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Practical Application of Gaelic Irish Tanistic Succession

Lt. Col. (USAR-Ret) Leonard M. Keane, Jr.


Under the Irish system of tanistic succession (as opposed to the English system of pure primogeniture), a "Tanist" i.e., "heir apparent" or, in Gaelic, "Tanaiste", "the expected one", may be nominated by the current Chief, and may be any suitable male from within his 'derbhfine'.  The 'derbhfine' is the kin-group of males descended in unbroken male-line, usually from a common great-grandfather, i.e. relatives up to second cousins.

Because Brehon Law does not mandate a specific successor, such as a primogeniture heir, as does English law, it is probably best to use the term "implicitly" rather than "de jure" to identify likely tanistic heirs.  The title vests in the 'derbhfine' of each generation descending from an earlier Chief, or from the nearest traceable eligible kinsman, should the Chief's male line descent be extinct or untraceable.

There is considerable evidence of Irish Chiefs nominating brothers as successors, especially if their own sons were too young or otherwise unsuitable to carry out the demanding duties involved.  Eldest sons thus do not by right succeed as Chiefs.  The Irish mode of succession is tanistry, a concept that the English conquerors tried very hard to suppress, offering Irish princes English Earldoms governed by primogeniture in exchange ("Surrender & Re-grant") for abdication of their ancient royal and princely ranks governed by the old Gaelic form of salic tanistry.  This simply was a technique of "divide and conquer", which unfortunately often worked quite well.

In early lineages, where no record of the application of tanistry survives, it may be impossible to learn whether a Chiefly line descends from an eldest or a younger son.  In many cases a Chief nominated his eldest son in any event, probably out of favoritism for his first-born or recognition of his maturity.  Critics of the tanistic system point to this fact as some sort of "evidence" that tanistry is no longer applicable, having been replaced by the more "civilized" English system.  In cases where there is an appearance of primogeniture (Historians have called the "appearance" of primogeniture in such cases "pseudo-primogeniture" - Nicholls, Gaelic & Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages, p. 27), we may assume tanistic nomination and/or 'derbhfine' concurrence with a chiefly testate nomination.

Also of important relevance is the fact that landed estates were "entailed", that is, inheritance was strictly by primogeniture, according to English law, and then only to an heir of the Protestant (Anglican) relgion.  If a Gaelic Irish chiefly title, unlawfully abolished by English law yet fully viable under Brehon Law, were vested within such an Irish family it is at once evident that the Chiefship most likely would be privately transmitted by tanistry, but to the eldest son in order to preserve both the family estate and the Chiefship together.

During a presumed dormancy, lacking any evidence of 'derbhfine' objection or of continued private application of tanistry, we may consider the nearest traceable male-line from a former Chief to represent an "implied 'derbhfine' selection" (my term) for purposes of revival of a Chiefship, as with those "Courtesy Recognitions" of the Irish Genealogical Office.  One important function of the 'derbhfine' is to concur (but not over-rule, unless there is very compelling reason to do so) with the nomination of the prior Chief so that, if there is no record or indication of 'derbhfine' action, this can be considered the norm, especially under a system wherein a Gaelic Irish title was "utterly prohibited" by law!

In instances in which the 'derbhfine' was not operational, or its activities not recorded, due to dormancy or military/political circumstances of repression, and in order to avoid chaos, disputed claims, and allegations of favoritism, the continuity of the family Chiefship may be taken through the nearest and best documented male-line from a prior chief down to the present time.  The 'derbhfine' can then be identified, and an able, willing and suitable member thereof may then be selected by the 'derbhfine' members and confirmed by a Council of Irish Chiefs & Chieftains.  In most cases this would be the person who initiates the claim, as he most often would have the necessary seriousness of purpose and suitability to satisfy the requirements of Brehon Law.

If a contemporary 'derbhfine' is non-existent or fails to perform its duty to affirm the candidate, a Council of Irish Chiefs & Chieftains, preferably including the appropriate royal Provincial heir, may act in its stead.

In any event, the duty of a Council of Irish Chiefs & Chieftains is to affirm the choice of a 'derbhfine' or the tanistic designation of a reigning chief.

There is no "automatic" succession of an Irish chief -: not only should the prior Chief nominate, but the 'derbhfine' must deliberate and acclaim (albeit with limited authority to over-rule a tanistic designation), and the Provincial heir must, at the earliest opportunity, recognize the nominee.  A modern Council of Chiefs can facilitate this process.  Historically, not even a Provincial King or heir can interfere in the familal decision to nominate and acclaim a new Chief (Binchy).  Likewise, the non-participation of a Provincial heir or of a Council of Chiefs cannot pre-empt the continuity of a noble Irish family Chiefship.  The family itself has the ultimate obligation to maintain its genealogy by the highest standards possible and select its Chief according to the requirements of Brehon Law.  A Provincial heir can however, in his capacity as traditional overlord, decide cases of contested chiefship.

Where dormant Chiefships have been revived by primogeniture (as by the I.G.O "Courtesy Recognitions" in recent decades), the new chief ought not, and indeed cannot (assuming an accurate, connected pedigree), be displaced should a more senior proven line later emerge, because the operating system in reality is tanistry, not primogeniture.  Likewise, a ready, willing and able junior-line descendant seeking to revive a dormant chiefship is at no disadvantage in seeking succession under Brehon Law.

Only by accepting and ENDORSING primogeniture as the mode of succession or accepting, under any mode of descent, a regrant or modification of title from an external entity such as a successor government, would a Gaelic Irish Chiefship become invalid.  Properly, a Chiefship emerging from a long dormancy must immediately resume the practice of tanistic succession, carefully documenting sucessors by testate nomination.

A candidate for succession must have a pedigree fully satisfactory to a Council of Chiefs (suppporting the salic form of tanistic succession), be ready, willing and able to assume the Chiefship, and have a superior rather a merely "senior" right to the Chiefship.  Implicit in the application of tanistic succession is the concept of suitability.

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