McGowan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Select McGowan Meaning
is the phonetic anglicization
of the Irish Mac Gabhainn and the
Scottish Mac Gobhainn, both meaning
“son of the smith.”
smith in olden times was an important person­age, as being the maker of
and weapons.
During English rule many McGowans in Scotland and Ireland
changed their
name to the English Smith.  
While the Scots and Irish share the McGowan name, their McGowan history differs.

McGowan Resources on

McGowan Ancestry

Ireland. The MacGabhainns were chronicled as a powerful
family originating in the ancient kingdom of Breffny, now mostly county
Cavan. However, by the late 12th century
the English had expelled them from this territory and pushed them west
TirChonaill in modern-day Donegal. Here
they were no longer chieftains and were under the McDonnell rule.

did remain in Cavan, but later changed their name to Smith. Outside Cavan, in the
adjoining counties of Leitrim, Donegal, Sligo and Monaghan, McGowan was
the preferred
English form, with the largest number being in Donegal.

Donegal. A
family of McGowans held church lands
in the parish of Inishmacsaint and most McGowan numbers in 1857 were in
parish. There were also McGowans at
Ballyshannon. Because of their
prominence a separate Donegal family based near Raphoe, the Mac
anglicized their name to McGowan.

Ulster. O’Gowan
was also an old Ulster family centered
around Ballygowan in county Down. But
many of the McGowans in Ulster today were probably Scots Irish in
origin. One such family, descended
from James MacGowan, was initially in Tyrone and then moved to
Ballinderry in
Derry in 1773.

Scotland. There
was a MacGowan clan, often spelt MacCowan, on the river Nith in the
borders in the 14th century.

“McCowan was a family
name of distinction for hundreds of years in the Kirkconnel area.
Robert the
Bruce had a company of McCowans in the upper Nith district.”

Many of these McCowans had migrated from
Dumfriesshire into Ayrshire by the 1500’s.

Other early McGowans were to be found
in Perthshire. According to tradition,
they were descended from GowChrom, the local smith, who survived the Battle of North Inch between rival
clans in 1396. Gow here derived from the
Gaelic gobhan, meaning smith.

and McGowan
emerged as surnames, with their bearers initially
attached –
for the purposes of armory or for making horse-shoes – to the
Mackintosh and
MacPherson clans. In the 18th century
Neil Gow and his son Nathaniel from Inver in Perthshire were
pre-eminent among
composers and players of fiddle music at that time.
The Gow name later extended into

McGowans at St. Ninians
in Stirlingshire have been traced back to 1682.
Henry McGowan was born in nearby Bannockburn in 1846. He was the father of Sir Harry McGowan, the industrialist who first
created the British
chemical giant ICI and then served as its Chairman from 1930 to 1950.

America. The early McGowans in
America appear to have
been Scots or Scots Irish. William
McGowan, born in Maryland around 1708, settled in Tyrrell county, North
Carolina; while John McGowan from Scotland who arrived in Augusta
Virginia in the 1740’s was the forebear of the McGowans of Craighead

William McGowan, Scots
Irish from county Antrim, arrived with his family in Charleston, South
in 1801. They settled in the Laurens
district. This line produced two notable
Samuel McGowans:

  • Samuel McGowan, born in 1819, a Confederate
    Brigadier General during the Civil War and later a local politician and
  • and Samuel McGowan, born in
    1870, who was a Fleet Paymaster for the US Atlantic Fleet in the early
    and subsequently held the rank of rear admiral.

Ned McGowan was born in 1813 into an Irish
Catholic family in Philadelphia. A fiery
man, he was expelled from city politics after a brawl and left the city
for San
Francisco at the time of the California Gold Rush.
A whipped-up anti-Catholic furor then caused
him to flee across the border into British Columbia in 1856. There he was caught up in other skirmishes
that became known as McGowan’s War. The
rest of his life was less eventful and he died in San Francisco in
poverty in 1893.

New York
. The largest number of
McGowans in New York in
the 1920 census were in New York. Most
were of Irish origin.

There was an early McGowan presence in 1756 when Irishman
Daniel McGowan acquired a tavern in the northern part of Manhattan and
gave the
family name to what became known as McGowan’s Pass.

“McGowan’s Pass, part of the
escarpment that crossed Manhattan at present-day Fifth Avenue and 102nd
consisted of two rock outcrops on the main road through Manhattan.”

The tavern
itself became known as McGowan’s and
was held by the family until the 1840’s.

The main McGowan influx came in the late
1800’s. John J. McGowan, for
instance arrived in the 1870’s and settled in Brooklyn.
Many Irish joined the New York Police Department,
as did three generations of McGowans beginning in the late 1800’s. The third of these, William J. McGowan born in
1923, retired in
1972 and opened an Irish pub on Second Avenue and 50th Street.

Canada. McGowans,
mainly from Ireland, arrived into the Maritime Provinces in the late
1700’s and
early 1800’s. The following came to Nova

  • Robert McGowan, who had arrived on the Hopewell,
    was recorded in the Amherst census of Cumberland county
    in 1770. Known as Robert the Elder
    because of his support for the local Presbyterian church, he became the
    surveyor in 1793.
  • and Michael McGowan who arrived in 1781 settled first in
    Liverpool and then moved to Port Medway where he farmed.
    His son settled in Westfield, Queens county
    in 1832.

Arrivals into New Brunswick came a little later. McGowans were at Maces Bay in the early
1800’s. William McGowan was born there
in 1816.
Hugh McGowan, a laborer, was
in St. John by 1833; Michael McGowan came to settle in the Memramcook
valley in

Three working class McGowan
arrivals into
Australia in the second half of the 19th century produced three notable

  • James McGowen was a boilermaker from Lancashire who
    came to
    Melbourne with his wife Eliza on the Western
    in 1855. Their son James, born
    on the way over, became a boilermaker like his father and then rose
    through the
    trade union ranks to become the first Labor Premier of New South Wales
  • William and Jane McGowan had come to Melbourne from
    Scotland a few years
    later. Their son Gentleman Jack McGowan
    was a champion Australian boxing champion. During
    his long career in the ring he fought over 110
    battles and was
    the first fighter to win three Australian titles at different weights.
  • while Thomas,
    McGowan, probably Scots Irish, and his wife Mary arrived in Adelaide in
    1878. Thomas, like his father, was a
    railwayman, and his son J.P. was also at first a railwayman. J.P. subsequently decamped to America and
    became a famous Hollywood actor of the silent era.


McGowan Miscellany

The Battle of North Inch.  The Battle of North Inch was
fought between thirty men of rival clans in Perthshire in 1396.  On one side were the Chattans, represented by
the Mackintoshes, and on the other side the Camerons.

According to tradition,
the Chattan complement was made up by the addition of the bandy-legged
Gow Chrom,
the armorer in Perth.  He was promised half a French crown of
gold and the
guarantee that he would be maintained for life if he survived. The two
agreed to fight and the battle was given the go-ahead.

At the end of the day,
only eleven members of Clan
Chattan (including Gow Chrom) and
one of the Camerons was still alive. The latter, realizing his was a
cause, jumped into the Tay and swam to safety, thereby handing victory
to the
Chattans.  Gow Chrom departed the battle scene with the remnants of the Mackintoshes and settled in Strathnairn.

Gow and McGowan in Scotland.  Gow is a surname derived from a Gaelic word signifying Smith.
Cowan is the same word as Gowan and has the
same meaning.  The surname McGowan is the English Smithson.

The Gows, according
to Mark Lower in his 1849 Essay of English
, were once as numerous in Scotland as the Smiths in
England and
would be so at this time had not many of them, at a very recent date,
translated the name to Smith.

Sir Harry McGowan’s Ancestry.  Sir Harry McGowan was the consummate business deal
maker who first contrived the merger of the British explosives industry
the First World War, becoming the Chairman of Nobel Industries in 1918.

Then in 1926, in a meeting with Sir Alfred
Mond on-board the Cunard liner Aquitaine,
he hatched
the plan to amalgamate
the four largest UK chemical companies to form Imperial Chemical
Industries.  This duly happened and Sir
Harry was its Chairman from 1930 to 1950.
For his business services he was ennobled as Baron McGowan of
Ardeer in

Maybe he was already of noble birth.  It
was said that McGowan, through his
maternal grandfather, was descended from the Pepys and Nevill families – the
latter connecting him with English kings at the time of the War of the
However, his father’s side presents a
different picture.  Born in
Stirlingshire, Henry McGowan had come to Glasgow in search of work and
was a
brass finisher.  He and his wife lived in
relatively humble fashion on Thistle Street in Govan when their son
Harry was
born in 1874.

The Obituary of William McGowan of Laurens District, South Carolina.  William McGowan died at his residence in Laurens
District on November 7, 1866 in the 80th year of his age.
The following obituary appeared in the local

“Possessing a vigorous constitution, hardened by life and
long toil,
he passed the period allotted to man and finally, attacked by
congestion of the
brain, sunk to rest amidst a large circle of family and friends.

The deceased belonged to that sturdy
Scotch-Irish race which has gone into every clime of the earth, and
into some
without taking root, and producing fruit abundant and useful, perhaps
could any other race that ever lived; whose descendants are in every
state and
represented in every legislative council in America.

The deceased was born near Lough Neigh in county
Antrim in March 1786 and for one in his unpretending sphere, his life
was an
eventful one.  His final thoughts were
about an unsuccessful struggle for independence in the Old World, and
his last
about a like struggle even in the New World.

His father Patrick McGowan belonged
to the patriotic party of United Irishmen in this sort of struggle
for liberty in the year 1798.  The writer
has often heard from the lips of the deceased, that, during the
uprising, his
father was out with the pikemen and he, being a boy, was carried by an
sister, still living, when the village of Randalstown was burned and
the family
had to fly from the red coats of Lord Cornwallis.

Power triumphed over the disorganized
patriotism, and that rebellion was crushed. Then came, in their course,
all the
expedients for making treason odious; proscriptions?
and the dungeon, exile and the gibbet?  Some
members of the family, particularly an
Uncle Robert, were severely punished as traitors to the Government of
Britain and the dissentions in the country, growing out of the
insurrection and
connected with the question of “Union”, which arose soon after,
making it disagreeable and unsafe to remain in his native land.

Patrick McGowen,
the father, determined to seek a new home in America.
Without the aid of anyone, it was no small
matter to cross the ocean.  After many
disappointments, he sailed from Belfast in the fall of 1800.  But the good brig Sollie
sprang a leak and had to put back to Cork for repairs.
Here he suffered much in person and purse, but
finally re-embarked his household goods and sailed again and reached
South Carolina in May 1801 with his family, consisting of his wife and
children, three daughters and the deceased, an only son, then a lad of
thirteen.  Starting from Charleston they
went to Laurens district, where an elder brother John had previously

On the second day out, their father sickened and suddenly
died, leaving the
widowed mother and three sisters mainly dependent on the youthful
exertions of
the deceased.  Penniless, friendless,
foreigners, strangers in a strange land, they made their way up to the
hills of Cane Creek and the deceased commenced his life near the spot
where he

In the course of a few years he married and reared a
large family of
children, some of them survive to tell the desolation occasioned by his
departure, and to mourn his loss.  HIs
life was one of unremitting hardships, not for himself but for his
family.  He was devoted to his children and
seemed to
regard it as the chief object of his life to elevate their condition
and make
them comfortable, respectable and happy.
Feeling keenly the want of an education himself, he spared no
pains nor
expense in giving them the best opportunity the country afforded.” 

Alistair McGowan and Who Do You Think You Are?  Alistair McGowan the English impressionist and comedian
discovered he had an Anglo-Indian background in the TV program Who Do You Think You Are? 

His father George had returned from
Calcutta to England in 1953.  Going back
two generations was his great grandfather Richard and his wife Isabella
were from Allahabad.

“They look completely Indian,” Alistair said.

He then found counters a whole
branch of the
family that he didn’t know existed who lived in the centre of Allahabad.

Richard’s grandfather, who bore the unlikely
name of Suetonius, “married a Mohammedan woman of nobility.”  And it was his father John McGowan first went
first went to India in the 1760’s as he was an ordinary soldier.  John was evidently a gifted soldier who rose
through the ranks to become a Major General, a wealthy man who left an
that included three elephants.

And the
biggest surprise of all?  Alistair had
always imagined that his family had come from Scotland.
But this John McGowan had come to India from


  • Select
    McGowan Names

  • Gow Chrom survived the
    Battle of North Inch in 1396 and is, according to tradition, the
    forebear of the McGowans in Scotland. 
  • J.P. McGowan, born in Australia, was a pioneering Hollywood actor during the silent era. 
  • Sir Harry McGowan was a prominent British industrialist who was Chairman of the chemical company ICI from 1930 to 1950. 
  • Alistair McGowan is an English impressionist and comic
    actor popular on British TV.   
  • Shane MacGowan is the lead singer
    of the Celtic punk rock band The Pogues

Select McGowan Numbers Today

  • 14,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Lanarkshire)
  • 12,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 11,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)




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