Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland, a book review

Posted by on Feb 24, 2012 in Genealogy Research | 0 comments

Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland

Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland

In this post, I offer a brief review of the book Clans and Families of Ireland and Scotland by C. Thomas Cairney, Ph.D. This volume is available for order at Amazon, and I assume other resellers. The book is subtitled, An Ethnography of the Gael A.D. 500-1750. You can also find it in its entirety online at Electric Scotland. The author has a family web site and may be contacted here.

I’m not sure how I first heard about this excellent book. It may have been at the Electric Scotland site at the link I posted in the previous paragraph. In any case, I quickly acquired my own copy; and I never cease looking up the surname of any friend or neighbor with an Irish or Scottish background. First, the book has a 25-page appendix of surnames with categories as to origin, and a 5-page index of surnames referenced throughout the volume. There are larger volumes of Scottish or Irish names; e.g., George F. Black’s The Surnames of Scotland, an 838-page compendium of virtually every name ever recorded in Scotland. However, where Black aims to be historically and linguistically accurate, including detailed references to the usage of a name in known records, Cairney’s method is almost “bardic”. He tells the tales about the history of the name. This is, to my way of thinking, what makes Cairney’s volume such an interesting read.

At some hard to establish point, Cairney’s family histories move off into family mythologies, and become entwined with the ancient folklore of Ireland and Scotland. For example, the chapter on the Érainn traces this ethnic group back to Óengus Bolg, the god of lightning, at least in a chart of tribal relationships. While this may be true within the context of Irish folklore, and while there may have been a historical Óengus Bolg who was later elevated to legendary proportions, the interpretation of the chart is left to the reader.

Part One of the book reviews the history of the Isles before the coming of the Gaels, Gaelic society and culture, and the Pictish society in Scotland before 500AD. Part Two reviews the ethnic backgrounds of five specific waves of invaders, with details as to their tribes or families and their more modern histories. These five waves include the Cruithne, Érainn, Laigin, Gaels, and the Vikings & Normans. As in the case of the Érainn, each of these ethnic groups is traced back to some mythic “god-made-flesh”. These are, in order, Conall Cearnach (male form of Brigid, mother-goddess), Óengus Bolg (god of lightning), Labraíd Loíngsech (king of the underworld), Conn Cétchathach (sun god), and Nerthus (mother-goddess of the Vikings and Norse).

For each of these waves, specific tribes and families are enumerated. The complete details are far too extensive to repeat here, but allow me to continue with the example of the Érainn. Among the tribes of the Érainn are the Clann Choinlgeagain or MacGilfoyles, chiefs around Shinrone. Also are the Conmhaicne Rein, of which the families are the MacRannalls, O’Cornyns, O’Farrells, O’Moledys, and O’Quins. Next come the Corca Dhuibhne with the families of the O’Connells and O’Sheas. The Corca Laoighdhe of County Cork include the O’Coffey, O’Dinneen, O’Driscoll, O’Flynn, O’Hea, O’Hennessy and O’Leary. The Corca Modhruadh were from County Clare and included as chief families the O’Connors, MacCurtins, O’Loghlans, O’Davorens and the Corca Thine or O’Cahills. The Dal Cairbre Arad were of Tipperary and Limerick and included the family, O’Dwyers. The Dal gCais from around County Clare include the O’Briens, MacConsidines, MacDonnells, MacLysaghts, MacMahons, O’Ahernes, O’Kennedys, O’Shanahans, O’Duracks, MacGraths, O’Fogartys, O’Galvins, O’Gradys, O’Hanrahans, O’Hickeys, O’Mearas, O’Molonys, O’Moroneys, O’Hartagans, O’Lonergans, Creaghs, O’Quins, MacNamaras, MacInerneys, O’Deas and O’Griffeys. The Deisi of around Waterford had as chief family the O’Phelans. The Partraige were from west of Connacht and their prime family is the O’Malleys. The Uaithni of County Galway have as lead family the O’Heffernans. The Ui Bairrche of South Wexford originally include the families of the O’Tracys and the MacGormans. The Ui Fidhgheinte from around Limerick originally include the O’Cullanes, O’Kinneallys, the O’Donavans and the MacEnerys. The Ulaid gave their name to Ulster. This group comprised three subgroups, the Dal bhFiatach of County Down, the Ui Duach and the Dal Riada. The Dal bhFiatach comprise the MacDonlevys, MacNultys, and MacNallys. The Dal Riada of Antrim moved to western Scotland between 300-500 A.D. to become the Dal Riada Scots, living in Argyll, meaning “coastland of the Gaels”. In Antrim, the primary family were O’Quins. In Argyll, the kindreds were the Cineal Loairn and the Cineal nGabrain. The families of the Cineal Loairn are the Campbells, MacGillivrays, MacInnesses, MacLeans, MacNaughtens, MacNabs, Clan Chattan (MacPherson, Davidson, MacBean/MacBain, Cattanach, MacKintosh, MacGillivray, MacIntyre, MacLean, MacQueen, MacAndrew, Farquharson), Camerons, MacGillonies, MacMartins, and MacSorleys. The Cineal nGabrain include the Fergusons, MacKerseys, MacFies, MacGregors, MacKinnons, and MacQuarries. The Osraighe include the Ui Duach and the MacGilpatricks of which the main families are the O’Brennans, and MacGilpatricks aka Fitzpatricks.

Now, even this précis of the chapter contains a long list of family names including, possibly, my own (MacInnes aka MacAngus aka Angus). Bringing all of these names back to original tribes within a common ethnic group is more than fascinating. By binding the mythology of the clan chiefs to a god-like founding father, Óengus Bolg, Cairney draws another connection in common across all of the Gaelic clans and families. This is perhaps the most valuable point in the entire book. Until the destruction of the clan system after the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the Gaelic tribes of Ireland and Scotland were largely an agrarian-pastoral economy. The cow was the unit of barter. Beginning in 1641, there was an uprising in Ireland, and civil wars in Scotland and England. that lead to the execution of Charles I and the exile of his son Charles II. These conflicts pitted monarchists and landed aristocrats and Catholics, on the one hand, against Protestants, Republicans, and a new monied class on the other. While the Gaels in Scotland and Ireland originally opposed Charles I, many of them subsequently allied themselves with the restoration of the Jacobite Kings in 1715 and 1745. After abuses during the English Republic under Cromwell, Charles II was restored in 1660. Charles was a Catholic and was succeeded by his Catholic son, James II, in 1685. By this time, the mood in England and shifted toward the new monied economy and against another Catholic king. William and Mary were invited in as Protestant monarchs, and James II was the last Catholic king of England. With the assistance of France, James II attempted to regain the throne in 1689 and again in 1715. The movement to bring James II and his heirs back to the throne of England became known as Jacobitism. James’ II famous son, Bonny Prince Charlie, attempted to regain the throne again in 1745. Many of the highland clans joined with Prince Charlie in the rebellion with an “epic fail” as the result.

The period from 1650 to 1715 was an amazing time. It was just after the Age of Discovery. New lands were known to the European powers, and they were being exploited. Sea faring powers were now less interested in journeys of exploration as they were in journeys of exploitation. These journeys, from London to Djakarta to Jamestown to Johannesburg, couldn’t be financed with cattle. New means of finance, including modern financial derivatives, were being created. While it would take me too far afield to even scratch the surface here, allow me to also recommend the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson to anyone interested in exploring these times through the historical novel. The sequence of books spans the period from the Restoration just up to the first Jacobite Rising.

However, Cairney does not associate the destruction of Gaelic heroic culture with the defeat of the Jacobite cause at Culloden in 1746. Cairney draws a parallel between this Gaelic heroic culture, the association of Gaelic tribal leaders with god-like ancestors, and the Jacobite-Cavalier model of the divine right of kings. Instead, Cairney proposes that 1746 is just a mid-point in the destruction of Gaelic culture, the ultimate overthrow of which was economic; it was the replacement of an agrarian barter economy by a money-based economy centered in the English midlands. Cairney looks to the US Civil War 1861-5 as the final conflict. He observes that Robert E. Lee was the son of ‘Henry Light Horse Harry’ Lee, himself a “fourth-generation scion of a Cavalier family”, and that the Carolinas received the bulk of Highland emigration after 1745 (at least south of Canada). In the US Civil War, the agrarian economy and Cavalier culture of the south was pitted against the industrial economy and Protestant culture of the north with the known outcome. On the one hand, these ancient Gaelic values are among the best of the culture of Ireland and Scotland. On the other hand, to the extent that they were allied with protectionism for a doomed economic and political system (local agrarian barter and the divine right of kings), they were bound to be lost in the mêlée.

Cairney associates this traditional Gaelic hero culture with tales like Y Gododdin and Beowulf. These heroes are at once great men-at-arms, educated, bilingual, mystical, artistic, romantic, gifted with magical weapons. Of course, this is but mythology, but a powerful mythology; but one that fails to pass away. We see it again in things as diverse as the film version of Beowulf and in the values-based political platforms of politicians such as Rick Santorum. It appears in the roles of Liam Neeson as Rob Roy MacGregor and Mel Gibson as Robert the Bruce. These gentlemen have Scottish/Irish backgrounds. We see it again in the character of Jamie Fraser in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Series, another set of historical novels set around the time of the second Jacobite rising, if with some romantic and artificial plot twists.

So, I believe that there is much more here in Cairney’s book than might superficially meet the eye. There is more to this slim volume than just the genealogy of Gaelic surnames from Ireland and Scotland. There is a companion analysis of the place of the Irish and Scots in history, not just in Great Britain, but also in the US and Canada. At a paperback price of about $20, Cairney’s volume is well worth the price of admission in my opinion.

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