Jim's Irish Genealogy Pages:

The Kearney Clans

There are at least four separate Kearney families in Ireland, and at least two separate Irish roots for the name.

Irish family names are almost always derived from an ancestor's personal name, usually with the prefix "Mac" (meaning "son of") or "O" (meaning "grandson of") attached. This naming system reflects the centrality of kinship groups in ancient Ireland, where the family you belonged to (more accurately, which tribe or clan) was considered more important than, say, what an individual did (as in English surnames like "Carpenter") or what he looked like (as in "Brown").

At least two different personal names were anglicized 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 popularized by the legendary hero Conall Cearnach, or "Conall of the Victories," one of Ulster’s greatest warriors). Translated into English, these names took on several forms besides Kearney, including Carney, Cairney, Keherny and Caherney. (Difficult-looking Irish names usually sound a lot like their anglicized versions. "Ui Cearnaigh" was pronounced "O’Carney," more or less; "Catharnaigh" perhaps sounds a bit more like Keherny.)

More than one Cearnach lent his name to an Irish family. One group of Ui 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 Finn MacCool. The Dalcassian Kearneys "migrated to Cashel in early times," according to MacLysaght's Irish Families; Cashel, meaning "stone fort," is a town in Tipperary; these Kearneys are still most prominent in Tipperary and Clare.

Another Ui Cearnaigh family is counted with the Ui Fiachrach, the grouping of clans that trace their origins back to a 5th Century chieftain named Fiachra. This clan of O'Kearneys was prominent in County Mayo, in the west of Ireland, and were considered closely related to the Quigleys (Ui Coigligh). More often than other Kearneys, this family spells their name "Carney."

Patrick Woulfe, in his Irish Names and Surnames, mentions another Ui Cearnaigh clan based in Donegal, described as "an ecclesiastical family who where formerly erenaghs of Derry." (An erenagh is a custodian of 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--see below.

There is also a MacCearnaigh (McCarney or McKearney) family, a comparatively young side-branch of the O’Hanlon family, an Ulster clan based in County Armagh.


The O'Catharnaigh family traces their ancestry back to the earlier mentioned Niall of the Nine Hostages, high king of Ireland from about 379 to 405 AD (and Fiachra's half-brother)--the progenitor of the powerful Ui Neill, or O’Neill, tribe. Niall's son Maine was claimed as the ancestor of a group of families known as the Fir Teathbha, or Men of Teffia--the territory said to have been claimed by Maine, consisting of the western portion of Co. Westmeath between Lough Ree and Lough Ennell, and possibly including parts of Co. Offaly and Co. Longford as well. In addition to the O'Catharnaighs, the Fir Teathbha included the Daleys, the Brennans, the MacAwleys and the MacCarons; but it was apparently the Catharnaighs that were considered the chiefs of Teffia.

The head of the Ui Catharnaigh clan was called Sionach, "The Fox." (The word is related to "shenanigans," which derives from the Irish for "fox tricks.") This tradition dates back at least to 1084, when the chieftain of the clan was Teig Sheannagh O'Caharnie--that is, Teague "The Fox" O'Kearney. Teague made it into the Irish annals for being murdered by the O'Melaghlin clan--an event that was preceded and followed by Fir Teathbha attacks on O'Melaghlins. But it seems unlikely that Teig was the first O'Catharnaigh to be called Fox, since in 1051 the O'Catharnaighs were already being referred to as the Sinnacha--the Foxes--when they repeatedly raided the great religious center at Clanmacnoise.

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 built a castle at Durrow Abbey, a stepson of the current O'Catharnaigh chieftain came up behind him and beheaded him with an ax--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.

Since the O'Catharnaighs in those days seemed to be adept at raids and vendetta killings--not uncommon occupations in Ireland at the time--it might be assumed that their leaders were known as "the Fox" for their combat tactics, in the way that later clever soldiers would be nicknamed "the Swamp Fox" or "the Desert Fox." But it's also said that red hair runs in the O'Catharnaigh family, and that may have also added to the appropriateness of the appelation.

The O'Catharnaighs seem to have reached the height of their power in the 12th Century; over the years interclan warfare, encroachments from English settlers in the Pale and a devastating plague in 1393 took their toll, weakening and dispersing the family. Some made alliance with the British occupation, resulting in part of the clan being granted the barony of Kilcourcy in Co. Offaly by Queen Elizabeth I.

The ruling line of the O'Catharnaighs eventually took on the name Sionach as a surname; their descendants are now known as Fox, Shinnock, Shunick, Shunny, etc. (Irish Families, p. 151). Other O'Catharnaighs translated their surname as Keherny or Caherney, anglicizations that come closer to capturing the Irish pronunciation of Catharnaigh.

Woulfe suggests that there are other Catharnaigh families, either Mac or Ui; one based in West Cork, and the other in Roscommon, where they were "chiefs of Ciarraighe, in the barony of Castlerea." These may be be families that split off from the Catharnaighs of Teffia.

Next: The Kearneys of Shercock.

This page was created by James Kearney Naureckas. Please email him with any corrections, suggestions or questions.