The Name Kearney

A notable name of various origins

There are few names, if any, in the annals of Irish history more renowned than the name of Kearney. There are at least four separate Kearney families in Ireland, and at least two separate Irish roots for the name. Of the two different personal names anglicised as “Kearney,” one is Cearnach, meaning “victorious,” and the other is Caithearnach or Catharnaigh, meaning “warlike” (sometimes also translated as “foot-soldier”). Cearnach was a fairly common Irish name in the early Middle Ages (perhaps popularised by the legendary hero Conall Cearnach, or “Conal of the Victories,” one of Ulster’s greatest warriors).

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The name Kearney is evenly distributed throughout the four provinces of Ireland; the alternative spelling Carney, however, is almost confined to Connacht, particularly Co. Mayo. The latter are Ó Cearnaigh in Irish, and are a branch of the Uí Fiachrach, a grouping of clans that trace their origins back to a 5th century chieftain called Fiachra. This clan of O’Kearneys was prominent in Mayo, in the west of Ireland, and were considered closely related to the Quigleys (Uí Coigligh).

One group of Uí Cearnaighs, associated with the South of Ireland, takes its name from a Cearnach who was a 5th-great-grandson of a prolific Munster chieftain named Cas. This makes these Kearneys part of the Dalcassians, an alliance of clans mainly notable for producing Brian Boru and the O’Brien family. The Dalcassians claim a number of illustrious (and probably legendary ) ancestors, including Conn of the Hundred Battles and Fionn MacCool. The Dalcassian O’Kearneys, who migrated to Cashel in early times, are also Ó Cearnaigh. Nicholas O’Kearney, who died in 1460, held a number of extensive estates, and his tomb is to be found in the Rock of Cashel.

Michael Kearney, who was born more than a century later, in 1588, is described as the ‘Chieftain of Fethard,’ in Co. Tipperary. His eldest son, Philip, who died in 1657, was Clerk of the Supreme Council of Confederated Catholics at Kilkenny, while his seventh son was father of John Kearney, Secretary of State to James 11, whom he accompanied to France. King James, a few months before the Battle of the Boyne, appointed Patrick Kearney to the office of “Comptroller of the Pipe and Second Engrosser of the Great Roll of the Exchequer of Ireland.”

The most important Kearney sept in history are of different origin. In Irish their name is Ó Catharnaigh. They trace their ancestry back to Niall of the Nine Hostages, high king of Ireland from about 379 to 405 A.D. They were chiefs of Teffia, Co. Meath, and even when their influence diminished they retained a considerable territory in Co. Offaly. The Meath Kearneys are usually known as Fox, the head of the family being styled ‘The Fox.’ Tadhg Ó Catharnaigh, 11th century chief of the family who died in 1084, was known as ‘Sionnach’, a Sobriquet which was translated as ‘The Fox’ – hence the use of the surname Fox by many people of Kearney descent.

Probably the most significant historical event connected with the O’Catharnaighs was the assassination of Hugh de Lacy, who led the 1171 English invasion of Ireland on behalf of King Henry II. In 1186, when de Lacy was built a castle at Durrow Abbey, a stepson of the current O’Catharnaigh chieftain came up behind him and beheaded him with an axe – providing a major setback to the English conquest. The chieftain was supposedly outraged that de Lacy was desecrating Durrow, which had been founded by St. Columba, the fact that de Lacy was building castles within O’catharnaigh territory no doubt contributed to his righteous anger.

Other branches of the family have been noted near Kinsale, near Cork, and in the baronies of Tulla and Bunratty, County Clare.

In North Ulster it is generally derived from the surname Mac Cearnaigh, which was held by a branch of the O’Neills. There is yet another Ui Cearnaigh clan based in Donegal, described as “an ecclesiastical family who were former erenaghs of Derry.” (An Erenagh is a custodian og church lands.) These Ui Cearnaighs were said to be related to the O’Hagan family, and to trace their ancestry back to Fergus, son of King Niall. In 1198, Giollo Criost O’Cearney was elected Abbot of Derry-Columb-kille, ‘by the chiefs and clergy of the North of Ireland.’ He was afterwards appointed Bishop of Connor, to which see James O’Kerny was appointed Bishop in 1324.

Quite a number of alternative forms are used in English besides Carney, including Keherney, Ó Caherney, and (in Co. Cavan) McCarney.

Seven notable ecclesiastics called Kearney lived and worked in Ireland, of whom Rev. Barnabas Kearney S.J. (1578 – 1640), David Kearney, Archbishop of Cashel from 1603 – 1625, and the Protestant Rev. John Kearney (1542 – 1600), author of a catechism in the Irish language, may be specifically mentioned.

The name is best known in modern times through Paedar Kearney (1883 – 1942), the Dublin man who wrote the words of ‘A Soldier’s Song’, the Irish National Anthem. Other popular songs that he wrote included ‘The Tri-Coloured Ribbon’ and ‘Down by the Glenside.’ He joined the Gaelic League in 1901, became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1903 and fought in the Rising of 1916 at Jacob’s Factory. Arrested in 1920, he was jailed for 12 months. He was associated with the Abbey Theatre and was an uncle of Brendan Behan.

The Kearneys were among the earliest settlers in America, the first being Michael, who emigrated from Ireland before 1669. His son, Michael, was a New York prominent merchant, who later settled in New Jersey. Descendants of Michael are living in New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and other sections of the Country. There is a city called Kearney in Ontario, Canada, another in Missouri and another in Nebraska, both in the U.S.A.

Down the years many Kearneys have settled nearer home, in Great Britain. Research today shows that 11,302 people share the surname Kearney. This surname is the 871st most common name in Great Britain. The name Kearney is found most frequently in Dumfries and Galloway (13th surname), Derbyshire (17th surname), Berkshire (31st surname), Glasgow City (139th surname) and Lancashire 9358th surname.)

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