Kenny Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Kenny Surname Meaning

Kenny is an Irish surname, being an anglicization of the Gaelic O’Cionnaith – from Coinneach or Cainnech, an Old Irish personal name borne by a 6th century monk and saint who gave his name to the town of Kilkenny. An O’Kenny sept later emerged.

The Kenny surname also appeared in England and Scotland, but from different roots. Kenny and Kenney are the principal spellings today.

Kenny Surname Resources on The Internet

Kenny and Kenney Surname Ancestry

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

EnglandThe English origin of Kenny seems to have come from the Norman John de Kenne who held lands in Somerset during the 12th century.

Nicholas Kenne, believed to be a descendant, moved to Ireland in 1472 and married into a Norman family holding lands in Wexford. One of his descendants, also Nicholas, became General Escheator for Ireland under Queen Elizabeth. There is little Kenny presence in Somerset today.

Later Kennys in England were invariably of Irish origin. A Kenney family from Dublin arrived around in 1800 and ran the Boodles club in London. James Kenney of this family became a well-known playwright. His son Charles followed in his father’s footsteps.

Ireland. An O’Kenny sept had its roots in Roscommon and Galway, being lords of Muintir Kenny along the Shannon during the 13th century.

By coincidence Kenny was also the name of a prominent English family who had arrived in the area from Wexford in the 17th century and, through extensive intermarriage with Galway families, became important landowners there and in Roscommon.

As a result there were Kennys on both sides of the religious divide – the Rev. Arthur Kenny, an anti-Catholic controversialist, and the Rev. Peter James Kenny, a Jesuit priest and prominent Catholic preacher.

Roscommon.  Irish Kennys emigrated from Roscommon at the time of the famine or later, particularly from Strokestown. Many Kennys families dispersed at this time. Some of them made it to Baltimore, others to Canada. Still, the Kennys in Ireland today show a significant number remaining in the area. Patrick Kenny is Chairman of the Famine Museum there today.

Clare.  There were Kennys in county Clare from the early 1700’s, starting with Edward Kenny, a tenant of the Earl of Thomond at Treanmanagh in Ibracken parish.  

“The story goes that he married Eleanor, the sister of Russian Field Marshal Count Lucy, became a priest after his wife’s death, and died in France.”  

In Clare there was David Kenny of Treanmanagh, his brother James Kenny the Archdeacon of Kilfenora, and their nephew Matthias of Freagh Castle. Two prominent later Kennys were General Thomas Kelly-Kenny of Treanmanagh and the nationalist leader Matthew Kenny of Freagh Castle.

Scotland. Kenny can be a Scottish surname, from the Gaelic name Cionaodha. The name crops up in Angus on the East Coast. However, Kennys in Scotland today may equally be the result of Irish in-migration.

America. Kenney is more common then Kenny as a surname in America. It is not quite clear whether this reflected the Irish names as they came to America or those that were transcribed for them on arrival. It is noteworthy that the Kenny/Kenney split was 20/80 in Massachusetts, but roughly 40/60 at other arrival states on the East Coast.

There was a Kenney family of English extraction (originally Kinne or Keney from Norfolk) which came to Massachusetts in the 1600’s. One branch settled in Sutton, Massachusetts in the 1720’s. Sumner Kenney’s 19th century house there is still standing. Thomas Kenney of this family was a captain in the War of 1812 and received a land grant in Illinois.

General George C. Kenney of World War Two fame grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. His family genealogy was narrated in Roland W. Kenney’s 1973 book The Ancestors of General George C. Kenney.

Early Kennys elsewhere were:

  • James Barnett Kenney who was born in Augusta county, Virginia in 1752 from Irish parents. He fought in the Revolutionary War and afterwards took up new farming land in Bourbon county, Kentucky. His son Moses moved to Illinois where he founded the township of Kenney, Illinois.
  • Charles Kenny who arrived from Donegal in 1791 and settled in Chester county, Pennsylvania. His son Thomas was a farmer and coal merchant in Mifflin township.
  • and Cornelius Kenney who came from Clare in 1829 and settled in Rochester, New York. His son, also named Cornelius, was a tea and coffee merchant in Baltimore, whose business became the basis for the present-day Sara Lee company.

Canada.  Kennys started arriving in Canada in the 1820’s, coming to the Maritime provinces, Quebec and Ontario (notably to Gatineau and the Ottawa valley).

One Kenny who made the most of his new country was Edward Kenny. Born in rural poverty in Kerry, he moved to Cork and then, in the employ of a merchant there, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. He and his brother started their own wholesaling business in 1828 which prospered. By the 1860’s Edward was thought to be the second richest man in Nova Scotia and “Papa” Kenny ranked as a leading figure in Halifax society.

Australia.  Early Kennys in Australia were convicts, including:

  • John and James Kenny from Carlow who were arrested in Cork and transported to Sydney in 1793
  • Charles Kenny from Roscommon who was transported there in 1821 for sedition and treason, his crime being “opposing the English occupation in Ireland.” His wife and children followed him there three years later.
  • and Eugene Kenny from Kerry who was brought to Australia in 1827. He eventually made his home at Ravenscroft in Eccleston, NSW.

Michael Kenny arrived in South Australia from county Clare in 1842. He moved to the Eyre Peninsula where he was one of the first farmers to grow grain rather than to raise sheep. Port Kenny there was named after him.

Another Michael Kenny came to Brisbane from Kilkenny in 1862.He married Mary Moore in Inverell, NSW in 1872. Their fourth child Elizabeth joined the Australian Army Nursing Service during World War One. Sister Kenny really made her name during the interwar years for her novel approach, subsequently validated, for the treatment of polio sufferers. Her uplifting story was told in Victor Cohn’s 1975 book Sister Kenny.

New Zealand.  The early Kennys in New Zealand seem to have come via the British army. David Courteney Kenny from Galway had enlisted in the early 1800’s and gone to India. A later Kenny came to New Zealand in 1856 and settled in Marlborough district, SI after having been wounded in the Crimean War. Colonel Nepean Kenny came to the same area in 1864. His daughter was the writer Alice Annie Kenny.

Kenny Surname Miscellany

Kennys in Ireland.  The majority of the people belong to families located in Galway and Roscommon.  This was the homeland in early times of the O’Kenny sept of the Uí Máines (Hy Many) and of the same stock as the O’’Maddens.  Another sept of the same name was in early times in Tyrone, but there is little trace of it left there now.

When Kennys are found of long-standing connection with county Down, they probably come from the minor Ulster sept of O’Coinne.  Meanwhile in Leitrim Kenny to some extent absorbed the local Keeney name.

Kennys in Ireland Today.  A telephone directory survey in Ireland in 1992 revealed 2,900 Kennys, of which Dublin, due to migration over the years, accounted for the largest share, around 22 percent.

The traditional origin of the name in Roscommon and Galway remained well represented, although there had been a shift away from Galway and towards Westmeath, Roscommon’s eastern neighbor.  The other place for Kennys was Wexford.

Reader Feedback: My heritage is the Donegal Kennys who subsequently moved down the west coast to Roscommon and east Galway resulting from the Cromwellian invasion. I would like to pin this down to exact details.  If there`s any further info could you let me know.  Kevin Kenny (

The Kenneys in London.  The Boodles club in London has had strong Irish connections since 1800 when a Dublin family called Kenney arrived in England and James Kenney took it over.  Under his management, some of the most influential English establishment figures of the day retired behind the club’s portals to indulge in gaming, drinking and other pursuits.  And the Kenney family themselves went on to make a mark on the literary life of the English capital.

Among James Kenney’s family was his 20-year-old son, also called James. His father wanted him to become a banker.  So he took a job at the banking house of Herries, Farquhar and Co.  But young James Kenney loved theatre and wanted to write.

Aged only 23, his first two-act farce, called Raising the Wind, was staged.  He became one of the most prolific and popular playwrights of the early 19th century, producing over 40 dramas and operas and numerous songs and poems. One of his plays, The Pledge, had a command performance before the young Queen Victoria.

Later in life Kenney developed a nervous affliction, which, coupled with his Dublin accent, caused some Londoners to mistake him for an escaped lunatic.  His sons had to rescue him from being incarcerated. It was a scene worthy of one of Kenney’s own farces.

Kennys Who Dispersed.  There were eight children of William and Marcella Kenny of Ballinasloe in eastern Galway where William worked as a coroner.  They scattered in the famine years.

The youngest son Edward made it to Salem, Massachusetts.  However, he had lost touch with his brothers and sisters who had also crossed the Atlantic.  Maria was thought to be in Philadelphia and James and Bridget in Baltimore.  It is not known whether he received any reply to the advert he placed in the Boston Pilot in 1850 looking for their whereabouts.

Meanwhile, another brother Patrick had already departed for Australia in 1842.  James did resurface and joined him in Australia, as did another brother William Thomas.

Reader Feedback – Kennys of Treanmanagh.  I am a descendant of the Kennys of Treanmanagh in Ibrickane, county Clare.  According to my family documents which date from late 1800’s and were written using the oral histories of older members from the family then in their 90’s, these Kennys were not of English descent nor were they O’Kennys from Galway. Instead they were the Cork MacKennys.  The MacKennys to my knowledge died out in the male line. They said they were originally from the Kinsale area and had moved to Waterford.

The first Kenny of Treanmanagh and Dysert was Mathias Kenny.  His sons were:

  • David of Treanmanagh
  • James the Archdeacon of Kilfenora
  • Edmond of Carhue and Dysert
  • and John.

From Edmond a famous descendant was Judge William Kenny, a Unionist MP.  From John came Mathias who acquired Freagh Castle through marriage and Matthew J. Kenny who was for a time a Parnellite MP.  General Thomas Kelly-Kenny was a descendant through grandson David.  The Quinlivan mayors of Limerick were also Kenny descendants through David’s sister Margaret.

Margaret Gallery (

General Thomas Kelly-Kenny.  Thomas Kelly-Kenny was born Thomas Kelly in 1840 at Treanmanagh in county Clare.  He later took the surname Kelly-Kenny upon inheriting the Treanmanagh estates of his uncle, Mathias Kenny.

At 18 he embarked on a military career which began in India and ended with distinction in the Boer War. In contrast to many senior military figures who were aristocrats who saw war as a sport, Kelly-Kenny worked his way up through the ranks and was respected by the rank and file soldiers.

He ended up being a highly decorated soldier.  His orders, decorations and medals included the Star of a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, the Royal Victorian Order, the Queen Victoria Jubilee medal, the Order of The Red Eagle of Prussia, and the Order of The Rising Sun awarded by the Mikado, the Emperor of Japan.  He was in his later years an adviser and friend to King George V.

Reader Feedback – Kennys from Donegal/Roscommon in Pennsylvania.  Difficult to get enough information when you are seeking relatives.  I know that my bloodline came from SW Donegal.  My great grandfather Charles Kenny came from Roscommon.  I don’t know what his father’s name was.  i do see an interesting list of a Charles Kenny from Donegal mentioned in the Pennsylvania details.

Kevin Kenny (

Edward Kenny in Halifax.  Edward Kenny had become a wealthy merchant in Halifax, Nova Scotia by the 1850’s.   He built a grand house, Thornvale, on the North West Arm of the waterfront.   One son Thomas married into the commercial elite in New York.   Another son Edward died at sea in 1870.  Of his six surviving sons, three joined the family firm and three others, after some hesitation, opted for careers in the Jesuit order.

Halifax at that time was a very stratified society with an Anglo-Protestant ascendancy.  Kenny became an active champion of the Irish Catholic cause, being a close friend of Archbishop Connolly and serving as president of the Charitable Irish Society. He staunchly backed Reformer Joseph Howe in his 1840’s campaign to bring responsible government to Nova Scotia, but broke ranks and joined the Tories in the 1850’s when Howe assailed religion in politics.  Politics was still alive at that time with sectarian and ethnic jealousies.

Edward Kenny was notoriously laconic as a public speaker. But his wealth, personality, and extensive social contacts made him extraordinarily useful to Irish Catholics in Halifax at this time.

Kenney, Illinois.  The village of Kenney, Illinois was filed in 1871 by Moses Kenney in honor of his father, James Kenney. It was incorporated in 1875.

As one looks backward to the conditions as they existed at that particular time, one cannot but admire the courage of Moses Kenney in the undertaking of such a project as a new town.  The town of Franklin, located just three miles to the north and east, was already in existence with three small stores, blacksmith shop, flour mill, saw mill, post office and school.  Also three miles to the north was another small town with stores, blacksmith shop and schools.

The only thing Moses Kenney had in his favor was a railroad.  That proved to be enough, however.  Kenney began to “grow like a weed” and in only a few years became one of the best and most widely known small towns in the entire state. Moses Kenney did not live to see his dream fulfilled as he died four years later in 1875.

Kenney doesn’t have many people today.  But it does have a Heritage Society and a small local museum to preserve the past.

Reader Feedback – Kenny in New York.  I am a descendent of the Kenny family in New York. My great grandfather and my great grandmother were from Ireland. Most of us live in the New York area. I have been told there is a town in the middle of Ireland where everyone’s last name is Kenny.

Lorraine Kenny (

Kennys and Kenneys Today.  The following are the approximate numbers of Kenny and Kennys today.

Country (000’s) Kenny Kenney Total
Ireland    14     1    15
UK    15     2    17
America     6    10    16
Elsewhere    12     5    17
Total    47    18    65

Kenny Names

  • James Kenney was a popular playwright in England in the early 19th century.He came from an Irish family. 
  • Peter James Kenney was the Jesuit priest who founded Clongowes Wood College and was a prominent Catholic preacher in Ireland during the 19th century.
  • John Kenny was the long-time President of Clanna-Gael in New York, an organization which supplied support to the rebels in Ireland, culminating in the Easter Rising. 
  • George C. Kenney was commander of the Allied Air Forces in the SW Pacific during World War Two. 
  • Enda Kenny is the leader of Fine Gael, Ireland’s second largest political party. 
  • Pat Kenny is a popular Irish radio broadcaster with RTE.

Kenny Numbers Today

  • 17,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 18,000 in America (most numerous in Massachusetts)
  • 32,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Kenny 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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