Kernan Family Origins

The origin of the Kernan family is on one level quite straightforward and on another very elusive, a fact resulting from both oral family history and available historical records for the family. Both of these sources are quite clear regarding the ancestral country of origins for the family. However, little else is clear, particularly the specific county and city or village they came from. What is presently known about the origins of the Kernan family from oral family history and historical records will be discussed in the following, as well as what can be known from general sources like demographic studies, surname studies, Irish historical records, and genetic studies.

Oral History & Historical Records

Although there are some discrepancies between them, oral family history and available historical records for the Kernan family are clear on the origins of the family. According to both of these sources, the Kernan family traces back to Ireland.

Oral family history on the subject of the origin of the Kernan family has been consistent over time. Although it was never much of a tradition to talk about such things, when the subject was ever brought up, it was always quite clear that the Kernan family came from Ireland. Additionally, it is clear from family documents that such a narrative about the family’s origin has been repeated across generations. The Bible of Delmar Clair Kernan (1908-1979), the father of my paternal grandfather, provides genealogical details about his father and grandfather based on what he had been told, and it clearly identifies Ireland as the ancestral origin of the family.

Historical records for the Kernan family are equally clear on the subject of the origin of the family. Research into available historical records clearly state that the family is of Irish origins. The earliest historical records for the family that are relevant to the issue of origins are the Canadian birth and baptismal records for Owen Francis Kiernan (1836-1901), my grandfather’s great grandfather, and two of his siblings. Owen’s 1836 birth and baptismal record states his father, Felix Kiernan (ca. 1796-1882), was a “natif de Irlande,” which is French for “native of Ireland.” The birth and baptismal records for two of Owen’s siblings, one dated in 1834 and another in 1839, both note “Irlandais” (Irish or Irishman in French) when refering to their father, Felix.

Another early historical record for the family that is relevant to the issue of origins is the 1851 Canadian Census. According to this record the family was living in Sainte-Monique, Quebec, Canada at the time, and the oldest members of the family are recorded as having been born in Ireland, with the younger ones having been born in Canada.

1851 Canadian Census showing the oldest members of the family as having been born in Ireland.
The 1851 Canadian Census showing the oldest members of the Kernan family as having been born in Ireland and others having been born in Canada.

Similar details about the origins of the family can be found on the earliest available historical record for the family in the United States, which is the 1857 Minnesota State Census. According to this record the family was living in Bismarck, Sibley County, Minnesota, and again the oldest members of the family are enumerated as having been born in Ireland. Several other historical records for the family also identify Ireland as the ancestral origins of the Kernan family. The 1860 U.S. Federal Census shows the family living in Dryden, Sibley County, Minnesota; and as with the 1851 Canadian Census and the 1857 Minnesota Census it states that the oldest members of the family were born in Ireland. The 1875 Minnesota State Census for Owen’s sister Catherine and her family, who were living in Glendale, Scott County, Minnesota, records Owen and Catherine’s father living in her household and clearly identifies Ireland as his place of birth. The 1880 U.S. Federal Census shows the family of Owen Kiernan living Maryville, Nordaway County, Missouri, and states that Owen’s father and mother were born in Ireland. The 1882 Minnesota Death Record for Felix Kiernan states he was born in Ireland. The 1884 Missouri Birth Record for Owen Kiernan’s son, George Edward Kernan (1884-1960), identifies Owen’s nationality as “Irish,” though it states he (Owen) was born in Canada. Finally, the 1901 Oregon Death Certificate for Owen Kiernan states that his parents were both born in Ireland. Table 1 below summarizes the origin of the Kernan Family according to these historical records.

Table 1: Kernan Family Origins According to Historical Records
Kernan Historical Records Year(s) Origin
Canadian Birth/Baptism Record 1834, 1836, 1839 Ireland
Canadian Census 1851 Ireland
Minnesota State Census 1857, 1875 Ireland
U.S. Federal Census 1860, 1880 Ireland
Minnesota Death Record 1882 Ireland
Missouri Birth Record 1884 Ireland
Oregon Death Certificate 1901 Ireland

Thus, what is clear from both oral family history and available historical records is the Kernan family traces its origin back to Ireland.

But from Where in Ireland?

With Ireland identified as the historic ancestral origin of the Kernan family, the question of specifically where in Ireland the family came from remains; and herein lies the elusiveness of the origins of the Kernan family. Although oral family history and available historical records clearly identify Ireland, they do not provide any further details. That is, there is no mention in either of what county and/or what city or village the family was from in Ireland.

Ordinarily, immigration records would be consulted in order to determine the specific location from which a person or family originated. However, tracking down immigration records for the immigrant ancestors of the Kernan family have proven unsuccessful. The reason for this may very well be that they do not exist. Although some immigration records exist for the period in which the Kernan family immigrated from Ireland to Canada, the 1830s (see “Kernan Immigration History”), they are not extensive as there was no requirement prior to 1865 for passenger and crew lists to be made or kept for immigration to Canada. Additionally, it is also possible that records that might pertain to the Kernan family’s immigration from Ireland, whether a passenger list or some other kind of record, are not currently available. Whatever the case may be, no immigration records have been found for the immigrant ancestors of the family.

The only clue that exists regarding the specific location within Ireland the family originated comes from the Bible of Delmar Clair Kernan (1908-1979), the father of my paternal grandfather. The information in question found within this Bible provides brief details about Delmar’s grandfather, Owen Francis Kiernan (1836-1901). According to this information, Owen was born in “1839” in “Northern Ireland.” No further specific details were recorded in the Bible or have been discovered that could narrow the specific location within Ireland any further. This information, moreover, was transferred to a family group sheet by my paternal grandmother, Margaret (Lapham) Kernan (1936-2004), a copy of which can be seen below.

The Kernan Family Group Sheet for Owen Kiernan and his family showing his birthplace as being “Northern Ireland.”

Although research into the Kernan family, and into the life of Owen Kiernan, reveals that the information in Delmar Kernan’s Bible regarding his grandfather, Owen Kiernan, is not completely accurate, as he was born in 1836 in Canada, it nevertheless reiterates a specific claim about the origins of the family passed down from generation to generation. Additionally, research does show that Owen’s parents were indeed born in Ireland, as revealed by the 1851 Canadian Census and other historical records listed in Table 1 above. Hence, the accuracy of the claim of “Northern Ireland” as a slightly more specific origin of the family within Ireland, albeit a regional rather than a specific county and/or city or village, can be trusted with some degree of certainty.

Despite the fact that the reference to “Northern Ireland” is not very specific (or as specific as one would like), it does narrow the number of places down from what is possible with just the identification of Ireland as the place from which the family originated. Thus, what is meant by “Northern Ireland” as recorded in the Bible of Delmar Kernan is important to the overall discussion of the origins of the family. Today, the term “Northern Ireland” refers to the northeastern region of the island of Ireland that is still a part of the United Kingdom rather than a part of the Republic of Ireland, which makes up the rest of the island. However, such a meaning only goes back as far as 1921, when Northern Ireland was officially created as a separate autonomous region and it was decided that it would remain a part of the United Kingdom following Irish independence. Considering this and the fact that the Kernan family left Ireland in the 1830s (see “Kernan Immigration History”), it seems likely that the term “Northern Ireland” recorded in the Bible of Delmar Kernan refers to the historic northern province of Ireland, or Ulster Province, rather than the modern political region. Since 1921, this province has been divided between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Counties of historic Ulster Province in the Republic of Ireland include Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan, while those in the Northern Ireland region of the United Kingdom include Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone. The following map of Ireland shows all of the counties of historic Ulster Province colored green.

UlsterMap2
Map of Ireland with all counties of the historic Ulster Province in green

It is worth noting that the counties of the historic Ulster Province share a border with counties in both Connacht and Leinster Provinces, which are exclusively in the Republic of Ireland. The neighboring counties include Leitrim, Longford, Westmeath, Meath, and Louth. Although it seems unlikely that oral family history intended any of these by the use of “Northern Ireland,” it is entirely possible.

With an understanding of the likely meaning of “Northern Ireland” as recorded in the Bible of Delmar Kernan, attention can be turned to what might be revealed from general sources like demographic studies, surname studies, Irish historical records, and genetic studies regarding a more specific origin for the Kernan family in Ireland.

Historical Demographic Studies

An interesting place to start exploring the county of origin in Northern Ireland for the Kernan family is demographic studies. Demographics involves statistical data about populations, as well as particular groups within it. It can encompass a wide variety of topics. Studies concerning certain demographic topics may provide some insight into the county of origin in Northern Ireland for the Kernan family. One such study that is of particular interest are those studies statistically analyzing the counties of origins for those who immigrated to North America. Another demographic study of interest is religious patterns of the counties of historic Ulster Province, as well as neighboring counties. The following will explore both of these studies and what might be revealed from them about the county of origin for the Kernan family.

Counties of Origin for North American Irish Immigrants

An interesting and potentially useful demographic study that could provide some indication of the historic ancestral county of origin for the Kernan family involves statistics for the counties of origin for North American Irish immigrants. Although Irish immigration from Ireland to North America is most commonly associated with the Great Famine era of the 1840s and afterwards, Pre-Famine immigration was also significant, particularly in the decades immediately prior to the Famine. Given the fact that the Kernan family immigrated to North America in the 1830s (see “Kernan Immigration History”), immigration patterns regarding the counties of origin for Irish immigrants from the Pre-Famine period are of particular importance. Several demographic studies have explored this period of immigration, which have been summarized and analyzed in James H. Johnson’s “The Distribution of Irish Emigration in the Decade Before the Great Famine” (1988). Some of what is discussed by Johnson in this article will be briefly presented in the following.

One of the earliest studies discussed by Johnson is William Forbes Adams’s Ireland and the Irish Emigration to the New World from 1815 to the Famine (1932). Based on data collected from an 1836 report entitled “Commissioners of Inquiry into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland,” Adams endeavored to identify counties in Ireland with the most significant numbers of immigrants from Ireland during several Pre-Famine periods including the 1830s. Adams’s findings for this period are summarized by Johnson on the map “Districts of Heavy Emigration 1830-1865” below. Adams shows that a majority of Irish immigrants came from specific areas of Ireland, with the greatest numbers coming from historic Ulster Province. As shown on the map, all or parts of Counties Cavan, Monaghan, Armagh, Down, Londonderry, Donegal, Antrim, and Tyrone had significant numbers immigrating. Neighboring counties of Longford and Westmeath, as well as parts of Leitrim and Meath also had significant numbers. Additionally, of the counties of historic Ulster Province it appears, according to Adams, that Fermanagh was the only one with little or no immigration during this period.

ireland-immigration-patterns-map1-sm
Johnson’s map of Adams’s Study of Pre-Famine North American Irish Immigrant Counties of Origins

Although Adams’s work is widely regarded as a seminal early study in the field, it is far from perfect. Later authors attempted to build on Adams’s analysis in order to correct some errors and utilize other sources. One important one that Johnson discusses is the 1965 study by S. H. Cousens entitled “The Regional Variation in Emigration from Ireland Between 1821 and 1841,” which explored relevant censuses data to capture immigration patterns. Additionally, Johnson discusses two studies by Joel Mokyr done in the 1980s that refined (in part) Cousens studies to include additional sources and to account for internal migration between counties in Ireland. Mokyr’s findings for Pre-Famine immigration are summarized by Johnson on the map “Net Emigration 1821-1841” below. As with Adams and Cousens, Mokyr shows that a majority of Irish that immigrated came from Ulster Province, though it is clear that significant numbers came from other parts of Ireland as well. As shown on the map, the primary counties of historic Ulster Province from which Pre-Famine North American Irish immigrated were Counties Donegal, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Tyrone, and Londonderry. Secondary counties were Counties Cavan, Armagh, and Down. The fewest number of Irish immigrants came from County Antrim. Additionally, of neighboring counties, primary counties were Counties Leitrim and Longford, and secondary counties were Counties Westmeath and Louth. The fewest number of Irish immigrants came from County Meath.

ireland-immigration-patterns-map2-sm
Johnson’s map of Mokyr’s Study of Pre-Famine Counties of Origin for Immigrating Irish to North America

More Coming Soon…

Religious Demographics of Historic Ulster Province

Another interesting and potentially useful demographic study that could provide some indication of the historic ancestral county of origin for the Kernan family involves the religious make up of historic Ulster Province. Religion in Ireland has played a very important role in shaping the country. It has impacted many aspects of life in Ireland, even to the present day. Additionally, it seems to have even been a significant fact about the immigration of Irish people to other countries. As the Encyclopedia of Irish History and Culture points out:

“Before the 1830s a majority of emigrants were Protestants—mostly Presbyterians from Ulster, although many Anglicans left southern Ireland. However, Catholic departures from both Ulster and the southern provinces steadily increased, and from the mid-1830s Catholics—primarily from the most commercialized and anglicized areas in south Ulster, Leinster, east Munster, and east Connacht—comprised a growing majority.”

What this account about Irish immigration and religion makes clear is that religion in Ireland and immigration from Ireland are linked. It also highlights the important fact that in Ireland religion is often tied to location, particularly in Northern Ireland or rather historic Ulster Province. Perhaps the religious background of the Kernan family, when considered in these terms, may help to shed some light on which county the family originated from in Ireland.

According to oral family history and historical records, the Kernan family has been Catholic for many generations, and was undoubtedly so while in Ireland. The 1851 Canadian Census, for example, states that earliest known members of the family were Catholic. Additionally, William G. Kernan (LIVING) and Margaret A. Lapham (1936-2004), my paternal grandparents, were married in the Catholic Church in 1952. Considering the prevalence of Catholicism in Ireland and among people of Irish ancestry this is not too surprising. In fact, Catholicism is the dominant form of Christianity in Ireland as a whole, with a majority of the population (over 70%) identifying as Catholic. However, Protestant denominations such as Presbyterianism, Anglicanism (Church of Ireland), and Methodism are also significant in Ireland. Although found in the Republic of Ireland, Protestantism is highly concentrated among populations of Northern Ireland; and this appears to be the case across time.

One of the earliest sources of data regarding religion in Ireland is the religious survey conducted by The Commission of Public Instruction in 1834, which documented the number of Catholics and Protestants (of any denomination) that lived in the various Anglican dioceses of which all Ireland was divided among. Although Catholics and Protestants could be found in all of the counties of historic Ulster Province, as well as neighboring counties, each tended to be concentrated more heavily in certain parts of the province. According to the data from this survey, Protestants tended to be more heavily concentrated in Northeastern and Eastern counties particularly Counties Antrim and Down, as well as Londonderry. Furthermore, Catholics tended to be more heavily concentrated Southwestern and Western counties particularly Counties Cavan, Donegal, Tyrone, Fermanagh, and Monaghan. Catholics were also more heavily concentrated in neighboring counties (Leitrim, Longford, etc.) than were Protestants. The following map based on the book and website Troubled Geographies: A Spatial History of Religion and Society in Ireland by Ian Gregory et al shows the populations of Catholics and Protestants in Ireland in 1834. The darker the shade of green the greater the number of Catholics; and conversely the lighter the shade of green the greater the number of Protestants. (Note: Borders indicate diocese borders and not county borders. Additionally, the heavy black border is for modern Northern Ireland and not historic Ulster Province.)

1834-Ireland-Cath-Prot-Map2
Gregory’s Map (slightly modified) showing the percentage of Catholic and Protestant populations in Dioceses of 1834 Ireland

The distribution of Catholics and Protestants revealed by the 1834 religious survey is essentially repeated in later sources recording data about religion. For example, the 1861 Census, which was the first decennial census in Ireland to include religion, also shows that Protestants were more likely to be found in certain parts of historic Ulster Provence than were Catholics. As in 1834, Protestants in 1861 tended to be more heavily concentrated in Northeastern and Eastern counties of Ulster Provence, particularly Counties Antrim and Down, as well as Londonderry and Armagh. In fact, Protestants made up 75.2% of the population in County Antrim, 67.5% in County Down, 54.7% in County Londonderry, and 51.2% in County Armagh. Additionally, Catholics in 1861 tended to be more heavily concentrated Southwestern and Western counties, particularly Counties Cavan, Donegal, Monaghan, Fermanagh, and Tyrone, as well as neighboring counties, as they had been in 1834. Indeed, Catholics made up 81% of the population in County Cavan, 75.1% in County Donegal, 73.4% in County Monaghan, and 56.5% in Counties Fermanagh and Tyrone. Additionally, about 90% of populations in neighboring counties were Catholic.

The significance of the distribution of Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, particularly Northern Ireland, cannot be underestimated. The high concentration of Protestants in many counties of Ulster Province is the reason Ireland was divided the way it was in 1921. Counties with more than 30% of its population identifying as Protestant (of any denomination) were included, while those that had less than 30% were not. The significance of all of this for the Kernan family, however, is more complex. Given the fact that the Kernan family was Catholic at the time of its immigration to North America, having an understanding of where Catholics and Protestants were (and still are) most likely to have lived in Northern Ireland could indicate from which counties the Kernan family was more likely to have originated. From what is revealed by various historical sources, particularly the 1834 religious survey, it would appear that of historic Ulster Province Counties Cavan, Donegal, Monaghan, Fermanagh, and Tyrone are more likely than Counties Antrim, Down, Londonderry, and Armagh. Although this may narrow down what counties the Kernan family could have come from, it is far from certain as many Catholics lived in areas with high concentrations of Protestants.

Surname Origin Studies

Furthermore, surname origin studies, which focus primarily on the etymology of a surname, can provide significant information regarding the historical origins of a surname, which may be able to be generalized to the origins of a specific family. Although surname studies are concerned with many issues, ascertaining the origin of a surname is one of them. The following will explore the issue of origins from the perspective of surname studies.

Before turning to what surname studies might reveal about the origins of the Kernan family, it should be noted that the Kernan family surname was originally spelled “Kiernan.” This spelling (Kiernan) of the surname is itself a variation of more traditional spellings of the surname, such as MacKiernan (or McKiernan), MacTiernan (or McTiernan), and so forth. (For more about the Kernan surname, please see “The Kernan Surname” page of this website.) In discussing what surname studies reveal about origins, variant spellings are considered and noted.

Based on many histories and surname studies including the Kernan surname (and its variations), moreover, the identification of “Northern Ireland” (or Ulster Province) as the origins of the Kernan family is not too difficult to accept, as it seems that many bearing the surname trace to this part of Ireland, as well as some of the surrounding counties that share a border with those belonging to Ulster Province. In fact, the surname (and its variations) is so commonly associated with Ulster Province that two townlands are called Kernan, one in County Down and one in County Armagh. Additionally, it is often recited that many of those bearing the Kernan surname (and its variations) descend from the original bearers of the MacKiernan surname that were a sept of the historic Kingdom of Breifne, which consisted of modern day Counties Cavan and Leitrim. They were in those days the Chiefs of Teallach-Dunchadha (now Tullyhunco), which is within modern day County Cavan. As stated in a history of Killeshandra, which is an important township in the area of Tullyhunco:

“During the later middle ages the dominant family or clan in the area was the McKiernan family. The land of Tullyhunco, which was the McKiernan territory, was included in the rectory of the same name and its church was at Killeshandra. The chieftains of the McKiernans had their dwelling place at Croghan and the family had managed to maintain a certain degree of autonomy thanks to their geographical position between the two hostile septs of O’Reilly and O’Rourke.”

It is said, moreover, that they were the descendants of Tighearnán Mór Ua Ruairc, or as he is more commonly known Tiernán O’Rourke, who was King of Breifne between AD 1124 and 1172. Other accounts associate the surname with Tighearnán Mac Maenuigh and his son Amhlaoibh Mág Tighearnán, Chiefs of Teallach-Dunchadha between AD 1080 and 1120 and between AD 1120 and 1160, respectively.

Surname studies like those found in Rev. Patrick Woulfe’s Irish Names and Surnames (1923), moreover, add further clarification and additional understanding to the origins of the surname and thus those who bear it. According to Woulfe, the Kernan surname (and its variations) is thought to have emerged from three distinct and significant lines. The first is a branch of O’Rourke in Breifne that were the Chiefs of Teallach-Dunchadha (Tullyhunco) in the western part of County Cavan. (It is within this line that the claims of descent from Tiernán O’Rourke and Tighearnán Mac Maenuigh have been made.) The second of these lines is a branch of O’Connor in County Roscommon, where they were the descendants of Tighearnán, a grandson of Turlough Mor O’Connor (AD 1088-1156) the King of Connacht and High King of Ireland. The third of these lines is a branch of Maguire (MacGuire) in County Fermanagh and County Donegal, where they were said to have been the chiefs of Clan Fearghaile.

Additionally, the Kernan surname may have also emerged from three other possible lines, which have also been identified in surname studies like Woulfe’s Irish Names and Surnames (1923). The first of these lines is as a variation of O’Kernaghan of Meath, where they were Chiefs of Luighne (now barony of Lune), and as a branch of the Tirconnell family of County Donegal, where they were Chiefs of Tuath-Bladhach (now Doe in the barony of Kilmacrenan). The second of these lines is as a possible alias or variation of O’Tiernan in County Mayo and County Westmeath, where O’Tiernan is thought to be a variation or alias of O’Tierney. The O’Tiernans of County Mayo were particularly located in Carra. The third of these lines is as an alias or variation of O’Tierney of one of three branches: of County Donegal, where they were Chiefs of Fearnmaigh, of County Mayo, where they were a branch of the Ui Fiachrach and Chiefs in Ceara (now Carra), and of Westmeath, where they were a branch of Ui Neill.

Although it is possible that the Kernan surname could have its origins in one of the last three lines (O’Kernaghan, O’Tiernan, or O’Tierney), it is, according to most accounts, more likely that it originated in one of the first three lines (O’Rourke, O’Connor, or Maguire). For a summary of each of the six possible lines of origin and a list of the surname variations that correspond to them, see Table 2 below.

Table 2: Major Kernan Lines of Origin According to Surname Origin Studies
Line Counties Surnames
O’Rourke (of Teallach-Dunchadha) Cavan and Leitrim MagTíghearnán, MacTiernan, MacTiernan, MacKiernan, MacKernan Kiernan, Kernan, Tiernan, Ternan
O’Connor Roscommon MagTíghearnán, MacTiernan, MacTiernan, MacKiernan, MacKernan Kiernan, Kernan, Tiernan, Ternan
Maguire (MacGuire) or Clan Fearghaile Fermanagh and Donegal MagTíghearnán, MacTiernan, MacTiernan, MacKiernan, MacKernan Kiernan, Kernan, Tiernan, Ternan
O’Kernaghan of Luighne (Lune) & Tuath-Bladhach (Kilmacrenan) Meath and Donegal Ó’Cearnacháin, O’Kernaghan, O’Kernan, Carnahan, Kernaghan, Kernahan, and possibly McCarnan and Cernan; possibly Kiernan, Kernan, etc.
O’Tiernan Mayo and Westmeath O’Tighearnán, O’Ternane, O’Tiernan, Tiernan, Ternan; alias for Tierney; possibly Kiernan, Kernan, etc. as an alias or variant
O’Tierney Mayo, Donegal, and Westmeath 0’Tighearnaigh, O’Tierny, O’Tearney, O’Tierney, Terney; possibly Kiernan, Kernan, etc. as an alias or variant

From these six lines, moreover, eight counties are identified as possible origins of the Kernan surname, and thus as possible origins of the Kernan family: Counties Cavan, Leitrim, Roscommon, Fermanagh, Donegal, Meath, Westmeath, and Mayo. Of these, only three are a part of historic Ulster Province, namely Counties Cavan, Fermanagh, and Donegal. Additionally, three of the eight counties neighbor historic Ulster Province, namely Counties Leitrim, Meath, and Westmeath. Although just which of those counties in historic Ulster Province, or even those that neighbor it, was intended by the reference to “Northern Ireland” in the Bible of Delmar Clair Kernan (1908-1979) is unclear, it certainly could have been any one of them.

Irish Historical Records

In addition to surname origin studies, historical records may also provide support for the claim of a Northern Ireland origin for the Kernan/Kiernan family. The 1659 Pender Census, which does not provide any details for Counties Cavan, Galway, Mayo, Tyrone, and Wicklow, shows, among other details, the principal surnames in particular locations in Ireland. According to this historical record, the Kiernan surname was among the principal surnames in County Roscommon and Athlone Borough, as well as being among the principal surnames in the Barony of Ardagh and the Barony of Granard in County Longford. The McKernan surname, moreover, is recorded as being among the principal surnames in the parishes of Clownish, Aghaveigh, and Devonish of County Fermanagh. The Kernan surname is recorded among the principal surnames in Dublin City in County Dublin, as well as being among the principal surnames in the Barony of Granard in County Longford and the Barony of Farbill in County Westmeath. The O’Kernan surname, moreover, is recorded among the principal surnames in the parishes of Dummully, Terribruske, Derryvollan, Magherycross, and Ennis McSaint in County Fermanagh. The McTiernan surname is recorded among the principal surnames in the Barony of Rossclogher in County Leitrim, while the McTernan surname is recorded among the principal surnames in the Baronies of Leitrim, Mohill, and Carrigallan in County Leitrim.

More recent historical records also show that those bearing the Kernan surname (and its variations, particularly Kiernan) are numerous in counties either in or sharing a border with the historic Ulster Province, particularly Counties Cavan, Longford, Leitrim, Armagh, Tyrone, and Monaghan. These historical records show particular concentrations for those bearing the Kernan/Kiernan surname. The Ireland Select Births and Baptisms, 1620-1911 (Ancestry.com) shows the greatest concentration of Kiernan births and baptisms were in Counties Leitrim, Cavan, and Longford, with additional concentrations in Counties Meath, Dublin, and Westmeath. This historical record collection also shows the greatest concentration of Kernan births and baptisms were in Counties Dublin and Tyrone, with additional concentrations in Counties Cavan, Armagh, and Antrim. The Tithe Applotment Books (1823-37), which were compiled to determine the amount which occupiers of agricultural holdings over one acre should pay in tithes to the Church of Ireland, shows the greatest concentration of Kiernans in Counties Longford, Leitrim, Clare, and Cavan, with lesser concentrations in Counties Westmeath, Meath, and Dublin. This historical record also shows the greatest concentration of Kernans in Counties Monaghan, Cavan, and Westmeath, with lesser concentrations in Counties Westmeath, Kildare, and Meath. The Primary Valuation (1847-1864), also known as Griffith’s Valuation, shows the greatest cocentration of Kiernans in Counties Longford, Leitrim, Dublin, and Cavan, with additional concentrations in Counties Westmeath and Meath. This historical record also shows that the greatest concentration of Kernans are found in Meath, Monaghan, and Armagh, with additional concentrations in Counties Dublin and Cavan. Other records show that in the Mid-19th century, 30.6% of all Kernan/Kiernan households were in County Longford, 19.9% were in County Cavan, 12.7% were in County Leitrim, 9.5% were in County Meath, 9.1% were in County Westmeath, 9% were dispersed throughout Dublin City and County Dublin, 2.4% were in County Monaghan, and the remaining were dispersed throughout other counties in Ireland.

Although well after the family immigrated, moreover, The Ireland, Civil Registration Births Index, 1864-1958 (Ancestry.com) shows the greatest concentration of Kiernan births were in Counties Dublin, Tipperary, Longford, Cavan, and Donegal, with additional concentrations in Counties Offaly, Laois, Monaghan, and Westmeath. This historical record collection also shows the greatest concentration of Kernan births were in Counties Dublin and Tipperary, with additional concentrations in Monaghan and Donegal. Additionally, the Baptismal/Birth Records of Ireland (RootsIreland.ie) show the greatest concentration of Kiernan births and baptisms were in Counties Longford, Leitrim, Meath, and Cavan, with additional concentrations in Counties Westmeath and Dublin. This historical record collection also shows the greatest concentration of Kernan births and baptisms were in Counties in Meath, Armagh, Cavan, and Longford, with additional concentrations in Counties Dublin, Westmeath, and Leitrim. The Marriage Records of Ireland (RootsIreland.ie) show the greatest concentration of Kiernan marriages were in Counties Longford, Leitrim, and Meath, with additional concentrations in Counties Cavan, Westmeath, and Dublin. This historical record collection also shows the greatest concentration of Kernan marriages were in Counties Armagh, Dublin, and Cavan, with additional concentrations in Counties Leitrim, Longford, and Meath. The Burial/Death Records of Ireland (RootsIreland.ie), furthermore, show the greatest concentration of Kiernan deaths and burials were in Counties Leitrim and Longford, with additional cocnentrations in Meath and Westmeath.

The 1890 Births Distribution, moreover, which is based on Matheson’s Special Report on Surnames in Ireland (1909), shows the principal locations of birth registrations for surnames in 1890. According to this historical record, the greatest concentration of Kiernan births were in Leinster Province, followed by Ulster, then Connacht, and then Munster. Additionally, the greatest concentration of births were in Counties Dublin, Longford, Leitrim, and Cavan. The 1901 Census of Ireland, furthermore, shows the greatest concentration of Kiernans in Counties Longford, Leitrim, and Cavan, with additional concentrations in Dublin, Westmeath, and Meath. This historical record also shows that the greatest concentration of Kernans is in Counties Dublin, Armagh, and Monaghan, with additional concentrations in Cavan, Antrim, and Meath. The 1911 Census of Ireland shows the greatest concentration of Kiernans in Counties Longford, Dublin, Cavan, and Leitrim, with additional concentrations in Westmeath and Meath. This historical record also shows that the greatest concentration of Kernans is in Counties Dublin and Cavan, with additional concentrations in Armagh and Monaghan.

The following chart summarizes the important Irish historical records or sources pertaining to the concentration of Kernans/Kiernans (and its variations) in Ireland over time. Identified counties are arranged from greatest to lowest concentration.

Historical Records Counties Identified
The 1659 Pender Census Roscommon, Fermanagh, Dublin, Longford, Westmeath, and Leitrim
The Ireland Select Births and Baptisms, 1620-1911 Leitrim, Cavan, Longford, Meath, Dublin, Westmeath, Tyrone, Armagh, and Antrim
The Tithe Applotment Books
(1823-1837)
Longford, Leitrim, Clare, Cavan, Westmeath, Meath, Dublin, Monaghan, and Kildare
Primary Valuation Property Survey
of 1847-1864
Longford, Leitrim, Dublin, Cavan, Westmeath, Meath, Monaghan, and Armagh
Mid-19th Century Households Longford, Cavan, Leitrim, Meath, Westmeath, Dublin, and Monaghan
The Ireland Civil Registration Births Index, 1864-1958 Dublin, Tipperary, Longford, Cavan, Donegal, Offaly, Laois, Monaghan, and Westmeath
The Baptismal/Birth Records of
Ireland (RootsIreland.ie)
Longford, Leitrim, Meath, Cavan, Westmeath, Dublin, and Armagh
The Marriage Records of Ireland (RootsIreland.ie) Longford, Leitrim, Meath, Cavan, Westmeath, Dublin, and Armagh
The Burial/Death Records of Ireland (RootsIreland.ie) Leitrim, Longford, Meath, and Westmeath
1890 Births Distribution Dublin, Longford, Leitrim, Cavan
1901 Census of Ireland Longford, Leitrim, Cavan, Dublin, Westmeath, Meath, Armagh, Monaghan, and Antrim
1911 Census of Ireland Longford, Dublin, Cavan, Leitrim, Meath, Armagh, and Monaghan

Although this surname based survey of historical records is helpful in identifying possible counties from which the Kiernan/Kernan family could have originated, locating those who were born and lived in Ireland on actual records detailing households would be more helpful in identifying the family’s true county of origins in Ireland. However, there are a number of issues relating to source records that make such an effort difficult. Civil registrations in Ireland did not begin until 1864 for all births, deaths, and marriages. Records prior to 1864 are kept by Parish churches. Although an effort has been underway to transcribe and index these records, the fact that these records are not public and that their general condition is quite poor the process has been very difficult. Census records, moreover, were created starting in 1821 and continued every ten years. However, a majority of the 1821, 1831, 1841, and 1851 census records were destroyed in the fire at the Public Record Office in the Four Courts in 1922. Additionally, census records for 1861, 1871, 1881, and 1891 were destroyed by the government. The 1901 and 1911 census records, however, are available for the whole country.

Despite the limits of these historical records, research using available databases containing Irish records, such as RootsIreland.ie, reveals some possible, though unverified, matches for the earliest members of the Kiernan/Kernan family. In particular, a few have been found for the earliest confirmed member of the family, Felix Kiernan (ca. 1796-1882). A 1796 baptismal record for a Felix Kiernan in County Louth has been found. A 1795 baptismal record for a Felix MacKearnan in County Dublin has also been found. Furthermore, two entries for a Felix Kiernan in County Cavan have been found. Although these records are possible matches, they have not been verified as such particularly because of the fact that the given names and surname are so common and they are, in several cases, different than what family and historical records reveal for the family.

Surname Distribution Studies

Coming soon…

Surnames & Genetic Studies

Apart from surname studies and historical records, recent genetic studies concerning Irish surnames have proved to be another valuable source for identifying possible origins within Ireland. These studies reveal that the greatest genetic concentration of Kiernans are found in Counties Longford, Dublin, Cavan, Leitrim, and Westmeath. They also reveal that the greatest genetic concentration of Kernans are found in Counties Dublin and Cavan; the greatest genetic concentration of McKiernans are found in Counties Leitrim and Cavan; and the greatest genetic concentration of McKernans are found in Counties Tyrone, Antrim, and Armagh. They also reveal that the greatest genetic concentration of Tiernans are found in Counties Roscommon, Leitrim, Dublin, Louth, and Mayo; the greatest genetic concentration of Ternans are found in Dublin and Mayo; the greatest genetic concentration of McTiernans are found in Leitrim and Sligo; and the greatest genetic concentration of McTernans are found in Leitrim and Sligo. These studies, moreover, have concluded that the “genetic homeland” of persons bearing the Kiernan surname appears to be County Longford, the “genetic homeland” of persons bearing the McKernan surname appears to be County Tyrone, and the “genetic homeland” of persons bearing the McTernan surname appears to be County Leitrim.

The following chart summarizes the primary and additional counties of genetic origins and the genetic homeland for the Kiernan/Kernan surname and other variant spellings.

Surname Primary Counties Additional Counties Genetic Homeland
Kiernan Longford, Dublin, Cavan, Leitrim, and Westmeath Meath, Roscommon, Monaghan, Louth, Cork, Fermanagh, Armagh, Antrim, Kildare, Wicklow, and Galway Longford
Kernan Dublin and Cavan Monaghan, Armagh, Meath, Roscommon, Donegal, Antrim, Laois (Queens), and Wicklow ?
McKiernan Leitrim and Cavan Dublin, Fermanagh, Antrim, Westmeath, meath, Monaghan, Tyrone, Armagh, Clare, and Limerick ?
McKernan Tyrone, Antrim, and Armagh Dublin, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Londonderry, Down, Cavan, and Limerick Tyrone
Tiernan Roscommon, Leitrim, Dublin, Louth, and Mayo Sligo, Longford, Meath, Westmeath, Kildare, Galway, Clare, Londonderry, Antrim, Armagh, Fermanagh, Offaly (Kings), Tipperary, Waterford, and Wexford ?
Ternan Dublin and Mayo Roscommon, Leitrim, Fermanagh, and Tyrone ?
McTiernan Leitrim and Sligo Offaly (Kings), Fermanagh, and Down ?
McTernan Leitrim and Sligo Cavan, Roscommon, Cork, Dublin, and Fermanagh Leitrim

Conclusions

The survey of surname studies, historical records, and genetic studies for the Kiernan/Kernan surname (and its variations) presented above identifies a large number counties in the historic Ulster Province, as well as counties that border those belonging to Ulster and others found in modern day Ireland, making it difficult to see what such a survey might reveal about the true origins of the Kiernan/Kernan family. This difficulty can best be seen by the following map, which attempts to illustrate the most important counties that have been identified by these various sources as possible counties of origin for the Kernan/Kiernan family. The most important of these counties (based on sources) is identified on the map as “Primary Historic & Genetic Counties of Origin” (the darker green color), followed by “Other Counties with Large Populations of Kiernans” (the lighter green color), followed by “Other Counties with Significant (but Lesser) Populations of Kiernans” (the light brown color), followed by “Other Counties of Possible Historic Origins” (the light grey color).

Map of Ireland showing the historic and genetic counties of Ireland for the Kernan/Kiernan family.

The large number of counties identified by surname studies, historical records, and genetic studies, moreover, can be narrowed down. The following chart summarizes the most frequent counties identified by surname studies, historical records, and genetic studies for those bearing the Kiernan and Kernan surname that are also found within the historic Ulster Province and those counties that share a border, and are thus consistent with the oral family history claim of “Northern Ireland” origins. These counties, moreover, are listed from greatest to lowest frequency in each category.

Source Kiernan Kernan
Surname Studies Cavan, Leitrim, Fermanagh Cavan, Leitrim, Fermanagh
Historical Records Longford, Leitrim, Cavan Armagh, Cavan, Monaghan
Genetic Studies Longford, Cavan, Leitrim, Westmeath Cavan

From the chart above, it is clear that the most frequently repeated counties are Cavan and Leitrim for the Kiernan surname, and Cavan for the Kernan surname.

Although the various studies discussed above provide a fascinating survey of where the Kernan/Kiernan surname is historically and even genetically concentrated in Ireland, it provides little help in identifying the specific county or township that our Kernan/Kiernan family actually originated from. Nevertheless, it does appear that the “Northern Ireland” claim of oral family history is provided some supporting evidence.

Sources

In addition to sources referenced throughout the above, several other sources were used. Many of the statistics for concentrations of Kernan/Kiernan households within Ireland came from data found on The Irish Times website. Information from the 1659 Pender Census came from “A Census of Ireland circa 1659” website and the “Ireland Genealogy Projects” website. Information from The Tithe Applotment Books, the 1901 Census of Ireland, and the 1911 Census of Ireland came from The National Archives of Ireland website. Additional historical records and collections are from Ancestry.com and RootsIreland.ie, where cited above. Information about genetic studies of Irish surnames came from the Irish Origenes website. Additionally, the information referencing the Irish baptismal record is found on RootsIreland.

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Published 07/13/2012. Last Updated 05/29/2017.