Hennessy Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Hennessy Surname Meaning

Hennessy is an Irish surname, being the anglicized form of the Gaelic O’hAonghusa, meaning descendant of Aonghus or Angus (the chosen one). Two septs in different parts of Ireland bore this name.  

The anglicized O’Hennessy spelling was in place in the 17th century, although it has largely been displaced by Hennessy (while some have even revived the ancient O’hAonghusa name).  Hennessy and Hennessey are the main spellings today. 

Hennessey is a spelling variant found outside of Ireland – in parts of the UK, in parts of the US (in particular in Massachusetts), and in Canada. 

Hennessy Surname Resources on The Internet

Hennessy and Hennessey Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Offaly and Cork)
  • to France, America, Canada and South Africa

Ireland.  The Hennessy septs were to be found in Offaly in the Irish midlands and in county Cork in SW Ireland.

Offaly.  The sept in county Offaly pre-dated the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1170. From their base at Kilbeggan near the hill at Croghan, the O’Hennessys controlled with the O’Holohans the territory in northern Offaly close to the border with Westmeath.

“Another chief who is known to us is O’Hennesy who rules  over clan Colgan. His lands are fair beyond those of the Fenians of Fal. He closely adjoins the borders of Croghan.”  

These O’Hennessys subsequently spread into Tipperary and Clare.

Cork.  Another sept of the same name was to be found initially near Rosscarberry in west Cork.  It was from this sept that the Hennessy families, numerous in county Cork, traced their descent.

The Hennessy stronghold was Dunmahon castle in northern Cork.  Built in the early 1500’s, it was situated on a rocky outcrop above the Blackwater river near the Nagle mountains. Cromwell destroyed the castle in the 1640’s and the Hennessy lands became forfeit.  Three of the name were attainted.

Later Hennessys in this area suffered under English penal laws of the early 1700’s. Charles Hennessy departed the Blackwater valley for Ostend in 1730 to trade with other exiled Irish merchants there.  And, more famously, Richard Hennessy left his home at Ballymacnoy House near Mallow in 1740 to join Dillon’s Irish Regiment in the French army (although he never did actually fight in battle). Despite his departure Hennessys have continued to live at Ballymacnoy House to this day.  

“Frederic Hennessy, an eighth-generation descendant of Richard Hennessy, has restored the house to its former glory in recent years. In 2015 he welcomed, together with his brother Maurice, fifty five wine producers and distillers from the Cognac region to their family home.”  

There have been Ballyhennessy townships in Cork, Kerry, and Clare. Sir John Pope Hennessy, a Victorian colonial administrator who served as the Governor of Hong Kong, came from Ballyhennessy in Kerry, although he grew up in Cork.  His elder brother Henry was a physics professor.

France. Richard Hennessy, on retiring from service in the French army, made his home at Cognac in the Charente department of France. In 1765 he set up a distillery there to produce brandy. The distillery continues to this day, as does the Hennessy line in the company. Richard’s son James Hennessy, although never formally naturalized as a French citizen, became a peer of France and married into the Martell family that was already famous for its cognac.

During the 1970’s Kilian Hennessy, a fifth generation descendant of Richard, was the CEO of Hennessy and spearheaded the Moet Hennessy merger (it is now part of the LVMT luxury brand conglomerate). Kilian remained on the company’s advisory board until his death in 2010 at the age of 103.

America. Early Hennessy arrivals from Ireland were in Virginia and North Carolina.

Virginia.  A Hennessee family was first recorded in the late 1700’s in Tazewell county, Virginia. They were closely associated with a Harrison family and the two families moved together to Tennessee in the 1800’s and to Oklahoma and Texas in the 1900’s.

North Carolina. David Hennesy married his wife Margaret in New Hanover county in 1745. One son James departed for Canada after the Revolutionary War.  Another line led to the Rev. David Hennessy of the Beard’s Creek Baptist church in North Carolina and later to Louisiana. Sometimes the spelling in Louisiana became Ennis.

Patrick Hennessee came to Virginia in the 1750’s and then settled in Burke county, North Carolina. Family lore has him as part of the Offaly Hennessys. One of his sons James migrated to Tennessee. Another son John stayed in Burke county and operated a ferry across the Catawba river. Many of the Hennessees moved away from the area in 1918 after a family tragedy.

“In 1913 Gus Hennessee was involved in a dispute with a man which resulted in his injury and the death of the other man.  Gus was acquitted as it was decided that it was self-defense. But five years later 1918 Gus was shot dead by an assassin as he was stepping off a train.  The family was devastated and most of them moved away.”  

Elsewhere.  Death by shooting also characterized David Hennessy and his son David, Irish immigrants in New Orleans in the second half of the 19th century. Both were shot dead as policemen, the second David in contentious circumstances in 1890.

Canada. Hennesseys in Newfoundland date from the 1760’s when Michael Henessee arrived at St. John’s from Tipperary. He was a farmer. The Hennessey numbers there expanded in the 19th century.

Thomas Hennessey and his family came from Fermoy in county Cork to Peterborough, Ontario in 1825 under the Peter Robinson settlement program.  Thomas died soon afterwards in Emily township.  But his two eldest sons thrived and married there.

South Africa. A Hennessy family from London arrived in South Africa in the 1890’s and endured the siege of Kimberley during the Boer War. Alfred Hennessy was later knighted for his services as the founder of South Africa’s Royal Automobile Club.

Australia. Early Hennessys in Australia were convicts:

  • Richard Hennessy was given a life sentence for stealing a horse in Tipperary and transported in 1822. He did receive a ticket of leave in 1834, but died five years later in Mudgee, NSW.
  • while Micheal Hennessy was convicted (probably unjustly) of stealing money from a guest at his mother’s boarding house in Tullow, Cork. He was transported in 1828 and got his certificate of freedom seven years later. He later married and settled in the bushland region of Kurrajong in western Sydney.

James Hennessy from Offaly was an assisted immigrant who came to Melbourne in 1840.

James and Margaret Hennessy arrived as free settlers in the 1850’s from Waterford, also to Melbourne.  Their son David, born in 1858, initially joined his father’s bakery business in Fitzroy, but later grew wealthy from a number of speculative investments in Australian mining ventures. By 1890 he was able to retire from business, tour the world, enter politics, and indulge in philanthropy.

Hennessy Surname Miscellany

Hennessy and Hennessey Today

Numbers (000’s) Hennessy Hennessey
Ireland    7
UK    4    2
America    4    4
Canada    2    4
Australia/NZ    3    1
Total 20   11

O’Hennessys in County Offaly.  The ancient homeland of the O’Hennessys was the Kingdom of Ui Failghe in the Irish midlands. They shared with the O’Holohans the lordship of Clann Cholgan in northern Offaly near the border with Westmeath.  Their territory comprised what is now the barony of Lower Philipstown, a district adjoining the hill of Croghan near Kilbeggan and lying adjacent to the O’Connors in northeast Offaly.

An O’Hennessy branch was located nearer to Dublin, their chief being located at Gailenga Beg on the northern side of the river Liffey on the borders of Meath and Dublin.  However, this branch, as well as many of the Offaly O’Hennessys, was dispersed by the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1170.

O’Hennessy families are still to be found in the area around Kilbeggan.  They also spread into Tipperary and Clare, in the later county adopting the name of Hensey and subsequently Henchy.

Charles Hennessy Departed Cork for the Continent.  Charles Hennessy was born in 1699 to a well-connected family in the Blackwater valley in county Cork.  The family was connected to the Nagles and other old English families whose fortunes had changed with the new political situation at the end of the 17th century.

Charles emigrated to Ostend in 1730 and was helped there by a close network of Irish merchant families involved in butter, hide and general trading.   These emigre Cork families were generally of an old English background, but had been displaced from the prominence they had once enjoyed as Cork merchants by the ‘new English.’  They were consequently seeking new opportunities.

He was initially involved in provisioning ships with butter and later became involved in the tea trade purchasing teas from the East India Company and managing to export it to England without the inconvenience of paying duty.  In this he again was relying on his extensive Irish network.  Over the years his business interests became quite extensive into shipping, grain speculation.  He rode various mishaps deftly and died on a visit to Cork in 1758.  His family continued the business into the next generation. 

James Hennessy and Marthe Martell.  Richard Hennessy’s son James (sometime known as Jacques), born in Ostend in 1765, married Marthe Martell, the daughter of Frederic Gabriel Martell of Veuve Martell, an existing brandy producer in the Cognac region in 1795.

During the turbulent period of the French Revolution, the Martell and Hennessy brands combined as a duopoly to dominate the brandy market. When James died in 1843 he left a fortune that was as large as any of the long-established wine merchants in Bordeaux.

Although the Hennessy and Martell families were united by marriage and friendship, their business relationship was never formalized.  Still, in the 1920’s, they divided up the global market between them – the English market being allocated to Martell and America to Hennessy.  This anti-competitive arrangement lasted until 1947.

John Pope Hennessy, A British Colonial Administrator.  John Pope Hennessy was an Irish Catholic who had been the first Irish nationalist Conservative MP in Victorian Britain.  When political and financial misfortune ended his parliamentary career, he entered the colonial service.  There, during his governorships in the 1870’s and 1880’s, he became a controversial figure.

Much of this controversy centered on his so-called “native race craze.” This arose from his attempts as governor to pursue a policy of racial equality.  His position as a Catholic outsider in a Protestant colonial administration may well have prompted him to adopt what was at that time a rather radical policy.

However, In Barbados this policy led to a black uprising known as the Federation Riots; in Mauritius to anti-English cries of Mauritius for the Mauritians.

He did get a better reception in Hong Kong.  He realised that the Chinese people were being treated as second-class citizens, yet had developed an increasingly important influence on the Hong Kong economy. With that in mind, he lifted the ban that forbade Chinese people from buying lands, constructing buildings, and operating businesses in the Central District.  Due to this progressive attitude he was known by the Chinese as “Number One Good Friend.”

Reader Feedback – Patrick Hennessy from Kerry to the US Midwest.  I have done research on my great great grandfather, Patrick Hennessy, and his relocation from Castlegregory in Kerry to Ohio via Canada in 1851.

Upon arrival Patrick worked in Indiana on a canal before settling in north central Ohio near Bucyrus to farm and work on the new railroad.  He served in the infantry in the 123rd Ohio Volunteers, Company F, participating in some of the biggest events of the Civil War, up to and including Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. He was taken prisoner twice.

He and his wife, Ellen (originally from Cork) raised ten children and they went on to settle in several areas of the upper Midwest (mostly Chicago), with one heading to Los Angeles. Descendants of the Chicago Hennessy’s went on to Southern California, Georgia, and Florida.

I am unaware of which branch (Cork or Offaly) Patrick descended from, though I’d presume Cork seems more reasonable given the proximity.  Patrick passed away in 1906. He was born in 1831.

Michael Hennessy (mjhennsc@gmail.com).

Reader Feedback – Canadian Hennesseys.  Thomas Hennessey was my 3rd great grandfather. He died in 1829 in Peterborough, Ontario.  His wife Margaret and youngest son Patrick moved to Geneva, New York.  They are buried there at St Patrick’s cemetery.

Stephen Hennessy (swhhennessy@gmail.com).

Richard Hennessy, Convict to Australia.  Richard Hennessy of Clonmel in Tipperary was convicted of stealing a horse and given a life sentence to Australia. He was transported on the Mangles, arriving in Sydney in late 1822.

He left behind a young family in Ireland.  His wife Mary either died before his transportation or soon after.  It meant that his children were left to fend themselves.  His daughter Mary Ann was only twelve at the time and the youngest child Catherine just four years of age.  And times were tough in Ireland then.  Mary Ann, Maurice, William, and Catherine did eventually join their father in Australia.

Richard was listed as a shepherd for William Bowman of Bathurst in the 1828 census.  He received his Ticket of Leave in 1834, but died in 1839.

Reader Feedback – Hennessys from Ireland to Australia.  My ancestor James Edward Hennessy migrated from Offaly about 1840 on the Westminster with his brother John.  He was about 28 years of age.  The landowners who were raising sheep required laborers, and the Australian Government instituted a bounty system where sponsors were paid twenty pounds for each laborer or worker they brought to the country.

James was to work for a Mr. Colstick at Merri Creek station, just northwest of Melbourne, but many of these arrangements did not happen.  He married in 1842 at St Francis Catholic Church in Melbourne to Anne Lovell from Devon.

Regards  Marie Hannaford (gramar92@bigpond.com)

David Hennessy in New Orleans.  David Hennessy came to New Orleans with his family in the 1840’s from Ireland during the potato famine.  During the Civil War he enlisted in the Union army, serving under the command of Algernon Badger.  This man was to become influential in the lives of both David and his son David Jr.

When Badger became the commander of the Republican Metropolitan Police in New Orleans after the war, he brought in the elder Hennessy to the force. However, David sr. was gunned down in a barroom in 1869.

Though only a boy of eleven, the younger Hennessy began working as a messenger for the Metropolitans after his father’s death and went on to pursue a career in police work.  As a young detective, David jr. made headlines in 1881 when he captured a notorious Italian criminal Giuseppe Esposito. In 1888 he was promoted to superintendent and chief of police.

However, David Hennessy had made enemies with the growing Italian community in New Orleans and he was shot down on the street on the night of October 15, 1890.  His assassination led to a sensational trial.

A series of acquittals and mistrials angered locals and an enormous mob formed outside the prison the next day. The prison doors were forced open and eleven of the nineteen Italian men who had been indicted for Hennessy’s murder were lynched.  The March 14 1891 lynching was the largest known mass lynching in US history.

The Hennessys in South Africa.  Tilly and Nellie Hennessy were the eldest of six children of John and Mary Hennessy.  They grew up in London.   Tilly had an amazing flare for music and at the age of 16 was appointed organist of the Brompton Oratory.

In 1891 at the age of 18 years Tilly and her sister Nellie two years younger were sent from London to Kimberley to stay with an aunt who kept a pub.  In the diamond-boom town of Kimberley in those days there was a pub on every corner.  On discovering that they were expected to work in the pub as barmaids, the two girls ran away and found refuge at the Dominican convent.  Tilly taught music and Nellie taught dancing.  They put on many concerts and operettas to raise money for the Catholic cathedral building fund.

In 1896 their mother and the rest of the family migrated from England and joined them in Kimberley.   The family were all in Kimberley when the Boer War broke out three years later.  They were confined within its perimeters during “the siege of Kimberley” which commenced in October 1899 until the relief column broke through the lines in February 1900.  They were subject to all privations of water rationing and were reduced to eating horse and donkey meat.

Their cousin Alfred Hennessy, who was later knighted for his services as founder of the Royal Automobile Club, had accompanied the family to South Africa but remained in Cape Town.  He took out the first driving licence in Cape Town and his car carried the number plate CA 1.  He drove his CA 1 car until a few days before his death in 1963 at the age of 88.  The CA 1 number plate was then handed over by his family for the use of the mayors of Cape Town.

Hennessy Names

  • Richard Hennessy began the Hennessy brand of brandy when he started a distillery in Cognac in 1765. 
  • Sir John Pope Hennessy was a Victorian colonial administrator who served as the Governor of Hong Kong. 
  • Patrick Hennessy was a 20th century Irish realist painter.

Hennessy Numbers Today

  • 6,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 8,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Hennessy 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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