McCain / O'Kane / McKane Name Variations

McCain Name Variations

O'Kane Family Crest

As our DNA results start to come in, I think it would be good to restate some basic McCain facts.

First, forget what the surname books say, unless you happen to have Woulfe's Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall (which happens to be quite good). The rest tend to mention only popular or common names. They are designed to sell books, not give the true history of smallish Gaelic clans.

Second, with McCain, there are at least four separate origins for the name that are commonly found, and then a few more that are rare. When you anglicise a name, or go from Gaelic to English, several very similar sounding Irish names become the same English name; tons of confusion, only compounded by mass-market surname books.

For example, the names Mac Catháin, Mac Cian, Mac Eáin, and Mac Aodháin all have been anglicised as McCain/McKean and variations of these. However, they are totally separate little septs.

Mac Catháin means Son of the Warrior
Mac Cian means Son of the Ancient one
Mac Eáin means Son of John.
Mac Aodháin, son of Aodhán, a diminutive of Aodh, Son of Fire.

Then there is a couple more, but better to keep the confusion to a minimum. So as the DNA results come in, we are going to find groups of McCains, not one group, in all likelihood.

In Catháin, the "th" is silent. The mark above the "a" is called a fada, which is the accent mark in Irish. For all the grammar technicians, you have two broad vowels with one accented; an A followed by an Á. The Á gobbles up the sound of the A. I speak enough Irish that I know how Mac Catháin is supposed to be pronounced, but then you also must factor in dialectal differences in Irish, and the name is stylised to a certain extent. Fortunately we know for a fact from Elizabethan writings that Catháin was pronounced as ‘Kane.’ In their day, County Derry was called Tír Kane, or O’ Kane’s Country. There was already a wide variety of Anglicised forms. Kane, Cain, Cane, Kean, Cahan, Cahane, etc., were all commonly found.

The name Mac Eáin is also spelled in northern parts of Scotland as Mac Iain. It is this name that so many early McCain researchers assumed was the origin of all McCains. Mac Eáin was, in the past, commonly anglicised as McCaen, McCane, etc. The popularity of this origin of the name came about as two families named Mac Eáin became famous in Victorian times, i.e. Mac Eáin of Ardnamurchan and Mac Eáin of Glencoe. This leads to an irony, as 99% of the McCains around the world do not descend from the two Scottish Gaelic families.

The name Mac Cian is a special case. The McKeans of southwest Ireland are often of this origin, but there is also a north Derry Mac Cían. Woulfe says the names Mac Cian and Mac Catháin are ‘indistinguishable’ in their anglicised forms.

On the Isle of Man, which also has a Gaelic population, Mac Catháin was a common name. There it is anglicised as Cain and Caine. Many of the Cains in northern England have Manx ancestry, plus there are Cains who are descendants of Manx fishermen in Belfast. How is that for complexity?

Gaelic spellings are elaborate, and Gaels string many names together. Manus Rua, son of Giolla Dubh Ó Catháin, wrote his name: Maghnus Mc an Giolla dhúibh í chatháin. That is a direct quote of his name; exactly how it appears in mid-1600s Irish. The Scots tended to simplify his name to Magnus Giolla Dubh Mac Cahan. This is one of the forms that Montrose's biographer, John Buchan chooses to call Manus. Incidentally, Giolla means servant or lad.

Our best source for the McCain name is Antrim historian Robert McCahan, who was a direct descendant of Manus Rua Ó Catháin himself. Robert McCahan reported that the variations in the anglicised form came from the difficulty for English speakers in pronouncing the Irish name Mac Catháin and from social and religious pressures on these Irish families to conform in a British dominated society.

Robert McCahan did his research circa 1880 to 1930 and had the opportunity to speak with McCains who still spoke Irish and knew the family history very well. Most of his co-lateral relations used the McCaughan spelling. In his interviews with the Route Ó Catháin descendants, he was told that some used the McCahan/McCaughan spelling, while others used the McCain/McKane spelling.

The OS Memoirs written in the Route area in the 1830s show that the British military knew who was who. One officer jotted down in his notes "Kane = Cahan = Catháin".

After the 1660s, the name Mac Catháin has taken on some 30 odd Anglicised spellings. Often one family will have a fondness for one over another, sometimes not. The spellings really don't become fixed until the mid-1800s. In my little branch of the greater Mac Catháin family, I have found McCane, McKean, McKeen, and McCain. Not very consistent ... flexible even.

This is just the tip of the McCain iceberg however. Outside of the Route, we have other McCain groups; in Clare, Sligo, Donegal, Cavan, and on the Isle of Man. Some will be the Mac Catháin group, but others will perhaps descend from one of the other sources of the name, Mac Eáin, Mac Cian, etc.

For people who do not know the point of origin of their immigrant ancestor, sometimes a well-researched study of the settlement he lived in will give you his point of origin. There is often a comment in the primary records of the general point of origin of the people, such as “from Donegal”, etc.

People tended to settle as a group. Often a look at the surnames of a settlement will tell you where they came from. For instance, in the Marsh Creek Settlements you find the same surnames as the Irish townships from Ballinlea, across to Dunseverick, to Ballyrashane. Same families, no mistaking where they are from. Our first DNA match confirms this.

Barra McCain


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