The Kingdom of Desmond Association

An historical society focused on royal, nobiliary and genealogical
aspects of this eminent part of Gaelic-Irish history:
The Kingdom of Desmond.

Gaelic Titles


What has been written thus far has attempted to give Gaelic and other Irish cultural traditions a more correct perspective. For the true history of these traditions has often been misinterpreted or submerged due to preoccupations with nationalism and republicanism. The Kingdom of Desmond Association does not have any political agenda (as said), and most participants are firm believers in the republican form of government of Ireland. But the Association as a private grouping is interested in perpetuating the totality of Irish history to include the Gaelic order of things, and in ensuring that there is memory of that order of things; and that traditions not be lost when it is not necessary that they be lost.

The various heads of the royal Gaelic-Irish families had many sub-lords beneath them, and this Association of course speaks about those existing within the lands of what was then the Kingdom of Desmond. But these sub-lordships existed and exist for all the other Gaelic royals as well, i.e. O Brien, O Neill, MacMorrough Kavanagh, O Conor. And indeed individual lords subject to a King (as in Desmond) also had their own sub-lords, appointed officers, etc. Differing in essential respects from the mainland European feudal and property systems, the Gaelic kings were still indeed the ‘owners’ of the lands dependent upon them as historically acknowledged by law and custom. But that was within the Irish system which did not mean that the king had a ‘fee simple’ to the lands. No, lands occupied by clansmen and others were their property, with the king as overlord only, as which he was entitled to ‘chief rents’ and/or ‘fees’, etc., but those were not ‘feudal dues’ no matter how argued by the last MacCarthy Mor reigning or by the false MacCarthy Mor recently. But, as the ultimate overlords, the Gaelic kings were the sources of the ‘titles’ which went with the lands or which were awarded to others in the family as appanages. Those titles were indeed the possessions of the overlord, and are ‘incorporeal hereditaments’, and only such now given that this is no more ‘land’.  But the ‘titular’ ownerships remain, much as the Papacy uses ‘titular’ episcopal sees as the titles for many new Bishops appointed, though those sees long have passed out of the control of the Church of Rome. The ‘incorporeal’ titles remain property as having belonged to that church in history. The loss of the lands/power does not result in the loss of history!!

And it should be said that any comparison with English titles, feudal or otherwise, in use in Ireland during the centuries of English control, is totally incorrect. And have no bearing on Gaelic titles or reference thereto legally, whatever was claimed by English governments in Ireland in the past. They never had any right to make any laws about the Gaelic order of things and only enforced their system by conquest.

Thus while there is no longer any land associated with any former Kingdom of Desmond or any other kingdom of Ireland (Ulster, Leinster, Connaught, Thomond), the titles associated with those kingdoms remain real and real possessions of the families of former kings, as overlords of the people still holding lordships under them or as custodians of the titles of families which became extinct. The titles per Brehon law and practice reverted back to the head of a dynasty (or to a subordinate of his who himself had granted a sub lordship) when a chiefship became extinct. There are numerous historical tracts testifying to this practice. And we should state upfront here that this was a Gaelic Irish practice, NOT feudal! The overlord received the titles but had no ‘fee simple’ to the lands, which would have been totally contrary to Brehon Law (but, yes, some Irish royals did try to apply feudalism so as to satisfy their greed for actually ‘owning’ everything – more on that later).

It is indeed a terrible truth of Irish history that most of the lordships which operated within the Gaelic system of rule have become lost to history. And most families cannot locate their own hereditary chief-of-name due to the wars, loss of records, emigrations, destructions such as what happened at the Four Courts in 1922.  The organisation Clans of Ireland does Irish history a great service in helping to rescue family history by helping those bearing a common surname to ‘group’ and to elect a chief of name, albeit honourary since probably 90% of the hereditaries are lost or unproven.

As said, now, the titles and lordships which revert to an ex-Irish king when a family becomes extinct are his property and as also said there are examples of lordships/territories so returning. See Butler’s Gleanings from Irish History previously mentioned in the references, pages 16-18, for further references from both the English and Irish records. Yes, at the end of the Gaelic order, there were some lawsuits and legal confusion as to whether ‘reversion’ of a lordship or sublordship due to a line’s extinction gave the inheriting overlord the actual ownership of all the land, contrary to the Irish system (where all the Sept/Clan had rights to land with the chief acting as trustee/protector). At times and having good lawyers too, lords such as the last reigning MacCarthy Mor naturally sued for the land too. In effect ‘using’ the English system for their private benefit, and to attempt to make the toilers/clansmen simply ‘tenants at will’. This determination, based on English law of owning the fee simple to everything, was much more profitable than just having the Irish ‘overlordship’ with its obligations to the Sept/Clan members (Terence the false MacCarthy Mor really pushed this same interpretation for his own benefit of ‘owning’ everything).

But, no matter, the ‘overlordship’ itself belonging to the higher lord was not and is not in question regardless of historic battles or disagreements over the lands due to the differences between the Irish and English systems. Which really only existed from about 1584 to the death of the last MacCarthy Mor in 1596. And as there is no more ‘land’ anymore, anyway, in terms of any of the historic appanages/lordships, it is all now a moot question. The titles are incorporeal property and revert to the overlord when a line is extinct or presumed so.

As to the titles, terminology is not important: one can call these titles historic dependencies, ‘whatchamacallits’,  possessions of a royal house, or use Irish language words of ranking – whatever.

Even ‘feudal dependencies’ (but not in an English ‘fee simple ownership’ sense). The point is that they were and are possessions of a royal house, and may be regranted to another person so as not to continue to be lost to history; and so that the new grantee may indeed assist the head of the royal house in maintaining the activity of the name: by becoming a helper to the head of the royal house, as dependant lords were (with many exceptions of rebellion of course) when the actual Gaelic order existed. In short, these incorporeal hereditaments may legally be regranted by the head of a royal house or by subordinates who indeed had and have such hereditaments under them, e.g. an  O Sullivan lord under the now MacCarthy Mor may indeed grant hereditaments beneath him historically, which have reverted due to extinction of a subordinate O Sullivan sept. Subject only to the courtesy registration by a MacCarthy Mor. The only constant must be that he himself, a legitimate MacCarthy Mor, has been elected by his Derbhfine in accordance with historic Brehon Law! As the new MacCarthy Mor claimant was. As to how he then handles his ‘possessions’  is totally within his family rights, for there was no Brehon Law written about ‘what can an ex-reigning Irish royal do with his possessions’. There we rely more on international law which stresses that all possessions of an ex-reigning royal remain in his possession, such as titles, right to grant arms, etc.  (though that law is also clear that he may not create new possessions or start a new order of chivalry, etc.).

Therefore, the certification of those who claim an hereditary basis for succeeding to a lordship which has been long dormant is the business only of the now MacCarthy Mor. He may call on expert genealogical or historical advisors, but those actions are internal to the Royal House of Desmond, only within its jurisdiction; and it sets its own constitution and procedures for such actions as grants, regrants, successions, appointment of officers, etc. etc. He may also grant dormant titles which have reverted to him because of extinction of a line to people he regards as qualified; and they can  be outside of the traditional family name. In those cases he should have approval of his own Derbhfine but that’s all that’s required.

All these actions require no approval by any existing government or by any other existing body such as the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs, etc. Each Gaelic royal house and its subordinates has the rights associated with it historically and keeps those rights even when ousted from actual power by a ‘successor’ state. And it keeps its titles albeit successors to ex-kings are called ‘prince’; and it keeps its recognised rights under International Law which include the regranting of titles which have become extinct (as we understand O Brien, Prince of Thomond and MacMurrough-Kavanagh, Prince of Leinster, have done with some possessions of theirs houses), and/or maintenance of its ‘orders’ which existed when reigning (or as done by O Conor Don, Prince of Connaught, in the early 1990's. At that time various offices were created along with a new non-chivalric honour referred to as the 'companionate' of His house).  It is understood that O Brien has also created some offices. Indeed recently (March 2013) the MacCarthy Mor has also created an honour of merit and recognition, non-knightly of course and claiming no historic continuity. It is called 'The Companionate of Cashel'.

The only overall requirement from an academic perspective is that the royal house should always act in accordance with the best interpretation of historic Brehon Law.

It is noted herein that there are people who have a different perspective on Gaelic titles re successions, possession, legalities. That is their right, but obviously this Association disagrees – and that is our right (which is indeed supported by many scholars and by International Law).

Thus we say that each ex-royal house has internal supervision of its own family and historical laws and practices within a general Brehon Law system (which indeed would include registering new grants or regrants, approving successions, etc.). And, finally, the determination of exactly what is the correct ranking and organisation of its subordinate houses/lordships relative to the royal house and to each other are also prerogatives of the royal house, as if when reigning and even when not reigning. This is the case even if centuries have gone by, as is the case of the MacCarthy Mors and other former Irish kings today – with rights as ex-monarchs which are no less than those of the ex-monarchs of Italy, Russia, Portugal, Greece, or wherever, under International Law.

It is stated, again, that this Association’s initiative is solely for a better understanding of the correct history of the former Kingdom of Desmond. It would be pleasing to see similar associations for the kingdoms of Leinster, Thomond, Connaught, and Ulster.


The Association asked the author Mitchell L. Lathrop if he would take a fresh look at the history of Brehon Law. He is a very experienced civil and military attorney who by personal interest over the years is conversant with the subject. We are very pleased with his article and publish it, for we believe it is quite relevant today and that it flows very logically from what has been written above on this page about Gaelic Titles. The article contains 48 scholarly footnotes but for space reasons we cannot actually print it out on our website. However, if any reader wishes to have the article just write to us at our email address and we will email it back immediately. Our email address is listed on the Contacts page.

Additionally, the article will be published in 2013 in a separate journal with many illustrations. We will advise herein when we have final details. APRIL 2013: the article has now been published, in THE AWEN - Journal of the Noble Society of Celts, Winter/Spring 2013 edition. It will start showing up on the internet or can be accessed by going to the website of the Noble Society of Celts.

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