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Review of Peter Berresford Ellis, Erin's Blood Royal
Peter Berresford Ellis is a prolific popular historian, whose works include Hell or Connaught! and various books on the Celts, Celtic Mythology and the Druids. He also writes fiction under the pseudonym Peter Tremayne. What has proven to be one of Berresford Ellis's most controversial works was published in 1999 by Constable of London, under the title Erin's Blood Royal: the Gaelic Noble Dynasties of Ireland (hardback, 340 pages, IR£20). The author sets out to tell the story of twenty surviving Gaelic Chiefs, who are 'a last link with an ancient civilisation that has been pushed to the verge of extinction' (page 9).
The earlier sections of Berresford Ellis's work give a summary account of Gaelic dynastic laws of succession under the Brehon Code, and describe how in the sixteenth century the Tudors set out to destroy Gaelic society and utterly abolish Gaelic titles. These chapters seem reasonably well done, and significantly are based substantially on the work of serious scholars. Problems arise when Berresford Ellis attempts to describe what happened in the aftermath of the fall of Gaelic Ireland, when he claims that the Brehon laws of succession continued to be applied in the case of a number of surviving Chiefly lines right up to the present time. Thus he rejects the view that the English system of primogeniture had come to replace the Gaelic system of Tanistry, whereby the derbfine, or group of male descendants of a common great-grandfather, selected a Chief's successor or tánaiste. More than that, the principal thesis of his book is that although an independent Irish State has rejected the Brehon Code in favour of English Common Law, no system other than Tanistry can be used to select Chiefs today. Consequent on this of course is the belief that there is no legitimacy in the Irish Genealogical Office's system of 'courtesy recognition' of Chiefs on the basis of primogenitural descent from the last inaugurated Chief.
The second part of Berresford Ellis's book is a series of profiles of twenty Chiefs with summaries of their lineages. This is probably the most useful section, in that it was compiled with the co-operation of most of the Chiefs, and gives us personal details not otherwise readily available. Berresford Ellis groups the Chiefs according to their rank in the old Gaelic superior kingdoms. Thus in Munster (Desmond) there are MacCarthy Mór, O Callaghan, O Carroll, O Donoghue, O Donovan, O Long, and MacGillycuddy, in Munster (Thomond) O Brien and O Grady, in Connaught O Conor Don, O Kelly, MacDermot and O Rourke, in Ulster O Neill, O Dogherty, O Donnell and Maguire, and finally, in Leinster MacMorrough Kavanagh, O Morchoe and The Fox.
The Chief who in Berresford Ellis's opinion most fully represents authentic application of Brehon principles is Terence Francis MacCarthy, styled The MacCarthy Mór, Prince of Desmond. Unfortunately for Berresford Ellis, even as his book was going to press, it had become generally known that all was not well with Terence MacCarthy's pedigree, and indeed the Chief Herald of Ireland felt obliged to respond to the public revelations by stripping MacCarthy of recognition in July 1999. Berresford Ellis and other supporters consider that MacCarthy has simply been the victim of a hostile campaign provoked by his superior scholarly knowledge and insistence on true Gaelic principles of Chiefly succession. Berresford Ellis also confirms that MacCarthy does in fact have hopes of being restored to his throne, modestly confining his ambitions to the Kingdom of Munster (page 129). It is also revealed that Mr MacCarthy made enquiries to Government as to the possibility of being restored to his 'confiscated' estates, in particular, Muckross House (pages 198-99).
Terence MacCarthy in fact dominates Berresford Ellis's book. MacCarthy contributes a foreword in which he once again criticises the Chief Herald on account of lack of qualification, and grandly warns fellow Chiefs against 'drinking from the poisoned chalice of primogeniture' (page 6). Of the twenty-one illustrations in Berresford Ellis's book, Terence MacCarthy or alleged artefacts of his family appear in no less than seven. Berresford Ellis appears to accept uncritically various claims of Mr MacCarthy which are now known to be false or questionable. Thus he states that MacCarthy's grandfather Thomas Donal was appointed MacCarthy Mór by pacte de famille in 1905, that rival claimant Samuel Trant MacCarthy Mór recognised this in 1923, that on Thomas Donal's death in 1947 MacCarthy's father, also Thomas Donal, succeeded, until in 1980 he abdicated in favour of his son.
Elsewhere on this site we have shown that Terence MacCarthy comes from a relatively humble Belfast family of only recent aristocratic pretensions. We will now add another piece of evidence showing Terence MacCarthy's unreliability when it comes to matters of pedigree. MacCarthy has consistently stated that his grandfather died in 1947, when in fact he died in 1943, as shown by a certificate obtained from the General Register Office in Belfast. Berresford Ellis of course unquestioningly accepts the 1947 date, as he does the other genealogical data we have shown to be false or unproven. This identifies the central weakness of the work under review, its author is not a particularly good genealogist and there is little evidence of critical questioning of sources. There is not a single tabular pedigree in the book, and the footnotes to the accounts of the individual Chiefs are thin to the point of insignificance. There is a general bibliography, which as expected lists a good run of Terence MacCarthy's publications, whose claims to scholarly status are now of course completely exploded.
The third section of Berresford Ellis's book contains a defence of Terence MacCarthy's Niadh Nask order, a 'nobiliary fraternity' allegedly surviving continuously from ancient Gaelic times. This has been one of the most remarkably successful of Mr MacCarthy's enterprises, with an entry fee of $850 and a membership of about 450 internationally, including the former Taoisigh Haughey and Reynolds, a goodly number of Irish Chiefs, King Leka of the Albanians, Berresford Ellis himself, the heraldic expert Gerard Crotty, the Genealogical Office consultant herald Scott MacMillan, the Trinity College Dublin academic Dr Katherine Simms, General William Westmoreland and a substantial number of United States of America military men. While there may have been Gaelic knightly orders in ancient times, the evidence produced to demonstrate the continuity of the Niadh Nask into modern times is as flawed as that advanced to prove Terence MacCarthy's claim to the title of MacCarthy Mór. As expected, Berresford Ellis makes much of the Italian court case MacCarthy Mór versus Horak (pages 102-4, 295), which on the face of it vindicated Terence MacCarthy's right to his titles and powers to grant titles and honours, but was in effect a contrived setpiece of little or no true legal consequence.
In relation to the latest Chief whose pedigree we have shown to be essentially fabricated, Maguire of Fermanagh, Berresford Ellis once again demonstrates his credulity by uncritically repeating the false claim that the currently recognised Chief, Terence Maguire (Terence MacCarthy's great-uncle) is descended from Bryan Maguire, Baron of Enniskillen (page 264). Some Chiefs do receive lukewarm or indeed hostile treatment, usually because they have in some way fallen foul of the MacCarthyite camp. However, the questions raised concerning The O Conor Don's attempt to establish a Niadh Nask style order, and in relation to the Genealogical Office's recognition of Joyce and MacDonnell, do deserve answers. It should be noted that Joyce and MacDonnell are excluded from Berresford Ellis's list, and while he includes MacMurrough Kavanagh, this Chief is not in fact currently recognised by the Genealogical Office. Of course this confusion is mostly the fault of the Genealogical Office, which at different times has given conflicting information, most infamously hanging Joyce's banner with those of other Chiefs in its Heraldic Museum, only to have to admit that it had never formally recognised him.
Some may consider that the problems in the Genealogical Office have been solved by derecognising Terence MacCarthy, but of course the work of identifying the many errors in matters of titles, pedigrees and arms has only just begun. We hope to weather the resentment and hostility we are encountering from self-interested and ignorant parties, to maintain some sort of constructive dialogue with the serving Chief Herald, and to continue posting the results of our investigations on this site.
There is without doubt scope for a book on the often fascinating stories of the surviviving Gaelic Chiefs, incorporating critical accounts of fake claimants as well, and indeed finding some way to remember our Gaelic aristocratic past without compromising our Republican democratic present. Alas, Berresford Ellis's book is fatally flawed for the reasons outlined, has helped further to undermine the case for according some form of recognition to Chiefs, and graphically confirms the statement that attempts to revive Tanistry are simply a cover for fantasy and fabricated genealogy and heraldry. Indeed Mr Berresford Ellis might have been beter advised to issue the work we are reviewing under his fictional nom de plume, Peter Tremayne.
Soon after the publication of Erin's Blood Royal, Peter Berresford Ellis effectively renounced his support for Terence MacCarthy as The MacCarthy Mór. In a statement dated 28 September 1999, Berresford Ellis declared: 'I accept that the pedigree of Terence Francis McCarthy raises matters which are apparently irreconcilable with the claim of descent from the Royal Eóghanacht House of MacCarthy of Munster, as well as the claim of inheritance of the titles by his grandfather under the Brehon system in Nantes, Brittany, in 1905'. The statement concluded with a commitment that subsequent editions of his book 'will have the Foreword withdrawn and will attempt to present the facts as they are now known'. Despite the fact that the first edition of Berresford Ellis's book contains inaccurate and misleading information concerning Irish Chiefs, it remained on sale after 1999 to mislead the unwary, and indeed some copies are still on sale in Dublin at least.
In April 2002 Berresford Ellis brought out the promised corrected edition of his book, with the same title, though published by Palgrave of New York (hardback, 384 pages, available at $20.97 plus shipping from amazon.com). Gone at least are the preface by Terence MacCarthy and the credulous support for his ridiculous claims to be The MacCarthy Mór, but there is nothing in the nature of a real apology from Berresford Ellis for having so uncritically supported and publicised such an impostor. Berresford Ellis dates the exposure of MacCarthy's fraud to the public announcement of his derecognition by the Chief Herald on 21 July 1999, when his own book was 'already in print' (page ix). This is conveniently to overlook the Sunday Times exposé of MacCarthy on 20 June 1999, which precipitated the Chief Herald's belated action and also referred to my independent report on the case. On 4 August 1999 I took the trouble of writing to Berresford Ellis alerting him to the falsity of MacCarthy's claims and enclosing a copy of my report dated 16 June 1999 (copy on this website).
In this revised edition of his book Berresford Ellis makes no mention of my having given him fair warning about MacCarthy. Neither does he cite the substance of my carefully researched report, which showed through analysis of civil and church records that Terence MacCarthy comes from a modest Belfast family with no chiefly connections. I am instead introduced as one who 'was gaining much publicity' and 'labelling several other Chiefs as bogus' in the wake of MacCarthy's exposure (page x). Now this is a reference firstly to my further report of September 1999 which showed that the pedigree of MacCarthy's great-uncle 'The Maguire of Fermanagh' was also essentially fabricated (copy on this website). Berresford Ellis revises his formerly uncritical acceptance of Maguire somewhat by citing a contradiction between published accounts by Terence MacCarthy and the Earl of Belmore, but without mentioning that this is precisely a point made in my report, and stating somewhat disingenuously, 'It remains to be seen if Mr Murphy can substantiate his claims' (page 285).
In April 2000 I produced another report which showed that there was no documentation to prove the chiefly descent of 'The O Long of Garranelongy' into our time (copy on this website). Berresford Ellis attributes the decision by the Chief Herald to review the currently recognised O Long's pedigree to 'publicity engendered by Sean Murphy', again making no reference to the substantive criticisms in my report. In terms of qualifications I am also described as one 'who runs his own one-man Centre for Irish Genealogical and Local Studies', and this is juxtaposed with a reference to O Long's employment of 'a reputable genealogist and historian' to support his case (pages 156-57). I should perhaps make it clear that I am not entirely uneducated, holding BA and MA degrees in history, having over 20 years' experience as a professional genealogist, over a decade as a part-time lecturer, and with a significant publishing record. In contrast to his refusal to treat my reports as the professional and scholarly productions which they are, Berresford Ellis does not fail to cite the 'official report' on MacCarthy's pedigree commissioned by the Chief Herald (page 367).
Berresford Ellis gives special thanks to an Irish Chief, Count Randal, The MacDonnell of the Glens, 'for his tenacity in research, without which this new edition of the book could not have been written' (page 357). Elsewhere, it is noted that although MacDonnell is recognised by the Chief Herald, he is still excluded from the Standing Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains, 'having previously been "blackballed" by Terence MacCarthy' (page 354). Terence's conflict with MacDonnell does indeed appear to have been a serious tactical error which precipitated the series of events leading to his exposure, although I have to stress again that while we met and compared notes after I first contacted him on 14 June 1999, my investigations were entirely independent of Randal MacDonnell's. Berresford Ellis also claims that the Chief Herald recognised the MacDonnell title as early as1969 (pages 261, 262), but it is my understanding that 1995 is the correct date, this being one of the last acts of Chief Herald Begley. It is reasonable to ask for sight of the documentary source from the Office of the Chief Herald to support this claim of an earlier recognition. It is now stated as well that on the death of Lieutenant Robert Edward MacDonnell in 1941, the Chiefship passed 'by family agreeement' to his cousin Allasdair Colla MacDonnell, great-uncle of the currently recognised Chief (page 261). No source is cited to support this claim. Unfortunately, I have shown that the 1995 recognition breached MacLysaght's rules, in that MacDonnell is not the senior representative of his family, and indeed his case is one of those subject to the Chief Herald's protracted reviewing process (see report on this site).
The only substantially original section in Berresford Ellis's revised book is an added chapter, 'The MacCarthy Mór Affair', which contains interesting information on the true Belfast background of Terence MacCarthy (pages 317-35). I will be sure to cite this material properly in my own forthcoming book on the MacCarthy Mór Hoax. Despite the severe embarrassment of his entanglement with MacCarthy, and the fact that he contributed articles to several of his pseudo-scholarly publications, Berresford Ellis appears genuinely surprised that anyone could have considered him to have been 'an acolyte of Terence MacCarthy and not an independent scholar' (page 96). Berresford Ellis also clings to his central thesis, that Gaelic titles can only be transmitted according to Brehon Law principles and not according to primogeniture. In view of his own failings, it might have been prudent for Berresford Ellis to have dropped the attack on MacLysaght's supposed 'lack of knowledge' (page 85). I have of course supported MacLysaght's practical system of recognising Chiefs, realising that it was its subversion by some of his successors as Chief Herald which made the scandal of bogus and questionable Chiefs possible. As for my own cavalier treatment in the revised version of Berresford Ellis's book, I should try to reflect philosophically that someone woken from a pleasant dream to confront a real nightmare is not likely to be best pleased, and that truths are much harder to forgive than lies.
Sean Murphy MA
Centre for Irish Genealogical and Historical Studies
18 September 1999, revised 1 May 2002