Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Sweeney - the story behind the name

Distribution in the Caribbean
Origins & Meaning of the Name
Early history (1200-1600)
End of the Gaelic Clans (1600-1700)
Later history (1800-1900)
How did the Sweeney’s get to the Caribbean?
Sweeney DNA

Distribution in the Caribbean

The Irish surname Sweeney is found in several Caribbean Islands, most notably Montserrat, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. Given the size of the population, Montserrat has the highest concentration of Sweeney’s in the Caribbean. Sweeney is the most common spelling, but there is also Sweeny, McSweeney, Sween, & McSween (these last two variants are not included in the numbers below). McSween is particularly numerous in Trinidad & Tobago.

People with Surname
People with Surname
Anguilla (UK)
Aruba (NL)
St Martin (Fr)
Curacao (NL)
Sint Maarten (NL)

In the absence of access to census data, the numbers in the table are sourced from the telephone directories of the respective countries. Click on an island to link to the phone book for that country.

[1] These are all McSweeney
[2] includes Sween x2
[3] includes McSween x39, Sween x11, Sweeny x1, McSweeney x1, & Sweeney x5
[4] includes McSween x2
[5] includes Sweeny x2, and McSweeney x1

Origins & Meaning of the Name

Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne (The Book of Clan Sweeney, approximately pronounced leow-er clan-eh siiv-neh) is the title of a 16th-century Donegal manuscript written in Irish. It is principally interesting for containing a historical tract concerning the Clan Suibhne. It is now held in the library of the Royal Irish Academy MS No. 475.

Sweeney, along with its variants MacSweeny and MacSwiney, comes from the Irish Mac Suibhne, from suibhne (pronounced sweeney), meaning "pleasant" or "well-disposed". The original Suibhne, from whom the surname derives, was a Scottish chief based in Argyle around the year 1200. His people were of mixed Viking and Irish descent, and their fame as fighters meant that they were much in demand in Ireland as gallowglasses, or mercenaries.

Early history (1200-1600)

More detailed histories of the Sweeney surname can be found on Wikipedia and on the Sweeney Clan Chief website, from which much of the summary below is sourced.

The MacSween’s lost control of their lands in western Scotland in 1262 to the Stewarts, Earls of Monteith. They managed to gain them back briefly the next year (1263) following the occupation of western Scotland by an invading fleet from Haakon IV of Norway. The MacSweens seemed to have been of doubtful loyalty as they were forced to also surrender hostages to guarantee their support. However, ultimately the Norwegian invasion was defeated at the Battle of Largs (1263).

The lands remained in control of the Monteiths for the rest of the 1200’s but between 1301 and 1310, John MacSween sided with the English in the hope of keeping alive his family's claim against the Menteiths. This was an era of constantly shifting alliances - in 1301, John MacSween was in alliance with Angus Og against the MacDougalls, and in 1310, he assisted the MacDougalls against Robert the Bruce. It was around this time that Edward II of England granted back to John and his brothers their family's ancestral lands of Knapdale, provided they could recover them from Sir John Monteith. However as a result of their failed attempt to do so (recorded in the Book of the Dean of Lismore), the MacSweens were forced to permanently leave for Ireland.

A contingent of the MacSweens eventually re-established themselves at Donegal, in north-west Ireland, about 1314. They hired themselves out as Gallowglass mercenary soldiers and became the progenitors of all the different chieftaincies of the Clan Sweeney. The implication of this is that everyone with the name Sweeney (or one of its variants) should have similar genetic signatures – at least those that are directly descended from the original Suibhne. However, it may have been the practice for all followers of a clan to be given the name of the Clan leader (similar to how slaves were named after the plantation owner). In these circumstances, there would not be one genetic signature to a Clan but many. And over time, one particular genetic signature may have arose and dominated a particular area or a particular subgroup of Sweeney’s.

Sweeney Castles (courtesy of Dr Tyrone Bowes, IrishOrigenes)

The MacSweens did, however, claim a remote Irish ancestry, tracing their descent from Ánrothán, son of Áed, son of Flaithbertach Ó Néill, king of Cenél Eóghan, who died in 1036. The story of the descent of Clann tSuibhne from the Ó Néill kings of Cenél Eóghan may have been a convenient fabrication in order to give the family a Millesian pedigree and thus an accepted place in medieval Tír Conaill (roughly modern day Donegal). However, WDH Sellar (Lord Lyon King of Arms, a Scottish solicitor, herald and genealogist) has argued convincingly that the story is not unlikely and that Clann tSuibhne and other Scottish families such as Lamont may well be descended from the Ó Néill family.

Some of those MacSweens who stayed on in Scotland formed into the Clan MacQueen, a branch of whom later joined the powerful Chattan Confederation. Other MacSweens who remained in Scotland became known as the MacEwens of Otter, whose line became extinct in the 17th century. As discussed above, one particular genetic signature may have evolved over time among these different subgroups of Sweeney’s.

The original Suibhne's great-great-grandson Muchadh Maer Mac Suibhne settled in the Fanad district of modern Co. Donegal in the fourteenth century, and his offspring soon split into three distinct groups, forming the chieftaincies of Mac Suibhne Fánad (Mac Sweeney Fanad), Mac Suibhne na d'Tuath (Mac Sweeney Doe), and Mac Suibhne Boghaineach (Mac Sweeney Banagh). For over three centuries, up to the final defeat of the Gaelic chieftains by the English in the mid-1600’s, they fought as gallowglasses in the inter-clan struggles of Ulster, mainly on behalf of the O'Donnells, and later fought alternately with and against the English. Constantly shifting allegiances was the name of the game for most people during this time.

(click on the map for a larger image)

The senior branch was the Mac Sweeney Fanad and they were based at Rathmullan and among their strongholds were Doe Castle and Rahan Castle. Their territory encompassed much of the land on the western shores of Lough Swilly. They built Rathmullan Castle sometime after 1472 and a Carmelite Priory was completed in 1516. Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne says that the priory was built by Ruaidhrí Mac Suibhne to honour his son who had travelled abroad and could speak many languages. Ruaidhrí was famed for his patronage of poets and learning. His wife Máire was a great builder of churches in Ulster and Connacht. She was the one who instigated the writing of Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne (which was compiled during the first half of the 1500’s). The last inaugurated chief of Fanad was Domhnall Mac Suibhne who succeeded his brother in 1570. In 1601, an English garrison was installed in Rathmullan and the Mac Sweeney Fanad subdued. In 1608 Domhnall received a grant of land in the Plantation of Ulster and in 1619 he is reported to have 2000 acres, called Roindoberg and Caroocomony. He died in 1637 and is buried in Clondavaddog, in Fanad. He must have been close to 90 years old.

The Mac Sweeney Doe branch was based in an area west of Fanad that included the modern parish of Gweedore and Tory island. It was ruled by the Ó Baegill clan until shortly after 1360, when it was conquered by Clann tSuibhne. The pedigree of this branch is described in the Book of Ballymote up to the early 1400’s. Thereafter there is little mention of them until the mid-1500’s. In 1588 the English were expressing concern that the chief was aiding Spaniards from the Armada and that he had allowed one of their ships to be readied for the journey back to Spain. The last chief of Mac Sweeney Doe was Maol Mhuire, appointed in 1596. He fought with the English against Red Hugh O’Donnell and was knighted for his services in May 1600. Then he switched allegiances and fought with O’Donnell against the English but was captured and held prisoner in a boat on the River Foyle. Undeterred, he escaped with the aid of a prostitute who had been brought on board to keep him company, and swam to freedom across the river. He switched allegiances several more times, but in April 1603 Doagh Castle fell to Sir Henry Dowcra, governor of the Derry garrison, and so Dowcra was "possessed of the country of Tírconnell for the king". The chief was pardoned in 1604, then arraigned for treason in 1608, but escaped punishment and was granted 2000 acres in the plantation of Ulster. His lands were confiscated by 1621, restored in 1630, and those owned by his grandson (Colonel Maol Mhuire Mac Suibhne, a leading rebel) were forfeited after the rising of 1641.

The Mac Sweeney Banagh held lands in south-west Donegal, further west and south of the Mac Sweeney Doe. They were in fact a late offshoot of another branch of the Sweeney’s – the Connacht Sweeney’s, who were concentrated in Sligo (near Dromard, west of Ballysadare). The seat of the Mac Sweeney Banagh was Rahan Castle, near Dunkineely (east of Killybegs). This fell to the English in 1601 but was recaptured. In 1608, the chief (Donnchadh) was imprisoned but later released and received 2000 acres in the Barony of Kilmacrenan during the Plantation of Donegal. Subsequently, the land owned by his grandson was held forfeit after the 1641 uprising.

Sweeney Clan Territories (courtesy of Dr Tyrone Bowes, IrishOrigenes)

End of the Gaelic Clans (1600-1700)

As happened with the majority of Catholic landholders, most of the lands of the Mac Sweeney chieftaincies were forfeited following the Catholic Rebellion of 1641 and the subsequent Cromwellian conquest. Various accounts of the alleged involvement of the Sweeney's in the Rebellion of 1641 can be found at the 1641 Depositions website and make for fascinating reading. (It's free but you need to register. Search using the following phrases in order to capture all relevant entries - there are at least 32: swe, swi, swy, mcsw, mcswy, mc sw, mc swy, mac sw).

The website also has an excellent account of the historical background to the 1641 rebellion which is well worth reading. The table below shows the changes in Sweeney land ownership between 1641 and 1670 (click on a name to go to details of that person). This information is sourced from another excellent website dedicated to The Down Survey of Ireland.

1641 owner
1670 owner
17 townlands total

6 townlands south of Macroom (Cork)
Lord John Kingston (& others; Protestant)
11 townlands, 9 east of Macroom, 1 east of Millstreet, 1 south-west of Fermoy (Cork)
MacCarthy, Callaghan earl of Clancarthy (Catholic)
36 townlands total

3 townlands north of Rathmullan (Donegal)
Brazier, Paul (Protestant)
1 townland north of Rathmullan (Donegal)
Hamilton, Sir Hans (Protestant)
8 townlands north of Rathmullan (Donegal)
1 still held by McSwine, others by Brazier, Ponsonby, & Cunningham
3 townlands, 2 north of Rathmullan (Donegal)
1 still held by McSwine, others by Ponsonby
4 townlands south of Rathmullan (Donegal)
Brazier, Paul (Protestant)
1 townland north of Carrickart (Donegal)
Ponsonby, Sir John (Protestant)
3 townlands north-west of Rathmullan (Donegal)
Brazier & Ponsonby
1 townland north of Rathmullan (Donegal)
Cuningham, William (Protestant)
1 townland north of Rathmullan (Donegal)
Brazier, Paul (Protestant)
1 townland north-west of Rathmullan (Donegal)
Ponsonby, Sir John (Protestant)
1 townland south of Dunfanaghy (Donegal)
Stephens, Sir John (Protestant)
3 townlands south of Dunfanaghy (Donegal)
Hamilton, Sir Hans (Protestant)
2 townlands north of Rathmullan (Donegal)
McSwyne, James (Catholic)
4 townlands north of Rathmullan (Donegal), and 1 townland west of Strabane (Donegal)
Ponsonby & Cunningham
5 townlands total

2 townlands east of Athenry (Galway)
Darcey, James (Catholic)
1 townland north-east of Athenry (Galway)
Lovelace, Thomas (Protestant)
1 townland east of Athenry (Galway)
Darcey, James (Catholic)
1 townland east of Athenry (Galway)
FitzHenry, Robert Shee (Catholic)
12 townlands total

1 townland south of Ballymote (Sligo)
Taaffe, Theobald earl of Carlingford (Catholic)
1 townland south of Enniscrone (Sligo)
Winkfield, Lewes (Protestant)
1 townland east of Enniscrone (Sligo)
Hunter, William (Protestant)
1 townland east of Enniscrone (Sligo)
Hunter, William (Protestant)
1 townland west of Ballysadare (Sligo)
Lovelace, Thomas (Protestant)
1 townland north of Rathmullan (Donegal), and 3 townlands west of Ballysadare (Sligo)
McSwyne, Mary (Catholic) - Donegal
Jones, Jeremiah (Protestant) - Sligo
3 townlands west of Ballysadare (Sligo), and 3 townlands west of Tobercurry (Sligo)
Jones, Jeremiah (Protestant), and Gore, Sir Arthur (Protestant)

The Sweeney's held 70 townlands in 1641. Thirty years later, they held five. Donnell Og McSwine held two townlands, as did James McSwyne. Mary McSwyne held one town land. All of them held this land in Donegal, north of Rathmullan, so these would all have been of the Mac Sweeney Fanad. It appears that no other branch held on to their land.

Donnell Oge McSwine’s land ownership in Donegal (1641)

In the census of 1659 the only Mac Suibhne titulado mentioned for Donegal is 'Donell McSwyne' in Clondavaddog. Thirty nine Mac Swyne families are counted for the barony of Kilmacrenan. In the Hearth Money Rolls (1660’s), most taxpayers of the name listed for the barony are found in the parishes of Clondavaddog, Clondahorky, and Tullaghobegley.

Also of note in the 1659 census, many Sweeney’s had ended up in County Clare, many of them described as ‘gentleman’, indicating nobility. This may have been due to the policy of forced transplantation across the River Shannon. Other Sweeney’s are to be found in Cork, Tipperary and Sligo.

Members of the Mac Sweeney Fanad and Doe also made their way south to Cork in the late fifteenth century and served the MacCarthys, acquiring territory of their own in Muskerry. In 1641, the largest landowner was Owen McSweeney who controlled 11 townlands in the Barony of Muskerry, between present day Macroom and Coachford. However, in 1670, ownership of the land had passed to Callaghan MacCarthy, Earl of Clancarthy.

Owen McSweeney’s land ownership in Cork (1641)

Later history (1800-1900)


The extent of subsequent survival and migration of the Sweeney surname between 1659 and 1850 or so has been captured in maps generated by a project run by Cork University called the Atlas of Family Names in Ireland. The map on the left is based on Petty's 1659 Census and the one on the right on Griffiths Valuation. Note that the population of Ireland was about 1 million in 1659 and 8 million in 1850.

Sweeney Surname Maps for c.1659 and c.1850 © William J. Smyth, Project Leader, Atlas of Family Names of Ireland, University College Cork, Ireland. Available at 

From the mid-1800’s up to 1911, the Sweeney’s remained concentrated at opposite ends of the island, in Donegal in the north, and Cork in the south. There was a less pronounced concentration in Mayo. The less common variant McSweeney was concentrated in Cork and Kerry with little representation in the north of the island. Note how the most common variant in Ireland is Sweeny, but the most common one in the Caribbean is Sweeney.

Distribution of the name Sweeney in the mid-1800’s (based on Griffith’s Valuation)

Distribution of the name Sweeney based on the 1901 census

Distribution of the name Sweeney in 1911 (based on farmers in the census)
Distribution of the name McSweeney in 1911 (based on farmers in the census)

England, Scotland & Wales

Below is the distribution of the surname Sweeney (and variants) based on 1881 and 1998 UK census information.

Some Sweeney’s stayed in Scotland and prospered. The name Sweeney and Sweeny were most heavily concentrated in the west of Scotland in both the 1881 and 1998 census. This is consistent with the known history of the Sweeney clan and illustrates how surnames persist in a given locality. There was an additional pocket of high concentration around Liverpool that has persisted to the present day.

Surprisingly, in 1881 the McSweeney’s were much less numerous, absent from Scotland, and more heavily concentrated in southern England (particularly London) and the southern tip of Wales.

The MacSween’s are found almost exclusively in the Outer Hebrides, off the coast of north-west Scotland, which would suggest (if one did not know the history of the family) that MacSween is a uniquely Scottish name and not an Irish one. Furthermore, one would predict that the genetic signature of the McSween’s would be different to that of the Sweeney’s, whereas that may not be the case at all. However, given that the name McSween is found only in the Outer Hebrides today, it could be that the ancestors of Caribbean people with this name (mainly in Trinidad and Grenada) are more likely to have come from the Outer Hebrides. However, this is merely a suggestion – DNA testing may help to confirm or refute it.

Further information about surname mapping can be found on the ISOGG Wiki page and on Facebook at Surname Distribution Maps.

How did the Sweeney’s get to the Caribbean?

Every family has a different story. Why not share yours by leaving a comment below?

Sweeney DNA

So far (May 2013), 67 people named Sweeney have tested with FTDNA. In addition, the following variants have been tested: Sweeny x5, McSweeney x3, McSweeny x1, and MacSween x1. This gives a total of 77 people tested thus far.

There is a specific Sweeney DNA project at FTDNA that currently has 53 members. The Administrator for this project is Terry Barton and he can be contacted here.

The DNA results indicate that the members of the project tested so far belong to the following Haplogroups:
R1b1a2 - 30 members belong to this haplogroup, the most common in Europe, and most of these are currently ungrouped. However, there are two subgroups (Lineages I & II) where the members closely match, suggesting a common ancestor within the last several hundred years. Unfortunately it is not clear where these Sweeney’s originated. 
I2b1 – 4 members belong to Haplogroup I2b1, and 3 of them are close matches. This latter group (Haplogroup I – Lineage I) may have originated in north-west Ireland (Sligo). 
Other haplogroups – R1a1a (2), I1 (1), E1b1b1 (1)
Unfortunately many members have not provided a birth location for their MDKA (Most Distant Known Ancestor), a full name, and an approximate year of birth. As a result, it is not clear if there are different genetic signatures for the Donegal, Cork, and Mayo Sweeney’s, which would be start in trying to identify which genetic signature (or signatures) are associated with which subgroup. Everyone doing a DNA test should provide this information in order to help the subsequent analysis. Some people have supplied pedigrees of their ancestral direct male line and these can be found here - Sweeney pedigrees.

Further testing of Sweeney’s with a known origin for their MDKA will be required to elucidate the genetic signature (or signatures) of the different Sweeney septs.

Links & Resources

  • Sweeney Family Histories – form the Irish Times “Irish Ancestors” website. Details are given of 8 family histories that have been published and where they can be accessed. 
  • There are various websites associated with the Sweeney clan and its various septs. 
  • the Sweeney Clan website – this has details of upcoming reunions, early family history, castles built by the Sweeney’s, and the restoration work being undertaken to restore Doe castle in Donegal 
  • - this has a lot of history relating to the clan and to the discussions surrounding the claim to the current chief of the Mac Sweeney Doe chieftainship. 
  • provides a short history of the Sweeney Clan with a focus on Scotland
  • The websites and have excellent maps of the Castles associated with the various families and clans in Ireland, as well as surname distribution maps based on where farmers with a particular surname cluster in the 1911 census, indicating a likely location for the Clan Homeland (given that Ireland remained an agricultural society until relatively recently and therefore farmers could still be found farming the lands of their ancestors). 
  • Further information about surname mapping can be found on the ISOGG Wiki page and on Facebook at Surname Distribution Maps
  • Caribbean Family Roots – a website run by Linford Sweeney (based in Manchester and of Jamaican heritage). Linford is a family historian and author. The website offers a concise history of the Caribbean and details of Linford’s upcoming lectures and workshops. 
  • The Down Survey of Ireland – this is a fantastic website that allows you to see the state of land ownership in Ireland following Cromwell’s conquest of the island in the mid-1600’s. This was the time that a lot of Irish went to the Caribbean as slaves or indentured servants initially, and later as merchants and adventurers. To search for a particular landowner by name, click here


  1. ta me Sweeney freshein agus ta ahas orm go bhuil scribha seo ar on www - go hiontach

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