The Kernan Surname

The Kernan surname has a fascinating history and meaning that provides some interesting insights into the family’s history in general. To that end, the following discusses what is presently known about the Kernan surname itself.

Original Spelling of the Surname

For about the past 130 years or so, the Kernan surname has been primarily spelled “Kernan” by most in the family. Oral family history and family records, 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,” making it “Kiernan.” A family group sheet detailing information from the Bible of Delmar Clair Kernan (1908-1979) shows the spelling for the surname of Delmar’s grandfather, Owen Francis Kiernan (1836-1901), as being “Kiernan.”

The Kernan Family Group Sheet for Owen Kiernan showing his birthplace as being "Northern Ireland."

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 Francis Kiernan (1836-1901), enumerated with the “Kiernan” spelling of the surname. A possible earlier record is the 1851 Canadian 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 Francis Kiernan (1836-1901). In addition to these, several records for some of the other children of Felix Kiernan (ca. 1796-1882) shows the surname as being spelled “Kiernan.”

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 easier to both pronounce and spell to the American ear. Additionally, when this spelling change occurred or became fixed is also unknown. However, a survey of available historical records suggests that the “Kiernan” and “Kernan” spellings of the surname were used interchangeably in 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 surname spelling 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 on 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.

Some Unusual or Alternate Spellings

Despite the fact that the surname is spelled as either “Kiernan” or “Kernan” on most records for the family, moreover, it should be noted that there are a few instances in which the surname is spelled significantly different than Kiernan, Kernan, or any other usual variant spellings, on historical records for the family.

Although the surname appears as Kiernan (or Kernan) on the family’s enumeration on the 1851 Canadian Census, there are two instances found on handwritten Canadian birth/baptismal records for two of the children of Felix Kiernan (ca. 1796-1882) and his wife, Martha Rose Sheridan (ca. 1797-?), in which it 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, appears 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 Francis Kiernan (1836-1901), whose surname appears as “Connon,” as does Felix’s in the text portion of the record. As with Mary’s record, Felix’s surname appears 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.

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 Co., Minnesota and their surnames spelled “Connon.”

In each of these 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. Although it is likely that these spellings are Francization of the Kiernan/Kernan surname, it is worth pointing out that Connon is usually an Anglicization of the Irish surname McConnon, which was originally spelled MacCanann and is, like Kiernan, numerously found in Ulster Provence. Nevertheless, the family’s surname never appears with either the “Cairnon” or the “Connon” spelling after 1857; in fact, the surname appears as “Kiernan” on the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, which was also enumerated in Sibley County. Additionally, 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.”

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 (ca. 1796-1882). 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 “Math Cearns” age 40 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 inconsistences, 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."

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 Edward Kernan (1884-1960) 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 Francis Kiernan (1836-1901) 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 the surname appears 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 family in general, with the “Kernan” spelling being the most frequently used on historical documents in the United States. The following chart 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.)

Record Year Surname Spelling
Quebec Birth & Baptismal Record (Mary) 1832 Cairnon / Kernan
Quebec Birth & Baptismal Record (Owen) 1836 Connon / Kernan
1851 Canadian 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

Anglicization 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/Kiernan surname changed over time more than once. Policies and laws imposed under British rule regarding surname spellings in Ireland transformed Irish surnames from their original Gaelic spelling to a more Anglicized spelling. Additionally, the use of patronymic prefixes (e.g., Mac, Mc, and O) was often abandoned over time, particularly following a rise in hostility towards the practice during the Tudor period. During and after the Plantations of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries many Irish felt that social and economic advancement would come quicker if they abandoned some of the more traditional aspects of their culture, particularly surname spellings and conventions, which were long viewed by the British to be a sign of the Irish’s rejection of their authority.

Undoubtedly reflecting these historic turns in Irish history, accounts regarding the etymology of the Kernan/Kiernan surname show a gradual Anglicization of the surname. These accounts generally state that the “Kiernan” spelling of the surname is itself an Anglicized spelling of “MacKiernan” (or “McKiernan”). Likewise, “MacKiernan” (or “McKiernan”) is an Anglicized spelling of “MacTiernan” (or “McTiernan”). Furthermore, the “MacTiernan” (or “McTiernan”) spelling of the surname is itself an Anglicized spelling of the traditional Gaelic spelling of “MagTíghearnán” (or “Mac Thighearnáin”). It should be noted that this discussion of the Anglicization of the Kernan surname from MagTíghearnán to Kernan is etymological, rather than genealogical in the case of our Kernan family. Presently, generations prior to about 1796 have not been discovered, making any proof of the use of all of these historical variations of the surname impossible to fully claim, however likely it might be. Nevertheless, having an understanding of how the Kernan surname likely came into existence is important.The following chart summarizes the transformation of the Kernan surname from MagTíghearnán to Kernan.

Anglicization of the Kernan Surname

The Anglicization of Irish surnames, moreover, had the result of creating a significant amount of confusion for many Irish regarding the true origins of their surname, both etymologically and within Ireland. Although this is particularly true for Irish who adopted surnames common in England that sounded similar to their Irish surname (e.g., O’Mordha to Moore), it is also true of Irish surnames that underwent a phonetic transformation. The Kernan/Kiernan surname is no exception, though not to the extent experienced by other Irish surnames. For persons bearing the Kernan/Kiernan surname there are five significant lines that are usually identified for possible origins. The first, and most numerous, are those descending from the original bearers of the MacKiernan surname (or its variations) that were a sept of the Kingdom of Breifne (Counties Cavan and Leitrim), and mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters about thirty-three times as principally being the Lords (Chiefs or Barons) of Teallach-Dunchadha (Tullyhunco) in Country Cavan. The second are those bearing the MacKiernan surname (or its variations) that were a branch of the O’Connors in County Roscommon who were descended from Tighearnan, the grandson of Turlough Mor O’Connor, King of Ireland. The third are those bearing the MacKiernan surname (or its variations) that were a branch of the Maguires (MacGuire) of County Farmanagh who were formerly chiefs of Clann Fearghaile. The fourth are those bearing the MacKiernan surname (or its variations) that originally bore variations of the O’Tighearnán surname, including O’Ternane, O’Tiernan, Tiernan, Ternan, and Tierney, who are primarily from County Mayo, though also found in County Westmeath. The fifth are those bearing the MacKiernan surname (or its variations) that originally bore variations of the Ó’Cearnacháin surname, including O’Kernaghan, O’Kernan, Carnahan, Kernaghan, Kernahan, and possibly McCarnan and Cernan, who are primarily from Counties Donegal, Mayo, and Sligo.

The following chart summarizes these five significant lines that are usually identified for possible origins for persons bearing the Kernan/Kiernan surname.

Line Counties Surnames
Breifne, Teallach-Dunchadha (now Tullyhunco) Cavan and Leitrim MagTíghearnán, MacTiernan, MacTiernan, MacKiernan, MacKernan Kiernan, Kernan, Tiernan, Ternan, Tierney
O’Connor Roscommon MagTíghearnán, MacTiernan, MacTiernan, MacKiernan, MacKernan Kiernan, Kernan, Tiernan, Ternan, Tierney
Maguires (MacGuire)
or Clan Fearghaile
Farmanagh MagTíghearnán, MacTiernan, MacTiernan, MacKiernan, MacKernan Kiernan, Kernan, Tiernan, Ternan, Tierney
O’Tiernan Mayo and Westmeath O’Tighearnán, O’Ternane, O’Tiernan, Tiernan, Ternan, and Tierney
O’Kernan Donegal, Mayo, and Sligo Ó’Cearnacháin, O’Kernaghan, O’Kernan, Carnahan, Kernaghan, Kernahan, and possibly McCarnan and Cernan

It has been claimed, moreover, that all persons bearing the Kiernan/Kernan surname fall into one of these five lines. The Anglicization of Irish surnames, however, have made the identification of which line a particular family originates from very difficult, particularly for those bearing the surname that have immigrated from Ireland. The greatest hope in making sense of the confusion brought on by the Anglicization of Irish surnames is in genetic research tied to surnames, which can be used to establish whether all (or most) bearers of a particular surname are in fact related. Genetic research conducted by Dr. Tyrone Bowes of Irish Origenes has concluded that the Kiernan surname has a significant genetic concentration in Counties Longford, Cavan, Leitrim, and Westmeath, with the “genetic homeland” most likely being County Longford.

Meaning of the Kernan Surname

Apart from the etymological history of the Kernan surname, what is known about the meaning of the surname is equally fascinating.

Typically, there are two aspects of the Irish surname by which its meaning can be understood. The first aspect is typological, in that many Irish surnames are patronymic in etymology. Prior to about the 11th century, a patronymic system of surnames existed in Ireland. After this time, surnames, though still patronymic in etymology, became fixed and hereditary, changing only due to Anglicization or to meet the demands or fashions of the time. As the term suggests, a patronymic surname derives from the personal name of one’s father or other ancestor typically prefixed in Ireland by Mac, Mc, M’, or O’. The primary meaning of a patronymic surname, moreover, is to convey lineage. The prefixes commonly found in Irish surnames (Mac, Mc, M’, and O’) indicate “son of” or “grandson of.” With respect to the Kernan/Kiernan surname, its original spelling of MacTiernan (MagTíghearnán) is needed to understand the surname in terms of being a patronym. Given the fact that “Mac” translates as “son of,” the surname can be understood to mean “Son of Tiernan” (Son of Tíghearnán). With this said, it is natural to wonder who Tiernan was. The fact that Tiernan was a particularly popular personal name, especially among the chiefs of the O’Rourkes, it is not clear which Tiernan in history the surname references. However, it is typically claimed that the Tiernan referenced in the MacTiernan surname (and its variations) is that of Tiernán O’Rourke (Tighearnán Mór Ua Ruairc), who ruled the Kingdom of Bréifne (modern Counties Cavan and Leitrim) as the 19th king in its Ua Ruairc (later O’Rourke) dynasty from about 1124 AD until his death in 1172 AD. However, it is unclear how much of this claim is fact or a well repeated Irish legend.

In addition to a typological meaning, Irish surnames can also be understood by the meaning of the word from which the personal name that the patronym is based derives. With respect to the Kernan/Kiernan surname, its original spelling of MacTiernan (MagTíghearnán) is needed to identify the word from which the patronym derives. In the case of MacTiernan, the personal name is Tiernan (Tighearnán), and this personal name is a diminutive of the Gaelic word “tighearna” (“tigerna”), which is a byname meaning “lord” or “master.” Given this meaning, it is not too difficult to see why it was a favorite name among the chiefs of O’Rourke. Although this is the most widely recognized meaning of the surname, including in the most recent academic works on the subject, others have been proposed over the years. One of these claims that the surname derives from the Gaelic word “cuirnean,” which means “the high rock” or “a small heap of stones.” Another of these claims that the surname derives from the Gaelic word “carnan,” which means “a heap” or figuratively “a strong or stout man.” Still another claims that the surname derives from the Celtic word “cuirnin,” which means “a bush.” Finally, another claims that the surname derives from the Gaelic word “cearnach,” which means “victorious.”

Although fascinating, these other proposed meanings of the surname, are not considered to be accurate with respect to the Kernan/Kiernan surname, though they may be true in the case of other, closely spelled surnames. The proposal of “cearnach” as the word from which the surname derives, for example, is thought to be more accurately applied to the Ó’Cearnacháin surname and its variations.

The following chart summarizes the proposed root words from which the Kernan/Kiernan surname is said to derive from, as well as their meanings.

Proposed Root Word Meaning
Tighearna Lord; master
Cuirnean The high rock; a small heap of stones
Carnan A heap; a strong or stout man (figurative)
Cuirnin A bush
Cearnach Victorious

Sources

Details regarding the history, transformation, and meaning of the Kernan/Kiernan surname came from the Dictionary of American Family Names (via Ancestry.com), the Internet Surname Database website, The Irish Times website, Edward MacLysaght’s Irish Families, William Arthur’s An Etymological Dictionary of Family and Christian Names (via Forebears), Rev. Patrick Woulfe’s Irish Names and Surnames, and John O’Hart’s Irish Pedigrees. Details about genetic origins of the surname came from the Irish Origenes website. General sources about Irish surnames include Wikipedia entries for Patronymic and Irish Surname.

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