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.

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Do You Have This Problem Locating your Irish Surname?

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 if 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, 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 Is 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.

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