, and it has now become clear that some Chiefs were recognised on the basis of flimsy or nonexistent evidence. The year 1989 also saw a renewed and largely tourism-driven interest in organising Irish 'Clans', and there was a general atmosphere of fantasy and scholarly carelessness which paved the way for what has become known as the MacCarthy Mór Hoax.

While there have been attempts in Ireland to minimise or deny the scandal, the MacCarthy Mór affair has dealt a serious blow to the reputation of Irish genealogy and heraldry and its after effects will be felt for some time to come. What happened was that a certain Terence MacCarthy of Belfast laid claim to being The MacCarthy Mór, Prince of Desmond and Chief of the MacCarthy Clan, and managed to get the then Chief Herald and his Deputy to grant him an official patent of recognition in 1992. MacCarthy then took this documentation and persuaded individuals in America and elsewhere to part with an estimated total of $1,000,000 or more for worthless titles and honours. A university graduate, MacCarthy was also a genealogist and heraldist of some ability, misusing his skills to produce pseudo-scholarly publications which led some to believe that Chiefs, Tanistry, the Brehon Code and other trappings of the Gaelic order could once again be restored.

Working voluntarily, the writer and others exposed MacCarthy's deception in 1999, showing that he was not of aristocratic descent and had no connection with the MacCarthys of Munster. Also exposed in a memorable Sunday Times article on the affair published in June 1999 was MacCarthy's associate Andrew Davison, the so-called Count of Clandermond, who was shown to be a convicted blackmailer. Many with what they thought was a genuine interest in Irish heritage were deceived by MacCarthy and Davison, both of whom carried credentials issued by the Chief Herald of Ireland. The Office of the Chief Herald was obliged to strip MacCarthy of recognition in July 1999, and later quietly cancelled Davison's grants of arms in September 2000. However, the present writer has shown that other dubious or bogus Chiefs were also given recognition, including Maguire of Fermanagh and O Long of Garranelongy. The Office of the Chief Herald has not taken action in these cases, citing unspecified 'legal issues', and indeed refusing access to much of the relevant background information in its files. The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands promised to establish a committee to review procedures for recognising Chiefs in September 1999, but did a u-turn on this in February 2001, inappropriately leaving the matter in the hands of the Office of the Chief Herald, the body responsible for the problem in the first place. I endeavoured to work constructively with National Library Director/Chief Herald Brendan O Donoghue to resolve the chiefs mess, but he famously sneered in 1999 that I was the 'self-appointed saviour of Irish genealogy', and indeed I have not received an official contract for consultancy or training work since that year.

In line with a recommendation of Director/Chief Herald O Donoghue and the Council of Trustees of the National Library, the Government decided at a Cabinet meeting on 23 July 2003 to sanction the discontinuation of the practice of granting courtesy recognition to chiefs (Sunday Times, Irish Edition, 27 July 2003). In an explanatory letter to the chiefs, sent be it noted after the public revelation that courtesy recognition was being discontinued, Director/Chief Herald O Donoghue summarised the advice of the Office of the Attorney General (current incumbent Rory Brady) as follows:

There is not, and never was, any statutory or legal basis for the practice of granting courtesy recognition as chief of the name; in the absence of an appropriate basis in law, the practice of granting courtesy recognition should not be continued by the Genealogical Office; and even if a sound legal basis for the system existed, it would not be permissible for me [the Chief Herald] to review and reverse decisions made by a previous Chief Herald except in particular situations, for example, where decisions were based on statements or documents which were clearly false or misleading in material respects. (Form letter of Director/Chief Herald O Donoghue to recognised chiefs and applicants for recognition, 28 July 2003, FOI release.)

The thoroughness of the purge was demonstrated by the subsequent removal of every one of the twenty or so chiefs' banners which had been on display in the State Heraldic Museum in Kildare Street, Dublin. On reflection, the writer considers that in the light of the incompetence and worse displayed in relation to the Mac Carthy Mór and allied scandals, it is just as well that the Office of the Chief Herald has removed itself from any role in the recognition of chiefs. The discovery that the Chief Herald had no legal power even to grant arms should surely lead to a reconsideration of the need to maintain this chronically disfunctional office within the National Library of Ireland, and at present it is effectively in abeyance following the retirement of Chief Herald Gillespie in 2009. It should be emphasised again that the recognition of Terence MacCarthy as Mac Carthy Mór was not the only flawed decision made in the past, in that a range of spurious and questionable pedigrees, arms and titles were registered by the Office of the Chief Herald, all of which should be subject to proper review and rectification. Given the scale of the Mac Carthy Mór scandal and the irregularities involved (see reports on the present website and the writer's Twilight of the Chiefs: The Mac Carthy Mór Hoax, Bethesda, Maryland, 2004), there is clearly a need for a thorough official enquiry into the cases of MacCarthy Mór and other bogus or questionable Chiefs recognised by the Office of the Chief Herald.

A Register of Irish Chiefs

While the entry for the impostor MacCarthy Mór was nullified in July 1999 in the wake of his public exposure, the official Register of Chiefs held in the Office of the Chief Herald has not otherwise been corrected or updated for many years, and the other questionable chiefs recognised during the years 1989-95 were not removed. The last reliable general listings of Irish chiefs were those produced by C Eugene Swezey in The Irish Chiefs, New York 1974, and in Burke's Irish Family Records 1976. In an effort to clarify the situation as much as possible, and in order to minimise confusion and misinformation, the following unofficial Register of Chiefs is provided. In relation to entries 1-15, being chiefs recognised during the years 1944-45 by Chief Herald Edward MacLysaght, it should be noted that the claimants' pedigrees were subjected to thorough analysis and checking by Terence Gray, whose reports in Genealogical Office Manuscript 610 are accessible to researchers, and additionally, the pedigrees of most of these chiefs have been published in Burke's Irish Family Records, 1976. The 107th edition of Burke's Peerage, published in 2003, incorporates updated pedigrees of the chiefs recognised by the Office of the Chief Herald in the period 1944-45 only, excluding those recognised subsequently.

In relation to entries 16-23, being chiefs recognised during the years 1989-95 by Chief Herald Donal Begley and/or then Deputy and later Chief Herald Fergus Gillespie, the pedigrees of all the claimants were clearly not subjected to thorough analysis and checking, access is still being denied to many of the relevant official records, and there are inadequate or no published versions of the pedigrees. Reprehensible as was the recognition by the Office of the Chief Herald of the bogus chief Terence MacCarthy 'Mór', other recognitions were also perverse, especially that of MacCarthy's grand-uncle 'Maguire of Fermanagh'. The only chiefly recognition in the period 1989-95 which appears to have any semblance of justification is that of O Doherty. It should be noted that the title of O Neill Mór is claimed by Carlos O'Neill, Marques de la Granja, who resides in Spain, but he does not appear to have applied for recognition to the Office of the Chief Herald. In line with the above mentioned decision, the Chief Herald has now ceased to consider the following applications for courtesy recognition as chiefs: Mac Lochlainn, Mac Sweeney Doe, O Dowda and O Hara and O Meehan. The claimant to the title of Mac Sweeney Doe sets forth his case on his website at, but as it rests essentially on an undocumented sloinneadh or orally transmitted pedigree it cannot be said to succeed.

Unfortunately, despite the present writer's carefully researched work being now a number of years on the record, the latter and other bogus and questionable chiefs have continued to be presented as genuine. Two books dealing with Irish chiefs were published in 2004, Anne Chambers's At Arm's Length, and Walter Curley's Vanishing Kingdoms, but it could not be said that either pays sufficiently close attention to the genealogical evidence or lack thereof in relation to claims to chiefship. For example, Chambers accepts uncritically that the Mac Sweeney Doe claim was validated in 2003 (page 6), and Curley describes the Maguire of Fermanagh claimant as 'intellectually precise and scholarly', possessing 'a fund of historical knowledge' (page 75). While devoting much space to the ideas of the hoaxer Terence MacCarthy and surrogates (pages 120-7), Catherine Nash's Of Irish Descent, published in 2008, also displays little interest in checking the validity of claims to chiefship, listing the discredited and then three years deceased Maguire of Fermanagh as a 'Chief of the Name' (page 117), while disposing of the present writer's work with a short passing reference (page 128). 

Of course there are also many prominent historical chiefships for which there are no current claimants, for example, Mac Grath, Mac Mahon, Mac Namara, O Byrne, O Connell, O Daly, O Flaherty, O Sullivan, and the destruction and dispersal of the Gaelic aristocracy and loss of historical records make it very unlikely that valid claims will ever be made for the bulk of these. Finally, it should be noted that the 'Register of Irish Clans' at is a listing of modern and largely convivial associations whose chiefs or heads are elected and purely honorary in status (some exotic organisations feature, such as the Marmion Clan, the Shortt Clan and the Whitty Clan).


(A)  Recognitions 1944-45, Properly Verified

1 Mac Dermot, Prince of Coolavin, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder Roderick (Rory) Charles McDermot of Dublin.

2 Mac Gillycuddy of the Reeks, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder Dermot Patrick Donogh McGillycuddy of Northamptonshire.

3 O Callaghan, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder Juan O'Callaghan of Barcelona.

4 O Conor Don, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder Desmond Roderic O'Conor of Sussex.

5 O Donoghue of the Glen or Glens, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder Geoffrey Paul Vincent O'Donoghue of Offaly.

6 O Donovan, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder (Morgan Gerald) Daniel O'Donovan of Cork.

7 O Morchoe, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder David Nial Creagh O'Morchoe of Wexford.

8 O Neill of Clannaboy, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder Hugo O'Neill of Portugal.

9 The Fox, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder Douglas Fox of Australia (reported to have succeeded his father John William Fox who died about 2007?).

10 O Toole of Fer Tire, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, title currently dormant.

11 O Grady of Kilballyowen, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder Henry Thomas Standish O'Grady of London.

12 O Kelly of Gallagh and Tycooly, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder Walter Lionel O'Kelly of Dublin.

13 O Brien of Thomond, recognised 1944 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder Sir Conor Myles John O'Brien, Lord Inchiquin, of Clare.

14 Mac Morrough Kavanagh, recognised 1945 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, title formerly declared to be dormant, but after the rediscovery of 'missing' correspondence in 2000, the current holder William Butler Kavanagh of Wales was belatedly acknowledged.

15 O Donnell of Tirconnell, recognised 1945 by Chief Herald MacLysaght, current holder Fr Hugh O'Donnell OFM of Zimbabwe.

(B) Recognitions 1989-95, Unverified, Bogus or Questionable

16 O Doherty of Inishowen, recognised c1990 by Chief Herald Begley, current claimant Ramón O'Dogherty of Spain; there are fairly persuasive secondary published pedigrees and this is the least questionable of the post-1989 recognitions; in 2010 the claimant provided to the writer copies of primary documentation which tends to validate his right to the title (writer's interim report of 25 April 2001, due to be revised); significant portions of the official file remain closed, which constitutes the principal obstacle to resolving this case.

17 O Long of Garranelongy, recognised 1989 by Chief Herald Begley, current claimant Denis C Long of Cork; no documentary evidence has been found to prove the claim to chiefship (writer's report of 26 April 2000);  significant portions of the official file remain closed, but crucial documents are stated to be 'missing'.

18 Maguire of Fermanagh, recognised 1991 by Chief Herald Begley, claimant Terence J Maguire of Dublin, a grand-uncle of Terence MacCarthy below, died 19 February 2005; there is no documentary evidence whatsoever to support the claim to chiefship, only 'the tradition of the family' (writer's report of 9 September 1999); counter claims to the chiefship were submitted by Hugh A McGuire of New Zealand and Robert C Maguire of South Carolina;  significant portions of the official files remain closed, but the contents of the earliest file are said to be minimal, with the possibility that key documents have again gone 'missing'.

19 Mac Carthy Mór, recognised 1992 by Chief Herald Begley and Deputy Chief Herald Gillespie, despite objections (relevant correspondence now 'missing'); recognition withdrawn from Terence MacCarthy of Morocco in July 1999 following public exposure of the falsity of his claims (writer's report of 16 June 1999); a counter-claim was submitted by Barry Trant MacCarthy of Wiltshire, a descendant of the earlier self-styled chief Samuel Trant MacCarthy, but the latter's great-grand nephew, Liam Trant MacCarthy of Australia, is now reckoned to be the most senior heir and the leading claimant to chiefship; significant portions of the official files remain closed.

20 O Carroll of Eile O Carroll, recognised 1993 by Chief Herald Begley, the claimant Frederick J O'Carroll of California passed away in 2010; there are questions concerning the validity of the recognition of this chief (writer's interim report of 25 April 2001), and primary documentation to validate the holder's right to the title has yet to be produced; significant portions of the official file remain closed.

21 O Rourke of Breifne, recognised 1993 by Deputy Chief Herald Gillespie, current claimant Geoffrey P C O'Rorke of London, who does not appear to be the senior male descendant of the last inaugurated chief, and therefore should not have been recognised (writer's interim report of 25 April 2001); significant portions of the official file remain closed.

22 Mac Donnell of the Glens, recognised 1995 by Chief Herald Begley, current claimant Randal McDonnell of Dublin, who again is not the senior representative of his family and therefore should not have been recognised as chief (writer's interim report of 25 April 2001);  significant portions of the official file remain closed.

23 Joyce of Joyce Country, although never registered as a recognised chief, the current claimant John Joyce of Clare?, was introduced as such to President Robinson by Chief Herald Begley in 1991, and his banner fomerly hung with those of other chiefs in the State Heraldic Museum; no official file appears to exist and pedigree information is not forthcoming.


The writer would be glad to receive corrections or amendments to the above list, as well as copy documents or indeed any pertinent information relating to chiefs, in confidence if required, and he may be contacted by e-mail (remove SPAMOUT from address), or by ordinary mail at Carraig, Cliff Road, Windgates, Bray, Co Wicklow, Ireland.


Sean J Murphy MA
Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies
Commenced 30 September 2001, last updated 29 April 2010