History
Home Tipperary 1998 Genealogy Corofin

 

Extracted from The Heffernan's and Their Times by Patrick Heffernan M.D., Published by James Clarke & Co., Ltd.

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Clan 1998 Gathering

"Ó'HIFFERNÁN"

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 a McDonnell
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
have been first mentioned in Irish historical records in connection with the 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
County Limerick." 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.

 

 

First Theory

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
(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
recognised 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
Malcolm MacEachern 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
family is 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 to the
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 horse-thieves,
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
them . . . 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 gold, and
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
by 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 versification.

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",
as "Padraig " 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,
it cannot 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 a prior
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 in direct
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 day. "Cean
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 appearance.

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
lost-ones".

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 of
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
Countries, 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
Gwynn's 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 heroes, engaged
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
flow of 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. The old
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".

 

Other Meanings

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.

Final meaning?

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
of Ireland.

 

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 my childhood,
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
that 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.