Sheehan Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Sheehan Surname Meaning

Sheehan is the anglicization of the Gaelic O’Siodhachain, from siodhach meaning “peaceful.” The Sheehan sept traditionally used a dove of peace in its coat of arms.  Sheehan name variants are Sheahan and Sheen. The latter spellings have mainly appeared outside Ireland.

Sheehan Surname Resources on The Internet

Sheehan and Sheahan Surname Ancestry

  • from Ireland (Cork)
  • to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

IrelandThe Sheehan sept is believed to have originated in county Clare, but moved southward to Kilcredan parish in county Cork by the 14th century. Spellings in the 17th century show O’Sheaghan and Shyghan, as well as Sheehan.

Sheehans are still mainly in county Cork. Almost 40% of Sheehans in Ireland today live there. Sheehan Brothers, for instance, have been traditional butchers in Cork since 1870. Sheehans are also in neighboring Kerry and Limerick. Angela Sheehan of Angela’s Ashes came from Limerick.

Cork was particularly hard hit by the famine in the 1840’s. Many Sheehans left at that time, to America and elsewhere. Sheehans also left later due to land evictions. The Sheehan numbers are now larger outside Ireland than within.

America.  Some Sheehans arrived in America during the 18th centuryMost came in the 19th century. New York and Massachusetts were the main points of arrival. Among those coming were:

  • Michael Sheehan who arrived around 1848 and started a wholesale liquor store in Troy, New York
  • another Michael Sheehan with his wife Ellen who came to Utica, New York in 1855
  • Patrick Sheehan from Dingle in Kerry who arrived in Boston in the 1860’s and moved to Fall River
  • and three Sheehan siblings from Cork – brothers Callahan and John and sister Mary – who came in the 1870’s and settled in the Boston area.

O.N. Carlson’s 1990 book The Sheehans in America was a portrait of an early Sheehan family in America.

Many did well in the new land. George Sheehan, father and son, became prominent New York cardiologists, the latter making a name for himself as a guru for recreational running. A Sheehan family ran a dairy farm in Holyoke in western Massachusetts in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Their son Neil became a New York Times reporter and won the Pulitzer Prize for his Secret History of the Vietnam War.

Canada. Thomas and Honorah Sheehan came to New Brunswick sometime in the 1830’s. Their first child was born in St. John in 1839 and their descendants are still to be found there.  Sheehans from Limerick came to Newfoundland and were recorded at Caplin Bay in the 1840’s.

Sheehans were also in Peterborough county, Ontario. The 1851 census listed a number of Sheehan families. The oldest were four brothers – Daniel, John, Michael and William – all born in Ireland between 1790 and 1800. Joseph and Margaret Sheehan from Clear Island off Cork came with Peter Robinson’s settlers in 1825 and made their home in Ennismore township.

Australia.  Early Sheehan arrivals (although not too many of them) were convicts.

John Sheehan was transported to Australia for life in 1823 for his part in a raid on the English barracks near his home at Doneraile in Cork. He married a fellow convict Ann Toomey and, after they had obtained their ticket of leave, they settled in the Burrowa district of NSW and raised eight children. John died in 1858 but his wife Ann Sheehan lived onto 1906.

New Zealand.  David Sheehan had come with his family to Melbourne from Ireland around 1840, but moved on a year or so later to Auckland. They lived in the Warkworth area and David was the landlord of the Governor Browne Hotel in Auckland. His son John became a lawyer and had a short-lived political career.

Sheehan Surname Miscellany

Sheehans in Cork.  The name started to appear with some regularity in the records of Cork from the 14th century.  Kilcredan parish in the diocese of Cloyne was one place where it was to be found.

John Shyghan was a tailor in Youghal in 1617 and William Sheehan a town clerk there in 1688. Thadeus O’Sheaghan was the Church of Ireland vicar of Inchigeelagh in 1639; John Sheehan appeared in Petty’s Census of Ireland in 1659; and Captain William Sheehan of Cork was on King James’s army list in 1689.

Cork’s most famous Sheehan is probably Patrick Augustine Sheehan, universally known as Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, a Catholic priest, author of such works as My New Curate, and political activist in the early 1900’s.  He was a supporter of traditional rural life.  His great crusade was to try and stop people emigrating to England or America, or even moving to the big towns nearer home. Here he was probably fighting against the tide of history.

A political activist of a different sort at this time was D.D. Sheehan, the son of a tenant farmer in county Cork who experienced eviction.  He became a political agitator for land reform.  But he too had a vision for rural life in Ireland:

“The decay of village life in Ireland constitutes one of the most tragic chapters of our history for the past half century. But even if we cannot resurrect the spirit of our former village life it is, however, well within our power to reconstruct a model village on up-to-date and practical lines, a village which we trust may become a pattern and an example to be copied with profit and advantage in other parts of Ireland.”

His legacy was the model Irish village at Tower in county Cork.

Patrick Sheehan, A Victim of Eviction in Kerry.  Patrick Sheehan was born in the parish of Castlemaine in county Kerry in 1845, the son of Timothy and Bridget Sheehan.  He and his wife Catherine and eight children lived at Castledrum where Patrick was a tenant farmer until their eviction from the land in the 1880’s.  They found some accommodation beside the ruin of an old church in Keel.  Patrick and Catherine lived on there until they died, as did one of their sons Ned.  But all the other children emigrated.

The first to leave was the eldest sister Mary.  She came with two cousins to Coles county, Illinois in 1891. There she married Jeremiah Downey and they later moved to Indiana.  Her nine brothers and sisters joined her in America in stages between 1895 and 1907.

Ann Sheehan’s Death, Aged 92.  Ann Sheehan died on December 27, 1906 aged 92 years and was buried near her husband at Jugiong.  She had been in New South Wales for 75 years and had outlived her husband, two of her five sons, and all of her daughters.

The following obituary appeared in the Gundagai Independent on January 2, 1907:

“One more of the sturdy stock of pioneers has gone, Mrs. John Sheehan (or “Granny” Sheehan as she was familiarly termed) of Jugiong, having answered the Great Call on Thursday last.  The deceased was a native of Cork, Ireland.  As Miss Ann Toomey she was one of the county belles in the days when the Irish race were being rack-rented and evicted wholesale.

When but 19 years of age, she made a lengthy voyage to Australia on a sailing vessel and, shortly after landing in Sydney, she met the late John Sheehan.  At Parramatta over 80 years ago, she became his bride.  Coming up country Mr. and Mrs. Sheehan took a fancy to the Burrowa district and there they stayed for a few years, their eldest child, the late Mr. Dennis Sheehan, being born there. About 52 years ago the then young couple “squatted” on the Nanangroe Run and it became one of the biggest cattle stations in the south.

When Mr. Sheehan died at Nanangroe his widow secured a holding at Nimbo, Brungle, and stayed there about twenty years. This property the late Mrs. Sheehan sold to Mr. McGruer, and for the remainder of her years she lived with her children.  Her exact age seems to be doubtful.  It was given as well up in the “nineties,” but one of her grandchildren reckons the correct age to be 103.”

Early Sheehans in America.  Four Sheehans are identified as coming to America or being in America during the 18th century. They are:

  • Cornelius and Mary Sheehan from county Cork who came to Pennsylvania (Cumberland county) sometime around 1750.  Some later Sheehans moved onto Columbiana county, Ohio.
  • William Sheehan who was born in Pennsylvania (Kensington) in 1753. He and his brother Cornelius served in the Pennsylvania militia and later moved also to Columbiana county, Ohio.
  • John and Rebecca Sheehan from county Cork who arrived in America in the 1790’s and undertook the crossing to Kentucky, settling in Washington county.
  • and William Sheehan who married Hannah Light in Virginia (Frederick county) in 1800.  These Sheehans later became Shanes.

Reader Feedback – Cornelius Sheehan to Shene in New York.  My Irish ancestor was named Cornelius Sheehan from County Cork. His son William changed the spelling to Shene and mustered with the NY 118th infantry Adirondack Division during the American Civil War.  Considering how common the name Cornelius Sheehan is in Cork from the 1840’s, any place to attempt to find this one?

Paul Shene (

Mike Sheehan, The Strongest Man in Iowa.  Mike Sheehan was a Davenport blacksmith who somehow became known as “the strongest man in Iowa.”  In 1883 the boxing champion John Sullivan was in town and Sheehan, aged then 35, agreed to meet him in a bout. Two of his five sons seconded him during the fight.  It was said that Sheehan’s wife visited Sullivan in his hotel room asking that he not fight her husband – because she was afraid her husband might kill him.

However, during the fight, Sullivan had no trouble with his opponent.  He had him down in a matter of seconds and Sheehan refused to continue.  Despite his lack of a real workout, Sullivan paid his man a hundred dollars.

Sheehans, Sheahans and Sheens Today

Numbers (000’s) Sheehans Sheahans Sheens
Ireland    9    1    –
UK    6    –    3
America  10    1    1
Elsewhere    8    1    1

Angela’s Ashes.  Angela Sheehan, born in Limerick on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day 1908, is the principal character in Frank McCourt’s best-selling book Angela’s Ashes.  As his mother, she emerges from the narrative as a woman who cares little for her hungry and cold family, turns her back on an alcoholic husband, and goes through life on a selfish quest for pity, charity and state handouts.

The people who remember her say that this is a very distorted depiction of her.  She was, by their accounts, a proud but stereotypical hard-pushed Irish slum mother who, like many of her contemporaries, was willing to do whatever was necessary to ensure that her family would survive all the hardships that God threw in their way.

But there is a mystery about Angie which the book does not fully explain.

Why did Angie depart for America in the first place and why did she succumb to Malachy McCourt on her very first night in New York? We are told that she worked for a short time as “a charwoman, skivvy, and maid,” but that she could not manage the curtsy and for that reason her mother had her packed her off to America.

The alternative story running around Limerick at the time of her departure was that she may have been pregnant and that her Catholic family could not face the disgrace of it and sent her away to their far-away cousins in New York.

We are instead asked to believe that a God-fearing, practically teetotal young Irish Catholic woman arrives for no obvious reason in an unfamiliar country where on her first night she visits an Irish speakeasy where she meets up with a drunken stranger and in a matter of hours is having sex with him in a back-alley in the dead of night.

George A. Sheehan Sr. and Jr, Father and Son Doctors in New York.  George Sr. was a prominent physician with many wealthy patients, including the mayor of New York.  He was also a doctor to the poor and a man of social conscience.  He and his wife Loretto raised fourteen children at their large brownstone home on Park Slope in Brooklyn.  They would spend their summers at The Reservation on Monmouth Beach in New Jersey where the family had a house.

But George came to feel trapped by his success.  The burden of maintaining his large family and keeping up appearances became a constant strain. The family ended up living in a brownstone where the lights didn’t work, the clothes were often threadbare, and it was a challenge to scrounge up enough change to go to the movies. George’s wife would often scream at the children in frustration: “We’re one step from the poor house.”

George Jr, born in 1918, was the oldest of his fourteen children.  He followed his father as a Catholic, as a father (he and his wife had twelve children), and as a cardiologist (said to be one of the best on the New Jersey shore).  Like his father, George came to feel that he was not living the life for which he was meant. He had become a competent and successful doctor but constantly worried about his ability to support his large family.

But then he discovered running.  Running became his safety hatch, his pressure valve.  And he started to write a weekly column about running and fitness.  His book Running & Being became a New York Times best seller.  His son Andrew Sheehan published an affectionate memoir of father and son entitled Chasing The Hawk in 2001.

Sheehan Names

  • D.D. Sheehan was an Irish nationalist agitator and politician who became editor of the Dublin Chronicle in the 1920’s.
  • Michael Sheehan, Archbishop of Sydney in Australia in the 1920’s and 30’s, was a great proponent of the revival of the Irish language.
  • Winfield Sheehan was Fox Film’s producer and general manager during the 1920’s and ’30’s.
  • Dr. George Sheehan was a New York cardiologist who became the philosopher of the recreational running movement in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  
  • Barry Sheene, born in London, was a world champion motorcycle racer of the 1970’s.
  • Martin Sheen, the film actor, changed his name from Ramon Estevez because he thought he would gain more recognition with an Irish name than with a Spanish one.

Sheehan Numbers Today

  • 9,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 12,000 in America (most numerous in Massachusetts)
  • 20,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Ireland)

Sheehan 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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