Keane Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Keane Surname Meaning

Keane and Kane 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 preponderant in the rest of Ireland. The variant Kean can have Scottish origins.

Keane Surname Resources on The Internet

Keane and Kean Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland and Scotland
  • to Canada, America and Australia

IrelandThe O’Cathains in Connacht were originally a branch of the Ui Fiachrach in south Galway. They became Keanes, and sometimes Cains or Canes. Keanes, as well as Keans, also derive from the O’Cein sept in Waterford. And sometimes the Ulster Kanes became Keanes.

O’Kanes who became O’Keanes or Keanes included those fled Ulster as “wild geese” to the armies of France or Spain and some who sought a new future in the south:

  • Eugene O’Keane for instance, killed in action in 1693, was one of four O’Keane brothers who served in France.  
  • An O’Kane family from Derry became Keane at Beech Park in county Clare. Another O’Kane family who lost their lands after the Battle of the Boyne resurfaced in Waterford. As Keanes after a suitable period of Government service, they established themselves at Cappoquin House as a member of what some have called the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy.

The Gaelic side of Keane in Waterford was represented by the Keane hurling family (pronounced Kane) and by John Keane who reigned supreme as one of the greatest players in the game from the 1930’s to the 1950’s.

There were Keanes also in county Kerry. E.T. Keane from the small town of Listowel was an editor of the Kilkenny People. More famously, the playwright John B. Keane was born in this town in 1928. John’s nephew is the BBC journalist Fergal Keane.

Scotland. Kean has been a clan name in Scotland, associated with the Macdonalds of Glencoe. As such, it appeared in Argyll and Ayrshire. There were also Keans at Nigg in the Scottish Highlands dating back to the late 17th century.

Canada.  Captain William Kean arrived in Newfoundland via New England (and originally from Devon) in 1708. He became St. John’s first Justice of the Peace. Robert Kean held Hudson’s Cove at St. John’s in 1820 which was said to have been “in the possession of the family for more than a hundred years.” Keans out of Bonavista Bay were engaged in seal hunting during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

America. Early Keanes to America came as Kean in the 1750’s from Ireland:

  • Samuel Kean from Armagh who settled in Alleghany county, Virginia
  • and Cornelius Kean who came to Philadelphia and settled in Mifflin county, Pennsylvania.

Then, also around this time, there was the arrival of a young British mariner James Kean in Charleston, South Carolina. His son John became a merchant there and married into the well-established Livingston family.  

“From the time that James Kean arrived in South Carolina, the Keans took pains to retain the proper pronunciation of the name. It rhymed with ‘rain’ rather than with ‘green.’ US Senator Hamilton Fish Kean refused to have a mountain peak in the Canadian Rockies named in his honor less passersby mispronounce it. Family lore is that their Kean name came from the Highlands of Scotland.

Their home in New Jersey, Liberty Hall, is now a museum and still showcases the contributions of the Kean and Livingston families. Kean’s descendants have been and continue to be a family prominent in New Jersey politics and business – the most recent being Thomas Kean, New Jersey’s Governor from 1982 to 1990.

Irish Keanes have been heavily outnumbered by Irish Kanes in the United States by a factor of six to one. But the Keane name was not unknown in Iowa where two Keanes became Catholic bishops of Dubuque. The elder – John – arrived there in the 1880’s following a famine in his native Donegal. The younger – James – had a more international brief, serving in 1920 on the Anglo-Irish peace commission and supporting at that time the creation of the League of Nations.

Australia. Denis Keane and his family from Clare sailed from Liverpool on the Clyde in 1835. He ran a pub in the Yass area of NSW, but died in the typhoid epidemic of 1840. His wife Susan took over the pub and renamed it Erin go Bragh. Another Keane from Clare settled in Willunga, South Australia.

Edward Keane, related to the Cappoquin Keanes in Waterford, came out to Western Australia in 1882. He was the civil engineer who built the rail line from Perth to nearby Guildford. He subsequently became Lord Mayor of Perth.

Keane Surname Miscellany

Keane and Kane in Ireland.  Keane and Kane were ranked as the 65th and 67th 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
Keane   181st       37th
Kane     21st     145th

The Keanes at Cappoquin House in Waterford.  Cappoquin House is an 18th century Georgian mansion built on the site of an old Fitzgerald castle.  It dominates the Blackwater river at the point where the river turns south and ploughs its way through the hills to the sea.  The five-acre south-facing garden, a combination of formal and informal planting, offers fine views over the Blackwater valley.

The Keane family have lived at Cappoquin throughout that time. George Keane had leased the town of Cappoquin with extensive farm and mountain land from the Earl of Cork under three 999 year leases. Cappoquin House was built by George Keane’s grandson.  It is little changed today even though it was burnt to the ground during the Troubles in 1922.

Sir John Keane, a senator in the new Irish Free State but someone who narrowly escaped being shot by the IRA, decided to restore the house.  The walls were too solid to be damaged by fire but the Adams period plasterwork was carefully reproduced using old molds available from London.

The garden was laid out in the middle of the 19th century but there are vestiges of earlier periods in walls, gateways and streams.  It was taken in hand by Lady Olivia Keane in the 1950s and expanded by her in the late 1970’s.  It reflects much of her taste and extensive knowledge of plants.

The village of Cappoquin was home to R & F Keane’s factory in the late 19th century which made ploughs. Tivoli House, built in the 1820’s, was home at one time to Harry Keane who founded the original Cappoquin bacon factory in 1907. It ran until 1980.  The writer Molly Keane, who was married in 1938 to a member of the Cappoquin House family, lived for a time at nearby Belleville House.

Reader Feedback – Kane/Keane in Sligo.  I am tracing the lineage of Cain or Kane, nowadays Keane, who were tenant farmers in Moygara, Sligo and Shroofe Coolavin. Anyone on a similar trail out there?  Joe Keane (

Aspects of John B. Keane, Playwright.  John B. Keane was steeped in the traditions and lore of his native Kerry, which formed the basis of much of his work.  For some, his plays had an uncomfortable reality at a time in Ireland when the raw side of rural life was frequently ignored for the more acceptable version of Eamon de Valera’s vision of happy maidens and cosy homesteads. Loneliness, greed, and sexual repression were themes he explored with considerable skill and courage.

Keane was influenced by the people of Lyreacrompane in Stacks Mountains between Listowel and Castle Island where he spent his early childhood summers. He found their language to be an eloquent mixture, half-English and half-Irish.  “It had an extraordinary influence on my early plays and on my own speech after. For all its raciness it was still a very measured language.”

Keane also gathered material while working in London as a roadsweeper and barman before returning to Listowel in 1953 to buy his own bar.  He wrote his first popular play Sive in 1959. 

The Keans in New Jersey.  John Kean the Charleston merchant was the patriarch of the Kean family in New Jersey.  He had married into the Livingston family and William Livingston had become the first Governor of New Jersey.  But the Kean family entry into New Jersey politics had to wait until the late 19th century and Kean’s great grandson, also named John.

Born in the ancestral home at Liberty Hall near Elizabeth, New Jersey, John Kean worked in banking and manufacturing before entering politics and being elected to Congress in 1883.  He failed to become Governor of New Jersey in 1892 but was its Senator from 1899 to 1911. Keansburg in New Jersey (formerly Granville) was named in his honor.

His brother Hamilton Fish Kean was New Jersey Senator from 1918 to 1934, his nephew Robert Winthrop Kean was a Congressman from New Jersey from 1938 to 1958 (Kean University in New Jersey was later named in his honor), and his great nephew Thomas Kean was Governor of New Jersey from 1982 to 1990.  The Keans over this period married into some of the most prominent families of early American history, Stuyvesant and Winthrop as well as Fish.

Liberty Hall served as the family home until 2000 when it was converted into a museum.  Mary Alice Kean was the last family member to live in the house.  After the death of her husband in 1949, she devoted the rest of her life to preserving the family’s legacy and preparing her home for its future as a museum.  A family collection of heirlooms and documents, many of them dating back to colonial times, was handed over to Kean University in 2007.

Abram Kean, Seal Hunter.  Abram Kean was hailed as a master mariner but was also called “Killer Kean.” The archetypal sealing captain, he was accused, in legend and in popular mythology, of responsibility for the loss of 77 lives in the Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914.  He was said to have acted irresponsibly in leaving 132 men from his son’s ship on the ice where many froze to death during a violent storm.

Exonerated by a court of inquiry, Kean kept his formidable reputation as “the greatest seal killer of all time.” In 1934, when he surpassed his personal goal of more than one million seals killed, he was fêted by the Board of Trade and awarded the Blue Ensign. He wrote his autobiography, Old and Young Ahead, in 1935.

Keane Names

  • Edmund Kean, born in London of an Irish father, was a celebrated English actor of the early 19th century. 
  • John Keane from Waterford was one of the greatest players ever in Irish hurling. 
  • John B. Keane has been one of Ireland’s most esteemed modern playwrights. 
  • Marie Kean from Dublin has been one of Ireland’s most popular actresses.   
  • Roy Keane was one of the most talented footballers ever to emerge from Ireland, captaining both Manchester United and Ireland in his time.

Keane Numbers Today

  • 7,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 4,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 18,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Keane 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.

Connacht in NW Ireland covers the counties of Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, Galway, and Roscommon.  Here are some of the Connacht surnames that you can check out.




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Written by Colin Shelley

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