The surname Quinn is derived from the Irish word O’Cuinn meaning “descending from Conn.” Conn comes from the Irish word ceann, meaning “head,” and denotes a person of high intelligence. Since Conn was a common name, there are five separate septs of this family. They came from different parts of counties Tyrone, Longford, Clare, and Antrim.
Niall O’Cuinn was one of those killed in the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 when Brian Boru’s Irish army defeated the Danes. One of the most established sections of the family was a Dalcassian sept of Thomond in County Clare, where the place name Inchiquin is located. Other Irish towns bearing the Quinn moniker are Ballyquin and Glenquin.
Historically, spelling variations of the Quinn surname indicated different religious affiliations, with Catholics spelling the name with two Ns and Protestants using only one. However, this distinction no longer holds true in modern Ireland. In the 17th century, many Quinns were forced to join the exodus to Europe, often to become leading citizens in France, particularly in Bordeaux and Pau, where the Quinns still flourish. A street in Bordeaux called Rue O’Quinn acknowledges the family’s prominence.
Distinguished Quinns in Ireland and abroad have made an impact through their religious work. A 13th-century Franciscan bishop of the famed Christian site of Clonmacnoise in County Offaly was named Thomas O’Quinn, and Edel Mary Quinn (1907-44) was an Irishwoman whose dedicated missionary work in Africa on behalf of the Legion of Mary was so renowned that she is being considered for canonization.
John Quinn (d. 1924) was a New York lawyer who was a harbinger of the Irish literary renaissance. His financial support and advice helped the likes of Yeats and Joyce, along with other literati. Author Peter Quinn won the American Booker Award in 1995 for his historical novel Banished Children of Eve, which explores the Civil War-era Irish of New York City, and the events that led to the Draft Riots. Peter Quinn’s grandfather, Irish immigrant Pat Quinn, was a passionate U.S. labor leader who was president of the Central Federated Union in the late 1800s. He participated in the famous 1894 Pullman strike in Chicago.
Two Quinns on today’s political scene are Rep. Jack Quinn (R-Hamburg, N.Y.) and Mayor Owen Torrington, Connecticut.
A number of Quinns have made their mark in the field of entertainment. Oscar-winning actor Anthony Quinn (1915-2001), the son of an Irish father and Mexican mother, had a prolific career in cinema that spanned 60 years. The colorful star delivered memorable performances in Viva Zapata!, Lust for Life, and Zorba the Greek among many others. Today’s character actor Aidan Quinn, the son of Irish immigrants, first wowed audiences with his critically acclaimed performance in the AIDS drama An Early Frost and has appeared in numerous films over the years, including the cult hit Benny and Joon and the historical Irish drama Michael Collins. He will be starring in the upcoming television adaptation of Richard Russo’s best-selling novel Empire Falls, premiering in late 2004. Comedian / actor Colin Quinn rose to fame with his Weekend Update gig on Saturday Night Live. His trademark caustic wit is currently showcased in the irreverent talk show he hosts on Comedy Central called Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn.
Dublin native Niall Quinn (1966) is perhaps the most well-known athlete to bear the Quinn surname. This outstanding soccer player scored a goal against Holland in the 1990 World Cup that helped Ireland reach the final stages of the competition. His height (6’4″) and his ability have led fans to dub him “The Mighty Quinn.”
One of Ireland’s early entrepreneurs is Fergal Quinn (b. 1936) who founded a chain of supermarkets bearing the name Superquinn. Quinn is also recognized for his charitable endeavors, and in 1993 he was elected Senator from the National University of Ireland panel.
Some notables who spelled the name with one N are James Quin (1693-1766), a distinguished actor; Walter Quin (1575-1634), an acclaimed poet; and his son James Quin (1621-1659), who was an accomplished singer.
Then there was the Earl of Dunraven, Thady Quin (b. 1645) who settled in Adare, County Limerick. A descendant, Windham Henry Quin (1782-1850), turned the family home into a splendid Tudor manor. However, another descendant, Thady Wyndham Quin, the 7th Earl of Dunraven, was unable to bear the expense needed to maintain the property. He sold it in 1984 for $2 million. It is now one of Ireland’s premier hotels and golf courses. ♦