McGowan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McGowan Surname Meaning

McGowan is the phonetic anglicization of the Irish Mac Gabhainn and the Scottish Mac Gobhainn, both meaning “son of the smith.” The smith in olden times was an important person­age, as being the maker of armor 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 Surname Resources on The Internet

McGowan Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Donegal) and Scotland (Ayrshire)
  • to America, Canada, South Africa and South Pacific

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 to TirChonaill in modern-day Donegal. Here they were no longer chieftains and were under the McDonnell rule.

MacGabhainns 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 that parish. There were also McGowans at Ballyshannon. Because of their prominence a separate Donegal family based near Raphoe, the Mac Dhubhains, 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 Scottish 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.

Gow 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 Stirlingshire.

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 county, Virginia in the 1740’s was the forebear of the McGowans of Craighead county, Arkansas.

William McGowan, Scots Irish from county Antrim, arrived with his family in Charleston, South Carolina 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 judge
  • and Samuel McGowan, born in 1870, who was a Fleet Paymaster for the US Atlantic Fleet in the early 1900’s 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 relative 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 Street, 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 Scotia:

  • 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 town 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 1836.  

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

  • James McGowen was a boilermaker from Lancashire who came to Melbourne with his wife Eliza on the Western Bride 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 in 1910.  
  • 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.

South Pacific.  William McGowan from Ayr in Scotland had already left home for a life at sea in 1851 at the age of seventeen.  Ten years later, he was in New Zealand, having jumped ship, and, from there, he made his home at Levuka in Fiji serving as a ship’s captain in South Pacific trades.

He and his English wife Geraldine raised five children in Fiji.  But sadly, as Geraldine was pregnant with their sixth child, William died in 1881 from a heart attack after returning from a voyage.

McGowan Surname 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 camps 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 lost 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 Surnames, 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 during 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 1937.

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 Roses. 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 newspaper.

“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 than 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 elder 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 Great 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 Charleston, South Carolina in May 1801 with his family, consisting of his wife and four 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 settled.

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 genial hills of Cane Creek and the deceased commenced his life near the spot where he died.

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 who 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 estate 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 Ireland.

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 who died in 2023 was the lead singer of the Celtic punk rock band The Pogues.  His biggest hit was Fairytale of New York, written in 1987.

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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Written by Colin Shelley

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