Roots: The Kennedys

The Kennedy clan crest features three helmets, a tribute to the name's etymological origin meaning "helmet head." Among modern Kennedys, the Boston clan is undoubtedly the most famous. (Photo: JFK Presidential Library)

By James G. Ryan, Contributor
February / March 2018

The name Kennedy or O’Kennedy is derived from the Gaelic O’Cinneide, which is itself derived from the original Gaelic form cean eidig meaning, “ugly head,” or, more generously, “helmet head.” This was the name by which the father of Brian Boru was known (the Irish have always had a high tolerance for less-than-complimentary anatomical nicknames). The surname first appears as Ó Cinnéide in the early 11th century, and refers specifically to the line of Dunchad, one of Cean Eidig’s sons and a brother of Brian Boru. Boru was perhaps the most famous Irish High King and was responsible for the defeat of the Norse and Danish Viking forces in Ireland at the Battle of the Clontarf in 1014 The initial anglicized version, O’Kennedy, is rarely seen today, though the name often appears as Kennedy, Kenedy, Kanady, Canedy, and Cennetig, among others. Fittingly, the clan coat of arms features three helmets, an obvious tribute to the kinder translation of the name (pictured left).

Like the O’Briens, who are directly descended from Brian Boru, the O’Kennedys were originally settled in County Clare, in the area around Killaloe on the banks of the river Shannon. However, the ruling O’Briens and their allies the McNamaras gradually drove them into Tipperary, to the territory then known as Ormond.

Following the Norman invasion, the many written deeds between the O’Kennedys and the Norman Butlers who were “awarded” the O’Kennedy’s Ormond territory demonstrate that the clan was a force to be reckoned with. For several centuries, the O’Kennedys fiercely resisted attempts by the Butler Earls of Ormond to subjugate them. Eventually, in the 16th and 17th centuries, O’Kennedys and Butlers were rebel allies, joint landholders in North Tipperary, and even marriage partners. Today, Tulluan Castle, near Nenagh, County Tipperary, serves as a reminder of their once powerful influence in the region.

In the Jacobite wars of the late 17th century, the Kennedys were part of the Irish army that fought for the Catholic King James. Among these were Lieutenant John Kennedy and Kennedy McKennedy of Colonel Francis Carroll’s Dragoons. Many Kennedys were among those outlawed in 1691 as a result of their activities in this war. The Jacobite wars and earlier Cromwellian campaign further reduced the Kennedy fortunes and status. Thus, many of the family emigrated to France and Spain, where they joined the continental armies, in particular their Irish Brigades. Bryan Kennedy was a soldier in Bulkeley’s Brigade who was killed at Maastricht in 1747, while Lieutenant Charles Kennedy was part of the famous Dillon’s regiment. The name was changed to Quenedy in Spain.

In America, the name is immortalized in public service by the most famous of all Kennedy clans, which produced the first Irish Catholic president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. His contributions, as well as those of his brother, Senator and U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy, who has been called the most effective member of the Senate in United States history, are never forgotten. Known as the Lion of the Senate, Ted’s legacy of bringing aid to the marginalized, including the elderly and the disabled, lives on, as do his decades of commitment to the Democratic Party and public service.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the founder of the precursor to the Special Olympics and assisted in the spread of the Special Olympics, while her sister Jean Kennedy Smith founded Very Special Arts, which works in tandem with the Special Olympics. Jean served as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland and played a crucial role in the Northern Ireland peace process. Eunice’s daughter, Maria Shriver, is an award-winning journalist, author, and former First Lady of California.

The descendants of these three most famous Kennedys have not abandoned the passion for public service that their fathers clearly possessed. Patrick J. Kennedy, son of Ted, served as the Representative for Rhode Island from 1995 to 2011. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend served as lieutenant governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003. Our cover story, Joe Kennedy III, grandson of Robert, currently serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, is following in his father’s footsteps as well – Joe Kennedy II served the state from 1987 to 1999.

In the arts, Kathleen Kennedy is one of the movie industry’s most successful and talented producers, most recently responsible for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. William Kennedy is a writer whose novel Ironweed won the Pulitzer Prize and a host of other literary awards. Jimmy Kennedy was a songwriter who wrote such classics as “Red Sails in the Sunset.” He retired to live in County Wicklow.

An American activist and author from Florida, Stetson Kennedy, is most famous for his books in which he exposed the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups.

Finally, there is Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, appointed in 1988 by Ronald Regan, who is most recently best known for his majority opinion on Obergefell v. Hodges, which granted marriage equality in the U.S. ♦


This article is adapted from a previous investigation of the Kennedy roots originally published in the March / April 1995 issue of Irish America.

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