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 “rough head.” This was the name by which the father of Brian Boru was known, and the name refers specifically to the line of Dunchad, who was one of the sons of Cean Eidig and a brother of Brian Boru. Brian 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 Boyne in 1014 A.D. The Kennedys, like several other Irish clans, derive from this kin group. There is also a Kennedy clan in Scotland who are ancestrally related to the Irish O’Kennedys.
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. The Kennedys were the Lords of Ormond for hundreds of years and developed into several different septs. Their line of succession is detailed in the Annals of the Four Masters, a history of Ireland compiled in the 1630s. Following the Norman invasion, the Kennedys were gradually defeated by the Butler family. An account of this long battle between the Kennedys and the Butlers for control of Ormond is given in the Ormond Deeds, a manuscript compiled in 1579.
In the Jacobite wars of the late 17th century, the Kennedys were part of the Irish army which 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. After the Jacobite wars, and the earlier Cromwellian campaign, further reduced the Kennedy fortunes and status, many of the family emigrated to France and Spain where they joined the continental armies, and particularly the Irish Brigades of these armies. 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 Quenaedy in Spain.
The Kennedys and O’Kennedys are still numerous in their ancestral territory, however. As evidence of this, the current member of the Dail (Irish Parliament) is Michael O’Kennedy from Nenagh, County Tipperary. He has had a distinguished career as a minister in several governments, and as a commissioner of the European Community. Hugh Boyle Kennedy was the first chief justice of the new independent Irish free state in 1922, and also a contemporary of James Joyce and rejected some of his overcritical works in his capacity as editor of the college magazine of University College Dublin.
John Pitt Kennedy (1796-1879) was born in Donegal and became a distinguished engineer, with a very diverse career which included being secretary of the Famine Relief Committee and involved in Famine relief work in Limerick. He was also responsible for the defense of Dublin against the Young Ireland rebels of 1848. He is commemorated in the Kennedy Road which he built from Simla to Tibet from 1849 to 1852.
In the U.S., a number of Kennedys have achieved fame in diverse areas. Kathleen Kennedy is one of the movie industry’s most successful and talented producers. She was co-founder, with Steven Spielberg, of Amblin Entertainment, and producer of Cape Fear and co-producer of several other classics including ET. William Kennedy is a writer whose novel Ironweed won the Pulitzer Prize and a host of other literary awards. Jimmy Kennedy (d. 1984) was a songwriter who wrote such classics as “Red Sails in the Sunset.” He retired to live in County Wicklow.
The most famous Kennedy family is, of course, the Kennedy clan of Boston, which produced the first Irish Catholic President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-63). Today’s Kennedys on the political scene include Senator Edward Kennedy and his son Patrick, Congressman from Rhode Island; Kathleen Townsend Kennedy, Lieutenant Governor, Maryland, daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy; her brother, Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Kennedy; and Mark Shriver, son of R. Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy, elected to the Maryland House of Delegates.
Jean Kennedy Smith, our “Irish American of the Year,” was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Ireland in 1993.♦