"There be more than 60 countries....in Ireland, some regions as big as a shire, some more, some lesse;
Where reygneith more than 60 Chief Captaynes, whereof some call themselves Kings, some Kings Peers, in their language,
some Princes, some Dukes, some Archedukes, and every one of the said Captaynes makeyth war and peace for himself,
and holdeth by the sword, and hath imperial juristiction within his rome, and obeyeth no other person."
- quotation from an English observer in Ireland during the sixteenth century.
The use of the word 'The' as a prefix to a surname to indicate that the user is the head or chief of a sept comprising the bearers of that name is a comparatively modern practice. There were more than a hundred petty 'kingdoms' in the country, that is to say their rulers were termed "Rí", the Irish word for king. They were in most cases no more than chiefs who were subject to overlords, to whom they paid tribute in the form of cattle, corn etc., and, in most cases, were liable to supply a certain number of armed men to assist the overlord when he was engaged in warfare with some other, usually neighbouring, "Rí". The titular position of "Árd-Rí" (High King) was, generally speaking, more or less nominal. For much of the period under review the 'kings' of the northern half of the country ("Leath Cuinn") recognised the hegemony of that O'Neill who was based on Tara and those of the southern half ("Leath Mogha") the "Rí" who happened to be in power at Cashel. When one refers to an O'Neill or a MacCarthy in this connection it is necessary to remember that surnames of the hereditary type did not come into being until the tenth century, and not widely until later. Thus the collective term "Uí Néill" denotes descendants of an ancestor named Niall. At one time the King of Connacht, O Connor, was paramount. The set-up of that kingship, whether as "Árd-Rí" or provincial king, may be taken as illustrating the position. The four provincial chiefs ranking as 'royal lords' under the O Connor Don, giving here the modern form of their names, were: O Mulrennan, O Finaghty, O Flanagan and MacGeraghty. Lesser chiefs associated with O Conor Don had traditional functions in his service. That these were of importance is clear from the inclusion of O Kelly (steward of the jewels), O Malley (naval), MacDermot (military) and O Mulconry (chief poet).
Brelon Law and The Position of a Chief
Actually the term "Árd-Rí" does not appear in the early Brehon law tracts which specify three grades of king, viz., (1) of the local "tuath" or tribal kingdom (2) of a larger territory and overlord of No. 1, (3) king of a province. Although the genealogists trace the high-kingship back to "Niall na naoi ngiallach" (referred to in English as Niall of the Nine Hostages) in the fifth century, it did not become an actuality until much later, and even such successful high-kings as Brian Boru (d. 1014), who stands 45th in their list, were far from exercising the undisputed authority associated with most monarchs in France and England. The effective kingship or principal overlordship was that of the "righte" of what were called the "Cúig Cúigi", i.e. five fifths or provinces, Connacht, Leinster, Meath, Munster and Ulster (to use the modern names) which in fact became seven due to the rise of Oriel and the further division of Ulster into two.
O'Cathain Chiefs listed in Block Capitals below.
Irish Chiefs and the Modern Clanstory Title
The D.G.M of Ireland (Masonic) 1925 R.W. Bro. Claude Cane (Colonel) head of family and entitled to call himself "The O'Cathain".
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 were three methods for an Irish family to have its Chief recognized. Until July 2003, only 19 Irish families had representation by a fully recognized Chief. Another 150 families have organized themselves into clans. This is to clarify the differences based on the recent decision by the Irish government.
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 were three organizations that recognized and work with Irish clans.
Until July, the Chief Herald of Ireland, via the Genealogical Office was the only organization that had to power to recognize a "Chief of the Name". However, in July the government decided to rescind that power. Further, the un-recognized all but two Chiefs. The two who kept their recognition were The O'Brien and The O'Connor Don. Each had been recognized during the 19th century by an outside government (Britain and The Vatican). Due to this change, the Genealogical Office will only register pedigrees. Thus no official government body will recognize Clan Chiefs. The bodies that do still recognize chiefs are:
? The Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains
? The Clans of Ireland
The Chief Herald, due to the republican nature of Ireland, was only able to give courtesy recognition to a Chief. The proof was 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 were ever given courtesy recognition as being Chiefs of the Name. Recognition came with no privileges within Ireland, except some heraldry 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 was only given after courtesy recognition by the Chief Herald. The fact that membership was en-masse unrecognized is unlikely to affect the members. What will be interesting is whether or not this move by the Chief Herald will affect new membership.