O'Shea Surname Meaning, History & Origin

O’Shea Surname Meaning

The O’Shea name derived from the Gaelic O’Seaghda sept. Seaghda in Gaelic means “fine” or “stately.” Segda was a chieftain of the Corcu Duibne, a western Kerry grouping on the Dingle and Iveragh peninsulas. O’Shea became Shea on its travels outside Ireland.

O’Shea Surname Resources on The Internet

O’Shea and Shea Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Kerry and Kilkenny)
  • to France, Spain, Canada, America and New Zealand

Ireland.  The O’Sheas were a Kerry sept, the lords of Iveragh, often in dispute with their O’Falvey sept neighbors in Dingle. However, they ran into the more powerful McCarthy sept in the 12th century and their powers in Kerry declined. Some of these O’Sheas may have migrated east to Tipperary and Kilkenny (although this is disputed).

Kilkenny.  Shees did establish themselves in the city of Kilkenny in the 15th century, becoming the most influential of the Ten Tribes of Kilkenny. They were sovereigns and mayors of Kilkenny in many of the years between 1493 and 1653. Sir Richard Shee who lived in the late 1500’s was probably the most powerful of these Shees.

His descendants were to be found at Sheestown. One branch migrated to Limerick. Katharine or Kitty O’Shea, who had married into this family, was the downfall of the Irish politician Charles Parnell in the late 19th century. One O’Shea family meanwhile has been farming on the banks of the Suir river in Piltown, Kilkenny since 1830.

Elsewhere.  By the time of the 1659 census, O’Shea not Shee was the predominant spelling in all counties in Ireland with the exception of Kilkenny. In the Griffith Valuation of 1852, the largest number were in Kerry and 40% of that number were on the Iveragh peninsula.

Today most live in Kerry and Cork, about half of all O’Sheas. The best known O’Shea is probably Jack O’Shea, a Gaelic footballer from Cahersiveen in Kerry and now a media pundit.

France. One line of O’Shees, descended from Richard Shee of Kilkenny, departed Ireland for France at the time of Catholic persecution in the early 1700’s.

Three O’Shee brothers joined Clare’s Irish Regiment and fought for France during the Seven Years War. Colonel Henry O’Shee was one of the leaders of the French expedition to Ireland in 1796. Although the expedition failed, he was made a French count by Napoleon in 1809.

Spain. In the early 1800’s William O’Shea, from the Shee line in Limerick, came to Malaga in Spain where there were iron mines. Henry O’Shea, an agent of the Barings, was a leading Madrid banker in the mid-19th century and subsequent O’Sheas married into prominent Spanish families.

Jose Sebastian de Erice O’Shea was Spain’s ambassador to the UN in 1955. The pianist Paloma O’Shea was awarded the title of Marchioness of O’Shea by the Spanish king in 2009.   

Canada.  The main early cluster of Sheas in Canada was in Newfoundland. 

Newfoundland.  Sheas were in Newfoundland from the 1750’s. Walter Shea from Waterford was there in 1792 and later settled in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Some of his descendants – through his son Henry – moved to Prince Edward Island, others migrated to America.             

John Shea, born in Newfoundland in 1803, returned to Ireland and became mayor of Cork in the 1850’s. Ambrose Shea, born in 1815, became a prominent political and business figure in Newfoundland. His family published The Newfoundlander newspaper from 1827 to 1884.

Elsewhere. Jeremiah and Mary Shea came from Tipperary to Canada in the 1820’s (they were on the McCabe list) and raised eight children on Grand Calumet Island in Quebec. There is a Shea Lake there. Many Sheas were buried at the St. Anne’s Catholic cemetery.

Meanwhile Robert and Mary Shea from Cork were among Peter Robinson’s settlers of 1823 who came to Lanark county, Ontaeio.

James and Mary Shea fled Kerry for Canada at the height of the potato famine in the late 1840’s. They were apparently Anglican in Ireland and became Methodists in Canada. From their line came the Wesleyan minister the Rev. Adam Shea and his son George Beverly Shea, the renowned gospel singer in the Billy Graham’s Crusades. George was born in 1909 and died in 2013, a lifespan of 104 years. 

America. Early Sheas in America may have come via Newfoundland. That was probably the case with David Shea who was living in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1776 and whose descendants moved to Vermont. Shea in America at that time could sometimes become Shay.

19th Century Arrivals.  Many later migrants came from Kerry. The small town of Cahersiveen in Kerry in fact contributed a number of young Shea migrants to America, including John Shea who arrived with his parents in the 1870’s and Michael Shea who came alone in 1880. Other Sheas arrived from nearby Dereenaclaurig and Sneem on the Iveragh peninsula.

Christopher O’Shea came with his family via Canada to Chicago in the 1850’s. He joined the Chicago police force in 1882 but was shot dead a year later while trying to quell a disturbance.

Cornelius O’Shea arrived with his family in the 1870’s and settled in San Francisco. His son Jeremiah became a prominent businessman in the city in the early 1900’s.

“Jeremiah O’Shea started out in San Francisco as a saloon keeper, and then branched out into draying. Later he became involved in city politics. The mayor appointed him head contractor for all haulage business when the new City Hall had to be built after the 1906 earthquake. He died on New Year’s Day, 1916.

New Zealand. Edmond and Johanna Shea had come to New Zealand from Kerry in the 1860’s and, after a brief sojourn in San Francisco, returned to New Zealand to farm. Their son Thomas O’Shea became a priest and was appointed the coadjutor Archbishop of Wellington in 1913.

O’Shea and Shea Surname Miscellany

The O’Sheas and the Corcu Duibne Tribes.  There were in fact three tribes on the Iveragh and Dingle peninsulas: the O’Connells, the O’Falveys, and the O’Sheas.   The 14th century Irish historian Giolla na Naomh O’Huidrin described them as follows:

  • “O’Conghaile (O’Connell) of the slender swords,
  • Over the bushy forted Magh O’gCoinchinn (Magunihy);
  • A hazel tree of branching ringlets,
  • In the Munster plain of horse-hosts.
  • From the Maing (the River Maine) westwards is hereditary to them;
  • O’Failbhe (O’Falvey) is owner as far as Fionntraigh (Ventry, Dingle peninsula)
  • O’Seagha (O’Shea) has obtained without denial,
  • A country not wretched; he is king of Ui-Rathach (Iveragh peninsula).”

It is unclear whether any of these O’Sheas migrated east to Tipperary and Kilkenny, as has been reported. Other sources give Richard Shee (married to a Mac Carthy Mor) as the forebear of the Tipperary O’Sheas and Thady Shee (married to a Mac Dermot Roe) as the forebear of the Kilkenny O’Sheas.

DNA testing has indicated that these O’Sheas were different in origin to the Kerry O’Sheas.  Some in fact have suggested that they were Anglo-Norman, not Irish.

O’Sheas, Sheas and Shees in the 1659 Irish Census.  The 1659 census of Ireland gave the following count of O’Sheas, Sheas, and Shees.

County O’Shea Shea Shee
Kerry    63
Cork    72
Limerick    11
Tipperary   106    25
Kilkenny    65    35
Waterford     6    14
Laios     8
Total   266   104    35

O’Shea was the predominant spelling at that time for all counties except Kilkenny.

The Shees of Sheestown.  Odoneus O’Shee was recorded as the lord of Sheetown in Kilkenny in 1381.  Later Shees, descendants of Sir Richard Shee, managed to retain their Kilkenny properties during Cromwellian times.

Later they were on both sides of the religious divide.  Marcus Shee was outlawed as a Jacobite in 1691. Richard Shee was one of the few Irish Catholics in 1713 to whom a license for the use of a sword, a case of pistols, and a gun were given.

Colonel John Shee, however, was a Protestant.  He was in America and fought and fled at Bunker’s Hill in 1775.  On his return, he built the Protestant church of Bennetsbridge in Kilkenny.   His nephew James styled himself O’Shea and emigrated to Australia.

Kerry Sheas in 1852.  The following were the number of Sheas recorded in Kerry in 1852 according to Griffith’s Valuation.

Barony Number
Clanmaurice     23
Corkaguiny    137
Dunkerron    184
Glenarought    171
Iraghticonnor      9
Iveragh    442
Magunihy     64
Trughanaomy    115
Total   1,145

Kitty O’Shea and Charles Parnell.  William Henry O’Shea, born in 1840 into an indebted Limerick gentry family, moved to England where, after a lengthy courtship, he married Katharine Wood, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, in 1867.

It turned out to be an empty marriage.  Although they lived apart – Katharine (or Kitty as she was better known) at various addresses in Brighton – they would appear together in public to support his political aspirations in Ireland.  He became the MP for Clare in 1880.

However, that very year, Kitty met Charles Parnell, the Irish leader of the Home Rule movement, and began a stormy affair with him.  Her husband tolerated the affair for a while.  However, it eventually proved too much and in 1889, on Christmas Eve, William O’Shea filed for divorce, citing Parnell as the co-respondent.

This scandal wrecked Parnell’s political career and his hopes for Home Rule for Ireland.  Although he and Kitty did marry in 1891 and settled down in Brighton, Parnell died just a few months later.

His letters to her would often begin with the words “My Dearest Queenie” and end with “Your Own King.”  Among his papers Kitty found a rose which had fallen from her bodice when the pair had first met in 1880.  He had picked it up then. touched it lightly with his lips, and placed it in his buttonhole.

O’Sheas and Sheas Today.  It is mainly O’Shea in Ireland, Shea elsewhere.  The following are the rough numbers today.

Numbers (000’s) O’Shea Shea
Ireland    14     1
UK     1     2
America     4    14
Elsewhere     –     9

A telephone directory survey in Ireland in 1992 revealed 3,100 O’Sheas.  Most were to be found in Munster:

  • 25% in Kerry
  • another 25% in Cork
  • and some spillover into Tipperary and Kilkenny.

Dublin, due to migration over the years, accounted for 12% of the O’Sheas.

Reader Feedback – O’Sheas in London and Bristol. My grandfather Patrick O’Shea, married to Cissie Whitbread, was a bus driver in London in the 1960’s.  My father, now retired, has been in Bristol for over fifty years.  I would love to hear from anyone who is maybe related to us.

Catherine O’Shea (cath_oshea@hotmail.com).

Early Sheas in Newfoundland

1731 Timothy Shea at Bay Bulls
1750’s Dennis Shea fisherman at St. Johns for forty
1768 Richard Shea at Port de Grave
1793 Richard Shea at Quidi Vici
1804 Mary Shea at Adams Cove

Sheas from Cahersiveen in Kerry to America.  Michael Shea married Julia Falvey in Cahersiveen, county Kerry around the time of the potato famine.  They survived this tragedy and lived in a small thatched-roof cottage in the townland of Carhan.

Their eldest son Michael, born in 1859, departed Ireland for America alone at the age of twenty one.  He went first to New London, Connecticut where he got work as a contract laborer. Later he found employment in one of the large slaughterhouses in the Midwest.  He and his wife Bridget moved to Omaha, Nebraska. There they raised ten children.

Reader Feedback – Jeremiah O’Shea in San Francisco.  Curious how you all found Jeremiah O’Shea’s father to be Cornelius.

I’m a descendant of Jeremiah and I know he had an older brother Cornelius Shea, which is one of the names that were on Jeremiah’s naturalization papers from 1886 in San Francisco.  I know that Cornelius went back and lived in Cork (Millstreet) long enough to have another child born there, before moving back to SF where he died in 1913.

Jeremiah was on the platform when they opened the new SF City Hall a few days after Christmas in 1915. He ’took a chill,’ according to the local newspapers, and died on December 31, 1915 with Mayor Sunny Jim Rolf at his bedside for the last two days.

Can you point me to any documents showing the O’Sheas’ immigration to SF?  I’m currently stalled there with this family line.

Gregory O’Shea, Hawaii (oshea.greg@gmail.com).

Maurice O’Shea, Australian Winemaker.  Maurice O’Shea was the son of an Irish father and a French mother.

His father, John Augustus O’Shea, was an Irish adventurer, dreamer and practical joker.  His mother Leontine was gay, blithe, lustrous, with a fine French flair for forgetting all kinds of stuffy conventions.  She greeted guests at breakfast one hot morning in shorts and bra top.  This, long before the bikini, was a delight to the guests, though there were in the valley plenty of scrubby old farmers and their weather-beaten wives who would have put her in the stocks.

The O’Sheas had bought a vineyard at Pokolbin, not far out of Cessnock, planted by two Hunter Valley pioneers, Eben and Olly King.  Maurice was the eldest of their six children.  In 1912, when he was fifteen, he lost his father at the age of 42.  His mother then packed him off to France to complete his education.

When he returned after the War, he decided to take on the wine-making challenge. He turned out to be an inspired vigneron, a sensitive wine-bibber, a cunning contriver of fine foods, as well as a mild and gentle human being.  He established the Mount Pleasant Winery in 1921 and it was under that name that his wines became famous.

O’Shea and Shea Names

  • Sir Richard Shee was a prominent Kilkenny figure of the late 16th century.
  • James and John O’Shea, two brothers from Cork, were well-known stonemasons and sculptors in 19th century Ireland.
  • Katharine/Kitty O’Shea, a married woman, was the downfall of the Irish politician Charles Parnell after he was cited in her divorce proceedings in 1889.
  • Cornelius Shea was an American labor leader, founding member of the Teamsters in the early 1900’s, and also an organized crime figure.
  • George Beverley Shea was a Canadian-born singer considered to be the first international Gospel singing star. He lived to be 104.
  • Milo O’Shea was a legendary Irish actor in New York who died in 2013.

O’Shea and Shea Numbers Today

  • 3,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 18,000 in America (most numerous in Massachusetts)
  • 24,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

O’Shea 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.

Munster in SW Ireland covers the counties of Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford.  Here are some of the Munster surnames that you can check out.




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Written by Colin Shelley

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