The Origins of the Strain Surname



  The coat of arms for Strachan of Thornton.  The  Strain surname is believed by many to have been derived from Strachan.  

The Latin motto "Non timeo sed caveo" means "Not fearful but wary."



The Strain name appears to have originated in Ireland, an Anglicized form of something older.  But was the original name Irish or Scottish?


In his book, More Irish Families, genealogist Dr. Edward MacLysaght claims that the Strain surname comes from O’Srutháin, the name of an Irish sept of Donegal mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters.


               (O)Strahan, Strain, Shryhane – There are two slightly different forms of this surname in Irish –  O’Sraitheáin and O’Srutháin, both as Strahan and Strain (Co. Down) found now in Ulter in fair numbers.  The sept was of Tirconnell where they were enenaghs of Conwall in the barony of Kilmacrenan, Co. Donegal.  Sitric O’Sruithen is mentioned by the Four Masters as such in the year 1204.  The Annals refer to them as followers of the O’Donnells with whom, however, at the end of the sixteenth century they were at loggerheads.


The entry from the Annals of the Four Masters referred to by MacLysaght reads as follows:


Sitriucc Ua Sruithén airchindeach na Congbhala, .i. cenn Ua Murtele & toiseach Cloinne Snédhgile ar thotacht d'écc iar n-déigh-pendainn, & a adhnacal isin tempall do-rónadh leis féin.

(Sitric O'Sruithen, Erenagh of Conwal, i.e. head of the Hy-Murtele, and chief man of all the Clann-Snedhgile for his worth, died, after exemplary penance, and was interred in the church which he had himself founded.)


In Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall (Irish Names and Surnames, or Surnames of the Irish and the Foreigner), the Rev. Patrick Woulfe gives additional information about this sept and lists other variations of the name:


                  O Sraitheáin, O Sruitheáin, O Srutháin – I - O Srahane, O Shrihane, O Sreighan, O Shrean, O Streffen, Shryhane, Sruffaun, Strohane, Strahan, Straghan, Strachan, Strain, Bywater, (Ryan); ‘des. Of Sruthán’ or ‘Sruitheán’ (dim. Of sruth an elder, a sage, a man of letters); the name of an old Tirconnell family, the head of which was chief of Clann Snedhgile, a sept of the Cinel Conaill, seated in Glenswilly to the west of Letterkenny, and also erenagh of Conwall in the same district.  Some of the family had come southward before the end of the 16th Century, probably as followers of the MacSweenys, and settled in Co. Cork where the name is still extant, but often ‘translated’ Bywater, as if from ‘sruthán’ a streamlet.  In Co. Mayo, it is sometimes strangely angl. Ryan.


 Of the 121 Strain households represented in the property survey of Ireland (1848-1864), 81 families resided in the counties that now comprise Northern Ireland while 37 other families resided in County Donegal.  (See illustration below, from   These Ulster counties were settled by Scottish colonists during the early 17th century, during the Plantation of Ireland by King James I and in the private colonization of County Down by Montgomery and Hamilton.  Many, though not all, of the previous inhabitants were displaced to other parts of Ireland.


It is almost beyond doubt, however, that the Strains of Donegal were descendants of the O Sruithain family mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters.  The Hearth Money Roll of Conwall parish from 1665 includes the household of one Roory O’Strean—a name that hardly fits a Scottish settler—and a breakdown of the Donegal civil parish survey (1857) shows that almost all of the Strain households were in Conwall or adjacent parishes while none were found in the southwestern half of Donegal.




Ireland Map

The table below shows the number of strain households in each county in the Primary Valuation property survey of 1848-64.





Belfast city








Dublin city









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 Other genealogists, however, have noted the similarity to the Scottish name Strachan and suggested that some with the Strain surname may be Scottish in origin, as shown in this entry from the website:






numerous: mainly Down and Ulster generally, Sligo-Mayo. Ir. Ó Sruitheáin, Ó Sraitheáin. A variant of Strahan, which now represents most of this name, with the same proviso about the Scots as for Strahan. MIF.


rare: Belfast, Dublin etc. Ir. Ó Sraitheáin (SGA) This form of the name appears to be Scottish and Black regards it as a toponymic. Ir. srath, valley becomes strath in Scotland. See also Srahan & Strain.


fairly rare: E Ulster. Variant of Strachan, q.v.


rare: Belfast, Dublin etc. Ir. Ó Sruitheáin. Woulfe derives this from sruth, a learned man, while MacLysaght settles for the more obvious "stream". They are recorded as a sept of Donegal, with branches in Mayo and Cork. The overlap with Strachan seems to indicate that these linked names are generally Scottish in origin.




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Additional support for Scottish roots comes from Charles Hanna, who in his two-volume work The Scotch Irish, cites the Declaration by the Commissioners for the Settling and Securing the Province of Ulster; dated at Carrickfergus, 23 May 1653.   The declaration proposes the resettling of some of “the popular Scotts” from Counties Down and Antrim to other counties, as punishment for Presbyterian opposition to the Cromwell regime.  The resettlement plan was never carried out, but listed among the 260 names of Ulster Scots to be resettled was John Strain of County of “Down; Castlereagh, Kilwarlin, and Lisnargarvy Quarters”—an area that is now Lisburn and southeast Belfast.


Finally, during the Scotch-Irish migrations of 1707-1775 many Strains came to the American colonies from Ireland.  All of these early arrivals seem to have been Presbyterian, the faith of the lowland Scots who settled in Ireland (although later arrivals included both Catholic and Protestant Strains). 


So there is strong evidence that some Strains descended from an Irish clan in Donegal and equally compelling evidence that some came to Ireland from the Scottish Lowlands. Since many of the inhabitants of Scotland descended from Irish ancestors it is even possible that the family originated in Ireland but that some migrated to Scotland and then returned to Ireland in the 17th Century. 


One thing that the Strain DNA Project has revealed is that many of the Strains, both Catholic and Presbyterian, belong to haplogroup R1b1b2a5 (formerly R1b1c7), a haplogroup found most frequently in northwestern Ireland and in the Scottish Lowlands and properly designated as the Irish Modal Haplogroup, Northwest Variety.  This is the haplogroup that includes the “Niall of the Nine Hostages” DNA signature3—the genetic signature common to families that are believed to have descended from the 5th century Irish warlord and High King of Ireland, Niall Naoigiallach.  It is strong evidence that the Strains descended from the Northern Uí Néill clan that controlled much of Ulster for more than a millennium.

For more information on the “Niall of the Nine Hostages” DNA signature, see


There is third possible origin as well.  Several Strains participating in the study related a family legend claiming that they descended from Huguenots who settled in Ireland after fleeing religious persecution in France. 


 Return to Strain DNA Project