© Christopher Earls Brennen



There is a legend that maintains that the Brennen family derives its name from Huguenot ancestors. Our earliest known ancestor, Edward, may have spelt his surname with an additional ``n''. Certainly his son, Bernard, used the concluding ``nn'' in extant early signatures, for example on his marriage certificate. We will explore the possibility of Huguenot roots a little later.

Before doing so it is of interest to record the origins of the Irish surname Brennan since it is probable that our family name is a minor variant of that surname that is among the thirty commonest in Ireland. The name Brennan is the anglized version of three different Irish names. It is borne by descendants of six distinct septs, four of which were O Braonain, one of which was O Branain and one Mac Branain. Descendants of the septs with the prefix O' have largely abandoned it although a small minority have retained or reassumed it. However the prefix Mac has entirely disappeared. The name Brennan is now widely distributed in all four provinces of Ireland but one can still discern concentrations in the areas surrounding two ancestral regions namely that of the O Branain in northern Kilkenny and that of the Mac Branain in County Roscommon.

The principal sept of O Braonain once held a territory called Ui Duach (modern Idough), a vaguely defined hilly region in the northeastern part of County Kilkenny. Carrigan, the Ossory diocesan historian, identified Idough with the rural deanery of Odagh, comprising 21 parishes, the greater portion of which was described in the 16th century as the Barony of Fassadinin and Idough. By the 17th century these O'Brennans were, themselves, divided into four septs each with its own sept centre. As English power became paramount in Leinster the power of the O'Brennans waned. Though several of them retained some portion of their former estates, the 17th century reduced many to the status of rapparee (outlaw). Indeed several famous or notorious bands of rapparees in Leinster were led by Brennans, and in the next century one of the most intrepid and chivalrous of all Irish highwaymen, James Feeney, was, he asserted, instructed in his calling by the last of these rapparee Brennans. One of the best known Irish folksongs, ``Brennan on the Moor'', commemorates the exploits of Willy Brennan who is depicted as a young man forced to become a ``brave, young highwayman''. Another distinguished member of this sept was Most Rev. John Brennan (1625-1693), Bishop of Waterford and Archbishop of Cashel, friend of Geoffrey Keating and Oliver Plunkett. Though constantly the object of special attention by priest-hunters, he was elusive enough to remain continuously in his dioceses which he administered with wisdom; his periodical reports to Rome are of great value to historians of the 17th century. Another John Brennan (1768-1830), popularly called the ``wrestling doctor'' and known in his day for his satires on Dublin doctors, was also of this sept of the O'Brennans and considered to be the chief of that clan. Among exiles of the name we might mention the Abbe Peter O'Brennan who was executed in 1794 for his resistance to the French Revolution. An account of these O'Brennans can be found in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, volume 1, pp.230- 254.

Other, smaller O Braonain septs held territories in east County Galway, County Kerry and County Westmeath. Also the small O Branain sept was located in County Fermanagh.

The Mac Branain sept of County Roscommon, have entirely lost their prefix Mac. The Mac Branain was chief of Corcachlann, the name of a territory in the eastern part of County Roscommon, and a succession of these chiefs appear in the Annals between 1159 and 1488. While the leading members of the sept retained the Mac until the submergence of the Gaelic order in the 17th century, in some cases the substitution of O for Mac is noted as early as 1360. The present day Brennans of Counties Roscommon, Sligo and Mayo, however, are nearly all MacBrennans or more correctly MacBrannans.

We now turn to the history of our own Brennen family. There is a persistent family legend that maintains that the Brennen family is of Huguenot origin. This is a naturally attractive story that may or may not be true. My father firmly believed it and said that the original hometown in France had been located. Muriel Paisley (nee Brennen) also held this view and her records suggest a surname like de la Brennene. Furthermore Bernard Brennen (see next chapter), our ancestor, effected French dress and mannerisms. I have checked all the indexes of the Proceedings of the Huguenot Society (Linenhall Library, Belfast) and have not found any surname like Brennenn or de la Brennene. Furthermore the records of our earliest known ancestor, Edward, all give his surname as Brennan. Hence, though I cannot eliminate the possibility of truth in the Huguenot legend, it does seem more likely that our ancestors were of more common Scotch-Irish origin. Since little more can be said of the Huguenot legend we shall proceed to consider the latter Scotch-Irish possibility.

The Brennen family was Protestant throughout its known history. Yet most of the Brennans in Ireland today are Catholic because of their descent from the native Irish discussed above. It follows that an unknown ancestor either changed his faith or changed his name from some similar English, Scottish or French name.

Here we will focus our effort on the Brennan families in Northern Ireland for the moment neglecting the possibility that our earliest known ancestor, Edward Brennan, may have migrated from south of the present border. As a result of examination of the records up to about 1870, it would appear that the distribution of Brennan (or similar name) families in Northern Ireland was as follows. By far the largest number of Brennan records come from the east coast of County Antrim. The focus of this concentration appears to be in Islandmagee, a peninsula just south of the town of Larne. These Islandmagee families spelt their name variously as Brynan, Brynnan, Brenan, Brannan, Brannion but most of these seem to have converged to the normal Brennan. They were predominantly Presbyterian and attended the First Islandmagee Presbyterian church. However several of the families were or became Anglican. For the most part they seem to have been moderately prosperous small farmers as the number of gravestones they erected in the local graveyards seems to indicate. Brennan families who may well have diffused from this focus were located in Larne and as far up the coast as Glenarm. Similarly Brennan records exist from the coast southwards to Carrickfergus and Belfast. However, it is notable that not a single Edward or Bernard is to be found amongst the records of these Antrim Coast Brennans. Indeed, Edward and Bernard seem to have been predominantly Catholic names rarely used by the Protestant ascendancy.

A second feature of the distribution of Brennans in Northern Ireland up to about 1870 is the scattering of families in County Down. This diaspora seems to extend from Newry along the coast to Kilkeel and up the middle of County Down to Donaghmore, Dromore, Lisburn, Lurgan and Banbridge. The scarcity of gravestone inscriptions indicates that these Brennans were less prosperous than their County Antrim namesakes though the Griffith Valuation of the 1860s includes many small holdings scattered about a north/south axis in County Down. That same survey does, however, indicate larger holdings along the County Down coast from Newry to Kilkeel. It seems that some of these County Down families were Protestant and some were Catholic. Again the names Edward and Bernard are relatively rare though several families along the Newry/Kilkeel coast did use these names frequently and those Christian names also occur in the Dromore and Banbridge area. In the latter case the families are all Roman Catholic. With the present evidence, the most likely origin of our Brennen is with the Roman Catholic families of the Dromore area.

Several different coats of arms are associated with the Brennan name. On a gravestone belonging to one of the Protestant families of Islandmagee the arms shown below on the left (two swords in saltire) are engraved. :


On the other hand, the arms shown above on the right are attributed to the Irish Brennan families in most of the books on Irish heraldry. The motto included with these arms is ``Sub hoc signo vinces''.

Last updated 7/30/99.

Christopher E. Brennen