Kennedy Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Kennedy Surname Meaning

Kennedy is the anglicized form of the Gaelic O’Ceanneidigh, descendant of Ceanneidigh. The root of the name is ceann, meaning “head,” and eidigh, meaning “ugly.”

There were two origins for the Kennedys, one in Scotland and the other in Ireland.

Kennedy Surname Resources on The Internet

Kennedy Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Ayrshire) and Ireland (Tipperary)
  • to England, America, Canada and Australia

Scotland. The Scottish clan originated in Carrick in south Ayrshire where the first of the family was Duncan de Carrick in the early 13th century. This section of Ayrshire was part of the Galloway Gaidhealachd, a strong Gaelic-speaking area of the Scottish Lowlands.

The family seat was initially Dunure Castle overlooking Ayr Bay and then Culzean Castle at Maybole.

These Kennedys had mixed fortunes in the following centuries:

  • Gilbert Kennedy was close to the Scottish monarchy and served as its Regent during the 1460’s.
  • David Kennedy was created Earl of Cassillis in 1509 but died four years later fighting the English at Flodden Field.
  • his grandson Gilbert the third Earl was poisoned by the French in the 1550’s for refusing to agree that the Scottish crown should go to the French Dauphin should he marry Mary Queen of Scots.
  • while David the 10th Earl remade Culzean castle in 1792 into the palatial estate that it is today, but went bankrupt in the process.

The origin of the Highland Kennedys is uncertain. According to clan legend, Ulric Kennedy had fled Ayrshire in the 15th century to seek refuge in the Highlands. From this Highland branch, Kennedys are thought to have settled around Aberdeen and on the Isle of Skye.

By the time of the 1841 census, Glasgow accounted for the largest number of Kennedys, followed by Inverness in the Highlands, Ayrshire and Perthshire. The Glasgow numbers swelled as the 19th century proceeded, in part because of Irish Kennedys arriving in Scotland.

England. The Kennedy name was to be found across the Scottish border in both Cumberland and Durham by the late 1600’s. One Kennedy family in Cumberland has been identified as rural farmers in the Stapleton/Bowcaster area near the border.  Kennedys also showed up at Whickham in Durham, some of whom may have been coal miners.

Ireland. The Irish O’Kennedys, originally from county Clare, had moved across the river Shannon to Ormond in northern Tipperary where they were lords of Ormond for many centuries.

The sept then split into three branches, the chiefs of which were referred to by their hair colors: don (brown), fionn (blond), and rua (red). Around 1600, a branch migrated to county Antrim where many Irish Kennedys are still to be found (in addition to the Scottish Kennedys there).

There were also Scottish Kennedys from Ayrshire who had became planters in Ulster.

By the time of Griffith’s Valuation in the 1850’s, Tipperary accounted for 28% of all Kennedys in Ireland, with the other principal numbers being in Ulster, Dublin, and Kerry. Today the name is more widely spread, with Dublin instead taking the top spot:

  • some 28% live in the Dublin area
  • a further 10% are in Tipperary
  • but only 2% are to be found in Wexford, the home county of President John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy is the 16th most common surname in Ireland today.

America. The Kennedy influx into America was first Scots and Scots Irish and later Irish.

The Rev. Samuel Kennedy, a Presbyterian minister related to the Ayrshire Cassilis line, came to New Jersey in the 1740’s and was the pastor at Basking Ridge until his death in 1787. Archibald Kennedy, also of this line, was resident in New York at the time of the Revolutionary War. But George Washington took possession of his New York home, No. 1 Broadway, and his land on Long Island was confiscated because of his pro-British sympathies.

John Kennedy, Scots Irish, came to Baltimore in 1785, married well, and prospered there for a while as a merchant. However, he was forced into bankruptcy in 1809 and became reliant on his wife’s income.  Their two sons though did well:

  • John was a literary writer who entered politics and was appointed US Secretary of the Navy in 1852.
  • while Anthony was US Senator for Maryland from 1857 to 1863.

Tipperary accounted for the largest number of Irish Kennedys that came in the 19th century into the Boston area.

However, the origin of the most famous Kennedy clan in Boston was Wexford. Patrick Kennedy left his home Wexford in Ireland (now the Kennedy Homestead museum) for Boston in Massachusetts during the potato famine.

Joe Kennedy grew up in the Boston Irish community and made the family’s money in the early 20th century. From Joe came the Kennedy dynasty, starting with John F. Kennedy the 35th President.

Canada. Kennedys from Wexford also made it to Newfoundland, and at a much earlier time.  Kennedy fishermen were to be found there by 1700, bringing their Wexford herring cot with them. Terence Kennedy came in the 1750’s; Nicholas Kennedy arrived with his wife Grace in 1808.

There were many Kennedy sea captains from Newfoundland over the 18th and 19th centuries.

Kennedys from Ireland had also come to Gaspe in Quebec by 1750 and many Kennedys were buried in the Catholic graveyard there. Sire Kennedy arrived in the Neppanee area of SE Ontario from Ireland around 1830. His son Samuel, an Orangeman, headed west and was one of the founders of the Boyne settlement in Manitoba in the 1870’s.

Alexander Kennedy had come to the Hudson Bay Company post in Saskatchewan from Aberdeen in Scotland in 1803. A fur trader and company factor, he was later posted further west and established on the coast the site for Fort Vancouver (later the town of Vancouver). His son William was perhaps even more noteworthy – an Arctic explorer (he led the search for Sir John Franklin in the 1850’s) and an early arrival in the 1860’s at the Red River settlement in Manitoba.

Australia.  John Kennedy from Kent was an early free settler in Australia, arriving in Sydney on the Surprize in 1794 (followed by his father James on the Sovereign a year later).  John and his wife Caroline made their home in the Liverpool district where they raised seven children.  John died in 1843.

Robert Kennedy, a ship’s carpenter in Glasgow, emigrated with his large family to Melbourne in 1860.  He and his sons Malcolm, John and Colin started a shipbuilding business in Hobart, Tasmania in 1889.  After Robert’s death in 1903, the enterprise was continued by his son Malcolm.

Edward Kennedy from Tipperary arrived around 1855 and worked at the Kapunda copper mine until his death in 1864.  His son William moved to Victoria in the 1880’s.

Kennedy Surname Miscellany

Dunure Castle.  Dunure Castle is located close by the town of Ayr and has a commanding view overlooking Ayr Bay on the Firth of Clyde.

The site dates from the late 13th century, with the earliest charter for the lands being recorded in 1256.

The Kennedys of Carrick were granted the lands in 1357 and, from this vantage point, they ruled over much of SW Scotland.  Sir James Balfour described Dunure Castle in the 16th century as “a great and pleasant strong house, the most ancient habitation of the surname of Kennedy, the Lairds of Dunure and now the Earls of Cassilis.”

The castle and estate of Dunure was purchased by Sir Thomas Kennedy of Kirkhill in the late 17th century.  However, by that time the castle was in ruins.  The Cassilis Kennedys had removed themselves to their Culzean castle.

Kennedy Intrigues at Culzean.  When Sir Archibald Kennedy died in 1710 and his soul was said to have been taken by the ‘muckle devil’ to hell, his son Sir John felt it unwise to publicize his Jacobite allegiance. Instead, he became a wine and spirit merchant — and a smuggler! — using caves beneath Culzean to hide his contraband.  Jacobitism and smuggling went hand-in-hand, as it was a good way of getting back at the Hanoverians without the same risks as rebellion.

The trade was continued by Sir John’s sons after his death in 1742. Sir Thomas, who inherited the estate in 1744, was in the Hanoverian army.  However, after Culloden he returned to his Jacobite roots. He went to Paris to learn to play the viol (an early form of violin), as his father and grandfather had done.  In his absence, the smuggling trade was left in the hands of his factor, Archibald Kennedy, before dying out by the late 1760’s.

The Origin of the Highland Kennedys.  The origin of the Highland Kennedys is unclear, clan legends notwithstanding. It appears that they were at Leanachan in Lochaber in the early 1600’s and possibly earlier. They had started to congregate in northern Perthshire by the mid to late 1600’s and featured in the Logierait area, one of their biggest concentrations, by the time of the 1691 hearth tax.

The registers of Inverness burgh indicate that the Kennedys did not arrive that far north until almost 1700, despite a Duncan Kennedy witnessing a document there in 1548 and a John Kennedy being seized of lands further north in Dornoch in 1579.  The Kennedys did have a large presence in Invernessshire, particularly in Lochaber, by the time of the 1881 census.

The connection between Highland and Lowland Kennedys remains unproven.

The Ulrich Kennedy story first appeared in 1723. According to the version that has circulated, Ulrich Kennedy came to Lochaber on a cattle-stealing raid and, tempted by the fertile lands he saw and the charms of the daughter of the Robertson laird, he decided to settle.  Other accounts have the Highland Kennedys being indigenous to the region or having come from the Western Isles.  All of these accounts seem to be just stories, with no backing behind any of them.

The O’Kennedy Clan.  The 14th century poet John O’Dugan had described the O’Kennedys as follows:

  • “O’Kennedy of the crimson arms,
  • Is chief of the smooth and extensive Glean-Omra.”

Glean Omra lay in the eastern part of county Clare and it was from there that the O’Kennedys had been driven by the O’Briens into Ormond in northern Tipperary in the early part of the 12th century.

The O’Kennedys had derived their descent and name from Cineadh, who had been related to the O’Brien Kings. They were powerful chiefs in the Ormond area from the 11th to the close of the 16th century.

The close of the 16th century saw the O’Kennedys sinking into obscurity in Tipperary.  A branch of the family had removed itself to Dublin in the early part of the century and gave sheriffs to the city for a number of years.

The Rev. Samuel Kennedy’s Plantation.  The Rev. Samuel Kennedy put his plantation in Somerset county, New Jersey up for sale in 1767.  The following was the notice that appeared in the New York Mercury concerning this sale.

“To be sold at public venue on Wednesday the 17th day of June next by the Rev. Samuel Kennedy of Bernard’s Town in the county of Somerset, and province of New-Jersey:

His plantation on which he now lives, containing 300 acres of land, bounded on one side by the dead river and on the other by the river Passaick, having the public road that leads to the city of Perth Amboy going through it.  It 20 miles from said city.

On this plantation there is a dwelling house with three rooms and two fireplaces on the lower floor. It is situated at a small distance from the edge of the Passaick river.  A good quarry for building may be opened at the distance of a few poles from the house.  There is also on the plantation a good barn a stable at each end of it, and an orchard containing 57 old apple trees, and 136 young ones, some of which are grafted.

There is about 72 acres of plough land cleared and fenced and about 27 acres of meadow cleared, 12 and half of which have been mowed for a considerable number of years and about 2 acres of which have been mowed for two years past and about 11 acres sowed with timothy seed, together with one and half acres more which are expected to be mowed this summer.  Some 100 acres more of good meadow may be made on a very rich bottom, being the plantation whereupon Mr. Moses Doty formerly lived.

On the said day Samuel Kennedy proposes to sell horses, cattle, sheep, and utensils of husbandry etc. when good attendance will be given and the conditions of sale made known.” 

Kennedy Sea Captains in Newfoundland.  There were many Kennedy sea captains in Newfoundland.  The table below shows the Kennedys that were recorded in the 17th and 18th centuries and the vessels they commanded.

Captain First Recorded Vessel
William Kennedy 1679 Unity
Robert Kennedy 1761 Charming
John Kennedy 1761 Ann
Danial Kennedy 1788 Squid
Terrence Kennedy 1800 Three

A further sixteen Kennedy sea captains were recorded in the first half of the 19th century.

The Kennedy Homestead.  When famine struck, a poor farmer named Patrick Kennedy left his home at Dunganstown in county Wexford in 1848 and boarded a ship for America.  What he left behind was a typical rural Irish cottage.  This has now been transformed into the Kennedy Homestead experience.

On the outside, it looks like any of the other cottages in the village.  On the inside it has been converted into a small museum of all things Kennedy (but mostly of all things JFK).  There are no earth-shattering exhibits conveying new insights into the President.  However, it does provide a good overview of the family history, the historical background, and the impact of JFK’s election and his death.

Much was made of his visit to Ireland, seen by many as on a par with the visit by Pope John Paul II.

Reader Feedback – Kennedys from Kerry.  My Irish granny was a Kennedy from Castlemaine in county Kerry originally, one of at least eight kids, most of whom left Ireland. We are based in Portsmouth now where she is buried and lived to eighty-seven.  There are cousins who still have the Kennedy name and there is the original family house of Cornelius Kennedy (my gran’s father) up for sale in Castlemaine.

Simon Roots (

Kennedy Names

  • James Kennedy was Bishop of St. Andrews and briefly Chancellor of Scotland during the 15th century.
  • Joseph Kennedy was JFK’s father and US ambassador to Britain at the outbreak of World War Two.
  • John F. Kennedy was elected 35th President of the United States in 1960 and assassinated in 1963.
  • Robert F. Kennedy, his brother, was the US Senator from New York assassinated in 1968.
  • Ted Kennedy, his younger brother, was the long-time US Senator from Massachusetts.
  • Ludovic Kennedy from Edinburgh was a British journalist and broadcaster.
  • Paul Kennedy from NE England is a British historian, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.
  • Mary Kennedy is one of the leading personalities on Irish TV.

Kennedy Numbers Today

  • 49,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 67,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 88,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Kennedy and Like Surnames

The surnames found here cover most of the US Presidential surnames since the first President, George Washington.  Click on the surname below if you wish to know more of that particular President and his name.

ClintonJacksonNixonVan Buren

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Written by Colin Shelley

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