The succession to the chiefship of a name in Ireland has been a problem since the destruction of the Gaelic order of things after the Battle of Kinsale (1601-02) and certainly after the Cromwellian (1641-1652) and Williamite Wars (1689-91). Throughout our history the government of society in Ireland was based previously on our own Brehon Law, which was very precise in terms of the matter of who and why and how society was ‘managed’. Each clan or sept or sub-sept of a ‘name’ had a Chief-of-Name who was elected from an hereditary group within the name itself. The actual election was carried out by the ‘Derbhfine’, who were all those of the chiefly family descended from a common great-grandfather. Normally the election took place during the chiefship of a person, and involved the selection of the ‘Tanist’ or the person who would succeed the chief at his demise or his otherwise being incapacitated.

The Gaelic system indeed was adopted by a number of Hiberno-Norse and Norman-Irish families, who had in effect become ‘gaelicised’ and handled their own governing via Brehon Law. It must be immediately stated that the Irish practices differed profoundly from the English and Continental systems based on succession to titles by primogeniture. That was a system whereby the eldest son succeeded his father and was not at all one in which there was any election.

While not perfect, the Irish approach was based on the premise that the ‘best person’ electable should inherit from the then serving chief. And therefore the electee could be a nephew, uncle, cousin, as well as any son and not necessarily the eldest. Yes, there were disagreements and even battles between an electee and one or more of those who were not selected, but who felt wronged. But by and large it was a very well-functioning system and in keeping with the Irish customs and social mores as well. For a Chief-of-Name of any clan was responsible for the whole clan and he himself was not the ‘owner’ of the land but rather the trustee for the land of the people within his chiefship. Thus avoided was any purely selfish motive of wanting his inheritances of property and lands or whatever to go to his ‘immediate’ family of his own son or sons. Whereas, again, under English law, the king or other noble was assured under primogeniture that his eldest son would succeed him (even if not really the most capable). And also of course, the English system was based on the king or noble being the owner in fee simple of all the lands he controlled, with the people receiving only what he allowed them to use for cash or other payments under a feudal system. The overlord always retained the power to reject a succession or to simply withhold recognitions as he saw fit.

One of the main contentions between the English and Irish from the entry into Ireland in 1169-72 was the differences between the English law of inheritances and tenure of lands and that of the Irish. The English came to be determined to impose their system and to totally eliminate Brehon Law and its processes of organization of society to include Irish chiefly inheritances.

We all know that indeed the English eventually succeeded, totally, based on their victory at Kinsale (1602), the Flight of the Earls (1607) and the great part of the Irish clan system was already gone due to Cromwellian organization and confiscations (circa 1655). The invader accomplished this infamy even though the bulk of Norman-Irish sided with the Gaelic-Irish in the 1641 uprising leading to the entry of Cromwell. Based on adherence to Gaelic values and Brehon Laws the invader lumped all together, Gaelic-Irish or Norman-Irish as simply ‘Irish papists’. And all suffered the same consequences of the harsh discriminatory laws imposed against all ‘mere Irish’.

Tanistic succession was specifically ‘utterly and completely abolished’ by a variety of laws stemming from the times of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. The penalties for using Irish practices such as tanistry and Brehon Law were severe, to include death! Irish ‘chiefly successions’ and usages were absolutely proscribed and those laws were thoroughly enforced after Kinsale.

Irish Chiefly Successions – The Current Situation

As said, chiefly succession under the Gaelic system basically ended in Ireland by 1655. And with the ‘Flight of the Wild Geese’ after the Williamite War (1691) was only carried on in exile, and that only within a limited number of families. Within Ireland only a very very few chiefly families were able to pass the titles along, as everything had to be done in total secret – which was extremely difficult given the control of the English government.

When the Penal Laws against Catholics and dissenters began to be relaxed, starting particularly in the mid-19th century, a few Chiefs-of-Name who managed to survive secretly in Ireland did begin to use their chiefly designations. Chiefs such as O Donoughue of the Glens, O Long, and O Conor Don. Then, when Ireland secured some vestige of freedom as the Irish Free State in 1922 there began to again be some interest shown in ‘the Gaelic Order’ and the historic chiefships. Of course the new Ireland was and is republican, and adopted English Common Law as the basis of its legal system – and did not revert to the historic Brehon Law. Those are complicated subjects which it is not within the scope of this article to discuss, dealing as we are with chiefly successions specifically.

By 1944 the government of Eamon DeValera recognized that some sort of recognition should be given to those who claimed to hold ancient Irish Chief-of-Name titles/designations. The responsibility for the control and administration of the policy was passed to an official in the National Library and an office of Chief Herald of Ireland came to be created. When Ireland appointed its first new Chief Herald, it did not reintroduce Irish Tanistry.   The Irish state granted ‘courtesy recognition’ to Irish chiefs based on ENGLISH primogeniture from the last known chief. From 1944 until 2003 that office indeed made the decision on which chiefships were correctly held and which were not. But the office made a number of errors, and actually should never have been involved in Irish chiefly successions in the first place. This is given that the Irish State does not recognise titles, including those of its own historic nobles, and in any case under Brehon Law it is only the Derbhfine of the clan which has control over the approval of the Chief-of-Name! By 2003 the government recognized the problems and contradictions and ordered the office of Chief Herald to cease to involve itself in chiefly recognitions. Thus the policy of ‘courtesy recognition’ ended.

As of now, 2014, therefore, here is the situation in a nutshell: in 1989 there was an initiative which led to the formation of Clans of Ireland, Ltd. This was certainly an excellent step forward, in terms of helping to organize ‘clans’ of people with the same surname. The organization continues to do good work, and there are about 70 or so clans which are members. Clans of Ireland has membership criteria, helps with meetings and general advice. That advice includes the recommendation that a ‘chief’ be elected from among those active in clan work. The great majority of clans do not have an hereditary chief, and thus the election of a chief is strictly ‘honourary’ and, of course, is outside of historic Brehon Law. Most elections are for a set period of a year or two, when another election takes place for a new honourary chief.

In addition to Clans of Ireland, the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains also came into existence (1991). This council is composed of the limited number of Chiefs-of-Name who indeed have been able to prove descent from a former Chief-of-Name who existed under the Gaelic order of things, pre 1691 – continuing secretly in Ireland or in exile. There are now about 16-17 members, though a few are inactive and do not attend meetings, etc., e.g. The Fox, The O Donnell. The council relied on the office of Chief Herald to vet eligibility, and made admissions based on that office’s approval of family descent. That has ceased since 2003 when the Chief Herald was removed by government action from continuing the policy of ‘courtesy recognitions’, as said. Since then the council has not made any admissions (though there are several applications which have been submitted, a few a number of years ago). It has made clear that it still wishes some sort of Irish government action as regards the hereditary chiefships, if not restarting ‘courtesy recognitions’ then at least registering descents. Besides the few hereditaries on the council, there are approximately 10 or so other claimants to hereditary titles who appear to indeed have valid claims to a chiefship or chieftainship of a branch of the name. A few recognized Chiefs-of-Name, for their own reasons, did not choose to become members of the council and have not applied for membership, e.g. O Neill Mor of Spain, O Carroll of Oriel, the current and legitimate MacCarthy Mor.

A few of the clans within Clans of Ireland, a few only, are headed by the hereditary Chief-of-Name who also belongs to the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs, e.g. O Brien, MacDermott Prince of Coolavin.

In summary, only those chiefs on the Standing Council can be said to be in continuity with the historic Brehon Law practices (though many of those succeeded under primogeniture versus Derbhfine selection). That is, they maintain the historic ‘center of gravity’ which is of the essence in terms of the perpetuation of a name/clan — election within a particular family via its Derbhfine and its descent from a formerly-reigning chief during the Gaelic order of things. It is only with an hereditary center that a clan can truly be reflective of historic Irish practices. The election of ‘honourary chiefs’ via Clans of Ireland is fine. No complaints if that is what a clan wishes to do, but now there is an alternate approach to chiefship succession, which can be fully in accord with Brehon Law. Brehon Law which does not have to stay ‘dead’, but it indeed can be reactualised and modified realistically for our own modern day. And in the light of the tragedy of the thousands of Irish names which have lost their centers of gravity due to the wars and persecutions. And to overcome the loss of their hereditary chiefships. The Scots know this, and it is now time to speak of the ‘Ad Hoc Derbhfine’ approach used in Scotland to overcome what the Scots regard as a great shame and an historic incorrectness: not having an hereditary chief.

The ‘Honourable Community’

In Scotland, as in Ireland prior to the demise of the Gaelic order by the end of the 17th century, a ‘clan’ (children, family), is known as an ‘Honourable Community’. This is the Gaelic culture, and organization, historic from time-immemorial. The invader of Scotland didn’t succeed in totally eliminating Brehon Law and tanistry, as he did in Ireland. And made some compromises so that the clan system was allowed, under Lord Lyon King of Arms, to be continued. English common law of course was an umbrella over it but tanistry and the historic value system did survive. And the clan indeed is recognized as a nobiliary body, and the chiefship as an incorporeal hereditament. And as reflective of the historic Gaelic system.

Of course, with no overall Great Britain/U.K. encouragement, wars and massive emigration, the Scots likewise as in Ireland ‘lost’ knowledge of descents from most of their hereditary chiefs-of-name. But in slightly more liberal times, at the beginning of the 19th century, there was a revival of interest in the Highland Gaelic Order and its Clans. Some of this actually stemmed from Lowland Scots, and Sir Walter Scott was influential via his writings. And it must be said that the revival was helped along by Queen Victoria’s interest. In summary, the clan practices of ancient Gaelic Scotland did not die and are ‘accepted’ within the U.K., as modified for modern times and as maintained by Lord Lyon. He is an officer of the British crown and thus his guidelines and practices have the force of law. It should be said before we get into guidelines for Ireland that our situation is different: we have no ‘crown’ or fons honourum for titles in republican Ireland; indeed titles are not granted in Ireland. When an Ad Hoc Derbhfine election takes place in Scotland, it is a requirement of law to have the election approved by Lord Lyon. For Ireland the Derbhfine is the final approval, and no governmental approval or approval by a body such as the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs is required, though there should be a ‘courtesy’ notification as will be explained below in Note 3.

Also included later will be a few references which go into detail concerning the Scottish system, with great emphasis on how the Honourable Community can only really exist as historic: that is with a hereditary center-of-gravity via an hereditary chief.

Suggested Guidelines for an Irish ‘Ad Hoc Derbhfine’

Obviously, a member or group of members of a clan/name must have interest in the whole idea of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine being a viable alternative for the selection of a chief. Versus the near impossibility of finding any more persons proved conclusively to descend from a chief or chieftain of name existing while the Gaelic order existed. As said, there was just too much lost due to the wars, penal laws, deliberate extirpation of our system of Brehon Law and tanistry. And the election of an ‘honourary’ chief, while very worthwhile in terms of clan revivals, is not grounded on the historic Gaelic system.

The guidelines follow, to include certain steps which must be taken:

  1. An organizing committee should be formed, to include a President and a Secretary. This is easier to do of course for those clans which are already members of Clans of Ireland or for those who are already otherwise organized, have their own website, etc. There are indeed a number of clans which are so organized but which are not members of Clans of Ireland, e.g. the Clan MacCarthy Foundation, the Doyle Clan, etc.
  2. There should be a minimum of nine members for the proposed Ad Hoc Derbhfine
  3. Wide publicity about the effort should be undertaken, via every possible vehicle. That is, via the clan internet site, phone calls, mailings, whatever it takes to get the news ‘out there’ among those of the Honourable Community. In order to inform that an Ad Hoc Derbhfine is in process of happening
  4. All known ‘armigers’ (those currently possessing a Coat of Arms) are ipso facto to be members of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine. Therefore, the organizers must do a thorough search worldwide to identify its armigers. This means contacting the office of Chief Herald of Ireland, Norroy & Ulster King of Arms in the U.K., possible other heraldry offices in such as South Africa, etc. The objective would be to ‘find’ the names of the armigers and then contact them with a view to explaining the Ad Hoc Derbhfine idea and soliciting their support
  5. Additionally, a list should be made of ‘principal people’ who because of keen interest in clan affairs could be invited to sit on the Ad Hoc Derbhfine. In short, the final composition of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine will include the armigers and acknowledged ‘leaders’ of the name (principal people – who should be encouraged to apply for a Coat of Arms by the organisers). Those eventually sitting on the Ad Hoc Derbhfine may be male or female, though according to Irish Brehon Law only a male may be elected as chief or chieftain of a name. The Scots system based on Pictish history always allowed female successions but that was never the case in Ireland (could the updating of Brehon Law allow for female succession?: certainly could be considered though not as part of this article.)
  6. Once the organizers have determined that they have done all that can be done in terms of locating the prospective members of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine, then that fact should also be communicated to clan members as widely as possible. It should be stated that the organizers must keep very detailed and precise record of all tasks undertaken, of all the people contacted and their responses, etc. This is to show that no rocks have been left unturned and that a true strenuous effort has been completed.
  7. A date for the Ad Hoc Derbhfine meeting and vote should be then set. The meeting need not be in Ireland (as the Scots require that the meeting be in Scotland). Indeed there need not be a face-to-face meeting, but it can take place via emails.
  8. The secretary of the organizing committee will solicit candidates from among those appointed to the Ad Hoc Derbhfine as to who wishes to put his name forward for election as chief/chieftain. Individuals may nominate a person other than themselves, but only those ‘leaders’ of the clan appointed to the Ad Hoc Derbhfine may be nominated. Obviously, there needs to be a period of time, a few months at least, between the setting of the date of the meeting and vote and the deadline for nominations. The secretary shall ensure that anyone nominated by another is in accord with being nominated and will serve if elected. Place of residence is not a consideration.
  9. On the date of the election, each individual voting will send his vote to the secretary. Who will then do the count and announce the result to the members of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine. And he will then propagate that result far and wide within the clan.

The ‘electee’ will take the title ‘Ceann Cath’ (Commander) and not immediately that of chief or chieftain of the name. A period of normally 10 to 20 years should elapse before the Ceann Cath is proclaimed as hereditary Chief-of-Name or Chieftain-of-Name of a branch of the clan. This is to allow time for any counters to the election; that is for someone with a proved hereditary descent to come forward with a counter-claim. The minimum 10 years may be further reduced to a 5 year period by decision of the Ad Hoc Derbhfine, if the person elected has been of a position of elected honourary responsibility with the clan for a significant period of time. Upon succession to the chiefship, the new hereditary chief has the right to the undifferenced original and historic Coat of Arms of the clan.

In closing, naturally any candidate for election should be versed in traditional Gaelic practices. That is, he should understand the Gaelic order of things pre the end of 17th century. And most importantly, he should understand the differences between a Gaelic/Irish chief and a noble of other European countries, where primogeniture succession was the absolute norm. With that system, the immediate concern of a king, or duke, or baron, or whoever, was focused on his own immediate family, his own sons and daughters. The others of his family, outside of the immediate descendants, were not of his concern relative to inheritances. In the Gaelic system of an ‘Honourable Community’, the chief was not the owner of anything! He was a trustee, for ALL the family, all the clan, and could leave nothing to his own sons or daughters other than what he may have possessed personally. He did not own the land; it belonged to the whole community, and he was responsible to the whole community, and not in any manner an absolute ruler. He was bound by the Brehon Law. His successor would be from a wider range than his own immediate descendants, from the Derbhfine of all descended from a common great-grandfather. Succession was by ‘tanistry’, with the Derbhfine choosing the ‘best man’ to succeed and maintain the clan and the Gaelic traditions which governed Gaelic society. So the election by Ad Hoc Derbhfine is the taking on of responsibility for the family, and the title of Chief-of-Name is one of responsibility to all of the name, everywhere, highest to lowest. And the projects the new chief undertakes should indeed be similar to what chiefs did when Gaelic rule was actual: projects that benefit all per historical Gaelic practices, to now include endowments for various purposes of help to clan members.

Thank you for your interest in this article.


  1. For a full exposition of the Scottish Gaelic-based system, there is nothing better than the book by Frank Adam, introduction by the then Lord Lyon of Scotland, THE CLANS, SEPTS & REGIMENTS OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS. 8th edition, Stirling, Scotland, 1984, of the original 1908 publication. Additionally, you can see on the internet (typing in ‘Ad Hoc Derbhfine’) various articles on the process. These include recent case histories for the Ad Hoc Derbhfines of the Maccauley and Duncan clans, where new chiefs were indeed elected to long-dormant chiefships.
  2. For an Irish perspective, there is the recent article written by The O Cahan, Chief-of-the-Name, on Irish chiefly successions, which may be accessed at the MacCarthy Clan Foundation website at www.mccarthyclan.org. The article speaks to the Ad Hoc Derbhfine process, very clearly. Title is ‘Irish Chiefly Succession in the 21st Century’.
  3. As said, the Irish Derbhfine is the ultimate approval authority over succession within a particular name/clan. As a courtesy, and per ancient practice as well, the succession should be communicated to the ultimate overlord of the territory in which the clan historically existed. Thus a newly elected chief/chieftain should advise as follows, in our opinion – but again, not as any ‘approval’ but simply for registration and future communication: Clans within Desmond – to MacCarthy Mor; within Thomond – to The O Brien; within Leinster – to The MacMurrough-Kavanagh; within Connaught – to The O Conor Don; within Ulster – to The O Neill Mor or The O Neill of Clanaboy. As one exception, in that Louth was never under a MacMurrough or part of Leinster under the Gaelic order, the notification for County Louth clans should be to The O Carroll of Oriel, as that family were important major kings at the time of the 1169-72 invasions and Louth was quickly overrun. Thus this relates to the traditional four provincial kingdoms that existed at the time of the demise of the Gaelic order – Munster, Leinster, Ulster, and Connaught with the one exception for County Louth. And it should be noted that the Chiefs-of-Name of these formerly-reigning royal families are all extant.
  4. As an aside, when a Scottish person is proclaimed and certified by Lord Lyon as chief of his clan, he is ‘full-fledged’. That is, he is then the same as those who are chiefs by proved hereditary descent, and can take his place on the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. In Ireland as said there is no ‘governmental’ approval, but it is hoped that the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains will see fit likewise to ‘admit’ a person proclaimed as hereditary representative of his name. On that group, it is also hoped that the word ‘Irish’ in its title will come to mean ‘all’ Irish: for as of now it will only admit Gaelic-Irish, and excludes Norman-Irish and Hiberno-Norse Irish, etc. This we regard as incorrect. There are even now several proved chiefs-of-name/captains-of-the-nation who are Norman-Irish chiefs, whose families were gaelicised and which operated under Brehon Law and tanistry during the Gaelic order of things. More Irish than the Irish as the saying goes. Thus there is no reason why a Duke of Leinster (Fitzgerald), or a Viscount Gormanston (Preston), or a Barry or Burke or deCourcy, or the Knight of Kerry (another FitzGerald) should not be admitted. They are chiefs/chieftains of the name per the Gaelic order of things. These families provided many of the leaders of ‘The Wild Geese’, e.g. Dillon’s Regiment, to struggle on for Ireland in exile. One must recall that there are upwards of 100 million of Irish name in the ‘diaspora’ and 5 million Irish in Ireland.

This article was written and published by THE KINGDOM OF DESMOND ASSOCIATION, with the support and cooperation of THE CLAN MACCARTHY FOUNDATION (2014). It reflects the positive attitude of the two groups concerning the process known as ‘Ad Hoc Derbhfine’.