Directory of Irish Genealogy

Irish Chiefs

By Sean Murphy MA


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 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 good people with 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. Given the scale of the scandal, and the fact that financial and other irregularities have been alleged, 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.

Until such an enquiry is completed, there will continue to be much confusion regarding Irish Chiefs. Some current title holders are clearly not entitled to recognition or are subject to serious question, and indeed a backlog of new applicants for recognition has built up. The tragedy is that the potential expertise to check the pedigrees of applicants for recognition as Chiefs has always been there, but was either marginalised or excluded, or else chose to conceal itself in order not to rock the boat. Something of the labour involved is shown by the fact that over the past three years the present writer has expended nearly 1,000 hours (unpaid) checking the pedigrees of Gaelic Chiefs. Completing the task of publishing scholarly editions of Gaelic genealogical manuscripts, and enhanced training of Irish genealogists, should result in improved prospects of tracing Chiefly lines, or at least of conclusively establishing whether or not the trail has gone cold.

In an effort to clarify the situation as much as possible, we conclude by giving a list of Irish Chiefs, which list of course is not an official one, as the preparation of an up to date register of recognised Chiefs will not be possible until the issues arising from the MacCarthy Mór and allied scandals have been fully resolved. The following list is drawn principally from the Office of the Chief Herald's Register of Chiefs, such as it is, supplemented by other sources, and with italics used to indicate titles which have become dormant, or their holders derecognised or subject to question.

Irish Chiefs

1 Mac Dermott, Prince of Coolavin, registered 1944, current holder Nial McDermot of Kildare.

2 Mac Gillycuddy of the Reeks, registered 1944, current holder Richard McGillycuddy of Paris.

3 O Callaghan, registered 1944, current holder Juan O'Callaghan of Barcelona.

4 O Conor Don, registered 1944, current holder Desmond O'Conor of Sussex.

5 O Donoghue of the Glen or Glens, registered 1944, current holder Geoffrey O'Donoghue of Offaly.

6 O Donovan, registered 1944, current holder Morgan G D O'Donovan of Cork.

7 O Morchoe, registered 1944, current holder David N C O'Morchoe of Wexford.

8 O Neill of Clannaboy, registered 1944, current holder Hugo O'Neill of Portugal.

9 The Fox, registered 1944, current holder John W Fox of Australia.

10 O Toole of Fer Tire, registered 1944, currently dormant.

11 O Grady of Kilballyowen, registered 1944, Henry Thomas Standish O'Grady of Paris.

12 O Kelly of Gallagh and Tycooly, registered 1944, current holder Walter L O'Kelly of Dublin.

13 O Brien of Thomond, registered 1945, current holder Conor O'Brien, Lord Inchiquin, of Clare.

14 Mac Morrough Kavanagh, registered 1945, formerly declared to be dormant, current holder William Butler Kavanagh of Wales.

15 O Donnell of Tirconnell, registered 1945, current holder Fr Ambrose O'Donnell OFM of Africa.

16 Ó Dochartaigh of Inishowen, registered c1990, current holder Ramon O'Dogherty of Spain, documentation to validate right to title being sought.

17 O Long of Garranelongy, registered 1989, current holder Denis C Long of Cork, but pedigree shown to be defective.

18 Maguire of Fermanagh, registered 1990, current holder Terence J Maguire of Dublin, but pedigree shown to be defective, and a rival claimant has emerged.

19 Mac Carthy Mor, registered 1992, recognition withdrawn from Terence F MacCarthy of Morocco in July 1999, and case of claimant Barry Trant MacCarthy of Wiltshire under investigation.

20 O Carroll of Eile O Carroll, registered 1993, current holder Frederick J O'Carroll of California; documentation to validate right to title being sought.

21 Ó Ruairc of Breifne, registered 1993, current holder Geoffrey P C O'Rorke of London; documentation to validate right to title being sought.

22 Mac Donnell of the Glens, registered 1995, current holder Randal McDonnell of Dublin; documentation to validate right to title being sought.

For more detailed information on the above, see