McGuinness Surname Meaning, History & Origin

McGuinness Surname Meaning

Magennis is an Irish surname, today spelt McGuinness, McGinnis, and Guinness, and is derived from the male given name Aonghus meaning “unique choice.”  Its first bearer is believed to have been Aonghus Turimleach, one of three Irish brothers who invaded Scotland in the 3rd century B.C. and gave his name to the East Coast district of Angus.

The ancestry of the Gaelic Magennis/McGuinness family in Ireland is said to have gone back to a 5th century chief of Dal Araidhe. The Guinness spelling is rarer, but more prominent because of the famous Anglo-Irish Guinness brewing family. The spelling in America and Canada tends to be McGinnis.

McGuinness Surname Resources on The Internet

McGuinness, Guinness, and McGinnis Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Ulster)
  • to America, Canada and Australia

IrelandThe first recorded spelling of the family name was Mag Aonghusa, dated around 1150 in the Early Records of Iveagh in county Down. At that time the Magennises had become the chiefs of the territory of Iveagh in the Mourne mountains. By the 15th century they had expanded Iveagh all the way east to Dundrum castle where county Down meets the Irish Sea.

The four main branches of the Magennis clan then were Castlewellan, Corgary, Kilwarlin, and Rathfriland, between whom there was rivalry. However, they were soon to face a new common enemy, the English:

Sir Hugh Magennis placated the English in the late 16th century, but his son Art Roe Magennis fought against them and had his lands ravaged.  

In the next century, during the colonization of Ulster, the Magennis again appeased the English, with Art Roe being ennobled as Viscount Magennis of Iveagh. But many disgruntled and dispossessed Magennises joined the Irish rebellion of 1641. It was at this time that Conn Magennis’s daughter Larissa died in tragic circumstances. More land forfeitures occurred. The Magennis viscountcy was attainted after the Williamite war in 1693.

Many Magennises fled Ireland at that time as Wild Geese. The best known of these was Brian Magennis, the second Viscount Iveagh, who was a colonel of Iveagh’s Regiment in the Austrian Imperial Army. He was killed in action in 1703.

The McGuinness spelling began to displace Magennis in the 18th century. There were 70 McGuinnesses recorded in county Down in Griffith’s Valuation of the 1850’s. Charles McGuinness the Irish adventurer of the early 1900’s, nicknamed “the nomad,” was born in Derry. Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein republican who rose to high office in Northern Ireland, also came from Derry.

Guinness.  The Guinness family is an extensive Anglo-Irish Protestant family noted for their accomplishments in brewing, banking and politics. These Guinnesses had been tenant farmers in Dublin in the 17th century. It was Arthur Guinness, born in Celbridge, who started the famous Guinness brewery in Dublin in 1759.

His family claimed a descent from the Gaelic Magennis clan in county Down. But recent DNA evidence suggests a descent from the McCartans, another county Down clan, whose home at Kinelarty included the townland of Guiness near Ballynahinch.

The brewing line at Dublin, makers of “the black stuff,” passed from the first Arthur Guinness to the second Arthur Guinness and then to Sir Benjamin Guinness who by the 1850’s had become the richest man in Ireland and was made a baronet in 1867 for his philanthropic contributions. The Guinness company remained in family hands through most of the 20th century, with a later Benjamin Guinness being its Chairman from 1961 to 1992. Other Guinnesses made their mark in politics.

The banking line of Guinnesses descended from Arthur’s brother Samuel who set himself up as a goldbeater in Dublin in 1750. His son Richard was a Dublin barrister; and Richard’s son Robert founded the merchant bank of Guinness Mahon in 1836.

Joe Joyce’s 2009 book The Guinnesses covered this family’s history.

America. Shipping records show Irish immigrants coming to America mainly as McGuinness or McGinness. But they generally adopted the spelling of McGinnis in America.

Pennsylvania.  The main entry point was Pennsylvania which today still has the largest number of McGinnises. Among the McGinnis arrivals there were:

  • John McGinnis who arrived from Antrim in the 1720’s. From John to Walter Fletcher McGinnis were seven generations of McGinnises. Walter made his name as an oil prospector in southern Kansas in the early 1900’s.  
  • Samuel McGinness who came to Chester county from Antrim in 1764. He died there around 1800. He was thought to have been related to the Magennis Viscounts Iveagh. His grandson Benjamin McGinness, brought up in Lancaster county, migrated west to California in the 1850’s.  
  • Francis McGinnis who came from Dublin in the 1770’s, settling in Westmoreland county. He and his wife Rebecca had nine children, many of whom moved west to Kentucky. Their line was covered in Sherry Lowe’s 2009 book My McGinnis Clan.  
  • and William McGinnis who arrived from county Down in 1782. A later William migrated to Youngstown, Ohio in the 1860’s where he found employment in the iron mills. A man of keen scientific interests, he was elected a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1899.

Elsewhere.  Teady Magin, who changed his name to Timothy McGinnis, was an Irish fur trader and Indian agent in upstate New York in the 1740’s. His son Robert was a Loyalist who departed for Canada.

A later New York arrival in 1838 was Patrick Maginnis from county Clare in Ireland. He worked on the railroads and this took him west to Illinois and Minnesota. His son Martin fought in the Civil War and then moved to Montana territory where he engaged in mining and published the Helena Daily Gazette.

Canada. Some McGinnises were Loyalist in America and crossed the border into Canada after the Revolutionary War was over. Robert McGinnis and his sons John and Richard McGinnis, who had fought with Butler’s Rangers in upstate New York, ended up in Quebec. Robert died in Montreal in 1796. There were descendants via his son John.

John McGinnis came with his family to Wellington county, Ontario from county Down in 1831 and settled in Puslinch township. He and his seven sons all survived the cholera epidemic that hit the area three years later.

Australia. At the tender age of 15 George McGinnis was sentenced in county Meath in 1796 to life transportation to Australia. George who was illiterate married in 1807, received his conditional pardon in 1810, and was an early Hawkesbury settler. He died in 1829. Hugh and Elizabeth McGuiness came to Sydney with their family from county Monaghan as free settlers on the Crescent in 1840.

McGuinness Surname Miscellany

Magennis, McGuinness, McGinnis, and Guinness Today

‘000’s Magennis McGuinness McGinnis Guinness Total
Ireland     0.1     5.0     0.1     5.2
UK     1.5     8.5     0.6     0.4    11.0
America     0.1     2.0     9.5    11.6
Elsewhere     0.3     3.0     3.0     6.3
Total     2.0    18.5    13.1      0.5   34.1

Dundrum Castle.  Dundrum Castle in county Down had been built by the Anglo-Norman John de Courcy in 1177, but captured from them by the Magennis clan sometime in the 1400’s.  They were probably responsible for the construction of the stone curtain wall of its outer bailey at that time.

Phelim Magennis surrendered the castle to the English in 1601.  It was briefly recaptured at the time of the Irish uprising in 1641.  But then Oliver Cromwell took it back and dismantled the whole structure in 1652.  All that is left of the castle today is a large part of the circular central keep and some portions of the outer curtain wall which surrounded it in the past.

The Death of Lassara.  At the time of the Irish uprising in 1641, Conn Magennis was the Magennis clan chief at Iveagh in county Down. During the winter a wandering harper had stayed with the Magennises, entertaining them each night with his playing by the glow of their campfires.

With the advent of spring and early summer he lingered on and one morning met Lassara, daughter of the Magennis, who had become fascinated by his music.  He invited her to go away with him to his island keep in Lough Ochter, away from the strife of the impending uprising.

He had previously approached her father Conn for her hand in marriage but had been refused.  Lassara nevertheless agreed to go with him.  It was arranged that at dawn on the following day, when she heard his harp playing, they would meet and journey to Nun’s Island where they would be married. At daybreak the next day, they met as arranged and made their way to Nun’s Island, intending to proceed from there to the harper’s home at Ochter Island.

At dusk that evening, they reached the Clanrye river and, taking a skiff that was moored to the bank, made their way down river to Nun’s Island.  Even in the fading light, however, they were spotted by a keen-eyed English sentry as they passed Narrow Water Castle.  When he received no reply to his challenge, the sentry fired, killing the harpist who fell overboard into the dark depths of the river.

Lassara collapsed with shock into the bottom of the boat and was carried to the bank a little further on.  There she was rescued by the soldiers from the garrison, only to be imprisoned when they identified her as the daughter of Conn Magennis.  She was kept in the dungeon of the castle, her only comfort being that she could still hear the music of her murdered harpist as dusk fell each evening. The warden now began to pester her for her favors and threatened to have her killed unless she consented to marry him.

One night, when the warden came to her cell and opened the door, she slipped past him and ran up the back stairway to the battlements, pursued by the furious Englishman.  She then leapt from the battlements to join the harpist near the spot where he had perished just a short time before.

Conn learned of the fate of his daughter Lassara and subsequently led the clan from their territory to Narrow Water Castle, which they captured after a fierce battle.  The lecherous warden was said to have chosen to throw himself into the river rather than face death by the vengeful sword of the Magennis.

It is said that in winter-time, when storms rage round the ancient battlements, the harpist’s music can be heard above the howling of the wind, while the sad ghost of Lassara Magennis floats down from the top of the castle.  The harp notes fade away and finally cease as her apparition sinks slowly into the depths of the river below the ancient and blood-stained castle of Narrow Water.

The Guinness Family and Celbridge.  In 1722 Richard Guinness arrived in Celbridge in county Kildare and was employed as a land steward there by Archbishop Arthur Price of the Oakley Park estate. One of his duties was to supervise the brewing of beer for the workers on the estate.  It was also in this year that Dr. Price took over James Carberry’s brewery (formerly Norris’s pub and now the Village Inn).  It was thought to have been the first house of the Guinness family in Celbridge.

Arthur Guinness, his son, was born in Celbridge in 1725.  He was named after the Archbishop who had left both father and son £100 in his will. Arthur Guinness brewed his first beer at James Carberry’s brewery in Celbridge.

At the age of 31 Arthur Guinness had a small brewery in Leixlip.  In 1759 he arrived at St. James’ Gate in Dublin where he established one of the world’s most famous breweries.

McGuinness and Variants Coming to America.  Shipping records show Irish immigrants coming to America mainly as McGuinness or McGinness.  But they generally adopted the spelling of McGinnis in America.

McGuinness McGinness McGinnis
Ireland    354    209    147
Elsewhere    138     70     59
Total    492    279    206

From John to Walter Fletcher McGinnis.  Out of Ireland there came in the early part of the 18th century John McGinnis. He came from Antrim and settled in Pennsylvania.  From him to Walter Fletcher McGinnis covered a period of seven consecutive generations of the family history:

  • John McGinnis, the original immigrant
  • James McGinnis
  • Edmond McGinnis
  • Edmond McGinnis Jr.
  • Dr. Ira Edmond McGinnis
  • Dr. James Allen McGinnis
  • and Walter Fletcher McGinnis.

Twenty one members of the McGinnis family served in the Revolutionary War. At least two of the family were on the US fleet that landed at Vera Cruz, Mexico during the struggle with the Huerta government.

Dr. James McGinnis from Indiana came to Kansas in 1854 when he was just eighteen years old.  A true pioneer, he took an active part in the early development of Butler county.  He was one of the leaders in organizing a vigilance committee who meted out summary justice to some of the outlaws in the early history of the county.

Walter F. McGinnis, born there in 1860, became interested in the oil business in his thirties.  He believed that Butler county had oil under its surface. In 1912 he began taking oil leases in the county. The big result came with the completion of the test well on the Stapleton estate in the fall of 1915. That well revealed the presence of oil in profitable quantities at a depth of from 525 and 700 feet to 2,500 feet.

Benjamin McGinness’s Travails.  In May 1843 Benjamin McGinness left his farm in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania and started with his family in wagons for Illinois. They arrived at a point near Nauvoo in Hancock county two months later. They halted there with the intention of purchasing land.

Here misfortune overtook him.  He fell into the hand of land sharks who sold him land to which they could give no valid title.  The real owners appeared in a short time and took steps to take it from him. He with the majority of the settlers around Nauvoo were finally driven over the Mississippi River by a mob.

They took their weary march across the prairies of Iowa for Council Bluffs. Here he and his family arrived in due time and remained two years. Still impressed with the idea of moving west, Benjamin pushed on to Salt Lake city where he arrived in about 1855. He remained there a short time, then went on to California, finally settling in San Bernardino around 1858. Here he found an arid country.  But the climate was all that could be desired so he settled there.

In 1869 he started on a visit to his old home in Pennsylvania. He traveled by wagon until he met the Union Pacific railroad, near Cheyenne in Wyoming. From there he could go much faster.  He spent the fall and winter among his friends and early in the spring of 1870 returned home.

Broken down in health from the long journey and exposure on the plains, he never fully recovered and died that year in San Bernardino.

McGuinness Names

  • Arthur Guinness founded the famous Guinness brewery in Dublin in 1759. 
  • Charles Donagh Maginnis was an Irish-born architect who started the Boston firm of Maginnis & Walsh in 1905. 
  • Sir Alec Guinness was a well-known British actor who died in 2000.  He was born in London in 1914 to no known father.  His mother gave him the name of Guinness at his birth. 
  • Martin McGuinness was an Irish republican and Sinn Fein politician who became Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2007.

McGuinness Numbers Today

  • 11,000 in the UK (most numerous in Northern Ireland)
  • 12,000 in America (most numerous in Pennsylvania)
  • 11,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

McGuinness 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.

Ulster in NE Ireland covers the counties of Derry, Antrim, Down, Tyrone, Armagh, Fermanagh, Cavan, Monaghan, and Donegal.  Here are some of the Ulster surnames (excluding the Scots Irish surnames) that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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