Brian mac Cennetig “Boru”

June 14th, 2006 by Mike O'Brien

Brian Boroimhe, Monarch of Ireland. Printed for Bazaleal Creake in 1726 at the Bible in Jermyn Street, St. James Street, London, and illustrated in Dermod O’Connor’s translation to English of Dr. Jeoffrey Keating’s general history of Ireland in the Irish language. Published in 1726 by Bazaleal Creake, and dedicated to William O’Brien, 4th Earl of Inchiquin.

(Brian of the Tributes)
High King of Ireland
(Died 1014)
O’Brien is an extremely common Irish surname, being the 6th most common name in the country. The O’Brien clan was for many years the most powerful in Munster, with major septs in every Munster county except Kerry. In fact, just prior to 1000 A.D. the Brian from whom the clan takes its name – Brian Boru – claimed the high kingship over the entire country, and nearly succeeded in uniting all of Ireland. At the time of Griffith’s Valuation (mid-1800′s) the distribution of the name clearly reflects the traditional distribution of the O’Briens, although the name is so common that other parts of the country are also well represented. Griffith’s shows a total of 2112 O’Brien households in Munster, 411 in Connaught, 259 in Leinster and 339 in Ulster.

As mentioned, O’Brien is the sixth most common name in Ireland. In the United States it ranks 172nd according to a 1964 inventory of names by the Social Security Commission. The O’ prefix, means “grandson of” or “descended from” and is usually identified with Ireland. Thus O’Brien translates as “the grandson (or descendant) of Brian.” During the times when the Irish were being severely persecuted, and an Irish surname was a serious encumbrance, many Irish families dropped the O’ and Mac prefixes, some to re-adopt them during the revival of nationalism. Not so the O’Briens however. In most cases these families kept the name unchanged, even in times of oppression.

The O’Briens descend from the Delcassians of Munster, ancient Gaelic tribes (Dal gCais) that occupied what is now Clare, as well as adjacent parts of Limerick and Tipperary. Most O’Briens like to claim descent directly from Brian Boru, the great High King who nearly succeeded in uniting Ireland about 1000 A.D. Some people have even claimed that it was Brian Boru who introduced the use of surnames into Ireland, though historians refute that claim. In any case, when surnames did come into general use, the clan that gave rise to the Great Brian Boru adopted his name, and so became the O’Briens.

The name Brian itself has been attributed to various origins. Some hold that it means “a fine house” or “a bonny house”. Others claim it means “a hill” or “by the hill”. Yet others say it means “strong”.

In a few cases, the name O’Brien may be derived from Norman origins. Some families originally called Bryne or Bryon added the O’ prefix to gaelicize their name. Common variant spellings of the name include O’Brian, O’Bryne and O’Bryan.

Boru Coat of ArmsThe O’Brien Coat of Arms illustrated above is officially documented in Burke’s General Armory. The original description of the arms (shield) is as follows:

“THREE LIONS PASSANT.”

When translated, the blazon also describes the original colors of the O’Brien arms as:

“RED, THREE LIONS WALKING, FACING FORWARD, PLACED ONE OVER THE OTHER, AND DIVIDED VERTICALLY GOLD AND SILVER.”

Above the shield and helmet is the crest which described as:

“A BENT RIGHT ARM ISSUING OUT OF A CLOUD AND BRANDISHING A SWORD; ALL NATURALLY COLORED.”

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