The Meighan Name

In my experiences I have found the Meehan name recorded as: Meehan, Mehan, Meighan, Meighen, Mehen, Mahan. And, believe it or not, that was all just here in Butler County, Ohio! Since the family arrived here, the name has been pronounced "mee`un".

Those who recorded the family's activities may have spelled it in a phonetic manner of the day, a unified way to spell names was not as common then. The name surely evolved in spelling over the generations here in the United States. This is documented in family controlled settings, such as tomb stones. What I find most interesting is the universal acceptance of the current spellings. The original spelling is discussed in the following article.

This is from Ted Meehan on the MEEHAN mailing list To subscribe to the list, please send a "subscribe" message.

A chairde,

As many of us know, our family name has taken several forms over the past 300 or so years. Among the most common are Meehan, and Meighan.

We may eventually be able to learn much about each branch of the family from a study of the various emigrations from Ireland, or - going back a little further - from the area of Leitrim where the family was headquartered until the 1600s.

For the more recent emigrations, it is useful to know that there were two major causes. They were the Great Famine (An Gorta Mor) which ocurred between 1846 and 1848. During this period, it is generally accepted that 1 million Irish people perished from starvation and disease, while another 1 million left Ireland. Many Canadian immigrants from Ireland (including, no doubt, some Meehans) boarded what were called "Coffin Ships" and travelled to Canada. These ships were filled with tragedy and disease. Many of the passengers died, and others were not allowed off the ship. Those who did survive settled in the Eastern Provinces of Canada.

For a period of time, perhaps from the late 1700s through the mid-1800s, there were also many Irish who were "transported" mostly to Australia and New Zealand. Some of these had been accused of such trivial offenses and stealing a shirt, or pick-pocketing. Others may have been involved in what were considered "political" crimes, or were perhaps involved in the Whiteboys or Ribbonmen. A few also would have been transported to South Africa. The practice stopped in about 1860.

The other great movements of Irish people would have come in the wake of the wars of the 17th Century (and even perhaps in the late 1500s). Henry VIII had instituted a program called "surrender and regrant", by which an Irish Chieftain could surrender his ancestral lands, and his Gaelic title, and then receive from the King of England a grant of those same lands, and an English title. This practice had a few drawbacks.

First, it required taking the Oath of Apostasy, which essentially was a denial of the Catholic faith and a recognition of the King of England as the Head of the Church. Some Chieftains who did take the Oath believed it wasn't binding since they swore on a Protestant bible. Another problem was that the "surrender" of land was a violation of Brehon Law, the source of their authority in the first place. According to Brehon Law, the Chief was given authority as sort of the CEO of the corporation, with the clan members being stockholders. In other words, the lands belonged to the clan members as a whole, and the Chieftain was recognized as the leader of the clan - and afforded some suitable priveleges. But, he would not have had authority to "surrender" any property that belonged to the clan.

When these types of Oaths were taken, there was often internal battles, and many clan members refused to recognize either the "surrender" or the previous authority of the Chieftain, let alone his English title. So, open hostility between clan members often resulted. It would also be looked upon by many clan members as a betrayal of their trust, and an attempt to profit oneself with the stolen property.

At any rate, no evidence exists that there was ever any such "surrender and regrant" by one of The O'Meighans. But, our clan would have been drawn into battles among neighboring clans where such treachery had ocurred.

The "Flight of the Earls" in 1608 saw two of the most renowned Chieftains, Hugh O'Neill (Earl of Tyrone) and Cathbar O'Donnell (Earl of Tyrconnell) leave Ireland. Several more minor chiefs also would have left. There is reason to believe that some of the O'Meighans may have accompanied these to Louvain. The record shows a Dermott O'Meighan serving in the Spanish Army in Louvain in this period, and a Father Bonaventura O'Meighan became Guarian of St. Anthony's College in the lat 1640s. Several other O'Meighans were educated at St. Anthony's. So, there is reason to believe that some Meighans may be in Spain or the Netherlands dating back to this period.

Around Ballaghameighan (our ancestral homeland), a confiscation of land was occuring in the early 1600s through about the 1620s. The Stuart Kings (James I and his son Charles I) had sent administrators into Ireland to maximize the value of the Irish colony to the English King. There followed many regulations which had the effect of depriving Catholics of their land. Meanwhile grants were given to Protestant planters. The one who became the local devil for our forebears was named Sir Frederick Hamilton, for whom the present day Manorhamilton is named. His custom was to hang at least one local inhabitant on his front lawn each day "preferably a local chieftain or a popish priest". History shows that he commemorated holidays like Christmas by slaughtering convents filled with nuns or monasteries filled with friars.

His reign, while terrible, was mercifully short. He received his grant in the early 1630s, and he was run out of the area in the mid-1640s by the forces of Owen Roe O'Neill. Of interest is that Nicholas The O'Meighan was then commanding the local "Army of O'Rourke", and may well have been involved in the expulsion of this villain.

Unfortunately, Owen Roe O'Neill died in 1649 just before the arrival of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell's bloody campaign of slaughter through Ireland is well documented. But in the wake of this rampage, he also sought to drive the native Irish out of all of the best land. Many were sent to Barbados to become slaves, and those from more fertile areas were pushed into Connaught, with the locals losing their own claim to the land.

Cromwell's execution of Charles I brought him the enmity of the Stuart dynasty. And, after Cromwell's death the Stuarts were returned to the throne of England in the person of Charles II. The new king recognized the contributions of those who fought his father's enemy - Cromwell - by restoring their lands. This allowed Christopher The O'Meighan to reacquire the ancestral homeland once again.

While the land was being reacquired, we must also recognize that the upheavals of the previous 50 years had probably caused a number of the O'Meighan branches to seek safer dwellings in neighboring parts of Ireland. Since Leitrim is almost in the center, the dispersal pattern of O'Meighans left some of our forebears in virtually every county in Ireland. But, still a remnant remained in Ballagh.

Optimism must have soared when, after Charles' death, James II - a Catholic - inherited the throne. However, his reign was quickly challenged by William of Orange resulting in the Battle of the Boyne and later the Battle of Aughrim and the Treaty of Limerick. Christopher The O'Meighan was killed at the Boyne in 1690, and the ancestral lands were again confiscated by the English - this time forever. The resulting confiscations saw the scattering of the remnant members of our clan to wherever they ended up. Some, who fought through to the Treaty of Limerick, were transported to France and served in the Irish Brigade of Louis XIV. Their name was often changed from O'Meighan ro de Mehegan. Over the next century, most clan members dropped the "O", and many spelled the name "Meehan", while some held to the more ancient spelling "Meighan".


Ted Meehan

This is from Aidan Meehan
Meehan Surname History

According to "Devenish, it's History and Antiquities", put out by the Clogher Historical Society, though perhaps now out of print, the Meehan family were originally "herenachs" of Devenish Island, Lough Erne, Fermanagh, in Northern Ireland. I've been there, there is a ruined St. Mary's Abbey and a very fine High Tower...perhaps the best of it's kind.

"Herenach" is a term meaning a family with hereditary title to a Church property. In other words, they are descendants of the family of the founder of the monastery, and hold his relics, in this case a manuscript, probably a copy of the gospels, belonging to St. Laserian, better known as St. Molaise of Devenish. The Meehans therefore originated as the hereditary kinsfolk of Molaise, who is mentioned as related to St. Columcille, and was instrumental in the latter's choosing Iona as the place to go to. Molaise's relationship to a royal house is also recorded somewhere, but I cannot lay my hands on it now. I have the impression it was the house of Dalraida. This would be good to know, as a Meehan, as the Dalriada are mentioned quite a bit in old sources. I would welcome any further information along these lines, if anyone would be so good as to help me along here.

The St. Molaise in question is the Patron of Devenish Island. The Meehan family originated as the custodians of a box made for his manuscript, called a Cumdach, (pr. Cum-dak, with emphasis on first syllable). This Cumdach, or Bookshrine of St. Molaise (pro. Muh-lay-she, emphasis on 2nd syllable), is "one of the greatest treasures of Ireland", and preserved in the National Museum of Ireland, quite a famous piece of late Celtic art, actually. The Meehan family were its custodians down to the nineteenth century when the last Meehan of the hereditary line, a Protestant minister called Thomas, I think, donated it to the Royal Academy, which then became the National Museum of Dublin.

You can see a good photograph of it in "Treasures of Early Ireland", 1978, Metropolitan Museum of New York, published by Knopf.

Being herenachs, the family had hereditary right in perpetuity to land on the Island, and the monastery supported the family in return for having access to the relics of the patron, on special feast days such as Devenish Patron Day, 12th September. This was a local holiday until late in the nineteenth century, when it was shut down by a puritanical official guardian of morality as an occasion for rowdy drunkenness and debauchery lasting a weekend or longer, thus putting an end to what sounds like must once have been a fine institution.

The Meehans moved off the island to a domain of their own in Co. Clare, a little south west of Upper Lough Erne, called Ballymeehan. At some point a lot of them moved to the Sligo area, to this day. I recall the surprise I had walking through a nearby town and seeing Meehan on practically every other shop front. There are a few legends associated with the Cumdach and various Meehans down the centuries. One relates how the shrine was lost, and found by a humble parish priest, who was given a vision in a dream of angels descending and opening the Well of Molaise on the Island, in the wall of which was hidden the box. He brought it to church before the assembled members of two feuding factions, and made each swear peace on it under pain of insanity. It is reported that not a few left the premises raving lunatics. Such was the hold of this tale on the imagination of succeeding generations that a magistrate in that part of the country related that in his experience, in the nineteenth century yet, the Cumdach was often hired by the court to swear in a Roman Catholic miscreant who otherwise would have no trouble of conscience perjuring himself on the English, King James version of the Bible.

At a later point in time, the thirteenth century I think, there was a dispute between three Meehans, one an Abbot of Devenish, one a Bishop of the Diocese of Devenish, which encompassed several adjacent townlands, and the local parish priest of Devenish, who actually had the little box in his possession. The other two were claiming prior claim to the precious object on account of their status. The story points up the difference between the traditional rule of the Abbey versus the Diocesan authority in the Irish church. The priest, abhorring the scandal of two princes of the church fighting in public over a material status object, burnt the contents of the box in order to protect the tender consciences of his flock. Pity that, his scruples cost the nation the loss of a precious manuscript that I would love to have been able to examine today. However, the tale is probably apocryphal, to provide an explanation for the fact the manuscript is lost. I would like to imagine that the Book of Molaise may yet surface from some back shelf. The prospect may encourage other Meehans to haunt second-hand bookstalls, driven by an otherwise inexplicable urge to pore through bins full of old books.

The box of the bookshine is a classical house-shaped box, of which several others are extant, including one from Lough Erne. Made of yew, the original of which was covered by silver and gold, with a Celtic cross on the front, inscribed with the names of the evangelist symbols and a request for a prayer for the Abbot who caused the ornamentation to be applied to it in the eleventh or twelfth century. The design of the cross is very beautiful. The background panels are filled with gold foil panels of the four evangelist symbols, and a side panel contains a small figure of an ecclesiastic with forked beard and holding a holy water sprinkler and a book, undoubtedly a representation of the founder. His figure is surrounded by four animals, dogs or lions, of late, medieval design, circa 1100. The style disappeared in 1125, with the coming of Normans, who brought their own craftsmen and the continental Romanesque style. That is the value of the bookshrine to art historians, as it is the last of its kind. Its lid is missing, but would have been roof-shaped, like a little model of a house, or more accurately, a representation of the temple, such as in the book of Kells, or as carved on the top of some Irish High Crosses. Some of panels on the side and back are missing. One is reported as having been prized off by the current custodian and sold to a Sligo watchmaker. I suspect the watchmaker was a Meehan, too, although there is no record of this.

There is a coat of arms for the Meehans, too, a shield divided by a chevron and three bucks, but I am uncertain of the design. It was granted to a Meehan by king James, for his part in the Battle of the Boyne, after which the newly ennobled fled to France, the longer to enjoy his new status. Consequently, there are probably French Meehans out there somewhere.

The name is spelt, O/'Mi/adhacha/in, in Gaelic, assuming an acute accent over the preceding vowel in place of the forward slash I have used here.

Well, that's all I can recall at the moment. Except to add that on Devenish Island there is a tower with four windows and four carved heads from the 12th century carved on it. Noone knows for sure who they are supposed to represent, but one of them, a fine face with shaven chin and braided sideburns, is supposed to represent the founder also. An illustration of it may be found on page 116 of Thames & Hudson's 1995 publication, "The Dragon and the Griffin, the Viking Impact", in their Celtic Design series.

ęCopyright Aidan Meehan 1996 - 2000