McGowan Family History



Cead Mile Faile!
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Mac an Ghabhan

MacGowan can be an Irish or a Scottish name. In both Ireland and Scotland, the name derives from the Gaelic word `gabha', meaning `smith'.

In Ireland, the sept Mac an Ghabhan, meaning 'son of the smith', originated in County Cavan in southern Ulster where, in medieval times, they were included by the chroniclers of the O'Rilleys as one of the principal septs, or families, of the kingdom of Breffny. In the following centuries, many of this family chose, or were forced, to anglicize the name to Smith or Smythe. This occurred especially during the time of English oppression of all things Irish, when the Irish could not vote, hold public office, own property, educate their children or worship as they chose.* (In this manner, the English sought to "civilize" the wild Irish.) On the borders of Breffny, in County Leitrim, to the northwest in Counties Donegal and Sligo, and to the north in Counties Monaghan, Tyrone and Derry, MacGowan, or McGowan is still used in preference to Smith.

Further confusion arises from the fact that the Gaelic surname MacDhubhain, a family of Raphoe, County Donegal, and also of County Clare, where the anglicized form is MacGuane, has become MacGowan; while Mac Gamhna, normally Gaffney, is also rendered MacGowan in some places.

Ballygowan in County Down is of no connection, being named from one of the septs of O'Gowans. That name is rare in modern times, as it too was anglicized to Smith. However, O'Gowans were in the census of 1659 as one of the principal Irish names in Counties Monaghan and Fermanagh.


Mac an Ghobhain

In Scotland, Mac an Ghobhain was anglicized to MacGowan. Mac Gobha, later McGow, was also made MacGowan. As the maker of arms and armor, the smith was an important hereditary position in each clan and there were MacGowans, or MacGouns, found throughout the Highlands. The two most important septs, however, were the MacGowans of Clan Donald (MacDonald) and those of Clan MacPherson. There was also a Clan M'Gowan noted in fourteenth century Nithsdale in Dumfriesshire, and in Sterlingshire there was an old family of MacGowans of uncertain origin.

* I met an elderly gentleman in a pub in Dublin who introduced himself as Jack, Nine Acre, Smythe. When I asked about his name, he explained that back during the time of the Oppression, his family had anglicized their name from McGowan to Smythe so that they could own nine acres of land.


My Grandfather always told me that our McGowans were Scotch Irish. Others of family from various branches have been told that we were from Ireland, or from Scotland. The fact remains that noone actually knows at this time where our family originated. So, I would like to attempt to clear up any confusion. Any historians are encouraged to correct any mistakes.

In ancient times, Ireland was known as Scotia, a name probably derived from Scota, legendary queen-mother of the Irish. Beginning as early as the 2nd Century but especially by the 5th Century, a tribe of these Scots, the Dal Riada, began to settle in Alba (as present day Scotland was then called), especially on the western Isles and the mainland (present day Argyle and the surrounding country). From the northeast corner of Ireland to the southwest corner of Scotland is twenty-two miles across the Irish Sea. Also inhabiting Alba were the Picts, who were possibly Celts who had settled there in pre-Roman times, and in the South the Britons, who were Celts and Romanized Celts who had been pushed north by the invasions of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the South of England. In the year 850 A.D., the king of the Dal Riada, Cinead (Kenneth) MacAlpin, also became the king of the Picts (inherited from his Pictish mother) and became the first Gaelic King of Scotland.

In Ireland, after 1607, with the English defeat of the O'Neills and O' Donnells in Ulster, the English conquerors began the Ulster Plantations in the northern part of the country. This was a systematic surplanting the native Irish population of Ulster with Protestant settlers from England and especially from Scotland. The settlers from Scotland came primarily from the western shires of Argyle and Galloway, who were in essence, returning to the land their ancestors left a thousand years before.

These settlers were called Undertakers, perhaps an apt term. The Scottish and English Undertakers were given the best land of Ulster and the native Roman Catholic Irish were dispossed to what was left. At first agriculture , industry and trade were encouraged by England, especially the growing of flax and the manufacture of linen, but like they had done previously in Scotland and would later do in the American Colonies, once the manufacture and trade were strong and might offer competition to the English markets, they began to enact laws to suppress the economy of Ulster. So, what had in part instigated the migration of Scots to Ireland, ultimately led to their emigration to America. By the way, Scotch Irish is an American term. They referred to themselves as Ulster Scots or Ulstermen.

We welcome your comments and suggestions concerning the McGowan Mailing List and the Origin and History of the McGowan name. Please contact us: Robert D. Parrish or John B. McGowan. We are cousins, part of an extended McGowan / McGowen family (yes, both spellings) which has been in America since the late 1600's / early 1700's and now extends from North Carolina to Washington state.

From "How Green Was My Valley" by Richard Llewellyn:

"I saw behind me those who had gone, and before me those who are to come, I looked back and saw my father, and his father, and all our fathers, and in front to see my son, and his son, and the sons upon sons beyond.

And their eyes were my eyes.

As I felt, so they had felt and were to feel, as then, so now, as tomorrow and forever. Then I was not afraid, for I was in a long line that had no beginning and no end, and the hand of his father grasped my father's hand, and his hand was in mine, and my unborn son took my right hand, and all, up and down the line that stretched from Time That Was to Time That Is, and Is Not Yet, raised their hands to show the link, and we found that we were one, born of Woman, Son of Man, made in the Image, fashioned in the Womb by the Will of God, the Eternal Father."

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