Coffey Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Coffey Surname Meaning

This Irish surname is an anglicized form of the Gaelic O’ Cobhthaigh, meaning the descendant of Cobhthaigh, where Cobhthaigh was a tribal personal name which translated as “the victorious one.”

The Coffey name cropped up in many different parts of Ireland.  There were two Coffey septs of substance, one in SW Cork and the other in Leinster (Westmeath).

Coffee is a variant spelling found in America.

Coffey Surname Resources on The Internet

Coffey Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Munster)
  • to England, America, Canada and Australia

Ireland.  The Coffeys in Cork and Westmeath claimed descent from the Irish king Luy Mac Con, an ancestor of Cobthach Fion. 

The Cork sept in Munster belonged to Corca Laoidh (SW Cork) where the local pronunciation gave the spelling forms of Cowhig and Cowhey. Some have said that these Coffeys were related to the larger sea-faring sept of O’Driscoll in SW Cork, but there is no evidence that this was the case.

The Westmeath sept in Leinster was known as a great bardic family.  The death of the first Ó’Cobhthaigh poet was recorded there in 1415; and the most famous of these poets, Diarmait O’Cobhthaigh (Dermot O’Coffey), flourished there in the 1580’s.

However, by the time of Griffith’s Valuations of the mid-19th century, the Coffey numbers were spread more widely, although mainly in Munster.  There were more in Kerry, Tipperary and Limerick than in Cork.  In Kerry the earlier and largest numbers were in the Inveragh peninsula of SW Kerry.

There were Coffeys to be found southwest of Cork city in the vicinity of Bandon and particularly in the parishes of Enniskeane and Desertserges.  Many here emigrated in the early/mid 1800’s. In 1921 the Coffey brothers James and Timothy, IRA volunteers, were roused from their beds in Enniskeane one night and shot down by Black and Tan gunmen.

England.  Lancashire attracted Irish and Coffeys because of the industrial jobs there in the 19th century.  William and Catherine Coffey arrived in the 1850’s and settled in Salford; while James and Ann Coffey also came at that time and made their home in Liverpool. Therese Coffey, who grew up in Liverpool, was briefly Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister in 2022.

America.  The early Coffey (and Coffee) presence – as indentured servants – was in Virginia.  As such it is not possible to find out from where they originated in Ireland.

Virginia.  Two early arrivals here were:

  • Edward Coffey who was first recorded in Essex county, Virginia in 1700 when he received “his freedom, corn and clothes” from indentureship.
  • and Joshua Coffee who was released in London by the British authorities in 1730 and transported to Virginia.  He worked in the tobacco fields for fourteen years, finally gaining his freedom in 1744.

Meanwhile Hugh Coffey from county Down was reported in Augusta county, Virginia in 1747.  His descendants migrated to the Carolinas.

Edward is generally considered to have been the first Coffey in America.  He has the most descendants.  His grandson Thomas migrated to Wilkes county, North Carolina in 1778 and there were later movements to Indiana and Georgia.  In 1815 James Coffey and his family went to Wayne county, Kentucky at the request of a cousin to help with their farm and cattle. This Kentucky line was covered in Jacqueline Sexton’s 1974 book The Coffeys of Wayne County.

Coffeys left their name in Amherst county, Virginia.  Jordan Coffey was first recorded there in 1830.  The place his descendants settled in became known as Coffeytown.

Among Joshua Coffee’s descendants were:

  • John R. Coffee, born in Virginia in 1772, who was a friend and business associate of Andrew Jackson.  He served as a state militia brigadier general in Tennessee.  He was also a merchant, land speculator and slave-owner.
  • and his cousin John E. Coffee, born in Virginia ten years later, who moved with his parents to Georgia in 1800.  He fought in the War of 1812 and afterwards served as a member of the Georgia Senate.  Coffee county and General Coffee State Park in Georgia were named in his honor.

Related to John E. Coffee was John T. Coffee, a Missouri politician who was married four times and later moved to Texas.  Some of his sons and grandsons became wealthy cattlemen and bankers in Nebraska.  Charles trailed cattle from Texas to Wyoming and was elected to the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1966.

Later Coffeys.  North Carolina and Kentucky have figured here.

A. M. Coffey, familiarly known as Colonel Coff, was born in Kentucky in 1804.  His father Eli, a native of Virginia, had emigrated first to North Carolina and then, in company with Daniel Boone, to Kentucky.  A.M. Coffey meanwhile moved from Kentucky to Tennessee and onto Missouri.  In 1851 he was appointed as the Indian agent for the eastern border, of what is now known as Kansas.

Joseph Coffey, born in North Carolina and a veteran of the War of 1812, had later migrated to Kentucky.  His son Joseph Jr was a cashier at the Bank of Columbia in Kentucky.

Nathan and Sarah Coffey from North Carolina, who married in Kentucky, were among the pioneer settlers of Griggsville in Pike county, Illinois.  They reached what came to be known as Coffey Hill in 1829.  In 1850, at their Coffey Hill home, their daughter Eliza married John Porter, son of another pioneer David Porter.

Canada.  Patrick and Judith Coffey from the Bandon area of county Cork came to Nova Scotia in 1816.  They received a land grant at Lynche’s River on Cape Breton.  There they farmed on what was originally wilderness and raised nine children.

Later came two Coffey immigrants into Montreal:

  • Kieran Coffey was one of the destitute Irish emigrants forwarded there on the steamer Lord Sydenham in 1846.  Little is known about his early struggles.  But in 1877 he was able to purchase some land for his family at Albion township in Peel county, Ontario.
  • Thomas Coffey came with his parents from Limerick in 1852.  He had more success.  He made his mark as a printer and publisher of the Catholic Record newspaper which he ran from 1878 to 1912.

Australia.  A Coffey family was very much involved in the early development of Melbourne as a city.  Henry Coffey, a ship’s captain, was largely responsible for creating Sorrento, a beauty spot south of Melbourne on the Mornington Peninsula. He was also Commodore of the Royal Yacht Club in Victoria in the 1870’s.  Three of his sons were Melbourne businessmen; while a fourth was a brigadier in the army.

Coffey Surname Miscellany

The O’Cobhthaigh.  The O’Cobhthaigh in present-day Westmeath was a Brehon family known as the chief ollamhs of Uisneach where there was a Tuar Uí Cobhthaigh (Coffey’s Tower).  The Annals of the Four Masters recorded the deaths of members of the family in 1415 and 1452.

In 1546 Tadhg O’Cobhthaigh, called the “chief preceptor of Ireland in poetry,” was arrested by the Dublin administration “for his attachment to the Irish” and confined for eighteen weeks in the King’s castle. It was ‘intended that he should be put to death, but he managed to escape

Aeneas Coffey the Whisky Distiller.  Aeneas Coffey grew up in Dublin and entered the excise service there in 1800.    In this employment he had ample opportunity to observe the design and workings of whisky stills in Dublin.  Ireland was at that time, with Dublin as its centre, the world’s leading producer of whisky.

He became familiar with a design differing from the traditional copper pot alembic still commonly used in Ireland, the continuous or column still.   The column remained a relatively inefficient piece of equipment, although it did point him the way towards a cheaper and more productive way to distill alcohol.

He made his own modifications to the column still design so as to allow for a greater portion of the vapors to re-circulate into the still.  The result was much more efficient and produced a lighter spirit at higher alcohol content. Coffey patented his design in 1830.  It became the basis for every column still that has been used since.

However, at the time the main Irish distillers considered the product of the Coffey still inferior to their own traditional pot still.  This intransigence would ultimately lead to their demise, as the practice of blending and bottling in bond became commonplace.

When in 1837 Coffey established his firm of Aeneas Coffey & Sons in Dublin, he found that, unlike the Irish, the London and Scottish distillers were adopting his technology enthusiastically.  So, two years later, he and his family decamped to London.

There is no memorial to Aeneas Coffey in his native Ireland.  He died in obscurity in 1852 in London.  But he left the world of whisky a legacy few can match.

Patrick Coffey from Canada – An Imaginary Letter.  The following is the imaginary letter that might have been sent to Ireland from Nova Scotia by Patrick Coffey back in 1816.

“Hello, My name is Lawrence Cavanagh and I am a friend of Patrick Coffey who has asked me to write this letter for him as he cannot read nor write. His Irish Gaelic is very strong and I might miss a few words, but here is what he asked me to write for him.

August 25, 1816,  To my descendants whomever they be,

I have decided to leave my home in County Cork in Ireland and have sailed to Canada this past season. Things are not good back home and I do not believe they will improve. The Napoleonic wars have ceased and there is less demand for goods that we produce. I know that I would never be able to own any land, as most of it is under control of rich Englishmen who tax us to death on what we occupy. We can never seem to get ahead.

My dear wife Judith and I got married last September in her church in Kilbrittain. Father John Foley married us. Judith and I met a while back one Saturday when she was helping her father with his cows at the Shambles market up on Kilbrogan Hill in Bandon. She is a very pretty girl and very kind. I spent a lot of time courting her down along the river, and we often meet on the Bandon bridge in the evenings.

The rain this year was terrible, crops not doing well, and the muck is up to our knees. When we told our parents that we were thinking about crossing the ocean to a new land where the government is gloving land away for free, her mother cried, but her father understood that I would not be able to get much cobbler work, and never have a farm so he told us to go. Both our parents are sad, they know they will probably never see us again. I promised them I would take good care of her.

Now that we have arrived in our new country, we will look for a land grant and start our family. Judith and I want to farm and I can find work in my trade, I can use my musket to hunt deer and rabbit for food, I will fish in the nearby lakes for trout, cod, salmon, smelt, oysters and mussels. The winters are long and cold here, but the summers can be hot enough to have good crops, and the vast forests have enough timber to last forever. I feel in my heart I have made a good decision.

Patrick Coffey.”

Jack Coffey from Canada in fact won a readers’ competition with this letter in 2014.

Eli Coffey During the Revolutionary War and After.  Eli Coffey, born in Virginia in 1759, was twice a substitute soldier during the Revolutionary War.

In December 1780 he volunteered to be a scout in place of his maternal uncle Thomas Fields.  But it was only for three months and he was able to return to his home in Wilkes county, North Carolina.

Within a few months his older brother Ambrose was drafted to go against the Cherokees.  However, he was severely near-sighted and once again Eli volunteered to serve.  This time he enlisted as a horseman.  During his three-month stay there, he crossed the Tennessee river with other troops, passing through the various parts of the Cherokee Nation and burning down villages.

After the war Eli settled down to farming.  In 1815 he and his family moved to Wayne county, Kentucky where he then purchased 21 acres. In 1828 they once again moved, this time to McMinn county in Tennessee near his older brother Rice’s farm. Eli died in 1847 at the age of eighty-four.

General John E. Coffee.  John Coffee fought in the War of 1812 and rose to the rank of General. He represented Telfair county in the Georgia Legislature and was also elected three times to Congress.

He never lived to serve his third term in Congress, having died in 1836 on the eve of his third election. News traveled so slowly in those days that it is said that, although he died the day before the election, his death was not known and he was elected to serve the third term after death.

The Coffey Cousins’ Clearinghouse.  This is a US-based family organization that was founded by Leonard Coffey in 1981.  He started a newsletter at that time to bring together the loosely organized group of genealogists who were researching Coffey and Coffee ancestors. After Leonard’s death in 1989, the newsletter was taken up by Bonnie Coffey.

Members held their 2022 annual reunion in St. Louis, Missouri.

Coffey Names

  • Dermot O’Coffey was a Gaelic bard from Westmeath who flourished in the 1580’s.
  • Charles Coffey was a notable Dublin dramatist and actor of the early 1700’s.
  • John R. Coffee was a friend and business associate of US President Andrew Jackson in the early 1800’s.
  • Therese Coffey was briefly Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister in 2022.

Coffey Numbers Today

  • 5,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 14,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 14,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Coffey and Like Surnames 

The Irish clan or sept names come through the mists of time until they were found in Irish records such as The Annals of the Four Masters.  The names were Gaelic and this Gaelic order was preserved until it was battered down by the English in the 1600’s.

Some made peace with the English.  “Wild geese” fled to fight abroad.  But most stayed and suffered, losing land and even the use of their language.  Irish names became anglicized, although sometimes in a mishmash of spellings.  Mass emigration happened after the potato famine of the 1840’s.

Some surnames – such as Kelly, Murphy and O’Connor – span all parts of Ireland.  But most will have a territorial focus in one of the four Irish provinces – Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht.

Munster in SW Ireland covers the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford.  Here are some of the Munster surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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