Kane Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Kane Surname Meaning

Kane and Keane are both anglicizations of Cathain, a personal name diminutive of cath meaning “battle.” There were two main septs in Ireland called O’Cathain or O’Cahan, one from Ulster and the other from Connacht.

The former were generally anglicized as Kane, the latter as Keane. The present day distribution of these names reflects this former division, with Kane preponderant in Northern Ireland and Keane in the rest of Ireland.

The spelling generally progressed from O’Cahan to O’Kane to Kane. There has recently been a revival in O’Kane in the heartland Derry. In America Kane may be a Jewish name, from the German Kahn or Kuhn.

Kane Surname Resources on The Internet

Kane Surname Ancestry

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

Ireland. The O’Cahans of Keenaght and Coleraine in county Derry were a powerful and important Ulster sept, although probably not of much account before the 12th century when, emerging from east Donegal, they succeeded in ousting the O’Connors of Dungiven from their territory.

Once established at Limavady by the Roe river, they retained their ascendancy in Derry, despite internal feuding, until the coming of the Ulster Plantations in the early 17th century. At that time a large tract of land, known as O’Cahan’s country, was targeted by the Government for English investors.

The last chief of the O’Cahans was Donnell Ballagh. He joined up with the O’Neills in the rebellion against the English. After the Flight of the Earls in 1607 he was arrested and imprisoned in Dublin Castle and then in the Tower of London where he died. O’Cahan’s Lament, thought to have been written about this time, is believed to have been the basis of the song Danny Boy. The final conflict between the O’Cahans and the English occurred at Gelvin near Limavady in 1641. The O’Cahans were defeated.

O’Kanes remained in Ulster after the defeat (those who headed south often became Keanes). Griffith’s Valuation in the mid-19th century showed that 40 percent of the Kanes in Ulster were still based in Derry. The Kane name is particularly common in the Coleraine district of Derry. Folk singer Damien O’Kane hails from Coleraine, the boxer Eamonn O’Kane from Dungiven.

England.  Kanes migrated to England for work reasons.  Thomas Kane came with his wife Rosa in the 1860’s to work in the coalfields around Newcastle.

Michael Kane arrived in London from Galway in the 1920’s.  His grandson is the England football captain Harry Kane.  He is England’s highest goal scorer, ahead of the likes of Wayne Rooney, Gary Lineker and Bobby Charlton.

America. Bernard and Martha O’Kane brought their family over to America from Ireland in 1756. As Kanes they settled in Philadelphia where they became an influential family. Thomas Kane was a Union general during the Civil War, his brother Elisha a naval officer and Arctic explorer. The family home Anoatok, named from one of Elisha’s Arctic expeditions, was located in Kane, Pennsylvania. Many of Thomas’s sons were noted surgeons. Much memorabilia about the family was auctioned off in 2003.

Many Kanes stayed on the Eastern Seaboard, others headed west. Among the latter Kanes were:

  • John and Suzanna O’Kane from Tyrone who in the 1820’s were one of the early settlers in Franklin county, Indiana
  • Patrick and Bridget Kane from Roscommon who came out to Dubuque, Iowa in the 1860’s
  • Hugh O’Kane who arrived in New York from county Antrim in the late 1860’s, headed west and, after an adventurous time, settled down in Bend, Oregon
  • and James Kane from Mayo who came with his family to San Francisco in 1901. He survived the earthquake and was a policeman.

Canada. Paul Kane, born in Cork of English parents, came to Toronto as a boy in the early 1820’s. He became famous for his paintings of First Nations people in the Canadian West. His home in Toronto still stands.

Alice Kane, who arrived with her parents in 1921 when she was thirteen, also made her home in Toronto. She is remembered as a wondrous story-teller (as evidenced in her Songs of an Ulster Childhood). The Alice Kane Award commemorates this story-telling.

Australia.  Early Kane arrivals in Australia were convicts. Later came Kane settlers.

Stephen Kane from county Clare came to Bathurst, NSW with his wife Elizabeth in 1841. His brother Michael followed him in 1855. Thadeus O’Kane arrived from London in 1865. He was one of the most colorful and hard-hitting figures in early Queensland journalism, losing count of the number of libel actions he had to face.

Kane Surname Miscellany

Kane and Keane in Ireland.  Kane and Keane were ranked as the 67th and 65th most common names in all-Ireland in 1996.  But their rankings were very different in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland (Ulster).

Ulster Rest of Ireland
Kane    21st    145th
Keane 181st     37th

Donnagh Ballagh and the Beggarman’s Prophecy.  A tale was told of the last of the great O’Cathain chiefs, Donagh Ballagh O’Cathain, mounted on a superb horse with his two daughters, visiting the fair at Enagh. On his entry to the hill a beggarman solicited alms. O’Cathain’s response was the lash of his riding whip.  The beggarman drew himself up to his full height and said in a tone that strongly impressed the listeners:

  • “Soon the hill without a fair,
  • Soon O’Cathain without a horse.”

It was a prophecy that was later fulfilled.

O’Cahan’s Lament and Danny Boy.  The Londonderry Air, on which the hugely popular song Danny Boy is based, was first collected by Jane Ross of Limavady in Londonderry and submitted to a book The Ancient Music of Ireland which was published in 1855.  The origin of the tune remained for a long time mysterious as no other collector of folk tunes had encountered it.

Some say that Londonderry Air was originally called O’Cahan’s Lament and came about as follows:

“The confiscation of the O’Cahan lands was to enrage the blind harper Rory DalIO’Cahan, a chieftain of the clan, for he and his people had a deep attachment to the land where the O’Cahans had lived for generations.  The situation was to inspire him to compose a tune of such pain and passion that it would eventually touch the hearts of people worldwide.

A story has been told that he had too much to drink one evening.  He left his castle on the banks of the Roe, staggered along the riverside and eventually collapsed in a hollow.  The servants at the castle, who were sent to bring him back, were attracted by the sound of his harp in the distance.

When they found Rory Dali he was lying unconscious.  But mysterious invisible fingers were playing a most beautiful tune on the harp.  After Rory Dali gained consciousness he immediately became aware of the haunting music being played by the fairies.  He listened attentively and when he was confident he could play it he made his way back to the castle where he entertained the guests.

Denis O’Hampsey, another blind harper from the Roe valley, brought the melody down to the 19th century. Denis was to introduce this air throughout Ireland as a result of his travels.”

The present-day Danny Boy lyrics were written by an English lawyer, Frederic Edward Weatherly, in 1910.  His version was unsuccessful until his sister-in-law sent him the melody to the Londonderry Air.  The melody matched nicely with his words and became an instant success, especially in America.

Distribution of the Kane Name in Ulster.  The following were the Kane numbers in Ulster in Griffith’s Valuation compiled in the 1850’s:

County Numbers Percent
Derry    326    41
Antrim    151    19
Tyrone    125    16
Armagh     70     9
Down     65     8
Elsewhere     63     7
Total    800   100

Ulster Kanes Transported to Australia.  The table below shows some of the Kanes who were tried in Ulster and sentenced to transportation to Australia in the first two decades of the 19th century.

Year Convict County Offense Sentence
1801 Daniel O’Kane Derry
1812 Patrick Kane Dundalk stealing seven years
1816 John Kane Down seven years
1816 Sarah Kane Antrim robbery seven years
1817 Hugh Kane Donegal breaking & entering life
1817 John Kane Donegal breaking & entering life
1817 John Kane Monaghan stealing a cow seven years

Hugh O’Kane, Western Adventurer.  Hugh O’Kane was born in Antrim in 1857. As a young boy, he illegally immigrated to America by stowing away on a New York bound ship.  By the age of 12, he was selling newspapers and shining shoes on the streets of New York City. He later learned the tailoring trade, but was always looking for adventure.

In the 1870’s, he packed supplies in North Dakota and Montana for the US Army in its campaign against the Sioux Indians.  At the time of the battle of Little Bighorn, O’Kane was supporting General Terry’s column. Later he mined gold in the Black Hills, making a $50,000 fortune, only to lose it all gambling. From there he moved west, packing provisions for pioneers and miners in Montana and Colorado.

In 1881, be became manager for Tom Cannon, a champion wrestler.  O’Kane led Cannon’s wrestling troop on a fourteen month tour of Europe.  He later became manager for Ed Skinner and Marley Kettleman, both champion sprinters, taking them on a tour of Australia.  He then traveled around the United States racing horses, which turned a profit.

In 1903, O’Kane and his wife moved to Bend, Oregon, where they built the Bend Hotel, which quickly became an Oregon landmark.  It burned down in 1915.  But his O’Kane Building in Bend, completed a year later, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

By the time his building opened, O’Kane weighed three hundred pounds.  He would spend most afternoons lounging in a chair propped against his building.  From there, he told colorful stories to visitors or just slept. Late in his life O’Kane moved to Portland where he died in 1930 at the age of 73.

Kane Names

  • Cui Maige na nGall O’Cathain, a mighty O’Cathan chieftain, died in 1385 and is said to be buried in Dungiven Priory. Cui Maige na nGall means “terror of the foreigner.”
  • Echlin O’Kane was one of the famous Irish harpists of the 18th century.
  • Thomas Kane was an American attorney, diplomat, abolitionist, and Civil War general. 
  • Paul Kane was a 19th century painter of native people in the Canadian West.
  • Peter Kane, born Peter Cain in Lancashire, won the world flyweight boxing title in 1938.
  • Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles in 1941, is considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made. 
  • Harry Kane was England’s captain and the leading goal scorer in the 2018 football World Cup. 

Kane Numbers Today

  • 17,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 19,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 15,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Kane 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.

Ulster in NE Ireland covers the counties of Derry, Antrim, Down, Tyrone, Armagh, Fermanagh, Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal.  Here are some of the Ulster surnames (excluding the Scots Irish surnames) that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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