Sean J Murphy (reprinted from
Atavus with permission of the author)
ATAVUS - The online magazine for
Burke's Peerage & Gentry
In 1999 it emerged publicly that
one Terence MacCarthy of Belfast and Morocco, who claimed to be an
Irish Chief, `The MacCarthy Mr, Prince of Desmond', was in fact an
There have been and there will no
doubt continue to be many bogus claimants to Gaelic Chiefships, but
what distinguishes the MacCarthy Mór case is the fact that the
Office of the Chief Herald of Ireland had recognised MacCarthy as a
Chief in 1992.
Before explaining how this state
of affairs had arisen, let us take a brief look at the history of
Following the completion of the
English conquest of Ireland 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 structures of Gaelic Ireland had 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
The Gaelic system of appointing
Chiefs or leaders was called 'Tanistry' by the English. The word
itself is derived from the Gaelic T naiste, 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.
Although 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
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
Mac Dermott 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 O Briain.
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
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
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 head of the Genealogical Office and some years later
Chief Herald of Ireland, both positions being attached to the
National Library of Ireland. MacLysaght took it upon himself to
endeavour to regulate Chiefly titles, in an effort to counter the
significant number of questionable Chiefs then active, 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
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.
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
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
certificate 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 or more 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.
The present writer publicly
revealed 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 in fact a
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
The Office of the Chief Herald,
which had been aware of the deception for some time, 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 MacCarthy's great uncle, 'The
Maguire of Fermanagh'.
The Office of the Chief Herald has
not taken action in these cases, citing unspecified 'legal issues'
under consideration by the Attorney General, 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
Something of the labour involved
is shown by the fact that over the past three years I have expended
over 1,500 hours (unpaid) checking the pedigrees of Gaelic Chiefs.
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 Office of the Chief Herald fully confronts the
issues arising from the MacCarthy Mór and allied scandals.
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. Where
indicated, there is a published pedigree of the chiefly family in
Burke's Irish Family Records, and in one case, in Burke's Peerage.
Irish Chiefs Recognised by the
Office of the Chief Herald 1 Mac Dermott, Prince of Coolavin,
registered 1944, current recognised holder Nial McDermot of Kildare
(IFR). 2 Mac Gillycuddy of the Reeks, registered 1944, current
recognised holder Richard McGillycuddy of Paris (IFR). 3 O
Callaghan, registered 1944, current recognised holder Juan
O'Callaghan of Barcelona (IFR). 4 O Conor Don, registered 1944,
current recognised holder Desmond O'Conor of Sussex (IFR). 5 O
Donoghue of the Glen or Glens, registered 1944, current recognised
holder Geoffrey O'Donoghue of Offaly (IFR). 6 O Donovan, registered
1944, current recognised holder Morgan G D O'Donovan of Cork (IFR).
7 O Morchoe, registered 1944, current recognised holder David N C
O'Morchoe of Wexford (IFR). 8 O Neill of Clannaboy, registered 1944,
current recognised holder Hugo O'Neill of Portugal. 9 The Fox,
registered 1944, current recognised holder John W Fox of Australia (IFR).
10 O Toole of Fer Tire, registered 1944, currently dormant. 11 O
Grady of Kilballyowen, registered 1944, current recognised holder
Henry Thomas Standish O'Grady of Paris (IFR). 12 O Kelly of Gallagh
and Tycooly, registered 1944, current recognised holder Walter L
O'Kelly of Dublin (IFR). 13 O Brien of Thomond, registered 1945,
current recognised holder Conor O'Brien, Lord Inchiquin, of Clare
(Burke's Peerage). 14 Mac Morrough Kavanagh, registered 1945,
formerly declared to be dormant until missing official file was
located in 2000, current recognised holder William Butler Kavanagh
of Wales. 15 O Donnell of Tirconnell, registered 1945, current
recognised holder Fr Ambrose O'Donnell OFM of Africa. 16 O
Dochartaigh of Inishowen, registered c1990, current recognised
holder Ramon O'Dogherty of Spain, available evidence supports his
right to the title, but case under review by the Chief Herald. 17 O
Long of Garranelongy, registered 1989, current recognised holder
Denis C Long of Cork, questions about documentation to support
pedigree, official file missing, case under review by the Chief
Herald. 18 Maguire of Fermanagh, registered 1990, current recognised
holder Terence J Maguire of Dublin, pedigree shown to be unsupported
by documentation, case under review by the Chief Herald and legal
issues raised by the claimant's solicitor being considered by the
Attorney General. 19 Mac Carthy Mor, registered 1992, recognition
withdrawn from Terence F MacCarthy of Morocco in July 1999, and
cases of other claimants under investigation by the Chief Herald. 20
O Carroll of Eile O Carroll, registered 1993, current recognised
holder Frederick J O'Carroll of California, questions about
documentation to support pedigree, case under review by the Chief
Herald. 21 O Ruairc of Breifne, registered 1993, current recognised
holder Geoffrey P C O'Rorke of London, may not be senior
representative of the family, case under review by the Chief Herald.
22 Mac Donnell of the Glens, registered 1995, current recognised
holder Randal McDonnell of Dublin, not the senior representative of
the family, case under review by the Chief Herald (IFR). 23 Joyce of
Joyce Country, never registered, current holder John Joyce of Clare
given a form of recognition and introduced to the President of
Ireland by the Chief Herald in 1991.
More detailed information on Irish
Chiefs can be found on the author's website at
http://homepage.eircom.net/~seanjmurphy/chiefs/. The author is a
professional genealogist and part-time lecturer who lives in
Windgates, County Wicklow, and he is currently completing a book
entitled Twilight of the Chiefs: The MacCarthy Mór Hoax he may be
contacted by e-mail at
Author's note January 2004: In
July 2003, Chief Herald O'Donoghue decided, with Government
approval, to abandon the system of according courtesy recognition to
Irish chiefs, on the grounds that there is no statutory or legal
basis for the practice.
While many applauded this decision
on grounds of pragmatism, the more thoughtful wondered if it was not
just a convenient washing of hands, which may make it even easier
for bogus chiefs to flourish in the future.