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Complete Guide to Irish Clans

Written by: Caitlin
Published: 8th September 2020

Whilst the Irish Clans may have lost their traditional lands in the 16th century, and the introduction of Common Law may have recognised the Sheriff as the new authority over the Clan Chief, the spirit of the Irish Clans remains.

The growing influence of the Gaelic League at the turn of the 20th century rekindled an interest in Gaelic culture and prompted a cultural revival. In the 1940s Edward MacLysaght, the Chief Herald of Ireland, drew up a list of over 240 Irish clans!

A clan is a group of people united through their actual or perceived kinship and descent.

Many people associate clans with the highlands of Scotland, but did you know that their origins are actually in Ireland, the cradle of Gaelic culture

A Brief History of Irish Clans

Clan (clann) is a Gaelic word, which means ‘family’, although Irish kin-based organisations have also been referred to as ‘septs’ in English, from the Irish word sliocht, or line.

Irish clans share a traditional common surname and have originated prior to the 17th century. From ancient times Irish society was organised around traditional kinship groups or clans. These clans traced their origins to larger pre-surname population groupings, usually based around one location with one chief.

As well as these Irish surnames, there are a number of classic Irish forenames which you can read more about here.

There was a common belief among Irish clans that they were descended from a common ancestor. For example, the O’Neills supposedly descended from Niall, and the O’Donnells from Domhnal and so on. The word duiche, meaning native place, was used to describe the territory of the clan.

A chief, also known in Gaelic as a ceann cine, was selected to lead his kinsmen, and protect the integrity of this territory. The kinsmen, also known as fine, bound themselves to each other by the practice of fostering their children to each other.

The chief or lord was technically elected by the free men of the clan, but by 1500, a pattern had emerged where it was always the candidate with the most perceived ‘muscle’ that prevailed. By this we mean the candidate who had the widest backing and the greater amount of soldiers. It wouldn’t have been uncommon for the election to be swayed by negotiation, brute force or outside interference.

This election of chieftains from a wide pool of potential successors is a system referred to as ‘tanistry’. It caused endless conflict between the lord and the kinsmen, and the English tried to implement a more regimented system whereby the first son inherited both land and title from his father.

After a new chief was appointed, all the clan’s land would be redistributed amongst the kinsmen in a practice referred to by the English as ‘gavelkind’. In return, the kinsmen, or fine, were expected to maintain the residence of their lord, feed him, and provide military service when required.


The End of the Irish Clan System

The clan system formed the basis of society up to the 17th century. In 1500 most of Ireland was still under control of independent clan chiefs and lords. But by 1542, Henry VIII had begun the process of conquering Ireland for the English Crown by ending the Gaelic social order of self-governing kinship groups and declaring himself King of Ireland.

The plan was to force all Irish lords to surrender to the Crown and then they would receive title to their lands by Royal Charter, making Ireland a Kingdom rather than a Lordship as previously. But Henry had not anticipated the widespread resistance to the English rule from the Irish.

The Tudors had intended for the Gaelic upper classes to become loyal subjects, abandon what they considered to be their ‘barbarous’ Irish ways, and gradually become assimilated into the English aristocracy. But the chiefs of the Irish Clans were not going down without a fight!

It was after the Second Desmond Rebellion of 1579-1583 that a new tactic was introduced in the form of plantations. This was the process of seizing Irish lands and settling them with English colonists. The continued resistance to the English rule resulted in the dispossession of most of the native landowning class in Ireland.

The English hold over the country became solidified after the defeat of Hugh O’Neill in the Nine Years War, and officially the old Irish Clans social system was abolished. The senior Gaelic Chiefs left Ireland in 1607 to recruit support, but remained in Rome after this campaign failed. At this point the English authorities successfully disarmed the native clans and their lordships.


The Remaining Legacy of the Irish Clans

Life appeared to change a lot in Ireland in the new century. With the new settlers introducing new methods of farming and industry, and the end of feuding, raiding and maintaining private armies. The Irish language was also no longer used in official business, although it did still remain the language of almost all the people, and Irish customs and dress were discouraged.

However, it seems it would take a lot more than this to dampen the spirits of the Irish Clans. Many private historical documents record estates and living conditions where little changed behind closed doors.

The first modern Irish Clans were reformed during the 20th century. Today you can find such groups organised in Ireland, and also in every continent around the world.

In 1989 an independent organisation, Clans of Ireland, was formed, with the purpose of creating and maintaining a Register of Clans. This can be consulted on the organisation’s website. Many independent Irish clan societies have sprung up off of the back of this, and they have a huge international affiliation, with membership from across the globe.

Many people with Irish descent can enjoy tracing their lineage for the purposes of helping others with preserving history, culture, and the pursuit of genealogy. Do you know the full story of your heritage? With over 240 reported Irish Clans, there’s a good chance you can find your own familial link!

Click this link here to check out a complete list of all the Irish Clans.


About the author

Written by: Caitlin


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