Irish Chiefly Succession in the 21st Century

Lionárd 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 Chiefship.

No 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."

In 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.

In 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 kingship.

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 detail.

'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 Church.

'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.

3/ An Irish family / clan without any historical evidence of a formal ChiefIn 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 Derbhfine'.

But first, some basic 'ground-rules' :

An 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)

'Ad Hoc' Derbhfine:

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.A 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. As 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.)

If an 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 succession. Those guidelines include and require:

(i) 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 / clan.

(ii) 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.)

(iii) 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 armorial device.

(iv) Seeking Principal Men (potential clan officers) who may bear any family name, title, or claim credible affiliation to any sept or branch of the family / clan.

(v) Forming an 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.

(vi) 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.

(vii) 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 society.

(viii) 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. Given 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.

Appendix 'A'

A long-dormant, but prominent, Gaelic-Irish family / clan:

In cases 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 male-line pedigree.

It's 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.

Clan and Chiefship:

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 arbitrary authority.

The word "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.

An 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.

Unlike 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'.

The 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 rare. (3)

The 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.

It 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 possible error.

An 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.

A 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.


A 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 name !

As 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 of
The Kingdom of Desmond Association


(1) Nicholls, 'Gaelic & Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages', p. 27

(2) Keane, 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

http://www.mccarthyclan.org/pages/interest.php?page_id= 1

(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.