Clans and Chieftains (in Ireland)

The use of the word 'The' as a prefix to a surname to indicate that the user is the head or chief of a sept comprising the bearers of that name is a comparatively modern practice, but the existence of the chieftainries so denoted makes an examination of its historical background essential. To understand this one must glance back to the early mediaeval period when Ireland was administered by one legal system viz. the Brehon Code, Brehon being a word formed from the Irish "breitheamhan", the genitive of "breitheamh", meaning lawgiver or judge. That profession was of great importance and was usually the prerogative of certain families such as the MacClancys for the O'Brien dynasty and the well-known O'Dorans of Leinster. The Brehon Code differed in some essentials from the feudal system which obtained in western Europe. A class system, with degrees of status strictly laid down, was basic to it, but the idea of nobility as deriving from royal prerogative was absent, and so, as we will see later, was the concept of primogeniture. Briefly, the position was as follows.

There were more than a hundred petty 'kingdoms' in the country, that is to say their rulers were termed "Rí", the Irish word for king. They were in most cases no more than chiefs who were subject to overlords, to whom they paid tribute in the form of cattle, corn etc., and, in most cases, were liable to supply a certain number of armed men to assist the overlord when he was engaged in warfare with some other, usually neighbouring, "Rí". The titular position of "Árd-Rí" (High King) was, generally speaking, more or less nominal. For much of the period under review the 'kings' of the northern half of the country ("Leath Cuinn") recognised the hegemony of that O'Neill who was based on Tara and those of the southern half ("Leath Mogha") the "Rí" who happened to be in power at Cashel. When one refers to an O'Neill or a MacCarthy in this connection it is necessary to remember that surnames of the hereditary type did not come into being until the tenth century, and not widely until later. Thus the collective term "Uí Néill" denotes descendants of an ancestor named Niall. At one time the King of Connacht, O Connor, was paramount. The set-up of that kingship, whether as "Árd-Rí" or provincial king, may be taken as illustrating the position. The four provincial chiefs ranking as 'royal lords' under the O Connor Don, giving here the modern form of their names, were: O Mulrennan, O Finaghty, O Flanagan and MacGeraghty. Lesser chiefs associated with O Connor Don had traditional functions in his service. That these were of importance is clear from the inclusion of O Kelly (steward of the jewels), O Malley (naval), MacDermot (military) and O Mulconry (chief poet).

Actually the term "Árd-Rí" does not appear in the early Brehon law tracts which specify three grades of king, viz., (1) of the local "tuath" or tribal kingdom (2) of a larger territory and overlord of No. 1, (3) king of a province. Although the genealogists trace the high-kingship back to "Niall na naoi ngiallach" (referred to in English as Niall of the Nine Hostages) in the fifth century, it did not become an actuality until much later, and even such successful high-kings as Brian Boru (d. 1014), who stands 45th in their list, were far from exercising the undisputed authority associated with most monarchs in France and England. The effective kingship or principal overlordship was that of the "righte" of what were called the "Cúig Cúigi", i.e. five fifths or provinces, Connacht, Leinster, Meath, Munster and Ulster (to use the modern names) which in fact became seven due to the rise of Oriel and the further division of Ulster into two.

As might be expected, with so many semi-independent chieftainries, sporadic warfare was frequent and it sometimes occurred within the "tuath" or mini-state itself. I avoid the word 'tribe' to translate "tuath" as it has connotations foreign to its use in this connection. In cases of that kind, fighting usually arose from the existence of rival claimants to succession after the death of the head of the group concerned. One of the main differences between the Brehon system and the feudal system was the non-existence of the principle of primogeniture in the former. The heir could be any one of the males comprised in the "deirbhfhine", i.e. the descendants of a deceased chief to the fourth generation. The method of election varied. Tanistry, by which the heir or "táiniste" was chosen in the lifetime of the chief, was later introduced, but even so such disputes were by no means eliminated. However, it is not relevant here to explain the complicated rules which governed succession to the leadership in the various grades of social status. All were meticulously laid down in the written Brehon Code.

These minor wars had little effect on the cultural development of he country over a period of five or six hundred years before the coming of the Cambro-Normans in 1169. Poetry, art and genealogy flourished and missionary expeditions helped to keep Christianity alive in other countries where it had been threatened by the Goths and other marauders from northern Europe. Even the frequent incursions of the Norsemen, which caused much destruction especially to monastic buildings and treasures, did not at all affect the social system of Gaelic Ireland. The Norsemen, however, were responsible for one innovation in a community which was essentially rural, viz. the establishment of towns, as they founded several, notably Dublin, Waterford, Cork and Limerick. The introduction of this foreign element in the population - not throughout the country but in isolated coastal settlements - did little to unite the Irish kingdoms in opposition to it: in the famous battle of Clontarf, in which in 1014 the Irish forces under Brian Boru finally ended any hope the Norsemen had of dominating the country, it is to be remembered that some Irish septs actually fought on the Norse side against their own "Árd-Rí".

Brian Boru (i.e. "Boroimhe" - of the tributes) was the first man of any lineage other than O Neill or O Conor to become High-King, and this position was obtained by force. His race, the "Dál Cais", were originally a comparatively small population group located in Thomond ("Tuadh Mhumhain", north Munster), mainly the present county of Clare.

Up to 1169, while predatory expeditions had from time to time been made by Irish raiders in Wales and even England, Ireland had seldom if ever been subjected to incursions by English forces. It was an Irish king, Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster, who was responsible for what was indeed a turning point in the history of the country, when he sought and obtained the aid of Henry II of England in his own struggle for the retention of his Leinster kingdom - it resulted in the invasion under Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, known as Strongbow, and the subsequent permanent settlement of the Norman element in Ireland. These twelfth century invaders, it should be remembered, were French-speaking Cambro-Normans from Wales. Their coming heralded the first significant change in the composition of the aristocracy in Ireland. Henry II of England, with the imprimatur of Pope Adrian IV (the only Englishman ever to become Pope), assumed the title of Lord of Ireland and many of the heads of the Irish states, regarding it as no more than a formality, acquiesced in this and continued to carry on as they had done previously. The high-kingship, however, was at an end: the last of their line was Ruaidhri Ó Conchobhair (Rory O Connor) who died in 1189. The Norman element thus introduced became possessed of vast landed estates in various parts of the country - less in Ulster than elsewhere - but by a gradual process they became part of the Irish nation (though of course the modern concept of nationality was then as yet unthought of).

This process was threefold. Some became completely integrated, giving rise to the well known phrase 'Hiberniores Hibernis ipsis' (more Irish than the Irish themselves). These formed septs on the Gaelic-Irish pattern, headed by a chief. Thus, the head of the Norman family of Wall in Co. Limerick was known as "An Fáltach" (The Wall) and the head of the Condons "An Condúnach" (The Condon). Other families in this category were, inter alios, the Mandevilles who became MacQuillan, The Archdeacons Cody, the Berminghams Corish and the Nangles Costello. With the submergence of the Gaelic order in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they suffered the same fate as the indigenous septs.

Other great families which did not go so far as to adopt the Brehon system nevertheless became essentially Irish and were unaffected by the Statute of Kilkenny (1367) which vainly sought to prevent the descendants of the Norman invaders from dressing and riding in the Irish fashion or speaking the Irish language. To name the most notable of the Hiberno-Norman families, such as Barry, Dillon, de Lacy, Plunkett, Power, Prendergast and Roche would inevitably result in omitting some of equal importance, but I think it would be generally agreed that Fitzgerald, Butler and Burke were the most important.

There were two main branches of the Fitzgeralds, the head of both of which bore titles of nobility (Earls of Desmond and of Kildare) conferred on them by the King of England as Lord of Ireland. The Desmond branch were responsible in 1582 for the main Irish revolt against the extension of English power which resulted in defeat and the devastation of much of Munster. Apart from the earldom, there were two other hereditary titles borne by the Fitzgeralds of Kerry and Limerick, conferred in the fourteenth century, not by the King of England but by his representative in Ireland, which are unique and are still extent and fully recognised, viz., the Knight of Kerry and the Knight of Glin. The Fitzgeralds of Desmond ("Deas Mhumhain", South Munster) eventually conformed and were prominent in the aristocracy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Kildare branch found no difficulty in acknowledging the English sovereign's overlordship. One of them, Garret Fitzgerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, became the viceroy of Henry VIII (the first English sovereign to be styled King, rather than Lord, of Ireland). So powerful did he become in that capacity that he was deemed a threat to royal supremacy in Ireland. Summoned to London, he languished in captivity till his death and his son, known as Silken Thomas, renounced his allegiance, went into rebellion and was eventually in 1537 executed in London with no less than five of his uncles. The family, however, was not thus entirely annihilated and later on regained their position as a leading one in the nobility of Ireland and, having become Dukes of Leinster, they occupied their mansion at Carton in Co. Kildare until quite recent times.

A third category are typified by the Butlers of Ormond (Co. Kilkenny and east Tipperary) whose titles (finally Marquis of Ormond) were equally the creation of an English monarch. While they made no attempt to become integrated, they perforce became Irish in many ways - in speaking the Irish language for example: one of them acted as interpreter at the Parliament of 1541 which was attended by the Irish-speaking chiefs as well as the English faction. For the most part, the Butlers regarded themselves as representing that section of the population having historical ties with England but distinct from the English people. To give a fair picture of them, it should be added that a number of individual Butlers are to be found in accounts of pro-Catholic activities and in the ranks of the 'Wild Geese'.

At this point it would, I think, be appropriate to refer to those prominent immigrant families who had no connection with the Cambro- or Anglo-Normans and did not come to Ireland till the sixteenth century, such as the Bagenals, Edgeworths, Fleetwoods, Goldsmiths, Gwynns, Sigersons and Springs, to mention some of them. Perhaps the most remarkable of these were the Brownes. For the moment I am not referring to the Brownes of Camus, Co. Limerick, of whom were the famous Maximilian Ulysses Browne and other prominent 'Wild Geese', nor to those who in Connacht got the title Oranmore, nor again the Brownes who were one of the 'Tribes of Galway'. Those I have in mind are the Brownes of Kerry, Earls of Kenmare. They started as intrusive foreigners but following intermarriage with the O'Sullivans, MacCarthys and other great Gaelic families of the area, they became before long uncompromising Catholics and suffered in their turn as such, though by reason of unusual circumstances related in The Kenmare Manuscripts regained and retained their vast estates in Counties Kerry and Limerick up to our own times. They, however, were never prominent in the political arena. Unlike the Brownes of Kerry, most of this class conformed at the Reformation and constituted a not inconsiderable element in the Anglo-Irish gentry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This category were in the seventeenth century termed the New-English to distinguish them from the descendants of earlier invaders and settlers who had become hibernicised and espoused the Catholic cause in the wars of Cromwell and William of Orange. These were termed the Old-English.

Let us now consider the great Gaelic-Irish families and take Connacht as an example of the lordships of a province which had to a considerable extent fallen under the domination of Cambro-Norman invaders in the earlier period, these, however, having become hibernicised. Typical of the less important of these were the Nangles (de Angulo) who adopted the name "MacOisdealbhaigh" (modern Costello), incidentally the first non-Gaelic surname to use the Gaelic prefix Mac. At that time, Connacht included the modern county of Clare (Thomond) now in Munster, and much of Breifni (Co. Cavan usually reckoned in Ulster. The families constituting these Lordships were, according to the "Anála Locha Cé", Ó Ceallaigh (O Kelly) of Uí Maine, Ó Conchobhair (O Conor) in its three branches - Don ("donn", brown) Roe ("ruadh", red) and Sligo - MacDiarmada (MacDermot) of Moylurg, Ó Ruairc (O Rourke) of Breifni, Ó hEaghra (O Hara) of Leyney, Ó Dubhda (O Dowd) of Tireragh, Ó Flaithbheartaigh (O Flaherty) of Connemara and Ó Briain (O Brien) of Thomond, together with the three powerful branches of the de Burghs (Burke) - MacWilliam Iochtar, MacWilliam Uachtar and the Earl of Clanrickard, whose family were not so much hibernicised as the other Burkes of Connacht. It would be helpful in presenting a picture of the Chieftainries in Ireland briefly to take one of those old Gaelic families as an illustration, and for that purpose the O'Briens of Thomond would be suitable because they were to some extent of divided allegiance. The lineal descendants of Brian Boru were hostile to the early invaders: Donal O'Brien, King of Munster, with his Dalcassian followers, was a leading figure in the successful battles against Strongbow in l174 and Prince John in 1185. They retained the designation, King of Thomond ("Tuadh Mhumhain", north Munster) and often King of all Munster, until 1543 when Morrough O Brien surrendered his 'captaincy and principality' to Henry VIII who, in accordance with the principle of 'surrender and regrant' created him Earl of Thomond. It may be noted that in the deeds conferring titles on chiefs who accepted that principle, the recipient was almost always referred to as 'chief of his name' or 'captain of his nation'. Murrough O Brien also conformed to the new Protestant religion, accepting Henry VIII instead of the Pope as head of the Church. The main branch were thereafter no longer champions of the Irish cause but, unlike many others similarly circumstanced, they did not become absentees but remained in Co. Clare, with the lesser title of Baron Inchiquin, to end as landlords of the better type. The junior branches, however, produced men who were notable as Irish patriots. Two were on the Supreme Council of the Confederation of Kilkenny (l642) and one of the most renowned regiments in the Irish army of Catholic James 1I against William of Orange was Clare's Dragoons - Clare being Daniel O'Brien, 3rd Viscount Clare. This regiment later became famous on the Continent and the O Briens in it, together with those who fought in the service of France at Fontenoy and elsewhere, can be counted among the more prominent of the exiles who constituted the 'Wild Geese'.

The flight of the Wild Geese began in earnest with he episode known as the 'Flight of the Earls' when Hugh O Neill (Earl of Tyrone) and Hugh Roe O Donnell (Earl of Tyrconnell) took ship with 99 other leading Ulster Gaels, going first to Flanders and then to Rome where the two great chiefs died. However, they left sons who, while remaining exiles, kept in touch with their own country.

From the beginning of the seventeenth century, the history of Ireland has been overshadowed by its religious or rather its denominational aspect. Up to that time, Ulster had been the most basically Irish part of Ireland, less affected than any other province by subversive incursions. The O Neills and O Donnells had maintained their real independence (even though they did accept titles of nobility from the English crown). Then, in spite of a remarkable victory over the English at the battle of the Yellow Ford in 1596, their defeat six years later at Kinsale, the last and conclusive battle of that campaign, resulted in the aforementioned 'Flight of the Earls', the confiscation of their estates and the settlement thereon of Scottish and English settlers, known as the Plantation in Ulster. This 'plantation' differed from the others inflicted on the country in that not only the landowning class was wiped out but the smaller occupiers of land were forced to move from their holdings to patches of unprofitable mountain and boggy land.

Forty years after the destruction of the old order in Ulster came the Cromwellian Transplantation to Connacht and Clare which resulted in the confiscation of the estates of great numbers of Catholic landowners and their settlement in smaller holdings in the West or in many cases their exile. Though it was found impracticable to carry it out with the full severity originally intended, it did amount to a national upheaval and where the victims did not voluntarily find their way to exile in France and other European countries it inevitably resulted in a reduction of their social status in Ireland. This policy had first been attempted in the previous century with he Plantation of Laois and Offaly, then renamed Queen's County and King's County in commemoration of Queen Mary I and her Spanish husband, Philip. Though it caused much temporary disturbance it had little permanent effect on the majority of the inhabitants; and two chiefs concerned, O More and O Connor Faly never submitted, but the latter died and the O Mores went to Co. Kerry where they sank to minor importance.

The third war of the seventeenth century was fought between James 1I and William of Orange for the crown of England, and nominally of Ireland too. Patrick Sarsfield's heroic exploits, after James II had fled to France following his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, secured the just Treaty of Limerick. Limerick was long called the 'city of the broken treaty' because its terms were not kept by England, and the enactment soon after of the very severe anti-Catholic Penal Laws completed the debacle. So Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan, and his men became yet another major contingent of the 'Wild Geese'.

The overall position is thus concisely presented by Stephen Gwynn in his History of Ireland (p. 327) where he says 'what happened in the seventeenth century was not merely the transfer of property from certain persons to others', nor even the penalising of one religion which was that of the vast majority, and endowing that of a minority at the general expense. It was the destruction of a ruling class in a country which was still aristocratic; it was depriving Ireland of its natural leaders - that is of those leaders whom Ireland willingly recognised'. Literally hundreds of thousands of Irish men went to Europe, mainly to France, in the century and a half between the Cromwellian war in Ireland and the French Revolution; however, we are concerned here with the chiefs, not with the great majority who were of lesser rank, many of whom became officers of distinction in the armies of France, Spain and Austria.

We have now to consider the present Irish 'Chiefs of the Name'. I have discussed the question of these titles, or rather designations, in one of the introductory articles in Burke's Irish Family Records (1976) where I stated that those set out below are officially recognised as authentic, their descent by primogeniture from the last formally inaugurated chief having been exhaustively researched by the Genealogical Office, formerly the Office of Arms. That institution, which was founded in 1552, became during the period of the Union (1800-1921), a British Government office, and so did not recognise the Irish chieftainries except in one case : in 1900 O Connor Don was granted supporters and at the coronation of Edward VII he was officially appointed to carry the standard of Ireland in the ceremonies on that occasion.

The last official statement of authentic chiefs was made in l956. It has been brought up to date in a work entitled The Irish Chiefs by C. Eugene Swezey (New York, 1974) where information regarding present addresses, heirs, arms etc., will be found. In that work the prefix 'The' before the surname is given because it has long been used in English to designate them (as it was in Irish in the case of hibernicised Norman septs). In their signatures, however, the surname alone is used without Christian name.

Briefly those now officially recognised are:

O'Brien of Thomond
Fox (An Sionnach)
O Callaghan
MacGillycuddy of the Reeks
O Conor Don
O Grady of Kilballyowen
MacDermot of Coolavin
O Kelly of Gallagh
MacDermot Roe
O Morchoe
O Donell of Tirconnell
MacMorrough Kavanagh
O Donoghue of the Glens
O Neill of Clanaboy
O Donovan
O Toole of Fir Tire

Before the final submergence of the Brehon system there were, needless to say, many more recognised chiefs than the sixteen listed above who have actually substantiated their claim in recent times. Sixteenth century sources, such as the State Papers and the Fiants, show that, apart from the hibernicised Norman families already mentioned, the heads of the following families were there referred to as chiefs:

MacArtan (now MacCartan),
MacCarthy Mór,
MacCarthy Reagh,
MacGilpatrick (Fitzpatrick),
MacKinnane (Ford),
O Beirne,
O Boyle (no connection with the English name Boyle, borne by the Earl of Cork),
O Brennan,
O Byrne,
O Cahan (Kane),
O Carroll,
O Clery,
O Connell,
O Connolly,
O Conor Faly,
O Conor Roe,
O Conor Sligo,
O Daly,
O Dempsey,
O Devlin,
O Doherty,
O Dowd,
O Driscoll,
O Dunn,
O Dwyer,
O Farrell,
O Flaherty,
O Folane,
O Gara,
O Hagan,
O Hanlon,
O Hara,
O Heyne,
O Keeffe,
O Kennedy,
O Loughlin,
O Madden,
O Mahony,
O Malley,
O Mannin,
O Melaghlin,
O Molloy,
O More,
O Mulryan (Ryan),
O Mulvey,
O Nolan,
O Phelan,
O Reilly,
O Rourke,
O Shaughnessy,
O Sheridan,
O Sullivan Beare,
O Sullivan Mór.

(From: More Irish Families by Edward MacLysaght. Pub. Irish Academic Press ISBN 0-7165-0126-0)

Footnote by Eddie Geoghegan.

Since the above quoted work was first published in 1970, there has been a great upsurge of interest in the old Irish chieftainries and clans. Many 'Clan Societies' have now been formed and some of these have revived the practice of electing Chieftains. This has been actively encouraged by the Irish Government. In the case of my own 'clan' an election was held by the society members as a result of which Jack Gargan, of Tampa, Florida was elected as Chief of the clan with the right to use the title "The MacGeoghegan". I was present, along with many more of the name, to witness his installation, with full mediaeval regalia, on the ancient coronation rock in CastletownGeoghegan, Co. Westmeath in 1992. Many other clans have organised similar events.

An organisation now exists, which has the blessing of the Irish Government, which can assist in the seeting up of Clan organisations. The details are ...

Clans of Ireland Ltd.
Chairperson - Dr. M. A. Tierney
Grange Clare, Kilmeague,
Naas, Co. Kildare, Ireland.
Tel. 045 - 860623

If you are of Irish descent and you have not yet claimed your 'roots' in your ancestors' homeland by joining or forming your own family Clan, just write for details to Dr. M.A. Tierney, Chairperson, Clans of Ireland, Grange Clare, Kilmeague, Naas, Co. Kildare, Ireland. Please enclose return postage (Irish .45p stamp or International Reply Coupon) for a prompt reply, since Clans of Ireland is now a totally voluntary organisation and does not receive any grant aid from any source. We are currently applying for Registered Charity status.

Clans of Ireland was founded in 1989. The current Chairperson joined the Board of Directors early in 1997 and was elected Chairperson in September of that year, becoming the first female Chairperson of the company and also the youngest - ever Chairperson. The Chairperson and all Board of Directors give of their time and their efforts on a voluntary basis, promoting all Registered Clans worldwide and assisting enquirers to form their own family Clan where one does not already exist for their surname.

Clans of Ireland does not undertake genealogical research. Most family Clans have their own Clan Genealogist / Clan Historian to assist their Clan members when required. Many Clans hold Clan Gatherings from time to time, where members from all over the world gather together to share a varied programme of social, cultural and historical events, usually in Ireland but, occasionally, overseas. For details of forthcoming Clan Gatherings please see Clans of Ireland / Bord Failte Clan Gathering brochure - available via your nearest Irish Tourist Board Office.