History of the Noble Society of Celts
By Douglas S. Files, M.D., NSC, Ard-Seanacha
As the 20th anniversary of the Noble Society of Celts is upon us, it is fitting to revisit our roots. As archivist of the NSC I maintain original records dating to the founding of the society, and I have reconstructed a summary of our beginnings.
In early 1993 several Americans with similar interests knew each other through philanthropic organizations such as the Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem. Many of them were also acquainted with Dr. David P. Johnson, President of the American College of Heraldry. Wishing to honor their common Celtic heritage, several obtained Irish feudal titles from the Prince of Desmond, as then recognized by the Irish government. Talking amongst themselves these individuals created a forum to discuss items of common interest and to celebrate their common Celtic history. The officers of the new society were conceived as the Chief, the Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor, the Exchecquer, the Secretary/Editor of Publications and the Herald. The title of Chief was later changed to “Honorary Chieftain” on the basis that the only proper Scottish chiefs were clan chiefs.
The founding members and officers included the Much Honored General Bailey McCune of Coll Earn and Elphinstone, Baron of Elphinstone, Honorary Chieftain; Chevalier Roger Carlton Sherman, Baron of Castlemore, Chancellor; Captain the Chevalier Thomas Paul Westgaard, Lord of Kileughterco, Secretary; and Chevalier David Pittman Johnson, Lord of Kilbonane, Herald. Chevalier Charles Prigmore, Lord of Aglish was appointed Vice Chancellor. These gentlemen intended to call the new organization The Noble Society of Celtic Lords, since many of them held titles recognized by Celtic nations. Class One membership would encompass titled Scottish and Irish nobility in North America, Class Two would include members of international chivalric organizations, and Class Three would include anyone who shared the goals of the society. In practice, it became difficult to classify members, as each individual had a unique situation.
The organization initially confined its scope to North America, but within a few months of its founding two titled Scots were added to the rolls as Honorary Members. Members joined from other nations and the Noble Society soon considered itself international. From the beginning the Executive Committee had the power to grant honorary memberships and to appoint up to three patrons. By the summer of 1993 a membership application was produced and the founders encouraged nobles of their acquaintance to join the new society. Terrance MacCarthy, whom the contemporary Irish government had recognized as the heir to the Munster kingdom, was invited to serve as Noble Advisor. But almost immediately, a major problem arose when he balked at the new organization. His first objection was that as head of his own royal house, he could not hold the same degree of membership in the organization as his own vassals. Second, he would not serve as Noble Advisor unless it were a lifetime honor. Third, and most importantly, he feared that the very existence of the organization might be used by critics to urge the Irish government to suppress all noble titles. That is, the Noble Society of Celtic Lords might lead to the abnegation of the very titles that were its original raison d’etre. Lastly, MacCarthy questioned what exactly was a “Celtic Lord”? There existed Irish lords, Welsh lords and Scottish lords, but no one was specifically deemed a “Celtic lord”.
These objections were worrisome since the principals had expressly hoped to avoid controversy in founding the organization. They yearned to maintain independence of action but they also desired some cachet of approval from European princes. Above all, those who held titles from the recognized Munster prince had no desire to embroil their feudal lord with problems with the Irish Republic. Accordingly, by October 1993 the officers enacted several changes, the largest one being that they changed the name of the organization to The Noble Society of Celts. They loosened requirements for the various classes of membership, giving the Chancellor considerable latitude in this realm. When the Honorary Chieftain explained the changes to MacCarthy, in December 1993 he agreed to act as “Patron” of the Society. However, when it was later proven that he had forged documents and that he had no claim to the Munster kingdom whatsoever, Terrance MacCarthy was expelled from the Noble Society of Celts. The remaining Irish lordships among NSC members of which the author is aware have been reconfirmed by the current, legitimate MacCarthy Mor.
The first meeting of the NSC Executive Committee took place on Saturday, January 15th, 1994 at Charleston, South Carolina, alongside a meeting of the Sovereign Order of St. Stanislas. A number of members attended and the Honorary Chieftain presented them with certificates and blazer badges.
With the basics established, the nascent NSC next sought to define its logo. Heralds David P. Johnson and Colonel Sir Lee D. MacMahon formed a committee with the Honorary Chieftain and the Chancellor which in February 1994 developed the following blazon:
Argent, a ducal celtic coronet, a celtic cross in center, flanked on both sides by a thistle slipped and leaved, with St. Patrick’s shamrock (halved) at both sides. In base, Welsh dragons all around. All of the above Or. Below the coronet, a single ermine tail Proper.
The unjeweled coronet was intended to suggest nobility, rather than royalty. The Celtic dragon would symbolize Wales, the thistle would symbolize Scotland and the shamrock would symbolize Ireland, those being the primary Celtic nations today. The Celtic cross was a symbol of early Christianity and the ermine tail was a heraldic symbol of nobility. In 2010 the arms were redesigned by the First Herald, in order to incorporate more traditional facets of heraldry. Insignia of the society currently include a neck medal, a miniature, a crown lapel pin, a seal lapel pin and an embroidered blazer patch. The founders chose not to specify any uniform beyond the “correct national dress of the country of nobility” or black or white tie.
Promulgated in the spring of 1994, the by-laws of the NSC enumerated the duties of each officer and noted that they served at the pleasure of the Honorary Chieftain. The by-laws also specified that the founding Noble Advisor of the society was His Grace Sir Ian Campbell, 12th Duke of Argyll. Classes of membership were also listed. Class I membership was hereditary and included those with Celtic titles, those noble by tradition or those who could prove descent from a Celtic lord. Persons of Celtic heritage who achieved knightly rank in a chivalric organization also qualified for class I. Class II membership was for people of Celtic descent and stature in their community but who did not meet criteria for class I. Honorary members were to be generally confined to Celtic nobles and persons of great standing, at the chancellor’s discretion. Class I memberships were also designated as heritable. Starting in 2010 life memberships became available and could be passed to one heir without further payment.
One year in, the officers of the Noble Society of Celts created an appendix to the original By-Laws. The primary purpose of Appendix I was to create more positions within the society. Specifically, it permitted the Executive Committee to appoint an Ard-Filea (Chief Bard) and Filea (Bard), an Ard-Seanacha (Chief Historian) and Seanacha (Historian or Genealogist) and a Brehon (Interpreter of Law).
Just before finishing the first NSC Armorial, First Herald Dr. David Pittman Johnson became embroiled in Federal Court lawsuits regarding the Order of St. Lazarus. Upon recommendation of counsel, he considered resigning from the NSC in 1994 but decided to remain once all mention of the Order of St. Lazarus was removed from NSC lists. That same year, a newsletter was begun. It was named The Awen and it initially cost about $150 per issue to publish and distribute.
The first general membership meeting of the NSC took place November 18th-20th 1994 in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. At least 8 members attended. The Noble Advisor was unable to attend but he sent a speech to be read to the assemblage. An informal dinner was held Friday evening, followed by meetings Saturday morning and afternoon. Officers reported on their areas of responsibility during the morning session. The Chancellor reported that 45 members had joined and more applications were expected. That afternoon Kilbonane presented a talk on “Heraldry Today”, Kileughterco spoke on “Pan-Celtism”, Castlemore presented “Amazing Historical Celtic Facts” and Elphinstone spoke on “The Legality of Feudal Scottish Baronies”. Insignia of the Society were presented at dinner that evening. The meeting wrapped up Sunday morning with an informal breakfast.
In 1995 a discussion grew up among the NSC officers regarding whether membership in Niadh Nask in and of itself conferred nobility on a person. The issue arose because it impacted which level of NSC membership Niadh Nask members ought be granted. Disagreement among the founders of the NSC regarding the definition of nobility led to a broader discussion of how to decide the rank in the NSC to which an applicant was entitled. Eventually it was decided to loosen requirements for the various classes of membership and to grant the Chancellor broad powers in this realm.
As the society crossed into the new millennium, it began to make annual grants to worthy non-profit American organizations which shared the society’s goals. Grants have usually been made to Celtic cultural heritage organizations and applications are vetted by the Chancellor. In 2011 grants were given to the Northern Arizona Celtic Heritage Society and the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center in Wisconsin. In 2012 the Celtic Heritage Society of Florida won a grant to help run its annual Celtic Festival, which was attended by three NSC members. The annual grants are administered through a non-profit organization, The Principality of Tomania, Inc., an approved U.S. charitable society.
In 2012 the officers decided that from time to time awards might be given to members who had significantly furthered the aims of the society. Accordingly the Honor of the Golden Torc was developed in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the NSC. It is granted by the Honorary Chieftain on the recommendation of the Chancery. A gold branch award had been given in 1994 and it was folded into the new Golden Torc award. As it stands, three levels of the Golden Torc exist, gold branch, silver branch and bronze branch. Torc awards are nominated by a committee of not more than 5 members and shall include either or both the Ard-Filea and the Ard-Seanacha and at least 1 voting member of the Executive Committee.
Today, the Noble Society of Celts is proud to remain a private, unincorporated society with members in the United States, England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Spain and Italy. The seat of the society lies in Lorba Linda, California and the Chancery lies in Brooksville, Florida. Our newsletter, The Awen, has evolved into a web-based format that allows for more efficient distribution. It regularly showcases Celtic themes and the current editor specializes in selecting brilliantly-colored illustrations. Recent issues have contained articles pertaining to heraldry, combat soldiers and sailors, history, linguistics, genealogy, religion and sports. One may also find songs and recipes among its brightly-hued pages. We members use The Awen to explore and share common interests in Celtic heritage, history and culture and we intend to do so long into the future.
Current officers, members and an archive of AWEN issues are available on the official site.