Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Crossing Paths

Got red eyebrows?

Tracing the historic meaning of the surname Flannery returns us along paths we’ve already traveled. While there are two possible Gaelic roots for the anglicized surname form Flannery, it is one in particular that leads us back to some of the Irish countryside through which we’ve already passed while examining the roots of the other surnames in my husband’s ancestry.

The surname Flannery, as did many other surnames, originated as a given name—in this case, possibly a nickname. It came from a root word, Flann, which means red.

Does this begin to sound familiar? We’ve already seen this word surface in the root of another family name—Flanagan—but in the case of Flannery, there is more to the story. The rest of the name—at least the “abhra” from its original Gaelic form, Ó Flannabhra—means “eyebrow.” Put it together and what have you got? “Red eyebrows.”

There are some who surmise that the original bearer of the moniker was likely a Viking. Sounds like a little bit of racial profiling to me. The Flannery clan website presents a well-crafted explanation of how the various forms of the surname evolved over the centuries, and how the families migrated. A map of mid-nineteenth century geographic distribution of the surname (from The Irish Times) bears that out visually. Note how densely the County Tipperary region is marked in representing Flannerys—the same county from which our own Flannery family emigrated.

In another path-crossing instance, it was interesting to note that at least one website mentioned the southern branch of the clan moving to the “barony of Connelloe in County Limerick” as well as into County Tipperary. Again, the Flanagan line intertwines: the Catholic parish Ballyagran, from which William Flanagan emigrated, was considered to be part of the barony of Upper Connello.

As I wandered through the various online resources, gleaning tidbits about the origin of the surname Flannery, it was interesting to see the thorough explanation of the Irish extended family structure. Whether you are seeking Flannery roots or not, it is a helpful read. Describing the “successive waves of tribes” colonizing the island, the article explains the development of the societal and political units. Building from the basic tribe occupying the geographical area known as a “tuath,” to the establishment of clans with their chieftains, to the succession of “minor kings” over “petty kingdoms,” the Irish created a system which ultimately had, by the time of the Middle Ages, up to one hundred fifty “tuatha.”

Once you understand the possibility of as many as one hundred fifty “kingdoms” on that one island, your eyes are opened to the oft-read explanations of so many Irish surnames claiming descent from a king. As the Flannery Clan website put it, “It is for this reason that most Irish families can rightly claim to be descended from an old Irish king.”

Ah. Now I see.

Another trivia tidbit bestowed upon the diligent Flannery researcher might be the explanation of the typical Irish surname prefixes, “Ó” and “Mac.” While the Flannery Clan website is not the only resource for the explanation—“Mac” designates son of or first generation descent while “Ó” represents grandson or other descendants of the second generation or later—it did provide one additional note. For the “Ó,” which generally fell into disuse during the nineteenth century, the accent was gradually modified. You’ve no doubt seen it as an apostrophe instead of an accent, such as in “O’Flannery,” the original clan name.

The accent—originally called a fada by the Irish, signifying a lengthened vowel sound—was gradually moved from its original position over the “O” to a spot just beyond the “O.” It was a change made by early scribes, and it was done for aesthetic reasons. Apparently, the “closely spaced lines of manuscript” were cramping their style.

While it will be unlikely that I’ll find the specific individual responsible for connecting my husband with centuries of the dynasty from which the Flannery family emerged, it was interesting to peruse the details of old kings and their genealogy, based on ancient Irish literature. Stretching to the far reaches of legend, such works tell of kings and warriors from as long ago as the second century, A.D. And, wouldn’t you know it, once again I’d find a connection: the Uí Fidgenti (or Uí Fidhghente) found during my research of the Flanagan surname. Related? Cousins? I can’t even conceive of having to count how many times removed these “cousins” might have been.

No wonder, in researching the history of each of these Irish surnames, I kept reading such descriptive labels as “legendary.” When a people is able to reach back through millennia, in tracing their family history, the genealogical connections these people can claim to their historic roots may very well be so: legendary.

 Above: "Battle of Clontarf," 1826 oil on canvas by Irish artist Hugh Frazer; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Well, you encouraged me to try so I took a leap across the pond to see if I could trace my dad's mother's family. I used the valuation and it appears they all came from County Antrim and one locality in general. My great-great-grandfather was born in 1851 and it appears he came over here in 1873 (according to 2 censuses - 1 says 1863). He married a Philadelphia, PA woman after 1873 -

    Funny thing, all the names I found from "over there" were used in this man's family over here. I've no idea how to separate them out - but will keep researching. :)

    1. Oh, that's wonderful to hear, Iggy! Glad you took the leap!

      One thing that may be happening with all those names is the naming pattern adhered to by many Irish--and Scottish as well. It can become quite trying to discern which of several like-named offspring belong to which set of parents--especially when some of those cousins were all born around the same time!

  2. So far I am not even tempted...but I will enjoy your journey:)

    1. Now, yours would be an interesting leap of faith! And would come complete with the challenge of another language. But think of all the heritage that would come with the exploration. I think it gives a sense of explanation for all the things that families "just did." The origins of traditions.


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