A Letter from Ireland:

Do You Have This Problem Locating your Irish Surname?


Have you ever had problems locating your Irish surname in Ireland? Sometimes it’s down to the fact that some surnames can come from a number of separate locations in Ireland – as it was when we received this letter from one of our readers.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome once again to your very own Letter from Ireland. Autumn is slipping in and the morning and evenings are getting cooler this week.

I hope the weather, and life, is treating you well today wherever you may be in the world. No worries though, I have warming cup of Lyon’s tea on the go here, and I do hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter.

Just this week I have had the following question asked a number of times: “Where in Ireland does my x surname come from?”. It’s a fundamental question for many of us – after all, we all like a sense of place in our lives. So, I thought it would be useful to share the following letter that I received some time ago – and my own thoughts in the reply. Maybe you have a similar situation?

What is Your Family Name Comes from a Lot of Places in Ireland?

Do you know where your family name comes from in Ireland? We all like a bit of certainty, don’t we? There are many Irish names that come from very specific parts of Ireland, and even today you will find those names in great quantity only in those parts of the country.

On the other hand, names like Murphy, O’Neill, McMahon, O’Carroll, Kennedy and so on  – are found in a number of places in Ireland, all distinct from one another. This can make it a little tricky when you need to use a surname alone to trace back to the likely county, and place of departure, for your ancestor.

And so it is with Sandy Laferriere. @Sandy Laferriere, one of our members, contacted me with the following a few weeks back:

“I have wondered about my Irish Heritage for years. My Mum never wanted to talk about it much. In her childhood, there was no one to tell her all the wonderful stories of beautiful Ireland, the people and of her grandparents. Her great grandparents came from Londonderry in 1853 to St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. Their names were Thomas and Elizabeth (Reid) Kennedy. They came with 7 children, the youngest was just 9 months old, Alexander.

How I wish I knew more of their life and story in Ireland.  Twice I have been to Ireland. I felt I had somehow returned home. Maybe one day I can go back and have time to find the spot my great great Grandparents were born, where they played as children, grew up, and married. Maybe I can find some cousins!”

Sandy Laferriere.

Well, Sandy – Kennedy is one of those names I mentioned earlier. It can come from a number of places in Ireland – but what about YOUR Kennedys?

A Popular Nickname in It’s Day.

The surname Kennedy is the anglicised form of the Irish name “Ó Cinnéide” which is based on a nickname that loosely translates as “fierce head”. It was probably a desirable nickname to have on the field of battle. This nickname seems to have been not only popular across much of Ireland, but many parts of Gaelic-speaking Scotland as well.

One holder of the nickname was a member of the Dál gCáis tribe that came out of what is now modern County Clare in the 800s. His descendants decided to adopt his name “descendants of old Fierce head”, or “Ó Cinnéide”, when they chose a collective surname.

This group later became known as the Kennedys, and mostly settled in a portion of north Tipperary for hundreds of years. One branch of the family headed off to County Wexford, the homeland of John F. Kennedy’s family many hundreds of years later.

Meanwhile, there was another “fierce-headed one” up on the east side of the Inishowen peninsula in County Donegal, and his descendants decided to adopt his nickname as a surname. Those Kennedys ruled on the east side of that peninsula under the O’Doherty chieftains – just above where the city of Derry/Londonderry lies today. As well as that group, there were separate Kennedy clans in both County Wicklow and County Galway.

An Inishowen Cottage

Finally, the name “Cinnéide” was also made immortal in the Galloway area of Scotland around the same time by yet another family group. This group of Scottish Kennedys became an officially recognised Scottish clan – and it is believed that they originated in Ireland, but I’m not sure of the evidence for that.

So, you can see that when you ask “where in Ireland does my surname come from?” the answer can often be: “it depends”!

Sometimes, It’s All About Religion. 

So, what about Sandy and her ancestor? Well, with the surname Kennedy – it’s always possible that her ancestors came from Tipperary originally – but this is unlikely as they emigrated from the other side of the country. I then asked Sandy about their religion on immigration. They were most likely Presbyterian as it turned out.

If the answer was Roman Catholic, there would have been a strong possibility that her family were from the local Gaelic Kennedy Clan of the Inishowen peninsula. But as she gave their religion as Presbyterian, they were most likely the Scottish Kennedys who arrived in Ireland in great numbers from the 1600s onwards.

It’s possible that the families of Thomas Kennedy and Elizabeth Reid lived in Ulster for hundreds of years by the time they emigrated to Canada. But, I guess we’re going to have to do a little more digging to find out more on that one.

So, a big thank you to Sandy for sharing the origins of her ancestors today – and we do look forward to getting updates as she uncovers more about the O’Kennedy Clan of Ireland, and one Kennedy family in particular.

How about you? Do you have a surname that is hard to pin down to a particular part of Ireland? Do leave a comment or question below and let us know

Slán for now,
Mike and Carina.

  • Cindy says:

    Askins. I found my emigrating ancestor, George from Donegal. But that is about the only Askins I ever dig up.

  • Susan Graddy (Lawler) says:

    Lawler, my paternal grandfather came from Tipperary, any further information would be much appreciated.

  • Julie Vanwey-Kim says:

    I’m still trying to figure out where in Ireland my great grandfather came from. His last name was Lyng.

  • Jeff Butler says:

    Archbold/Aspel because of the lost of records for Camolin area 1840. Edward has three children between 1833-38 in Ballintim but there is no other records of him .Can please give me the spread of that surname around Wexford and beyond

  • doreen denny says:

    Can someone please help, I have a name of William McKone he was my grt, grand father five over he was married to a Jane, they came over from Ireland ?? settled in London, there first child was born 21/12/1797 name of Mary born in the lying in hospital, Holborn, I just do not know where to go first for further information
    Many thanks Doreen Denny

  • Gail says:

    I’m looking for surnames Melloy, Waldron, Devery, leonard, Beirne/byrne, McGuirk . These are grand, gr grandparents.
    They never seem to be listed. Family came from county Roscommon.
    I can join Green room if you recognize any of these.
    Thank you

  • Kath says:

    I am looking for any info on the O’Tooles from the Leinster area who may have arrived in Liverpool during The Famine. If you are able to help that would be great -my great grandparents were thought to have settled in the Anfield Area and used the surname Toole for as long as we can all remember.

  • Dia dhuit! I am trying to locate my Irish family. I have more information that I really cannot verify, so I do question some of it. My 3rd great-grandfather was named James Porterfield and he was (supposedly) born in a location called “Doon” in County Donegal. He was born in 1784, in Doon, Donegal, Ireland. But his family migrated (I believe that is what they would call it back then?) to Glasgow at some point, I do not know. But he married a lass on 21 Jul 1815, in Barony, Lanarkshire, Scotland. Most of their children were born then in Glasgow, but between 1828 and 1830, they immigrated (migrated?) to Canada, and lived in Perth, Lanark, Ontario, Canada. He was already deceased when the 1851 census was taken in Ontario. His widow, Elizabeth, was still living, and a couple of his sons were living with her, working their farm. My second great-grandfather was named Charles Porterfield and was born in 1818 in Glasgow.

    I did look through a couple of indices where I found the name Porterfield, but I have no real means of connecting these individuals with my family line. The one that gives me the most hope and promise, I believe, is the 1796 Spinning Wheel list/Flax Growers Bounty. I found three very promising names: Charles, James, and John Porterfield, all of Dún na nGall. The reason I suspect one of these three names is because my 3rd great-grandfather named his oldest son John, his second son (my 2nd great-grandfather) was Charles, and a younger son was named James. I find it reasonable to assume these could be family names. The other reason I am inclined to put hope into this list is that someone has listed my 3rd great-grandfather as being the “son of the Calton weavers”. That would make sense out of being Flax growers. (Do you know why someone would say that the Calton weavers were the “father” of my ancestor?) Were they actually sold (like slaves) into forced labor to the community of handweavers in Calton? And, Calton is also in Lanarkshire. This would make me very sad, though. I hope it isn’t something like that.

    My first hurdle will be perhaps simpler for others to understand than I, that is the difference between a civil parish, Barony, and a Union. The next largest governing body listed is the county, which I do understand. I ran out of time the day I began this and am going to need to do some back-work to get my mind working in the right way. But, I found the civil parish for all three gentlemen. Charles lived in Clonleigh, James lived in Donaghmore, and John lived in Taughboyne (could this also be written “Taughboy”?). Similarly, I found the Barony for Charles, being Raphoe North, and for James being Raphoe South, and John being Donaghmore.

    Then, my second problem, is I cannot find anything by the name of Doon in Donegal, except a few historic or natural sites: Doon Well,
    Doon Lough, Doon Fort, and the Doon Mass rock.

    The last thing I found was a scanned copy of the “Appendix to Second Report from the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry.” It lists a James Porterfield teaching in Donegal, Taughboyne (Parish/)Barony, Raphoe Diocese, and a place name of Momeen. That all seems to parallel the information for the individual above listed as a flax grower named James Porterfield.

    So, my questions (to make this long story shorter – I apologize for this lengthy dissertation) Can you direct me to a reference source that may list births and baptisms in the late 18th century? Also, place names; is Doon perhaps a village that has disappeared, that was maybe named for the ancient/older geographic places still containing “Doon”? I feel fairly comfortable with the idea that one of those three names, being family names, could be the father of my Ggg-grandfather James Porterfield, who would have been quite young when the Weavers/Flax growers list was compiled, and then was either named for his father or conversely, named one of his sons after his father. And (believe it or not), there was a fourth person, Morrah Porterfield, of Taughboyne Barony and Diocese of Donaghmore. But, that is not a name I’ve seen or heard of before.

    Thank you very much in advance, and I am joining the Green Room right away after I send this (long) message!

  • lisa harper says:

    yes i do last name michael and my gramas on my moms side her name was grace from lisa

  • Lucy says:

    Have searched……..for the Jackson and the Gamble surnames. They lived in County Down until they immigrated to Canada 1870’s. I have searched for any family members who may have remained in Ireland.

  • Jacqueline says:

    My Irish family name is Brennan. My granny came from Drogheda.

  • Janet Denning Hertzog says:

    Many of my Denning ancestors came to America from Ireland, yet I never see the Denning name on surname maps. I have been told they were from county Cork. When I got my Ancestry results, It said I was 36% Irish and 26% Scandinavian (my two highest percentages). It included an informational page on Viking history, but didn’t say I was of Viking decent. So, I would like to know more about the Denning name and if there is a Viking connection. Thank you for any help you may offer.

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