Census Distribution British Isles and North America

Two following Tables display KERNAGHAN and VARIANTS SURNAME Distributions per Censuses from the turn of the 20th Century , 

  • 1900 USA and 1901 CANADA

I have also included some brief observations from my analysis of these.



Under 14 spelling variances of Kernaghan there were, in total, 840 people listed in the 1901 Census for Ireland.

PLACES OF RESIDENCE -  in the 1901 census there was only a minimal number (7) of the 840 ‘Kernaghans et al’ living outside the 9 Counties of the PROVINCE OF ULSTER (which includes the 6 counties comprising Northern Ireland). Indeed, even within Ulster there was a heavy concentration in the Protestant north-eastern counties of ANTRIM (69%) and DOWN (16%).

It’s interesting to observe different County distributions according to the Spelling variances of Kernaghan. For example, virtually all 286 KERNOHANS lived in ANTRIM, while 66% of the CARNAHANs lived in DOWN. The 366 KERNAGHANs (44% of Total) were well spread throughout north east Ulster with 55% in ANTRIM, 25% in DOWN and 14% in ARMAGH

The surprising finding here that there were no people recorded in the north western county of DONEGAL, from whence the Kernaghans originated.

While the surname CARNAHAN is by far the most predominant of the ‘KERNAGHAN et al’  surnames In the USA Census of 1900  (it comprises 84% of the 3,000 named Kernaghan variances) it  was  not particularly common in any of the 1901 Censuses covering Ireland, England and Scotland. For Ireland, there were only 24 Carnahans recorded (or 3% of the Total), far outnumbered by the more local common-spelling, CARNAGHAN.


RELIGION – this concentration in the Protestant-majority counties of Antrim and Down also reflects in the low count of Catholic ‘Kernaghans et al’. Less than 5% of the 840 professed to be Catholic.


AGE distribution reveals 57% of the 840 ‘Kernaghan et al’ persons were aged 21 or older with 30% aged 14 or younger. This is broadly consistent with the ALL IRELAND age distribution covering population of 4.6million (60% adult and 30% under 15). (Census of Ireland 1901 – Table 15 “Ages of the People”).  


 For 9 spelling variances of Kernaghan there were, in total, 218 people listed in the 1901 Census.


NAMES – the largest of the Kernaghans spelling variances in the 1901 Scottish Census was CARNACHAN which is more a Scottish style spelling (and pronunciation). Surprisingly the most commonly spelt format in both Ireland and England, ie KERNAGHAN, ran 3rd largest (and by quite a margin) in Scotland’s census.


PLACES OF BIRTH -  in the 1901 census there were 50 ‘Kernaghans et al’ living in Scotland that stated their Place of Birth as IRELAND. Further, these 26 Irish-born people had 40 children born in England, thus the Irish emigrant connection accounts directly for over 40% of the Kernaghans et al recorded in the 1901 Census.

However when excluding the 59 Carnachans (largest and more Scottish group) which had only a small number of Irish-born people (4) and children of Irish-born (4), the remainder of our population had 52% of persons who were either born in Ireland or were kids of Irish-born people.

Those with spelling commencing Carn..... predominantly lived in South East England and, with only 1 out of the 16 being born in Ireland, this suggests their Irish ancestry goes further back.



For 7 spelling variances of Kernaghan there were, in total, 130 people listed in the 1901 Census.


PLACES OF BIRTH -  in the 1901 census there were 26 ‘Kernaghans et al’ living in England that stated their Place of Birth as IRELAND. Further, these 26 Irish-born people had 28 children born in England, thus the Irish emigrant connection accounts directly for over 40% of the Kernaghans et al recorded in the 1901 Census.

 PLACES OF RESIDENCE -  the 2 largest Names (see above - Kernaghan and Kernahan) each had 55% Irish emigrant connection and here the large majority lived in the North Western counties of Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. 

Those with spelling commencing Carn..... predominantly lived in South East England and, with only 1 out of the 16 being born in Ireland, this suggests their Irish ancestry goes further back.



 For 28 spelling variances of Kernaghan there were, in total, 2,946 people listed in the 1900 Census for The United States.

NAMES – Amazingly a whopping 83.5% of the total Variants Population of 2,946 persons fell under 1name - CARNAHAN. The next largest Surname was KERNAGHAN with only 3.5%.


IRISH-BORN - Only 10 out of those 2,457 CARNAHANs in the US Census disclosed that they were born in IRELAND, which compares to the remainder of the KERNAGHAN Surname Variants population which had 8% as Irish-born, or children of Irish-born. The surname KERNAGHAN itself had 14 out of 103 as Irish-born or children of Irish-born.

My Data file allows for breakdown by State of Residence however I have not analysed this.

 CANADA 1901

For 10 spelling variances of Kernaghan there were, in total, 334 people listed in the 1901 Census.


NAMES – As with the United States Census of 1900, the most prominent surname was CARNAHAN but, at 44% of the Total of the Variants population, nowhere near as overwhelming as in the US where 83% of Total number were CARNAHANs. Again the second largest Surname was KERNAGHAN at 20% of Total.


Canada’s Census did not capture details of Place of Birth.

My research into the Origins of the surname KERNAGHAN involved the review of some ancient and other texts, such as “The Four Masters - Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland” (see below), as well as of material on various websites. As can be evidenced from the commentary below, it is clear that the Kernaghans were an ancient Irish Clann, initially in the KINGDOM OF MEATH   and later in the COUNTY OF DONEGAL and were quite powerful at various stages of Ireland's medieval history. 

KERNAGHAN (and its variants) is the anglicised version of the Gaelic name O CEARNACHAIN, which derives from the Gaelic word ‘cearnach’ meaning  ‘victorious’.

It is accepted that Ireland was the first society in Europe to adopt the hereditary name. This was from the late 10th Century with the adoption of surnames replacing the earlier practice of patronymic naming (e.g. Tadhg, son of Cearnachan). The structure of these surnames was invariably prefixed (Mac or Mc meaning Son of – and - O or Ua meaning Descendant of (usually grandson or great-grandson ). The substantive prefix ‘Ua’ eventually became replaced by ‘O’ from the 1300's onwards.  


The first record of surname UA CEARNACHAIN is in Meath in 1012AD when                                                                                                                                            “Maelsechlaimi gave them battle, in which Ualgarg Ua Ciardha, king of Cairbri, and Tadhg Ua Cearnachan, sub-king of Breifne, and many others, were killed by him”.                                                              (from “The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill”, Translation from the Irish – by - James Todd, 1867)

Then, again in the Kingdom of Meath, in 1030 -                                                                                                                                                                                  “a battle was gained by the Gott, i.e., Domhnall, wherein fell Ua Cearnachain, Lord of Luighne”.*                                                                 (from “The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters” -  Completed in 1636, and translated from the original Irish by John O’Donovan, 1854).                  

However, earlier records of patronymic CEARNACHAN associated with the Barony of Luighne take us back to 896AD when                                                 “a rival was killed by the Luighne i.e. by the sons of Cearnachan”                                                                                           (ibid – O’Donovan)  


From these citings, we can speculate about the identity of that CEARNACHAN who was the family’s eponymous ancestor; also accepting that the Tadhg Ua Cearnachain who fell in battle in 1012 (see above) was most likely the first of the line to carry the surname. Perhaps that illustrious eponymous ancestor was the CEARNACHAN, King of Breifne**, who died in 931.

The last mention of UA CEARNACHAIN in The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland was in 1159, once again concerning a battle in Meath, wherein he was listed as one of the prominent defeated                                                     “these were the Chieftains slain of the Ui-Briuin : Mac-na-haidhche Ua Cearnachain” 

  The following is a translated extract from “A Topographical and Historical Poem” by John O'Dubhagain, who died in 1372


Look over Luighne* of the full lakes,

Make a commemoration of the Ui-CEARNACHAIN

Good is every habitation of that people;

O'Gadhra is of that fine race.

* Luighne,..... a Barony in the then Southern O'Neill's Kingdom of Tara. The Barony is now spelt LUNE and is in the western part of modern County Meath, in the Province of Leinster. It comprises 4 parishes, the largest of which is Killaconnighan.

** Breifne.......An ancient Kingdom composed of a Confederation of Petty Kingdoms spread over the present day counties of Cavan, Meath, Westmeath and Longford, The Hill of Tara, the seat of the High King, is situated in the centre of County Meath and was under the protection of the King of Breifne. It was fully dissolved by mid-13th Century



  Patrick Woulfe in “Irish Names and Surnames” ,1923  - has the following notation for the surname -                                                                           

   O CEARNACHAIN – “the name (1) of a Meath family who were anciently chiefs of Luighne; and                                                                                                                                      (2) of a Tirconnell family who were the chiefs of Tuath Bladhach (now angl. Doe) in the barony of Kilmacrenan”

Medieval TIRCONNELL is now County Donegal and it was from that county that many of us believed our Irish KERNAGHANs originated from. Kilmacrenan, at the very north of Co Donegal, is quite a distance from the Kingdoms of Meath and Breifne of the UA CEARNACHAINs (from whence that surname has now been part of the living language of Ireland for over 1,000 years).

 In the ancient texts, the first we hear of the O CEARNACHAIN Clan in DONEGAL was in the 12th Century, and this again is in “A Topographical and Historical Poem” by John O'Dubhagain, (d. 1372AD)

 To MacGillatsamhais the stout,

Belong Ros-GuiU and Ros-Iorguil

Two other chieftains, it is certain to you,

Are over the victorious Tuath-Bladhach.

Of them is O'CEARNACHAIN of valour

Some of whose prosperities I have proved.

Of them is the royal host of prosperous tribes,

The bountiful Muintir Dalachain*   


 *  Under a “List of Irish Clans”, the entry for Muintir Dalachain (the lands of Dalachain*) has -  

        "Hereditary Chief or Clan chief;      Ó CEARNACHAIN (i.e. Kernaghan) and Ó Dalachain                                                                               

      Location;            Tuath Bladhach (Bladhaigh) (now Creeslough & Dunfanaghy) plus south of Ros-Iorguil (now Downings and Carrigart) County Donegal"

(*These Dalachain lands are in the northeastern part of Co Donegal’s Barony of Kilmacrenan and were within the Kingdom of Tyrconnell, the Lords of which up to the 14th Century were the O’Donnell’s).


Separately, we can place our KERNAGHAN Clan in this part of Donegal to the 12th Century, per -      

“the following clans and chiefs in Tir Connail in the Twelfth Century are given....X. O’Çearnachain, or O’Kernaghan; and O’Dalachain, Chiefs of the Tuath Bladhaigh                                                                                                     From The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland” translated from the original Irish of The Four Masters, and with commentary,  by Owen Connellan, 1845.


Additionally, “Baronies of Ireland” states for the Barony of Kilmacrenan that -        

                                                              “Other medieval septs include O'Kernaghan of Clondavaddog*”,        

(*  That Parish, Clondavaddog, also in the Barony of Kilmacrenan, covers most of the peninsula of Fanad in the extreme north of Co Donegal and is adjacent to the south and west to where the lands of Dalachhain are).


Unfortunately, dating is not given for either of the references to Ó CEARNACHAIN in 'List of Irish Clans' – and – 'Baronies of Ireland'). Nevertheless, from Connellan’s text above, we can place the O’ÇEARNACHAINs in Tir Connail (modern Co. Donegal) to within a couple of centuries after their first mentions in Co. Meath but we don’t know if (and when) the Meath clan moved to Donegal after their defeat in 1159.

In the second half of the 14th century, however, most of the Barony of Kilmacrenan in Donegal was taken over by the MacSweeneys Clan who then settled their own people throughout the land, displacing many of the earlier inhabitants.


It is from this latter (Tir Connail) era that many of us believed our Irish KERNAGHANs had originated in County Donegal. However, even as early as 1665, when the Hearth Money Rolls were conducted in County Donegal, there were no KERNAGHANs (nor surname variants) recorded in that county. (However, in Donegal's 1665 Hearth Money Rolls there was a Townland called Ballim Kernaghan, located on the Island of Inch close to the O’Çearnachain's former lands. That Townland has since been re-named Carnaghan).

All the Kernaghans that were recorded in the extant Hearth Money Rolls from the 1660s were in County Antrim (and these were all spelt starting Carn...)Regrettably the Rolls for Counties Down and Armagh, the 2 other most populous Counties per the 1901 Census, no longer exist.

There were no Kernaghans etc in County Donegal per Griffiths Valuation of 1857, a comprehensive listing of all Householders in each County of Ireland and only 1 (a William Kernaghan of South Donegal) in the Tithe Applottment Books of 1834.

Finally, O'KERNAGHAN is listed twice under the Principal Ancient Celtic Families (together with the Counties in which they were located) in "A Topographical and Historical Map of Ancient Ireland by Baronies" by Phillip MacDermott, 1846, which covers Ireland from 1171 (the English Invasion). The first entry is for County Donegal in Ulster while the second is for County Sligo (which borders Co Donegal in the south but is in the Province of Connacht). The Map of Sligo has O'Kernaghan, C (indicating Chief) in the Barony of Leyny, however, there is no text attaching to the Map to support sourcing of this nor to indicate time-frame and we have no other evidence of O'Kernaghans in Co Sligo.      

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