Kavanagh Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Kavanagh Surname Meaning

The Irish surname Kavanagh, sometimes Cavanagh outside Ireland, derived from the Gaelic caombanach meaning “handsome” or “benevolent.”  Donal, the son of Dermot MacMorrough, received that title in 1171 after having been raised and educated at Kill Caomhan (St. Kevin’s church) in present-day Wexford. 

This Donal was the first of the Kavanagh line in Ireland.  Interestingly Kavanagh is one of the few Gaelic-origin surnames never to have had the prefix Mac meaning “son of” or O’. 

Cavanagh is an alternative anglicized spelling.  The Cavanaugh and Kavanaugh spellings appear in America

Kavanagh Surname Resources on The Internet

Kavanagh Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Leinster)
  • to England, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

Ireland.  The Kavanaghs have claimed descent from ancestors who were once monarchs of all Ireland and who in 1170 were kings of Leinster. They bore the name of MacMurrough.  Dermot MacMorrough’s son Donal took the name of Caomhanch (Kavanagh) and land in Carlow and Wexford.

Early History.  A majority of the Kavanagh families from the 1400’s descended from Art MacMurrough Kavanagh, the King of Leinster who died in 1418. The territory of the Kavanaghs during Art’s reign included nearly all of modern Carlow, most of north and northwest Wexford, and was known as “Kavanagh country.”  During his 42-year reign, he had been successful in keeping the English invaders at bay.

In the mid-1550’s, however, his descendant Cahir mac Art Kavanagh had to make accommodations with the English, including renunciation of his ancient title of MacMurrough, in order to hold onto his lands.  Patrick Cavanagh was one of the Wexford martyrs who was brutally killed in 1581 for providing assistance to Jesuit priests.  Another famous name-bearer at this time was Art Kavanagh, the companion of Hugh O’Neill in his dramatic escape from Dublin Castle in 1590.

The power of the Kavanagh chiefs was fading. It was definitively broken by the Plantation of north Wexford in 1610 when Kavanagh land was confiscated by the Crown and colonized by settlers from England.

Later History.  Later Kavanaghs of the MacMorrough Kavanagh line would become part of the British establishment:

  • Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh, born in 1831, made a success of his life despite being born with only the rudiments of arms and legs.  He was a British MP from 1866 to 1880 and opposed the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Ireland.
  • Sir Charles MacMorrough Kavanagh, born in 1864, commanded the British Cavalry Corps during the First World War, most notably at the Battle of Amiens in 1918.
  • and Colonel Sir Dermot McMorrough Kavanagh, born in 1890, was the British Crown Equerry of the Royal Household from 1941 to 1955.

A Cavenagh family, whose ancestor Dennis Cavenagh had been outlawed by the British in Kildare in 1642, became British army officers in the 19th century in Malaysia and the Straits Settlements.  Cavenagh Bridge in Singapore, opened in 1868, was named after Major General Orfeur Cavenagh of this family.

Over this period the Kavanagh numbers in Ireland were shifting away from Carlow and towards Wexford.  Carlow had accounted for nearly 40% of the Kavanaghs recorded in the 1659 census, followed by Wexford.  But by the time of Griffith’s Valuation in the mid-1800’s, the greater numbers were in Wexford followed by Wicklow and Kilkenny, with Carlow well down the list.

Among later Kavanaghs in Ireland was the poet Patrick Kavanagh who was born in humble circumstances in county Monaghan in 1904 and walked the 50 kilometers to Dublin to seek recognition.

However, many Kavanaghs, like other Irish, had emigrated by this time.  There are three times as many Kavanaghs outside Ireland than inside Ireland today.

England.  Many Kavanaghs in the 19th century would cross the Irish Sea to industrial Lancashire where there were jobs, including:

  • Thomas Kavanagh who came to Salford in the 1820’s (he married Leah Heathcote there in 1827)
  • James Kavanagh from Kilkenny who arrived in Liverpool around 1850 (he married Mary O’Brien there in 1851)
  • John Cavanagh, a merchant seaman from Dublin, who came to Liverpool in the 1850’s (he married Mary Grimes there in 1858)
  • and Edward and Mary Kavanagh from Wexford who came to Manchester sometime in the 1890’s.

They had large families, were usually in poor and overcrowded housing, and would struggle to keep going.  But Eamon Kavanagh’s memoir Pride and Passion in Bury showed that there was light at the end of the tunnel.

America.  Kavanaghs might have arrived in America.  But the spelling there became more varied.  These are the main spellings now:

  • Kavanagh (16%)
  • Kavanaugh (18%)
  • Cavanagh (13%)
  • and Cavanaugh (53%).

James Kavanagh had arrived in Massachusetts from Wexford in 1780 and settled in Newcastle, Maine where he prospered as a merchant and shipowner.  His son Edward was briefly Governor of Maine in 1843.  Martin Kavanagh came with his family from Kilkenny in the 1840’s and settled in Wenham, Massachusetts.

By this time the Cavanaugh and Kavanaugh spellings were becoming more commonplace in America.

Among the arriving Cavanaughs were:

  • Michael and Mary Cavanaugh who came to America in 1840.  They lived for a time in Mississippi, and afterwards in Illinois before in 1853 being one of the early settlers in Allamakee county, Iowa.
  • Thomas Cavenaugh who left Mayo around 1853 and came to America via Montreal, settling in Sullivan county, Pennsylvania.  He farmed in an area that was known as Irish Ridge.
  • and another Thomas Cavanaugh who arrived in New York in 1864, married, and moved to San Francisco three years later.

And Kavanaughs came too.

One early sighting was William Kavanaugh, a Methodist circuit rider, and his wife Hannah who were living in Clark county, Kentucky in 1800.  Their son Hubbard was also a Methodist minister, eventually reaching the office of bishop.  It was said he was one of the most eloquent and influential bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  He died in 1884.

In 1853 Timothy Kavanaugh and Margaret Nolan came independently to America and met in Daviess county in SW Indiana.  Their descendant Louis Kavanaugh recounted their story in his 2018 book Kavanaugh Family History.  Patrick Kavanaugh arrived from Roscommon to New Haven, Connecticut in the 1890’s.  A descendant is the Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Canada.  There were early Kavanagh arrivals at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and at two locations on the Avalon peninsula of Newfoundland.

Nova Scotia.   The Kavanaghs were one of the first English-speaking families to come to Cape Breton after the French had left.  Laurence Kavanagh from Waterford arrived there via St John’s in Newfoundland in 1760 and was living in Louisbourg.  However, he was killed in a shipwreck on his way to Halifax in 1774, leaving his two sons, James and Laurence, his business of supplying new settlers in the region.

His son Laurence broke 100 plus years of precedent in 1823 when, as the first representative of Cape Breton Island in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, he became the first English speaking Roman Catholic to serve in a legislature.

Newfoundland.  James and William Kavanagh were in Ferryland on the southern shore before 1790 as both were recorded at the Ferryland Surrogate Court as stealing fish in 1790.  James also appeared in the 1800 census.  He and his descendants were fishermen.  Meanwhile Patrick Kavanagh settled in nearby Caplin Bay around 1840.

The other early arrival point was Bell Island in Conception Bay.  Kavanaghs from Wexford were there by 1820.  Starting in 1895 there was large-scale iron ore mining on the island and ample employment.  However, the mining ended in 1966 and the population dwindled.  Kavanaghs remained.  Ken Kavanagh, a retired teacher there, sponsored the startup of the island’s Rolling Pin bakery in the 1980’s.

Australia.  Thomas Cavanagh, born in the small village of Tynagh in county Galway in 1780, was convicted of “Whiteboy” crimes and was sent to Australia as punishment in 1832.

His only son Patrick arrived in Australia on the Panama in 1849, along with his mother Jane and sisters Ann, Honor, and Jane.  Patrick married Mary Logue at Queanbeyan, NSW in 1857 and they had twelve children.

In 1841 William and Bridget Kavanagh from Wexford left Liverpool on the Columbine for Sydney where they were recorded as Cavanagh.  They settled in East Maitland.

New Zealand.   William Cavanagh from Galway had come to Otago, SI via Melbourne, Australia on the Gill Blas in 1856.  He started an ‘immigrant chain’ that was to nominate many other Galway Catholics for passage to Otago and Southland.  Their numbers included his brother John who followed him a year later on the George Canning.  John was an early settler at Annaghdown.

Kavanagh Surname Miscellany

The Caomhan Myth.  Kavanagh came from the name Caomhan. One of the first kings of Ireland is reputed to have come from Spain and adopted the name Caomhan, meaning ‘son of Caomh‘.

He came with several brothers, almost all of whom died on the way. Those who did make it, including Caomhan, had wives that fought.  This eventually ended with Caomhan killing his brother and becoming the sole King of Ireland.

Dennis Cavenagh Outlawed.  Dennis Cavenagh was included in a list of outlaws promulgated on 19 November 1642 at Athy in county Kildare.

The depositions do not seem to accuse Cavenagh and his associates of treason.  But it does seem that the robbery of Henry Peirse and Thomas Leigh by Dennis Cavenagh and others was part of the Irish uprising in 1641.

Henry Peirse was Anglo-Irish and it was reported:  “The Rev. Edward Persse and his brother Henry were fortunate to survive the worst excesses of the 1641 rebellion.”

Dennis Cavenagh, almost certainly a Catholic and probably involved to some degree in the rebellion, seems to have been treated fairly leniently. His name does not appear on the list of transplanters and it seems that after his outlawry he continued to live quietly in the district.

In the church registers of Athy, Dennis Cavenagh’s son James was recorded as a Protestant. The attainder of his father perhaps gave rise to this change in religious affiliation.

Patrick Kavanagh the Peasant Poet.  Born in 1904 in county Monaghan, Patrick is one of Ireland’s most remarkable writers. He left school at thirteen and had no formal education, yet went on to become one of the country’s literary giants.

His work is now studied in schools and universities that he couldn’t afford to attend.  The literary establishment that once scoffed at his country ways now regard him one of the major poets of the 20th century.

Most of Kavanagh’s work centred of the lives of ordinary Irish farm workers.  This earned him the title of the Peasant Poet, a description which he hated. His great gift was to be able to take the everyday experiences of ordinary people and describe them in such a way that they had universal appeal to people from all walks of life.

In the early 1940s, he fell madly in love with a beautiful young student in Dublin. She rejected his advances but wished to remain friends with him.  She encouraged him to write a love poem. He responded with what is now perhaps his most famous work, Raglan Road. It was later turned into a popular song performed by numerous major artists such as The Dubliners and Van Morrison.

The poem ran as follows:

  • “On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
  • That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
  • I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
  • And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.
  • On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
  • Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
  • The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay
  • I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.
  • I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that’s known
  • To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
  • And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
  • With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May.
  • On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
  • Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
  • That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay
  • When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.

Kavanaghs and Cavanaghs Today

  • ‘000s     Kavanaghs Cavanaghs    Total
  • Ireland        16              1              17
  • UK              11              6              17
  • America        8             13             21
  • Elsewhere   10              9              19
  • Total           45             29             74

Note:  The American spelling were more often Kavanaugh and Cavanaugh.

Eamon Kavanagh in Bury, LancashirePride and Passion in Bury by Eamon Kavanagh, written in 2012, told the story of the author’s life growing up in a time when things seemed simpler.  It began with life as one of a family of ten, living on a large council estate, the friendships formed, and the many comical events that occurred that still tickle him.

He was approached to play football by Manchester City as a fifteen year old schoolboy. He eventually had to accept failure there, but went on to enjoy playing the beautiful game in semi-pro and amateur form. Reaching an age when life’s dilemmas were asking questions – religion, marriage and health among them – the book for the most part portrayed a lad enjoying life to the full at a time when life seemed simpler.

James Kavanagh in America.  James Kavanagh had been born in New Ross, Wexford in 1755 and came to America in 1780.  He settled in Maine and became a prosperous merchant and shipowner there. His wife Sarah Jackson was a native of Boston who converted to the Catholic faith.

He and Matthew Cottrill, a fellow Irishman from Wexford, took the lead in developing a Catholic community in the towns of Newcastle and Whitefield.  St. Patrick’s Church was built in North Whitefield in 1808. Kavanagh and Cottrill were respected leaders there and in the state.

In 1803 James built his beautiful home in the Damariscotta Mills area of Newcastle. It was built by Nicholas Codd, an Irish immigrant and housewright.  This home was for many years a centre of hospitality for the missionary priests laboring in Maine.  It is now been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

James and Sarah’s son Edward, born in 1795, became (briefly) Governor of Maine in 1843.

Patrick Kavanagh and His Newfoundland Grand Novel.  Patrick had been born and grew up in Newfoundland, but then spent long periods abroad.  In the 1990’s he had been living in Beijing and acting as a research assistant to Chinese translators of James Joyce’s Ulysses.  At the same time he was working on his own Joycean novel.

This novel Gaff Topsails, twenty years in preparation, was released to great acclaim in 1996.  It is a poetic Joycean portrait of a single day in the life of a small Irish-Catholic outport in Newfoundland as it would have been on June 24th, 1948 just before Newfoundland entered the Canadian Confederation.

In the book Patrick mixed the present (as in 1948) with the myths of the past which helped establish Newfoundland’s culture and identity.  Here Irish culture was very much intertwined with Newfoundland culture.

This Newfoundland culture was amphibian.  Patrick remarked: “To me, this is the essence of the old Newfoundland that I grew up in. I remember reading once that a Newfoundland fisherman would spend more time on the water than he did on land. He used the land for sleeping on, but his real life was on the water.”

Patrick also wanted to have a little fun in the book with Newfoundland history.  “Because in my time at school, people read the history very solemnly, especially Irish Newfoundlanders.  It was all about how terrible people came out from England and then the Church came along and saved everybody.”

Kavanagh Names

  • Donal Caomhanch, who received that title in 1171, was the first of the Kavanagh line. 
  • Patrick Kavanagh was one of Ireland’s greatest writers of the 20th century. His poem Raglan Road was put to music and became a classic traditional Irish song. 
  • Pat Kavanagh was a well-respected British literary agent of the late 1900’s

Kavanagh Numbers Today

  • 17,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 21,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 35,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Kavanagh 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.

Leinster in SE Ireland covers the counties of Carlow, Dublin, Kilkenny, Offaly, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, West Meath, Wexford, and Wicklow.  Here are some of the Leinster surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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