Irish Chiefs and the Modern Clans Arms of Capt. James R. Johnson

Irish Chiefship is a sticky business by any account.  The vast majority of Irishmen and women, whether in Ireland or around the world, are not represented by a Chief.  It is a sad fact, and one that does not have to be continued.  There are three methods for an Irish family to have its Chief recognized.  At present, only 19 Irish families have representation by a fully recognized Chief.  There are another 150 families that have organized themselves into clans.  This is to clarify the differences.

There are two aspects of recognition with regard to Irish Chiefship.  It is important to remember and differentiate between the two, for that is how much of the confusion surrounding the issue starts.   The main difference is between "Chief of the Name" and "Chief of the Clan".   As stated, there are three organizations that recognize and work with Irish clans.  They are:

  • The Genealogical Office and the Chief Herald of Ireland
  • The Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains
  • The Clans of Ireland

The Genealogical office and the Chief Herald are the official entity of the government in Dublin.  It is concerned with recognizing those who are "Chiefs of the Name" and thus, the title of "The", not with the conduct of the clans themselves.

The Chief Herald, due to the republican nature of Ireland, can only give courtesy recognition to a Chief, but does maintain its power of recognition.   The Chief Herald recognizes only those families who can prove direct descent from the last know inaugurated Chief.  Further, descent must be derived via primogeniture descent, not with tanistry, or via female lines.  

The proof is difficult and in many cases impossible.  With the destruction of the Irish Order by 1609, most families lost their inauguration ceremonies within a generation or two, or saw the line of Chief sail away to France, Spain or the New World.  Thus only 19 families have ever been given courtesy recognition as being Chiefs of the Name.  Recognition comes with no privileges within Ireland, except some heraldlry privileges.  But on the Continent some are recognized as Princes and the rest as Counts.     

The Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains is the next body.  This organization has a direct relationship to the Chief Herald, as membership to this council is only given after courtesy recognition by the Chief Herald.  

Where this body differs from the Chief Heralds office is that they are not concerned with any recognition nor with genealogical proofs.  Instead the Council is focused on Irish culture.  The Council puts its efforts into saving aspects of ancient Irish life, language and history.   Many of these Chiefs are very active in their clan organizations as well as other Irish preservation organizations.

The Clans of Ireland.  This organization, which was at one point an official branch of the Genealogical Office, is focused on the clans themselves.  The Clans of Ireland are not in the business of recognizing pedigrees or lines of descent.  They do not give the title "The" to the head of a clan.  Instead the Clans of Ireland recognize what the clan organizations themselves do.  If a clan does not have one of the nineteen "Chiefs of the Name", then that organization can select one of their own to become "Chief of the Clan".  

Herein lies the major difference.  Courtesy recognition from the Chief Herald entitles a person to be known as "The X, Chief of the Name" and use a noble coronet on their arms.  Recognition from Clans of Ireland is recognition purely as "Chief of the Clan X".  There is no coronet or nobility associated with this office in Ireland.

Some of the most famous families of Ireland are not represented on the Standing Council of Ireland.  And many people would like to change the system of recognition.  There are a number of possible solutions to give the families without recognized Chiefs of the Name, representation on the Standing Council.  Each proposal is based on either traditional methods used in the same situation in ancient Ireland or the methods used in Scotland, the Gaelic cousin to Ireland.

  1. The election of a Ciann Cath, or war leader.  This would allow a family to select one of its members who does descend from the general line of the ancient Chief.  That line would become the recognized, leaders of the family for a prescribed period of time, years or even generations.  After the period of time, that line would be given full recognition of "Chief of the Name".  This is the method used in Scotland.
  2. An election using a derbhfine, or basically a council of those members of the family that represent the entire leadership of the clan.  The ancient definition of the deibhfine was the family of the Chief down four generations.  More recent organizations have included all those with noble titles, knighthood, or who were armigerous  in their own right.  Land ownership, nobility of office or leadership within the clan could also account for the makeup of these derbhfines.  The derbfine would meet and select the new "Chief of the Name".
  3. A very ancient and legal, under Brehon law, method is the Iarfine selection of family leadership worldwide.  After every four generations, a family Chieftain could be selected.  Eight Chieftains could then select a next level chieftain and on up until there is one Chieftain elevated to "Chief of the Name".



[1] The ancient form of Irish kingship/leadership selection based on family lines as opposed to father-son descent.

[2] In Scotland, the same type position would probably give the “Chief” a chapeaux of office above his arms, and in Italy and Spain the coronet of a Patrician or Patron could be used.

[3] Having a coat of arms of their own.

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