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Composition of the Clan

What is a Sept ?

Many clans are described as "septs" but since the term covers a variety of different situations this is highly contentious issues. In its loosest sense, it can suggest followers or dependants, and usually refers to those families who attached themselves to larger clans for reasons of protection or else to branches within a clan that boasted a surname that was different from their kinfolk ( for example O'Mullans, Mc) However, it can also allude to the complications that arose when patronymic surnames were fixed. The person in question might freeze his name to include his father, or else he might choose to honour a more distant ancestor.

Structure of the Sept

Chief = Supreme Leader and Lawgiver
The Tanist
Nominated by the Chief
Tanistry was a system of succession
by a previously elected member of the Clan or Sept.
Commander/Military Leader
(heads of various branches or Sub-Septs of the clan,
always appointed if the Chief were old or infirm)
(those who could claim a blood connection with the Chief)
The greatest in numbers --
In times of peace, the clansmen did the manual work;
in times of war, they fought for their chief

Although this hierarchy was scrupulously observed, there was no feeling of resentment on the part of the Clansmen, whose powers of reflection were limited by their circumstances. They were proud to be connected to their Chief and to each other and the evidence shows they were willing to die for the Clan.
To add to the solidarity of the Clan, the practice of fosterage meant that children (including the Chief's) were exchanged and brought up among different families. Thus the most humble Clansmen felt personally responsible for the children of his chief and visa versa.

Due to their lack of political organisation, throughout their long history the celts failed to achieve any lasting territorical control. They compensated for this by developing tightly knit, extended family units that gave them cohesion at grass roots level and formed the basis of the clan system. The Celts operated on a tribal basis, holding their land in common and owing their principal allegiance to the chief. Their basic territorical measurement was the tuath, or tribe, which was large enough to provide a fighting force of anything between 500 and 3000 men. Their simplest family grouping was the derbfhine, which spanned four generations, linking the descendants of a common great-grandfather. The word clann was used to describe a child or children, rather than having the broader sense of kinship that it came to acquire in Gaelic Ireland.

The Gaelic Chief Role

A t the heart of the system was the role of the chief. He offered protection to his clansmen, settled their disputes and led them in battle. In return, the clan members yielded to his authority on all matters, granting him their unflinching loyalty. They also provided military service for him, as and when it was required. For their part, the chief's followers shared in the right of heritage known as duthus, which allowed them to settle and hunt on the clan lands held by their leaders. For these privileges, clan members paid a rent, which was collected and administrated by the chief's tacksmen, minor gentry who effectively acted as estate managers for their chiefs. Clansmen also benefited from a geniune feeling of equality. For, while the chief and his immediate entourage were held in high esteem, the main body of the clan was essentially classless. As the descendant of the distinguished ancestor, each member of the family could consider that they possessed a strain of gentility.

Keepers of Tradition

The clan's tradition were upheld by the "sennachie", one of the most important members of the chief's household. Learned in the clan's history, he maintained its records and genealogy, organised the inauguration of each new chief and addressed the host at clan gatherings. Within the O'Cathain Sept the role was fulfilled by the O'Mulvenna Sept.

Household And Personal Followers

T he following lists the household and personal followers of the Sept and Chief.

Ard Ghillean an Tighe (Gentlemen of the Household).-The number of these varied according to the importance of the chief.

An Seanachaidh (the Sennachie, or Genealogist of the Chief's House).-At table he sat among the chiefs of families,with precedence of the doctors of medicine. It was his duty to keep the clan register, its records, genealogies, and family history; to pronounce the addresses of ceremony at clan assemblies, and to deliver the chief's inauguration, birthday, and funeral genealogical orations; also, as Inaugurator, to invest him on succession.

Am Bard (the Bard).-Often synonymous with the Household Sennachie and generally a hereditary position, but otherwise used of an officer inferior to him.

An Clàrsair (the Harper).-This was generally a hereditary office. A small field in Dungiven called Harpers' Walk is the site of a school for Harpers. One of the most famous of the O'Cahan harpers, Toal O'Cahan is said to have composed the well-known ballad "Finvola, The Gem of the Roe" . This song tells the story of Finvola, the beautiful daughter of an O'Cahan chief.

Am Marischal Tighe (the Seneschal).-In every great household there were two, the principal of whom was well versed in the genealogies and precedences of all the clans. At table he assigned to each guest his place by touching the appointed seat with his white wand of office.

Am Bladier , the Spokesman, i.e. pursuivant, who carried the chiefs messages - which it will be recollected were in primitive days all conveyed orally, not in writing. He made the chief's proclamations.

Am Fear Sporain (the Treasurer).-This was a hereditary position, and its occupant had a town-land for his service.

Am Fear Brataich (the Standard-bearer or Bannerman).-A hereditary office, as was, too, that of

Am Piobaire (the Piper).

An Gille Mór (the Sword or Armour-bearer).-Also called the Gall-oglach , whose duty it was to carry the clogaid, or helmet, and the claidheamh-dà laimh, or two-handed sword of the chief. As armour was not continuously worn he had to carry it when on the march.

An Gille-coise (the Henchman).-This retainer was in continual attendance upon the chief; he stood fully armed behind the chair of his master at mealtime, and if the peace of the occasion were doubtful the henchman had his pistols loaded.

An Luchd-Tighe (the Body-guard).---These were all young gentlemen, chosen from the finest youths of the clan, and each had one or more attendants of his own. The members of the bodyguard were all well trained in the use of the sword, the target, and the bow, and were adepts in wrestling, swimming, leaping, and dancing; and those of the sea-coast and the isles were versed in the sounding and navigation duties of seamanship, and the management of the biorlinns or galleys. The Luchd-tiglie always attended the chief when he went abroad, and when his residence was on an island, in a lake, they had barracks and a guard-house on the mainland for keeping open the access to the chief's castle.

Am Fear Fardaiche (the Quartermaster).-His duties were to provide lodgings for all attendants, both at home and abroad. He held no lands in consideration of his services, but had a duty off the hides of all the cattle killed at the principal festivals, or in a creach (or foray).

An Cupair, or Gille-copain (the Cup-bearer) .-There were several cup-bearers, according to the importance of the chief. The duty of the principal one was to taste the contents of the cup before it was carried round the board. The office of principal cup-bearer was hereditary, and its occupant held land granted in charter from the chief.

An Gocaman , the Cockman or Warder, who kept watch on the top of the castle.

Am Forsair (the Forester).-He held by his service a croft and grazing in the forest, and was entitled to claim the hunting-dress and weapons of the chief when he returned home from hunting. This right, like many ancient perquisites of a similar kind, was only a scale of value, and was compounded by a fee in meal or money.

An Gille-Cas-Fhliuch .---A servant whose duty it was to carry the chief over the fords when the chief was travelling on foot.

An Gille-Couston .-The leader of the chief's horse.

An Gille-Comhsreang .-This was a guide who at dangerous precipices led the chiefs horse by a long rein.

An Gille-Trusairneis -The Baggage-man who had charge of the sumpterhorses.

An Leinc-chneas .-A Confidant or Privy Counsellor.

An Gille-sguain (the Train-bearer).-----When the Lords of the isles were in power we are told that among their train was a person designated Fear sguabadh dealt , whose duty it was to brush the dew away before his Royal master.

An Gille Chlarsair .-The Harper's Attendant, who carried his harp.

Gille Phiobaire .-The Piper's Servant, who carried the pipes, presented them to the piper when he was about to play, and received them again when the piper had concluded his performance. This attendant was only, however, attached to pipers of the first rank.

An Gille-Ruith (the Running Footman).

An Cleasaiche (the Fool or Jester).

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