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Irish Surname - O'Brien

The surname O'Brien is 'O'Briain' in Irish, meaning descendant of Brian (Boru). The name means 'exalted one' or 'eminence'. It is among the ten most frequently found in Ireland and derives from the 10th century King of Ireland, Brian Boru. In 976 Brian Boru secured control of the Dal gCais tribal grouping based in the Clare/Limerick area, and two years later defeated and killed the Eoghanacht king of Munster. He then waged deadly war on the kingdoms of Connacht, Meath, Leinster and Breifne and eventually secured submission from all but the northern Ui Neill, the Leinstermen and the Vikings. His remarkable career as High King of Ireland ended with his death on the field of the battle of Clontarf (1014) when the Norsemen were finally subdued. His victory at Clontarf united all of Ireland, nominally at least, under a single leader, though Brian himself was slain. It is not surprising that Brian's harp went on to become the model for the national emblem of Ireland.

From the 10th century down to the present day, the O'Briens have always been prominent in the history of Ireland. There were a number of septs in early Irish history, the largest of which were based in Counties Clare, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. It is in these Counties that the majority of descendants can still be found.

Brian's descendants, bearing the O'Brien name, continued to rule the Kingdom of Munster until the 12th century when their territory had shrunk to the Kingdom of Thomond which they held for almost five centuries more. After the partition of Munster into Thomond and the MacCarthy Kingdom of Desmond in the 12th century, the O'Brien dynasty went on to provide a further thirty monarchs of Thomond until 1542. The last O'Brien to reign in Thomond was Murrough O'Brien who was made Earl of Thomond in the Peerage of Ireland under Henry VIII of the House of Tudor. Murrough O'Brien was the first Baron Inchiquin, a title created for him in 1543, and today the title still applies to the head of the O'Brien clan.

In Griffiths Valuation c1850s, the largest concentrations of O'Brien households were found in Limerick, Clare, Tipperary and Cork. The surname without the O' prefix (Brien), was most common in Cork and Tipperary.

Famous People

Irish novelist and playwright Kate O'Brien was born in Limerick in December 1897. She was awarded the 1931 James Tait Black Prize for her novel 'Without My Cloak'. She is best known for her 1934 novel 'The Ante-Room', her 1941 novel 'The Land of Spices' and the 1946 novel 'That Lady'. Many of her books dealt with issues of female sexuality as well as gay and lesbian themes, and some of her books were banned at the hands of the censors in the early years of the Irish Free State.

Irish revolutionary politician William Smith O'Brien (1803-1864), was one of the founders of the Young Ireland movement, and took a prominent part in the rising of 1848. His grandson Dermond O'Brien (1865-1945) was a leading portrait painter in Dublin for almost forty years.

Irish novelist and short story writer Edna O'Brien, born in Tuamgraney, County Clare, in 1930, is famous for her writings about the inner feelings of women, and their problems in relating to men and to society as a whole. She published her first book, 'The Country Girls', in 1960, which was part of a trilogy of novels which also included 'The Lonely Girl' (1962) and 'Girls in Their Married Bliss' (1964). Shortly after their publication, these books were banned, and in some cases burnt, in Ireland due to their frank portrayals of the sex lives of their characters.

She has, however, gone on to receive numerous awards and recognition for her works, including a Kingsley Amis Award in 1962, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1990. In 2006, Edna O'Brien was appointed adjunct professor of English Literature in University College, Dublin and in 2009, she was honoured with a special lifetime achievement award at a special ceremony for the year's Irish Book Awards in Dublin.

Coat of Arms

The O'Brien arms symbolise the royal origins of the family with the lion the regal emblem par excellence. In the crest, the arm emerging from the clouds wielding a sword is to suggest the otherworldly source of their power.

Researching Irish Surnames

We have researched many sources for the origins of Irish surnames and extracted a fair representation of the origins of each. As there are many variations we have compiled a representative, but by no means exhaustive, selection.

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