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Irish Clans and Chieftanship



Irish clans are officially recognized groups of people who either share a surname or are descended from people who bore the surname. Since 1989, the government of the Republic of Ireland has recognized a charity called "Clans of Ireland" as the official registrar of these groups. Based at Athenry in County Galway, it is similar to a genealogical society with an additional social dimension. To date, more than 230 clans have registered. For a complete listing, visit the Clans of Ireland Ltd. charity's website.

There are several requirements for recognition as an official Irish clan:

  • The surname must have a documented history in Ireland prior to the Irish Potato Famine.
  • Membership must be open to any bearer of the surname (or descendant thereof) regardless of race, religion, or gender.
  • Membership must include at least six adult bearers of the surname.


Note that each clan may be divided into septs to reflect the religious, geographic, historic, and cultural diversity within the surname group.

Tanistry, tanist was the custom among various Celtic tribes - notably in Scotland and Ireland - by which the king or chief of the clan was elected by family heads in full assembly.  He held office for life and was required by custom to be of full age, in possession of all his faculties, and without any remarkable blemish of mind or body.  At the same time and subject to the same conditions, a tanist, or next heir to the chieftaincy, was elected, who, if the king died or became disqualified, at once became king.  Sometimes the king's son became tanist, but not because the system of primogeniture was in any way recognized; indeed, the only principle adopted was that the dignity of chieftainship should descend to the eldest and most worthy of the same blood, who well could be a brother, nephew, or cousin.  This system of succession left the headship open to the ambitious and was a frequent source of strife both in families and between the clans. Tanistry in Scotland was abolished by a legal decision in the reign of James I (1406-37) and the English system of primogeniture substituted.

See also Practical Application of Gaelic Irish Tanistic Succession by Lt. Col. (USAR-Ret) Leonard M. Keane, Jr.

Primogeniture is the common tradition of inheritance by the first-born of the entirety of a parent's wealth, estate or office; or in the absence of children, by collateral relatives, in order of seniority of the collateral line.

It is often used in monarchies monarchies. As a mechanism of succession in hereditary monarchies, some sort of primogeniture has for long been the most used, but it is not the only tradition; nor is it likely the oldest method. For other mechanisms of inheritance in hereditary monarchies, see "Order of succession"; and see also "elective monarchy". Primogeniture became the most common method of succession in hereditary monarchies as a slow development, correlating with the development of the average life-span in wealthier classes (particularly with the wealth of a monarch's family) increasing to a level where the eldest children of a parent were, on average, more or less adult at the time of the death of the parent. This correlated with the wealthier and healthier conditions and more and better food; and with less personal participation in violent activities, such as warring, marauding, robber expeditions and duels.

Chief of the Name

An Irish Chief of the Name was a person recognised by the Chief Herald of Ireland as the most senior known male descendant of the last inaugurated or de facto chief of that name in power in Gaelic Ireland at or before the end of the sixteenth century, see Irish nobility. After embarrassing official blunders in the 1990s which saw Terence Francis MacCarthy and several other impostors receive recognition, the Irish government decided in July 2003 to abandon this practice as there was no proper legal basis for it, and to continue such recognition would, on the advice of the Attorney General, necessitate a referendum to amend the Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann). This decision was criticised by some, and greatly offended the recognized chiefs, but on the whole did not create a major stir. At abandonment the position was as follows:

Chiefs Of The Name

  • Brien, Prince of Thomond - Conor O Brien (Clare).
  • Callaghan - Don Juan O Callaghan (Spain).
  • Donoghue of the Glens - Geoffrey O Donoghue (Wicklow).
  • Conor Don, Prince of Connacht - Desmond O Conor (England).
  • MacDermot, Prince of Coolavin - Nial MacDermot (Kildare).
  • Donovan - Morgan O Donovan (Cork).
  • The Fox - John W Fox (Australia).
  • MacGillicuddy of the Reeks - Richard McGillicuddy (France).
  • Morchoe - David N. C. O Morchoe (Wexford).
  • Neill of Clannaboy - Hugo O Neill (Portugal).
  • Grady of Kilballyowen - Henry Thomas Standish O Grady (France).
  • Kelly of Gallagh - Walter L. O Kelly (Dublin).
  • Mac Morrough Kavanagh, Prince of Leinster - William Butler Kavanagh (Wales).
  • Donell of Tirconnell - Fr A. O Donnell (Zimbabwe).
  • Dochartaigh of Inishowen - Ramon O Dogherty (Spain).


Designation Dormant

  • Toole of Fer Tire.


Designations Disputed

  • Long of Garranelongy.
  • Maguire of Fermanagh.
  • Carroll of Eile O Carroll.
  • Ruairc of Breifne.
  • Mac Donnell of the Glens.


Designation Withdrawn

  • MacCarthy Mor, Prince of Desmond - The recognition of Terence Francis MacCarthy (Morocco) was withdrawn in July 1999.


Application For Recognition Pending

  • MacCarthy Mor, Prince of Desmond
  • MacLochlainn
  • Mac Sweeney Doe
  • Dowda
  • Hara
  • Meehan


Recognition Not Applied For

O Neill Mór, Prince of Ulster - Claimed by Carlos O'Neill, Marques de la Granja (Spain).
Around one hundred chiefships attested in historical sources with no known modern representative.

Reference / Source

  • Murphy, Sean J (2004) Twilight of the Chiefs: The Mac Carthy Mór Hoax. Bethesda, Maryland: Academica Press. ISBN 1-930901-43-7.
  • Sean Murphy’s site on Irish Chiefs
  • Source: ‘The Free Encyclopaedia’


The following is a statement by the Chief Herald (2005) explaining the Herald’s and Government of Irelands position:

Termination of the system of Courtesy Recognition as Chief of the Name

Arising from questions which had arisen in relation to the practice of granting courtesy recognition as chief of the name, and specifically in relation to the recognition of certain chiefs during the years 1989 to 1995, the Chief Herald of Ireland requested the Office of the Attorney General to provide legal advice on the operation of the system generally and on particular issues which had arisen in an individual case. He has since been advised by the Office of the Attorney General that:

  • 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;
  • even if a sound legal basis for the system existed, it would not be permissible 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.


In these circumstances, the Chief Herald has decided, in agreement with the Council of Trustees of the National Library and the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, that the practice of granting courtesy recognition as chief of the name should be discontinued and that no further action should be taken in relation to the applications on hands for courtesy recognition, or in relation to the review which had been initiated of certain cases in which recognition was granted in the years 1989-95.

Corrigan Chieftanship



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Chapter 3

What is Heraldry
The Origins of Heraldry
The Coat of Arms
Office of the Chief Harold
Blazon of Arms
Corrigan Coat of Arms
Armorial Grant
Ancient Armorial Bearings
Prefix Mac and O’
Irish Clans and Chieftanship