The Kernan Surname

The Kernan surname is itself an interesting subject, and one that is deserving of some attention apart from discussions of genealogies and records having a fascinating history and meaning. Indeed, many family histories and one-name studies frequently begin with a discussion of the surname in question. In this tradition, the following will address what is presently known about the Kernan surname, specifically the spellings of the surname in the Kernan family and on historical records in Canada and the United States for the family, as well as the etymology and meaning of the surname.

Original Spelling of the Surname

Since about the mid-1860s (or so), the Kernan surname has been primarily spelled “Kernan” by most in the family. Oral family history and records for the family, however, reveal that the spelling of the Kernan surname was spelled slightly different upon the family’s arrival in North America. According to these sources, the Kernan surname was originally spelled with an “i” before the “e.” Thus, the original spelling of the surname was “Kiernan.” One such source is a family group sheet detailing information from the Bible of Delmar Clair Kernan (1908-1979), the father of my paternal Grandfather, which shows the spelling for the surname of Delmar’s grandfather, Owen Francis Kiernan (1836-1901), as being “Kiernan” instead of “Kernan.”

The Kernan Family Group Sheet for Owen Kiernan showing his surname as being spelled as “Kiernan” instead of “Kernan.”

In addition to oral family history and family records, several historical records for the family also show the surname as being spelled “Kiernan.” One of the clearest examples of this is the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, which shows the family of Felix Kiernan (ca. 1796-1882), the father of Owen Kiernan, enumerated with the “Kiernan” spelling of the surname. A possible earlier record is the 1851 Canada Census, which shows Felix and his family enumerated with either the “Kiernan” or “Kernan” spelling of the surname. An 1863 entry in the St. Paul City Directory also shows the “Kiernan” spelling of the surname for Felix. Another important historical record showing the “Kiernan” spelling of the surname is the 1901 Death Certificate for Owen Kiernan. In addition to these, several records for some of the other children of Felix Kiernan show the surname as being spelled “Kiernan” instead of “Kernan.”

1860 U.S. Federal Census showing the Kiernan family living in Sibley Co., Minnesota. Also shows birth locations of family members as being Ireland and Canada.
1860 U.S. Federal Census showing the “Kiernan” spelling of the surname for Felix (misspelled “Poehlix”) and his family in Sibley County, Minnesota.

The reason for the change in spelling from “Kiernan” to “Kernan,” moreover, is presently unknown, though it was likely done to make the surname more acceptable to an American ear, as well as making it easier to both pronounce and spell by non-Irish people. As Claire Santry states in her The Family Tree Irish Genealogy Guide: How to Trace Your Ancestors in Ireland (2017):

“Immigrants whose names changed soon after arrival in the United States likely made that decision to fit into their new surroundings. For this reason, a lot of Irish shed a symbol of their past by losing the O’- or Mc’- in their surnames. Others may have abbreviated or changed their names to sound less Irish, less Catholic, or more ‘American’ in response to prevailing anti-Irish sentiment in the nineteenth century.”

Furthermore, when this spelling change occurred or became fixed is also unclear. However, a survey of available historical records (see Table 1 below) suggests that the “Kiernan” and “Kernan” spellings of the surname were used interchangeably in both Canada and the United States by Felix. Although Felix and his family are enumerated on the 1860 U.S. Federal Census with the “Kiernan” spelling of the surname, the “Kernan” spelling is found on several Quebec Birth/Baptismal records for some of Felix’s children and on the 1882 entry for Felix’s death on the Minnesota Deaths & Burials Index. Additionally, the “Kiernan” and “Kernan” spellings were also used interchangeably in the United States by Felix’s son, Owen. Although Owen and his family are enumerated on the 1880 U.S. Federal Census with the “Kernan” spelling of the surname, the “Kiernan” spelling is found on Owen’s death certificate.

Although interchangeability between “Kiernan” and “Kernan” is seen in the spelling of the surname for Felix and Owen, the “Kiernan” spelling of the surname does not appear to have ever been used by Owen’s son George Edward Kernan (1884-1960). From the 1884 record of his birth in the Missouri Permanent Record of Births to his 1960 Death Certificate, the “Kernan” spelling of the surname is found on historical records for George. Additionally, the majority of Owen’s children and descendants have used the “Kernan” spelling, particularly in our line. There is, however, a notable exception to this, which is Owen’s grandson, Vernon Woodrow Kiernan (1916-1962), and his descendants, who kept the original “Kiernan” spelling of the surname.

Unusual Spellings of the Surname

Despite the fact that the surname is spelled as either “Kiernan” or “Kernan” on most historical records for the family, moreover, it should be noted that there are a few instances on such records in which the surname is spelled significantly different than “Kiernan” or “Kernan.” The following will discuss these instances.

Although the surname appears as “Kiernan” (or “Kernan”) on the family’s enumeration on the 1851 Canada Census, there are two instances found on handwritten Canadian birth/baptismal records for two of the children of Felix Kiernan and his wife, Martha, in which the surname is spelled completely different. The earliest of these two birth/baptismal records is for Felix and Martha’s daughter Mary Kiernan (1832-?), whose surname appears as “Cairnon,” as does Felix’s in the text portion of the record. Felix’s surname, however, is spelled as “Kernan” in what appears to be his signature on the record. The second of these two birth/baptismal records is for Felix and Martha’s son Owen Kiernan, whose surname appears as “Connon,” as does Felix’s in the text portion of the record. As with Mary’s record, Felix’s surname is spelled as “Kernan” in what appears to be his signature on the record. In addition to these Canadian baptismal/birth records, the spelling of “Connon” also appears on the 1857 Minnesota Census for Felix and his family, who were living in Sibley County, Minnesota.

1857 Minnesota Census of the Kiernan family (shown Connon) living in Sibley Co., Minnesota. Record also shows birth locations as being Ireland and Canada.
1857 Minnesota Census showing the Felix Kiernan family living in Sibley County, Minnesota and their surnames spelled “Connon.”

In each of the instances in which the surname appears spelled as “Cairnon” or “Connon” instead of “Kiernan” or “Kernan,” moreover, the reason for the change in spelling is unclear. However, these spellings, particularly “Connon,” might sound easier to a French speaker’s ear, which were in large numbers in both Quebec, Canada and Sibley County, Minnesota. Thus, it seems possible that these spellings are Francizations of the Kiernan/Kernan surname or just misspellings by whoever wrote the actual records. Furthermore, it seems clear that the family did not use these spellings of  the surname. The presence of what appears to be Felix’s signature with the “Kernan” spelling of the surname on the Canadian birth/baptismal records mentioned, and the fact that the Canadian birth/baptismal records for Felix and Martha’s other children (Anna, Rose, Catherine, and Felix) born in Quebec, Canada show the surname spelling as “Kernan,” indicate they did not use such spellings. Additionally, the family’s surname does not appear with either the “Cairnon” or the “Connon” spelling on any other records. In fact, the surname appears as “Kiernan” on the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, which was also enumerated in Sibley County.

In addition to the unusual spellings found on the birth/baptismal records for two of Felix and Martha’s children and the 1857 U.S. Federal Census, the surname appears spelled completely different on what appears to be another census record for Felix Kiernan. The 1875 Minnesota Census shows Felix enumerated as living in Scott County, Minnesota in the household of his daughter Catherine and her husband, Peter Kearney. Felix’s surname on this census, however, does not appear as either “Kiernan” or “Kernan,” but rather as “Cearns.” The reason for this spelling change is unclear, though it is possible it was an enumeration error. This spelling of the surname is also found for another person in the household, a “Matt Cearns,” age 40 and born in Canada. This fact raises the issue of whether or not this record is really for Felix or a border (or servant) named “Felix Cearns” living in Peter and Catherine’s household along with two others (Mary O’Kern and Joseph Kegan) for whom no evidence of being related to either Peter or Catherine has been found. Although it is possible that this is Felix’s son Matthew, the age and birth location is incorrect as Matthew, being born in about 1827, should have been 48 in 1875 and was born in Ireland. Despite these inconsistencies, it is still likely that this is Felix’s son Matthew, as the ages for others in the household are also off. Catherine, for example, is enumerated as being 30 years old and thus born in about 1845, instead of being 34 years old and born in 1841. Additionally, anyone who looks at historical records knows that these kinds of inconsistencies are common, particularly on census records.

1875 Minnesota Census showing a “Felix Cearns” and a “Math Cearns.”

In addition to the instances in which the Kernan surname appears spelled completely different than either “Kiernan” or “Kernan,” moreover, there is another instance found on historical records in which the spelling of the surname is different. In this instance, however the spelling of the surname appears significantly misspelled. The 1910 U.S. Federal Census shows the surname spelled “Kern” instead of “Kiernan” or “Kernan” for George Kernan and his family, who were living in Kelso, Cowlitz County, Washington. Although it is unclear why the spelling of the surname appears spelled as “Kern” instead of “Kiernan” or “Kernan,” it seems highly likely that this is an enumeration error, rather than an attempt to make the surname sound more English or a change in the spelling of the surname by the family. This seems more likely to be the case given the fact that the 1910 U.S. Federal Census shows the surname of George’s mother, Harriet, who is living with her daughter’s family in Kelso, as being spelled “Kernan.” In both instances, the same enumerator (census taker) is responsible for the record. Additionally, two other records show the surname possibly misspelled, though the handwriting is not clear enough to be certain. The first is the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, which shows Owen Kiernan and his family enumerated with the surname spelled as either “Kernan” or “Kenan.” The second is the 1940 U.S. Federal Census, which shows George Kernan and his family enumerated with the surname spelled as either “Kernan” or “Kernen.” If both of these are actual instances in which the surname is misspelled, it seems very likely they, like the 1910 U.S. Federal Census, are enumeration errors.

Although plausible explanations for the unusual spellings of the surname have been discussed, it is worth pointing out that instances of unusual spellings of Irish surnames are quite common in Ireland and wherever Irish people have settled. Additionally, this can be found throughout the history of individual families. Thus, it is not uncommon to find unusual spellings the further back a family line is traced. The reason for this is unclear. However, Henry Harrison offers the following explanation in his Surnames of the United Kingdom: A Concise Etymological Dictionary (1923):

“In his ‘Varieties and Synonyms of Surnames and Christian Names in Ireland’ (1901), Sir Robert Matheson dwells upon the difficulties encountered by persons searching the Indexes at the General Register Office, Dublin, owing to the great variations in names in Ireland. ‘These variations are not only in spelling and form, but entirely different names are used synonymously by the same person or by members of the same family. Many of these cases are direct translations of Irish names into English, or vice versa, while in others they are equivalents, modifications, or corruptions of them. In a country where two different languages are spoken it might be expected some such cases would occur, but in Ireland the practice is much more widespread than is commonly supposed. In addition to the changes attributable to the difference of language, time has a powerful effect in altering names, which have also a tendency to assume various forms in different districts. Illiteracy also operates in corrupting names, while they are also frequently varied in spelling and form at pleasure.'”

Despite the surname appearing on a few records spelled either completely different than “Kiernan” or “Kernan” or misspelled, it appears spelled as either “Kiernan” or “Kernan” on a majority of records for the Kernan family in general, with the “Kernan” spelling being the most frequently used on historical documents in the United States. Table 1 below shows a survey of family and historical records found for the Kernan family and the spellings of the surname as they appear on each of them. (It should be noted that this is not an exhaustive listing of historical records, just some of the major ones relating to surname spelling.)

Table 1: Kernan Surname Spelling According to Historical Records
Record Year Surname Spelling
Quebec Birth & Baptismal Record (Mary) 1832 Cairnon / Kernan
Quebec Birth & Baptismal Record (Owen) 1836 Connon / Kernan
1851 Canada Census 1851 Kiernan (Kernan)
1857 Minnesota Census 1857 Connon
1860 U.S. Federal Census 1860 Kiernan
St. Paul City Directory 1863 Kiernan
1870 U.S. Federal Census 1870 Kernan (Kenan)
1875 Minnesota Census (Felix) 1875 Cearns
1880 U.S. Federal Census 1880 Kernan
Minnesota Deaths & Burials (Felix) 1882 Kernan
Missouri Permanent Record of Births (George) 1884 Kernan
1885 Minnesota Census 1885 Kernan
St. Paul City Directory 1890 Kernan
1895 Minnesota Census 1895 Kernan
Oregon Death Certificate (Owen) 1901 Kiernan
Mt. Calvary Cemetery Record (Owen) 1901 Kernan
1910 U.S. Federal Census (Harriet) 1910 Kernan
1910 U.S. Federal Census (George) 1910 Kern
World War I Draft Registration Card (George) 1918 Kernan
1920 U.S. Federal Census (George) 1920 Kernan
1930 U.S. Federal Census (George) 1930 Kernan
1930 U.S. Federal Census (Delmar) 1930 Kernan
1940 U.S. Federal Census (George) 1940 Kernan (Kernen)
1940 U.S. Federal Census (Delmar) 1940 Kernan
Oregon Death Certificate (George) 1960 Kernan
Family Group Sheet (Owen) Kiernan
Family Group Sheet (George) Kernan

Etymology of the Kernan Surname

Studies of the Kernan/Kiernan surname show, moreover, that the change in spelling from “Kiernan” to “Kernan” is not the first spelling change the surname underwent. Like many surnames in Ireland, the Kernan surname changed over time more than once. Most of these changes were the result of the transformation of traditional Irish surnames into more Anglicized forms. The following will discuss this in general and in terms of the Kernan surname, in addition to exploring traditional Irish surnames.

English influence in Ireland was aimed, in part, at undermining the Gaelic culture of Ireland, which included Irish conventions regarding surnames. Acts of Parliament, policies, and social pressure imposed under British rule had an effect of transforming Irish surnames from their original Gaelic spelling to more Anglicized spellings. One of the earliest of such efforts was a 1495 Act of Parliament in Dublin which required that all Irishmen “take to him an English surname of one towne, as Sutton, Chester, Trym, Skryne, Corke, Kinsale; or colour, as white, blacke, browne; or art or science, as smith or carpenter; or office, as cooke, butler.” By the 17th century, pressure to adopt more Anglicized spellings increased. This is particularly true with the passage of the Anti-Catholic Penal Laws of 1695, by which, as discussed in The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (2016) by Patrick Hanks et al, “teaching Irish, teaching in it, or even speaking it were made a punishable offence, which had a baleful effect on the way surnames were recorded and transmitted.” Additionally, the forced influx of English, Welsh, and Scottish into Ireland during the 16th and 17th centuries in what is called the “Plantations of Ireland,” increased the pressure for abandonment of the Gaelic language and traditional surname spellings. Many Irish felt that social and economic advancement would come quicker if they abandoned some of the more traditional aspects of their culture, including surname spellings and conventions, which were long viewed by the British to be a sign of the Irish rejection of their authority.

This discussion of the efforts of the British to Anglicize Irish surnames raises the issue of the nature of traditional Irish surnames. Generally, traditional Irish surnames are patronymic in nature. According to the Guild of One-Name Studies, a patronymic, or patronym, is a surname that is “derived from the forename of the father,” grandfather, or ancestor. In Ireland, the forename of the father, grandfather, or ancestor had specific prefixes that indicate a genealogical relationship added to them. Likely emerging in the 800s or 900s AD, the earliest of these prefixes were Uí and Úa, which became the more commonly recognized Ó (later just O’) prefix and indicates that a person is the grandson or descendant of the original holder of the forename. Granddaughters or female descendants had the prefix of Ní. In about the 1000s additional prefixes emerged, which were Mag, Mac, and Mc (later just M’) and indicates that a person is a son of the original holder of the forename. Daughters had the prefix of Nig or Nic. Although these conventions formed surnames, they were not, as Sean Murphy states in his “A Survey of Irish Surnames 1992-97,” “surnames in the modern sense of the term, in that they were not fixed or hereditary.” With each generation, the surname changed as children adopted, in most cases, a surname based on the forename of their father, grandfather, or ancestor. However, the confusion and inefficiency of this system resulted in surnames becoming fixed or hereditary between the 11th and 14th centuries. Prefixes at this time were primarily Ó, Mac, or Mc for both genders. Although they became hereditary during this period, the surnames retained their patronymic form, with those surnames of the most distinguished families, which were named for important ancestors of those families, becoming the most dominant surnames.

For the purpose of clarity, it may be helpful to illustrate these conventions of Irish surnames. Although many accounts of both the Kernan surname (and its variations) and ancestral origins repeat a tradition of descent from Tighearnán Mór Ua Ruairc (or Tiernán O’Rourke), who was King of Breifne between AD 1124 and 1172, or from Tighearnán O’Connor, a grandson of Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair (or Turlough Mór O’Connor), who was King of Connacht and High King of Ireland from AD 1120 to 1156, many bearing the Kernan surname (and its variations) alternatively claim descent from Chiefs that ruled over the barony of Teallach-Dunchadha, which is now Tullyhunco in modern day County Cavan. Specifically, they claim descent from Tighearnán Mac Maenuigh, who was Chief of Teallach-Dunchadha between AD 1080 and 1120. The forename upon which the Kernan surname (and its variations) is based, these accounts add, derives from the forename of this particular chief. This is clear from the name of his son and heir Amhlaoibh Mág Tighearnán, who was Chief of Teallach-Dunchadha between AD 1120 and 1160. Hence, Amhlaoibh’s surname is a patronym consisting of his father’s forename of “Tighearnán” and the prefix of “Mág” indicating the familial or genealogical relationship characteristic of Irish surnames.

The efforts of the British to undermine Gaelic culture and to specifically Anglicize Irish surnames, moreover, was a process that involved several methods of Anglicization, though each method was not always used for every surname or in every individual family line. One of the methods used was the use of English norms regarding surnames to produce a “phonetic” spelling or transliteration of the surname. The use of this method, in the case of the Kernan surname (and its variations), changed the spelling of the surname from the more traditional Irish spelling of Mag/Mac Thighearnáin or Mag/Mac Tíghearnán to spellings such as MacTiernan, MacTernan, MacKiernan, or MacKernan. Another method used was dropping the use of traditional prefixes such as Ó, Mac, or Mc creating a shortened form. In the case of the Kernan surname (and its variations), spellings such as MacTiernan or MacTernan were changed to Tiernan or Ternan and MacKiernan or MacKernan were changed to Kiernan or Kernan. Yet another method of Anglicization was the translation of the surname into English based on the meaning of the forename upon which the surname is based. In the case of the Kernan surname (and its variations), the surname was translated into English as Lord, Masters, or Masterson, with Masterton being a common variation. Table 2 below illustrates the Anglicization of the Kernan surname by the various methods that have been discussed from the original Gaelic form of the surname to the translated form. It should be noted that because it is difficult, if not impossible, to date or trace the occurrence of the methods of Anglicization for a given surname, the designation of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in the table below is the likely occurrence.

Table 2: Anglicization of the Kernan Surname
Occurred Method Spelling(s)
1st Original Gaelic Form Mag/Mac Thighearnáin, or Mag/Mac Tíghearnán
2nd Phonetic Change MacTiernan, MacTernan, MacKiernan, MacKernan
3rd Shortened Form Tiernan, Ternan, Kiernan, Kernan
4th Translation Lord, Masters, Masterson, Masterton

With each surname that emerged from the Anglicization of Irish surnames, moreover, variations of each surname also emerged. As already mentioned, Henry Harrison in his Surnames of the United Kingdom: A Concise Etymological Dictionary (1923) notes that “these variations are not only in spelling and form, but entirely different names are used synonymously by the same person or by members of the same family.” He adds that not only were direct translations of Irish names used, but “equivalents, modifications, or corruptions” of both Irish surnames and translations were also used. Additionally, Harrison states that variations in surname spelling emerged because, “time has a powerful effect in altering names, which have also a tendency to assume various forms in different districts.” He adds that, “illiteracy also operates in corrupting names, while they are also frequently varied in spelling and form at pleasure.” Although there are likely numerous variations of the kind described by Harrison for the Kernan surname, a good example of one is the surname Kieran or Keran. Although this surname emerged as an Anglicized form of Ó’Ciaráin, it has also been used interchangeably by individuals who have also used the Kiernan and Kernan surname.

What is clear from this discussion is that the etymology of the Kernan surname (and its variations) is both tied to the patronymic conventions of typical Irish surnames and to the Anglicization efforts imposed directly or indirectly by the British. It is the combination of both of these across time that resulted in the way in which the surname is presently spelled.

Meaning of the Kernan Surname

Apart from the historical use or spellings of the Kernan surname in the history of the Kernan family and the etymology of the surname, the meaning of the surname itself a fascinating subject. There are two ways in which the meaning of the surname can be understood, which include its meaning as a patronym and its meaning in terms of the root word of the forename upon which the surname is based. Both of these will be discussed in the following.

As discussed in the previous section, traditional Irish surnames developed first as patronyms before becoming hereditary and then undergoing Anglicization. As the term suggests, a patronym derives from the forename (or personal name) of one’s father or ancestor, which is prefixed by Mac, Mc, M’, or O’. The primary meaning of such surnames comes from these components (a forename and prefix); and is to convey a genealogical relationship or lineage. This is achieved by the use of the prefixes, which have specific meanings. The prefixes Mac, Mc, M’ mean “son of,” while the prefix O’ means “grandson of” or “descendant of.” Hence, the literal meaning of a patronym is “son of,” “grandson of,” or “descendant of” a given person whose forename was used to create the surname. In order for clarity, it is important to remember that the original Irish spelling of the Kernan surname was Mag/Mac Thighearnáin or Mag/Mac Tíghearnán, which was then Anglicized into more familiar forms including Kernan or Kiernan (see “Etymology of the Kernan Surname” above). The components of this surname are the prefix Mag or Mac and the forename Thighearnáin or Tíghearnán. Thus, the surname literally means “son of Thighearnáin” or “son of Tíghearnán,” indicating a familial or genealogical relationship. Table 3 below illustrates the relationship between the principal components of the surname (prefix and forename) and its meaning as a patronym from the original Gaelic form of the surname.

Table 3: Meaning of the Surname as a Patronym from the Gaelic Form
Prefix + Forename = Meaning
Mag, Mac, Mc (“Son of”) + Thighearnáin or Tighearnán = Son of Thighearnáin or Tighearnán

Of course, this raises the question as to whom the familial or genealogical relationship is with; or rather, who Thighearnáin or Tíghearnán actually was. As mentioned above, many accounts of the Kernan surname (and its variations) and the origins of those bearing it claim descent from Tighearnán Mór Ua Ruairc (or Tiernán O’Rourke), who was King of Breifne between AD 1124 and 1172. Other accounts regarding the surname and origins of those bearing it alternatively claim descent from Chiefs that ruled over the barony of Teallach-Dunchadha, specifically Tighearnán Mac Maenuigh, who was Chief of Teallach-Dunchadha between AD 1080 and 1120. The surname was taken by his son and heir Amhlaoibh Mág Tighearnán (or “Amhlaoibh Son of Tighearnán”), who was Chief of Teallach-Dunchadha between AD 1120 and 1160. Still other accounts claim descent from Tighearnán O’Connor, a grandson of Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair (or Turlough Mór O’Connor), who was King of Connacht from AD 1106 to 1156 and High King of Ireland from AD 1120 to 1156. It is also highly likely that additional individuals named Thighearnáin or Tíghearnán could have been the originator of the surname, as the surname is considered to be “polygenetic” or arising independently in different places or at different times in Ireland. (See “Kernan Family Origins” for more details.)

Although the Kernan surname is an Anglicized patronym and its meaning is best understood in this context, its meaning can also be understood in terms of the root word of the forename upon which the surname is based. In fact, many Irish surnames derive from specific root words that have a meaning. As already stated, the Kernan surname in its Gaelic form was originally spelled Mag/Mac Thighearnáin or Mag/Mac Tíghearnán and the forename upon which it is based is Thighearnáin or Tíghearnán. According to several sources, including Rev. Patrick Woulfe’s Irish Names and Surnames (1923), Henry Harrison’s Surnames of the United Kingdom (1912), Patrick Hanks’ The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (2016), Dictionary of American Family Names (2013), and the Internet Surname Database, Thighearnáin or Tíghearnán is a diminutive of the Gaelic word “tighearna,” which is also spelled “ticcherna,” “tigerna,” and “tiarna.” Although the meaning of “tighearna” depends upon its use, it generally means “lord.” This meaning of the Gaelic word “tighearna” is used in both a religious sense of “Lord,” as in “Ár dTiarna Íosa Críost” (“Our Lord Jesus Christ”), and as a title of either nobility or distinction, as in “Tiarna na mhainéar” (“lord of the manor”). It is this latter use that is commonly found in the Annals of the Four Masters, a medieval history of Ireland. Generally, the word “tighearna” is used in this text to refer to a lord of a people or clan, lord of a region, and even a king or high lord (“Ard Tiarna”).  For example, in the third volume of the Annals of the Four Masters, the variant spelling of “ticcherna” is used to refer to Tighearnán Mór Ua Ruairc (or Tiernán O’Rourke) as King or Lord of Breifne while recording the circumstances of his death. As noted in this text:

“Ticchernan Ua Ruairc ticcherna Breifne agus Conmaicne agus fer cumhachta móir fri re fhota do mharbhadh (.i. i Tlachtgha) la Hugó De Laci i fiull agus la Domhnall Mac Annadha Uí Ruairc dia chenél fesin boi imaille friu.” Translated into English this passage reads: “Tiernan O’Rourke, Lord of Breifny and Conmaicne, a man of great power for a long time, was treacherously slain at Tlachtgha by Hugo de Lacy and Donnell, the son of Annadh O’Rourke, one of his own tribe, who was along with them.” (Annals of the Four Masters, M1172.4)

The use of the root word “tighearna” (spelled here as “ticcherna”) to mean “lord” as a title is clear from this passage. The more familiar spelling of “tigherna” is also used in other references in the Annals of the Four Masters for Tighearnán Mór Ua Ruairc in which he frequently appears as “Tighernáin Ui Ruairc, tigherna Breifne” (“Tighearnan Ua Ruairc, lord of Breifne”).

In addition to the meaning of “lord,” the Gaelic word “tighearna” can also mean “master” or “ruler.” It is from the meaning of “master” that the Kernan surname (and its variations) has been Anglicized by translation into the surnames “Masters,” “Masterson,” and “Masterton” in much the same way as the surname “Lord” became a surname for some who originally bore either the original Gaelic spelling or a more familiar Anglicization of the surname. Table 4 below illustrates the meaning of the surname in terms of the root word of the forename upon which the surname is based.

Table 4: Meaning of the Surname from the Root Word of the Forename
Forename Root Word Meaning
Thighearnáin or Tíghearnán Tighearna (also spelled Ticcherna, Tigerna, Tiarna) Lord, Master, Ruler

Although the root word “tighearna” is regarded as the root word associated with the Kernan surname (and its variations), others are also noted in some instances. Henry Harrison’s Surnames of the United Kingdom (1912), for example, includes some additional root words. One of these root words is “ciar,” which is Gaelic for “dark,” “of a dark complexion,” “dark-haired,” or figuratively “gloomy” or “stern.” Another root word is “carn,” which is Gaelic for a “heap of stones,” a “pile of stones,” or figuratively a “strong man” or a “stout man.” Yet another root word is “cearnach,” which is Gaelic for “victorious.” Each of these other root words, however, are for forenames other than Thighearnáin or Tíghearnán and surnames other than those surnames that have their origin from the Mag/Mac Thighearnáin or Mag/Mac Tíghearnán surname, though variations of these other surnames may be similar to those of the Mag/Mac Thighearnáin or Mag/Mac Tíghearnán surname including Kiernan or Kernan. In the case of the root word “ciar,” one forename is “Ciarnán” from which surnames like Mac Ciarnáin, McCiarnan, or O’Ciarnáin have emerged. The Kiernan surname is thought to be a variation of this surname in some cases. Another forename is “Ciarán,” from which surnames like O’Ciaráin, O’Kieran, Kieran, or Kerans, among others, have emerged. In the case of “carn,” one forename is “Carnan” from which surnames like Mac Carnáin, McCarnan, or Carnan have emerged.  Another forename possibly associated with this root word is “Cuirnean.” Finally, in the case of “cearnach,” the forename is “Cearnachán,” from which surnames like O’Cearnacháin, O’Kernaghan, Kernaghan, Kernahan, or Carnahan have emerged. The O’Kernan and Kernan surnames are thought to be variations of this surname in some cases. Although it is certainly possible that the Kernan or Kiernan surnames exists as a variation of any of these surnames, as with Kernan from Kernaghan, and thus deriving from these root words, they are not the most likely or the most commonly considered etymologies or meanings.

What is clear from this discussion is there are two ways in which the meaning of the Kernan surname (and its variations) can be understood. The first is the meaning of the surname as a patronym, which is to convey a familial or genealogical relationship. This is understood, in the case of the Kernan surname, by the combination of the prefix Mag, Mac, or Mc, meaning “son of,” and the forename Thighearnáin or Tighearnán from the original Gaelic form of the surname, which means “Son of Thighearnáin or Tighearnán.” The second way of understanding the meaning of the surname is in terms of the root word of the forename upon which the surname is based. In the case of the Kernan surname, the forename Thighearnáin or Tíghearnán is a diminutive of the Gaelic word “tighearna,” which means “lord,” “master,” or “ruler.”

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Published 03/21/2014. Last Updated 08/18/2017.

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