Extracted from The Heffernan's and Their Times by Patrick
Heffernan M.D., Published by James Clarke & Co., Ltd.
Click here for local Corofin history
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father, and refuse thy name . . .
What's in a name?
DESPITE their glorious special pleading Romeo and Juliet both
knew that there is much in a name-much that cannot be ignored.
To know, for example, that a Scotsman is a Campbell, a Lovat or
is to know a good deal about him. Many names are veritable
historical portmanteaux, carrying, in small compass, the history
of a race.
The name "Heffernan", which, as a family
surname should, of course,
be written "O'Heffernan"
or "O'Hiffernan", is the anglicised version of the Irish
"Ua h-Ifearnain" in which form the name appears to
been first mentioned in Irish historical records in connection
year 1047, when Madadhan Ua h-Ifearnain,
Chief of Clan
Creccain, was slain by Nial, son of Malachy, the high king, in
Brega. (Annals of Ulster, Four Masters, etc.)
The name next appears in the Annals against the year 1150,
and the reference is now to a different clan, coming of different
stock from the Hiffernans of Brega: "AD 1150. An army was
led by Turlogh O'Brien
to the lake of the O'Gowans, in Machaire-Gaeleang
(now Moregallion in Meath) and he plundered Slane. Ua Cearbhaill
(O'Carroll) and Ua Ruiarc (O'Rourke) overtook them, and slew some
of their people, among
whom was the son of Ua h-Ifearnain."
To this entry O'Donovan subjoins a note: "Now Heffernan".
This family was seated in the territory of Uaithne Cliach, now
the barony of Owney, in the north-east of the
There were, therefore, two families or clans of Hiffernans, coming
of different stocks, in Ireland, one in Brega in Meath, the other,
a Dalcassian clan from Clare, in Owney, Co. Limerick.
Much controversy has centred round the origin and meaning
of the name "Ifearnan", and at present there are several
irreconcilable theories in the matter. The first, the oldest,
and that most generally held, is
that "Ifearnan" is
a later Irish pronunciation and phonetic spelling of the old Gaelic
"Eichthighearnan" (pronounced "Eachcheernan")
which, in its turn, is "Eichthighearn", with honorific
(suffix of endearment) "an" added. Now "Eichthighern"
(Eachcheern) is ordinarily anglicised "Ahearn", a name
which is still very common in Cork and other parts of Southern
Ireland, and if this theory is correct "Heffernan" is
simply an honorific form of "Ahearn ", the anglicised
form of" Eichthighern ", meaning, literally," horse-lord"
("eich", a horse, "thighearna", lord). This
derivation is supported by Professor John
MacNeill, and the evidence
in its favour is very strong. On many occasions and on many documents
and inscriptions we find the name of a single individual spelled
O'Hiffernan, O'Hyfernayn, and O'Hearnan,
sometimes even O'Hernon,
as in the case of Aeneas O'Hiffernan, Bishop of Emly, '543-53,
whose name appeared in Crockford under the latter guise. Various
other more or less corrupt versions are found from
time to time,
such as Hyveron, Hifferan, Heifron, and so on. In Brega, the O'Fearnons
and O'Farnans would appear to represent the old Clan Creccain
to-day as well as the O'Heffernans, while in Westmeath, Multifernan,
"Ifearnan's Mill" has actually been corruptly anglicised
to "Multifarnham", as Rathfernan, near Dublin, has been
corrupted to "Rathfarnham".
If we accept the etymological identity of these names, we
find that in the very early days of Irish Christianity David O'Farnan
was Bishop of Armagh from AD 551 to 558, "Eietigern"
was Bishop of Kildare from
709 to 762, and "Echthigern"
Bishop of Meath from 1177 to 1191. Furthermore, the name persisted
in the west of Scotland as "Mac Eachern", "MacEchan"
and "MacKern", and the derivation was there well
and understood. The Mac Eacherns were a Sept of the MacDonnells
(or MacDonalds), and were domiciled at Craiguish and Appin, in
northern Argyll. It will be remembered that the trusty Highlander
who attended Flora MacDonald and Prince Charles Edward when the
latter disguised himself as "Betty Burke, an Irish spinning
girl") in their journey from South Uist to the Isle of Skye,
in 1746, was Neil
MacEchan. The latter always regarded himself
as a MacDonnell (as he always wrote the name); and his son Sandy
MacDonneU, otherwise Etienne Jacques Joseph Alexandre MacDonald,
an officer in Dillon's
regiment of the Irish Brigade, became Duke
of Tarentum and a Marshal of France under Napoleon. (O'Callaghan,
Irish Brigades, p.460.) A considerable part of the lands of the
MacEacherns was overrun by the Campbells, some as early as the
twelfth century; and many of the Sept were forced to join the
Campbell clan, and even to adopt the Campbell name. Many MacEacherns
emigrated to Canada and the United
States when the High-lands
were cleared of their population to make way for sheep in the
eighteenth century, and there are more MacEacherns now in America
and Australia than there are in Scotland. Sir
was a shipping magnate in Australia at the end of the century.
The name of another Malcolm MacEachern is well known to those
who listen in to our radio broadcasts to day, and the
very strong in Western Canada. It is interesting to note that
one line of the MacEacherns steadfastly adhered to the "old
religion", and furnishes a well-known philosopher and theologian
intelligentsia of the Church today.
At this stage, one naturally enquires who or what were those
chieronaces or Gaelic "horselords"? Were they professional
horse-breeders, horse-tamers, horse-breakers, roughriders; or
whom the ancient Irish, in their grand eloquence,
glorified with the name of" horse-lords"? Or were they
Gaelic mounted knights, equites or caballeros? De Blacam has pointed
out that names of this character
were common in Old Irish, and
that the relation of the great Gaelic lords with the "horse-taming
Acheans" of Homer, the fair-hared race of Celtic invaders
from the head of the Adriatic: the "Master-race" of
Greece who conquered the Pelagians or old Greeks, as the Gaels
did the Danaan, Cruitime and Muscraighe in Ireland, is manifest
in the stress that is laid on horse mastership and the like in
early Irish names.
There are some, however, who would refer the Eichthighearn
back to the Danaan civilisation, and would place them with the
"ever-young"; the "Princes of the Sidhe, who will
never know death or immortality,
but flourish in their beauty
and splendour, till on the last day they vanish utterly the noble
steeds of the Tuatha Danaan were shod with silver, had bridles
of precious plaited gold and no slave was allowed to ride
. . . the knights of the Tuatha Danaan, riding in a stately procession,
each with a star like jewel on his forehead; all such as were
kings had folded grass-green mantles fringed with the precious
casques crested with living blooms on their heads, each
having in his long fine hand a delicate golden spear". (Marjorie
Bowen, Brave Employments, 1931.)
The Second Theory
The second theory regarding the derivation of the name is
that it is derived from "Ernan" or "Earnan"
("the Wise One"), and that the "f" in "Ifearnain"
is an example of the introduction of adventitious consonants
the Bards, just as they converted "Eirean" into "Ivernen"
and "Gaill" into "Gaoidhill", for purposes
of bombast and pomposity, and to suit the exigencies of their
Dr. O'Brien, Bishop of Cloyne, tells us that this practice
corrupted and disguised the radical formation and structure of
words, and has been woefully destructive to the original and radical
purity of the Irish
language". The absurd modern Irish spelling
of such simple names as " Conor "and" Donel"
is a typical example of this pernicious practice.
There is no doubt that in the past many of the O'Hiffernans
preferred to spell their name " O'Hearnan" or "
O'Hernan", and all three spellings were often used in the
case of the same individual.
The Third Theory
The "Ernans" were Milesians of the Clanna Deaghaldh;
Conaire the second, King of Ireland AD 183, who married Sara,
daughter of Conn of-the-hundred-battles, was one of them, and
the Scottish Stuarts are said
to be descended from them. Vide
Gleeson, Rev. John, History of Ancient Ormond, 1915.)
And here, in the golden mists of Celtic mythology, we might
well have left the ancestors of the "horse-lords", were
it not for the fact that the third suggested derivation of the
name "Ifearnan" brings us back
again to the questionable
company of the "ever-young" in Tir na n'Oge, and to
"dalliance with a demon thing". There is an Irish word
"ifernn" or "ifearnn", of late introduction,
derived from the Latin "infernus",
" is derived from" Patricius ", and meaning "the
infernal regions", or "Hell". There was no "hell"
in Gaelic mythology; the Gaelic Elysian Fields were in Tir na
n'Oge, the land of the ever young. Some
of our modern Irish scribes,
who are nothing if not realists, stoutly maintain that the name
O'Hiffernan or Ua h-Ifearnain means, bluntly, "Spawn of Hell",
and leave it at that. Monstrous as this suggestion seems,
immediately be ruled out of court. Surnames did not come into
general or popular use in Ireland until the eleventh century.
The practice of giving nicknames to individuals, however, enjoyed
vogue, and these nicknames often "stuck", and
were passed on to succeeding generations.
The Dalcassian O'Heffernans of Tipperary and Limerick as distinguished
from another tribe of the same name in Brega which came of different
stock-began with "Iffernan" son of Corc, who was sixth
descent from Angus (Eneas) Cean Aithin, a younger son
of Cormac Cas from whom all the families of the Dal Cais are descended.
The name Eneas or AEneas remains a Hiffernan family name to this
Aithin" means, literally, "furze-head",
which cognomen is usually taken to mean either that Eneas's hair
stood out en brosse, like a bush of Irish furze, or alternatively
that it was of such a brilliant golden
colouring that it resembled
a gorse bush in full bloom. If Cean Aithin's descendant inherited
his ancestor's fiery colouring the term "blazing" or
"blazes" might have been applied to him, whence the
intensification to "hell's blazes " or "blazing
hell" would not have been impossible when we allow for the
habit of the Gael to exaggerate and use strong language, a habit
from which bards and chroniclers were
not exempt. Indeed, the
term "little devil" became almost one of endearment,
while "poor devil" meant a deserving but unlucky sufferer
from misfortune. In later times Dublin was to have its "Hell
Fire Club", and
the engine driver who drove the first passenger
train from Waterford to Limerick was locally known as "Hell-fire
Jack". On the other hand the term" fiery" or"
blazing" may have referred to the temperament or disposition
of the descendant of Eneas of the furze-head, rather than to his
There is another possibility, even if a remote one, which
may be considered. If the descendant of Cean Aithin was a pagan,
and remained so, he may have chosen to associate himself with
the Fenian heroes,
with Finn and Oscar and Dairmud rather than
with Patrick. For, with the establishment of Christianity, Tir
na n'Oge had become "Ifern", and the heroes of the Fianna
were the "Cinel-Ifern", the "legion of the
Furthermore, it has been shown that the identification of
the "Cinel Ifearn" with "hell folk" is a recent
and modern attempt to Christianise a conception, which belongs
to a time before Herod became
Procurator of Judea. The Brythonic
"Yffern" or "Uffern", also known as "annwn"
or "Caer Sidi", was an immortal world beyond the sea,
like the Gaelic Hy Brasil. When Arthur visited it he gained possession
the magic cauldron, a pagan-Celtic Holy Grail, which furnishes
inexhaustible food, but "will not boil the food of a coward".
In a "land grown meek and holy" the Cinel Ifearn may
have been regarded as" spawn
of hell ", but in pagan
Gaeldom they were brilliant folk who came, trailing their clouds
of glory, from Tir na n'Oge. (Vide Preiddeu Annwfn, in the Book
of Taleissin, quoted by Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic
London, 1911, p.353.)
It is now generally recognised that the Irish Gaels were by
no means enamoured of St. Patrick's teaching in these matters,
and that the great majority of the saint's early converts belonged
to the Pictish or
Cruithne race who spoke his language, who did
not understand Gaelic, and who had no part in Gaelic tradition.
St. Patrick's Christianity was austere and even bitter. There
was often little of the milk of human kindness in it. But what
the Gaels could not stomach was the fact that Patrick put all
their ancient heroes in hell. Everybody who is interested in Irish
literature in the English tongue will have read Stephen
great ode on the interview between Usheen and Patrick. Usheen,
the Irish Rip Van Winkle, returned to find heroic Ireland
"A land grown meek and holy,
A land of mass and bell,
Under the hope of Heaven
Under the fear of Hell."
St. Patrick converts and baptises him, and then in order to
demonstrate to him what he had escaped, shows him Hell. Looking
down, what did Usheen see? All his old companions, all the Irish
in a never-ending war with the demons; his own
father Fin MacCool, wrestling with them, Oscar smiting with his
blade, Diarmud poising his javelin, Conan, Lugach; and, last but
not least, the Champion of the
Fianna, Goll MacMorna, "winding
a monstrous flail", and so clearing a lane through the ranks
of the devils for the advance of his men.
But MacMorna's labours were like those of Sisyphus. For, as
soon as victory appeared in sight, the "tug "-or "gad"
as it is called in Tipperary-which formed the hinge of Goll's
flail, broke, and all the ground
gained was lost again; while,
with his shield in front of him, Goll tore at the sinews and entrails
of the slain to repair his flail, until, the repair effected,
he again rejoined his men. Usheen watched the ebb and
the never-ending fight with a hungry look in his eyes.
Patrick watched him anxiously. Taking pity on his distress
he offered Usheen whatever he asked for, to mitigate the torments
of his old companions and relatives. Usheen's response was unexpected.
man turned on Patrick "with an eye as fierce as an
eagle and a voice like a trumpet's ring".
I ask no help of the Father,
I ask no help of the Son;
Nor of the Holy Spirit
Forever three in one.
This for my only asking,
And then let might prevail,
'Patrick, give Gull MacMorna
An iron tug to his flail'."
Even if Tir na n'Óge, the land of the ever-young, had
become "Ifearn", what more attractive Heaven could a
Gael desire than a great and everlasting fight? Hence it may not
have been outside the bounds of
possibility that the son of Aengus
of the Fiery Head preferred the song of the flail of Goll MacMorna
to the tinkle of the Matin bell of Patrick, and was given the
name of "Ifearn".
As a contrast to the suggested identification of the clan
with the Cinel Ifearn, O'Hart writes "some derive Heffernan
from the Irish 'Afrion', the Mass or Eucharistic Offering",
a hypothesis which would appear to
be even more untenable.
Much more plausible is the suggestion that Ua h-Ifearn refers
back to Eibher or Heber, the son of Milesius, who took southern
Ireland for his portion, as Heremon did Northern Ireland. Liam
Dall O'Heffernan, in
a poem the manuscript of which is preserved
in the British Museum, asks "Where are the hosts of Brian
Boru?" and begins his list with "Eibhear, son of Miles".
William, who was not without family pride, knew
that there had
been many Miles O'Hiffernans in his family.
The last suggested derivation of the name is from the Graeco-Latin
"Hivernen", a late variant of "lerne" or "Hibernia".
Dr. Oliver Gogarty quotes Claudian, "the poet of the decline":
" . . . Totam cum Scottus
Hivernen Movit et infesto spumavit
remige Tethys." "When the Gael disturbed the whole of
Ireland, and Ocean boiled beneath the onset of his oars."
According to this view the Ua h Ifearn are the grandchildren
The reader, having (as I hope) paid his money, can take his
choice. Personally I plump for the derivation from the Chieronaces
or horse-lords, mainly because it was the version I was told in
before the old Ireland was buried "with O'Leary
in the grave" and our new "realists" began to broadcast
what Gogarty calls "the slag of modern languages which are
translating themselves into Irish words". My grandmother,
who spoke Irish well, although she was of Cromwellian descent,
being a cousin of the Fenian poet, Charles Kickham, told me that
the Ahearns were our cousins -many generations removed. Be
as it may, we are, at least, both of the old Dalcassian breed
of North Munster, with the O'Briens, the O'Cahals and the O'Hartigans,
descendants of Cormac.
Extracted from The Heffernan's and Their Times by Patrick
Heffernan M.D., Published by James Clarke & Co., Ltd.