O'Shaughnessy Surname Meaning, History & Origin

O’Shaughnessy Surname Meaning

The Irish surnames O’Shaughnessy and Shaughnessy are both derived from the Gaelic clan name O’Seachnasaigh. The root here is the personal name Seachnasaigh of uncertain origin and meaning.

Globally the O’Shaughnessy/Shaughnessy name breakdown is approximately 60/40 today. Within Ireland O’Shaughnessy has been more common in Limerick, Shaughnessy more common in Galway. In Galway the name has been pronounced “Shock-nessy,” rather than “Shaun-essy” as it is elsewhere.

The O’Shaughnessys were believed to have been the direct descendants of the last pagan king of all Ireland, King Daithi, in the 10th century.  The clan was the most prominent sect in that part of the country known in ancient times as Ui Fiachra Aidhne and is now county Galway. It was said that they defeated their kinsmen the O’Cahills and the O’Clerys to be the chiefs of that region.

O’Shaughnessy Surname Resources on The Internet

O’Shaughnessy and Shaughnessy Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Galway)
  • to England, America and Australia

Ireland.  The forebear of the O’Shaughnessy clan was said to have been Seachnasach mac Donnchadh who flourished in the 11th century. The surname O’Shaughnessy really started to come into use two centuries later as the O’Shaughnessys were becoming the dominant family in the Úi Fiachra Aidhne area (the southern part of county Galway). Their family members were hereditary custodians of the St. Colman’s girdle and crozier medieval relics.

The clan base was the town of Gort. Gort castle was demolished by Cromwell. But Ardamullivan castle nearby still stands.

In Tudor times the O’Shaughnessys had adopted a policy of “surrender and regrant” towards the English aggressors. Diarmaid (Dermot) and his son Rusaidhri (Richard) were both knighted by the English monarch, Rusaidhri being described as “a very obedient and civil man and most desirous to hold his lands directly of his Majesty.”

But they rebelled against English power at the time of Cromwell and had much of their land sequestrated. Their lands were regained after the Restoration only to be lost again in 1690 after Captain Roger O’Shaughnessy had supported the failed Jacobite cause against William of Orange and lost his life following the Battle of the Boyne. His son William O’Shaughnessy, the last of The O’Shaughnessy, departed for France.

A legal battle then raged between the O’Shaughnessys and the Prendergasts, the family who had been granted their lands, with the O’Shaughnessys eventually losing the case. It is thought that the main O’Shaughnessy line died out around 1780.

An exodus from the Gort area had begun by the late 1600’s. Many went to Limerick, which is where the greatest concentration of the name exists today:

  • early among them was Thomas O’Shaughnessy from a branch of the main O’Shaughnessy line. He settled at Glin along the river Shannon in 1692.
  • Patrick O’Shaughnessy established a grocery store in Glin in the 1850’s. These premises are now the O’Shaughnessy public house.
  • while Robert O’Shaughnessy was a notable clockmaker in Limerick town in the early 1800’s.

Other O’Shaughnessys departed for Clare.

England. Francis and Dr. Richard O’Shaughnessy were descendants of the O’Shaughnessy Gort family who made their home in London. From another line came Arthur O’Shaughnessy, the Victorian poet and author of that well-known ode We are the Music Makers.

America.  O’Shaughnessys were late-comers to America. The 1840 US census showed very few of that name.

Thomas O’Shaughnessy from Kildare had arrived in the 1830’s in Cincinnati where he ran a hardware store along Main Street. He later operated a cotton mill along the Ohio river in northern Kentucky until it was destroyed by fire in 1854. Thomas and Bridget Shaughnessy also came around that time. They showed up in the 1840 census in Rochester, New York. The family then moved to Chicago and later to Kansas City. Life was hard for them and Thomas died at an early age, possibly from cholera.

It was the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840’s which had a devastating effect on life in the Galway area and drove many more O’Shaughnessys to emigrate. The English author Thackeray visited Ireland at that time and remarked: “Between Gort and Oranmore we passed through little but the most woeful country.”

The emigrant story in America was for some a rags-to-riches story.

James Shaughnessy came to work in 1850 in the boot and shoe factories around Milford, Massachusetts. He did not stay long. By 1861 he had moved to northern Missouri where he opened a shoe store. His four sons were to make their marks in very different areas:

  • James initially as a journalist and then as a well-known advertising executive
  • John and Francis as Chicago lawyers
  • and Thomas as an artist.

Their family history was recounted in Colum Kenny’s 2014 book An Irish-American Odyssey – the O’Shaughnessy Brothers.

Related to James was John O’Shaughnessy, also a boot-maker in Milford. His son John moved to Stillwater, Minnesota in 1860 where he and his wife Mary Anne raised thirteen children. When their 13th child was born in 1885, they had a problem.  The son later recounted:  “By the time I arrived, mother had run out of all the regular names like John, James and Joseph. Being a good Catholic she went to the Calendar of Saints. So I became Ignatius.”  

Ignatius Aloysius O’Shaughnessy – nicknamed Nashe – entered the oil business and rode oil refineries in Oklahoma. Kansas, and Illinois to great wealth, much of which he donated as a prodigious philanthropist to Catholic causes.

Tom Shaughnessy had arrived from Limerick a little earlier, around 1840, and became a detective in the Milwaukee police department in Wisconsin. His son Thomas migrated to Canada, joining the Canadian Pacific Railway and then rising through the ranks to become its President from 1899 to 1918. His grandson Alfred grew up in London and he and his two sons made their name in British TV work.

Edward and Patrick O’Shaughnessy had apparently come to the Little Meadows township in Susquehanna county, Pennsylvania as early as 1831. Their descendants have remained a presence in that community. A later Edward moved west to St. Cloud, Minnesota where his son Clark Shaughnessy was born in 1892. He became a famous college football coach and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1968.  

Australia.  Thomas Shaughnessy was transported from Dublin to Sydney on the Telicherry in 1806. He married there and, on his release, found work as a cabinet maker and later as an undertaker. And a much respected undertaker if the eulogies on his death in 1837 are to be believed.

In 1822 another Thomas O’Shaughnessy was tried and convicted in Limerick for being “idle and disorderly” and was also transported to Australia.  After his release he farmed in western NSW and South Australia. His son Thomas wandered through various places in Australia before becoming one of the earliest setters of Cowra, NSW. He kept a diary which has recently been published.

O’Shaughnessy Surname Miscellany

Ardamullivan Castle.  Ardamullivan castle lies about 8 kilometers south of Gort. It was first mentioned in 1567 when claimed by Dermot ‘the Swarthy’ after the death of his brother Sir Roger O’Shaughnessy.

In a dispute over possession of the castle, Dermot fought his nephew William in a duel beneath the walls of Ardamullivan.  Dermot killed William.  But William had managed to wound his uncle to the extent that he died within about half an hour of his nephew.

William O’Shaughnessy, the Last O’Shaughnessy.  As the Jacobite rebellion against William of Orange was taking shape in 1689, William O’Shaughnessy was a captain of a company of one hundred members of his clan and retainers.

In the spring of the next year he left for France to serve in French colors in the regiment of Daniel O’Brien.  July of that year saw the defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of the Boyne. His own father, Captain Roger O’Shaughnessy, was killed at that time. He as a result became The O’ShaughnessyHowever, his ancestral property was forfeited in 1697 and he was never able to return home.

He served in the armies of France in the hope that Irish support would enable James II or his successors to regain the British throne.  This never happened. Opposing him at the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709 was Sir Thomas Prendergast who had been granted O’Shaughnessy’s Irish lands.  Prendergast was killed in the battle.

William O’Shaughnessy, appointed a Marshal of France, died in 1744 and was buried at the church of St. Willibrord at Gravelines in France.

Robert O’Shaughnessy, Limerick Clockmaker.  In the Limerick Museum collection there stands simple long case clock with the inscription ‘Robt. O’Shaughnessy/Limerick’ on the face.

Robert O’Shaughnessy was a Limerick watch and clockmaker.  He was born around 1778 and by 1809 was operating his business out of 18 George Street.

O’Shaughnessy would continue to create watches and clocks in this building for over thirty years until his death in 1842.  He was also the creator of a new style of fishing hook. He was apparently regarded favorably as his death notice record that: “His upright conduct, and honorable principle in all his transactions in life, endeared him to society.”  After O’Shaughnessy’s death his son Robert carried on at 18 George Street.

In 1854 Conrad Cromer, a German watchmaker, married Jane O’Shaughnessy and he would continue the O’Shaughnessy watch and clock making business at the same location.  Conrad’s family carried on the business after his death in 1903 and it continued in business for most of the 20th century.  After 183 years in business the O’Shaughnessy/Cromer finally closed its doors in 1999.

The 1822 Trial of Thomas O;Shaughnessy in Limerick.  Thomas Shaughnessy, a young ploughman from Adare in county Limerick, was put to the bar, charged with being an “idle and disorderly” person under the recently passed Insurrection Act.  He had been out of his home at half past ten in the evening, thereby breaking the curfew.

At the trial a member of the Adare yeomanry testified that he had seen the house belonging to Mr. Fosbury burning.  A policeman had hastened to the place.  When he arrived there it was all in flames, being a thatched house.  There was one woman in the house at the time it was set on fire and she was got out.

The policemen then searched the adjoining houses to see if the inhabitants were there.   They went into the Shaughnessy house and saw an old man sitting by the fire.  While they were interrogating the old man Thomas Shaughnessy rushed in from the back door in great haste, as if after a chase.  On being asked where he had been, he said that he had been feeding the cow.  This proved not to be the case as the cow had not been fed.

There was no evidence that Shaughnessy was at the burning of Mr. Fosbury’s house; but the court and the magistrate were of the opinion that he was.  He was found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation. Perhaps as if to soften the blow the court averred that New South Wales was as comfortable place to be transported to as could be found.

Shaughnessy was sent to the Cove of Cork and in June 1822 boarded the ship Mangles which arrived in Port Jackson in the following November.

Major O’Shaughnessy, A Witness to Irish Evictions.  One of the most famous evictions and resistance movements during the Irish Land War took place in July 1888 on the Vandeleur Estate near Kilrush in county Clare.  Keen to reinforce the landlord’s evictions, the British Government deployed a formidable eviction force, consisting of one hundred and twenty British soldiers, one hundred and twenty Royal Irish Constabulary, all armed with batons, pistols, rifles and bayonets.

Major E. J. O’Shaughnessy, a visiting Irish-American activist, his wife Margaretta and her sister Ellen were among the witnesses to the evictions.  Major O’Shaughnessy subsequently wrote extensively about his experiences.

His great grandson Ed O’Shaughnessy spent over six years studying the many photographs that were taken during the evictions and the photographers who took them.  He gave a lecture to the Kilrush and District Historical Society on this subject in June 2021.

Thomas Shaughnessy, Undertaker.  The Sydney Monitor of May 8, 1837 contained the following notice:

“Mr. Thomas Shaughnessy was by trade an undertaker. With a face of lengthened gravity he joined it with a most sociable and jocular disposition.  He had the art of laughing inwardly.  A nice observer, however, could discern in the cast of his eye the merriment which, under a grave aspect, was going on within.

But besides his love of humor, Shaughnessy was a man of singular benevolence.  The consequence was, that unlike his brethren of the same craft, he was able neither to build houses not keep his carriage.  Shaughnessy was not esteemed by the religious because his religion consisted but little in external devotion.

It possessed instead the unequivocal stamp of perpetual works of kindness and charity.  Many a poor man has worthy Tom buried whose widowed wife and children never paid him; and what is still more, to this good Christian’s credit, he was pretty certain at the very time he made the decent coffin and carried the dead to their long home, he would have to do the job for free.

Our Savior advises his followers to lay up their treasures in heaven.  This was honest Tom’s opinion.  So he buried the corpses of worthy people at a risk.  If he were paid, well; if not, he considered (no doubt) that the Savior of men would be as good as his word and place it to his credit in another book kept by himself.

Peace be with thy manes, honest Tom Shaughnessy! Thou wast a sympathizer with the human race, and especially with those in affliction!”

We are the Music Makers.  Arthur O’Shaughnessy was an English poet of Irish descent, not much remembered today but well-known in Victorian times for an ode from his book Music and Moonlight published in 1874 which began as follows:

  • “We are the music makers,
  • And we are the dreamers of dreams,
  • Wandering by lone sea-breakers
  • And sitting by desolate streams;—
  • World-losers and world-forsakers,
  • On whom the pale moon gleams:
  • Yet we are the movers and shakers
  • Of the world for ever, it seems.”

The ode was set to music several times.  The term “movers and shakers” is with us today.

O’Shaughnessy himself was a delicate, Dresden-china looking figure who, like other brilliant young men of the period, indulged in long hair.  As happened to many ‘world-dreamers’ and ‘world-forsakers,’ he died young.   He caught a cold on a night out in 1881 which developed into fatal pneumonia. 

Reader Feedback – An O’Shaughnessy Famine Departure.  My O’Shaughnessy ancestors were part of the famine exodus, departing Coolmeen in county Clare in 1847 for Montreal.

My great grandfather, an alleged Fenian, left Montreal in late 1865 “only one step ahead of the law.”  He surfaced in New York City there to live out his life associating with American Fenians. His descendants eventually departed from New York City and are scattered about the US today.

Ed O’Shaughnessy (ejos@comcast.net)

The I.A. Shaughnessy Legend.  The I.A. O’Shaughnessy legend in Minnesota is well-known and has often been told.

He was sixteen years old in 1902 when he and two classmates at St. John’s University had skipped Sunday vespers and headed for the woods and a hidden barrel of beer. They were nabbed upon their return to campus and expelled the next day.

O’Shaughnessy was going to take the train home to Stillwater but got off in downtown St. Paul and walked several miles to St. Thomas.  There he met Father John Foley, president of the college, who was on his evening stroll. Foley took O’Shaughnessy for a meal, listened to his story, and accepted him as a student after he admitted he had done wrong.

O’Shaughnessy went on to star on the football team, serve as secretary to the president and graduate in 1907. Later, after he had grown rich from oil refining, he became a benefactor to St. Thomas.

“St. Thomas was the beginning of dad’s philanthropy with education,” said his son Larry who has served on its Board of Trustees. “It made sense he would turn first to St. Thomas because of all the college had done for him.”

Reader Feedback – Line of Thomas Shaughnessy, Canadian Pacific Railway.  I’m directly related to Thomas Shaughnessy, its President. My grandfather was Lord William Shaughnessy, my father was Patrick Shaughnessy.

Lisa Shaughnessy (lisaradgirl@gmail.com)

O’Shaughnessy Names

  • William O’Shaughnessy was the last O’Shaughnessy chief. He left Ireland in 1690, fought in the French army, and became a Marshal in France. 
  • W.B. O’Shaughnessy was the Limerick-born doctor who pioneered the modern treatment of cholera, introduced cannabis to Western medicine, and, during his stay in India in the 1850’s, laid the first telegraph system in Asia.
  • Thomas Shaughnessy, the son of Irish famine immigrants, rose to become President of the Canada Pacific Railway from 1899 to 1918. 
  • I.A. O’Shaughnessy, the son of Irish immigrants in Minnesota, established the Globe Oil & Refining Company of Oklahoma in 1917. By the 1930’s he was the head of the largest individually-owned oil company in the world.

O’Shaughnessy Numbers Today

  • 3,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 4,000 in America (most numerous in New York)
  • 5,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

O’Shaughnessy 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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