Original Version
April 22nd 2000 Easter Sunday

Most recent version
(March 16th 2001)


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We sometimes receive requests, mostly from people living overseas, for information regarding the "Finnerty" surname.

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Most of the queries we receive are all contained
in the three basic questions set out below:

  • (a) "Where did the name Finnerty come from, and what does it mean?"

  • (b) "Where in Ireland did the original Finnerty family live?

  • (c) Does the Finnerty name appear anywhere in Irish history books?

Please Note: There are a number of spelling variations for
  the "Finnerty" family name (both in English and in Celtic);
and for the purpose of these notes we have tried to restrict these
variations to one in each of the two separate languages:
"Finnerty" (English), and "O' Fionnachta" (Celtic).

(a) "Where did the name Finnerty come from,
and what does it mean?"

Our understanding is this:

  • The Celtic version of the name "Finnerty" is "Ó Fionnachta";

  • "Ó Fionnachta" in Celtic means: grandchild (or later descendant) of "Fionnachta";

  • "Fionnachta" is a composite of two Celtic words: "Fionn" and "Sneachta";

  • "Fionn" in Celtic means "fair" - as in shade of white, and "Sneachta" means snow;

  • As a consequence of the above, it seems the original Celtic person known as "fionn sneachta" (i.e. "fair snow" literally - but meaning "snow-white"), was a man or a woman with snow white hair, or snow white skin: or possibly both. Incidentally, and for reasons unknown to us, it seems people of such appearance were greatly revered by the ancient Celts. Similarly for people with snow-white skin and red hair; and Queen Meave of Connacht - who the ancient Celts believed was a goddess (and not a human being), is thought to be one such person.

  • It may be relevant to include here that the late W.T. Finnerty had a nephew born during the 1940's in the New Inn area of County Galway (also called William), who actually did have snow white hair; and who (as a child and in his early teens) had a nickname which strongly reflected its unusual colour: tangible genetic evidence perhaps of a direct link between himself and the original "fionn sneachta" ancestor from many dozens of generations earlier?

  • There is a very similar Celtic word to "Fionnachta" (which can be seen in modern Irish Language dictionaries) spelled: "Fionnachtaí"; and the English meanings given are "discoverer" or "inventor". Whether or not there is any substantial relationship between the origins of these two words, we do not know at present.

    Translation distortions (from Celtic language to English):

  • When Ireland came fully under the grip of English control (in the seventeenth century) all, or almost all, Celtic family names (and place names) were forced through a very "rough and ready, any old way will do" translation process which was highly distorting: often (and perhaps deliberately) to an extent which meant the end result was completely meaningless.

  • In this hit-and-miss way, busy English scribes - who would have had no knowledge of Celtic languages (or very little) - quickly wrote down place names on maps, and drew up lists of tenants' names etc., based on what they heard and what was easiest for them to pronounce. Under these circumstances, "Ó Fionnachta" was transformed into "Finnerty" by one scribe, to "O' Finaghty" or "Finaghty" by another, and so on.  Other variations we know of include: "O' Fenaghty", "Finerty", "Fennerty", "Fenerty", and "Fenety".  However, and as is believed to have happened with several other Celtic names, some of these variations (such as "Fenerty" and "Fenety" for example), may have originated after members of the family had emigrated from Ireland and established themselves in places such as England, Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

  • Had the English scribes been less busy, more knowledgeable, and more caring perhaps, "Ó Fionnachta" would in all probability have been translated to "Fairsnow", or "Snowfair" possibly.

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(b) "Where in Ireland did the original "Finnertys" live?

  • We are not sure where the original "fionn sneachta" lived; but, some of us occasionally like to indulge in the romantic notion that she or he might have been one of the Celtic "sea nomad" discoverers who apparently explored the coastlines of Europe at the dawn of civilisation (some 10,000 years or so ago): on the lookout for nice places to live, and for useful metals such as gold - which they later learned to fashion into beautiful ornaments.

  • The earliest written recorded reference (we know of) regarding a permanent Finnerty "home place" appears in the "Annals of the Four Masters" (written we think around 1154); and it very firmly links the Ó Fionnachta family with an ancient fortress where Donamon Castle (photograph below) now stands: approximately 10 miles due west of Roscommon town (in the Province of Connacht).

  • The English name "Donamon" comes from the Celtic words "Dun Iomáin" - meaning "Fortress of Iomán". According to tradition, and as the Dun Iomáin place name suggests, the fortress has been there from earliest times. The site on which Donamon Castle now stands is believed to be one of the very oldest and longest inhabited sites in Ireland. (Since 1939 it has been home to the Irish branch of the Divine Word Missionaries community - which is German in origin.)

  • For some lengthy period up to the Anglo Norman Invasion (in 1169), the Finnertys were the royal chiefs of Clann Conway (Conmhach, "son of Con" in Celtic) and had control of 48 townlands located on both sides of the river Suck. The Suck is one of the main tributaries of the river Shannon and it runs right alongside Donamon Castle - please see photograph below.

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(c) Did the Finnerty clan feature in any significant way in Irish history?

  • The Finnertys first seem to appear in Irish history books as the direct descendants of Conway, who was the oldest son of King Muireadach Muilleathan. King Muireadach was head of several septs in the Province of Connacht, and he died in 701 A.D. On account of their association with the oldest son of Muireadach, the Finnertys were the most senior family in the group as far as privileges went. 
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The book shown above (written by Richard M. Finnerty)
is on display at Donamon Castle.

  • Seniority with regard to practical political power in the "Síol Muireadach" (Seed of Muireadach) group went to the descendants of a younger son of Muireadach: these descendants had the name of  "Ó Conchobhair" - or "O' Connor", or "Connor", as the name much later became know in the English language.

  • Two members of the O' Connor family later found themselves well known places in Irish history books.

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    • Toirdelbach Ua Conchobhair is considered by many historians to have been one of the most outstanding High Kings that Ireland ever had; and his son "Ruaidrí Ó Conchobhair" had the unique distinction of being the very last High King of Ireland.  Ruaidrí died in 1198. The remains of both he and his father now rest in the ruins of the Cathedral at the ancient ecclesiastical site of Clonmacnoise - which, very appropriately it seems, is located right in the heart of Ireland, and literally just a stone's throw from Ireland's largest river: The Shannon.

    • During Ruaidrí's reign, a string of problems with a subordinate and apparently "difficult" provincial king (Diarmait Mac Murchada, King of Leinster), led directly to the Anglo Norman Invasion of Ireland: which in turn quickly gave rise to huge upheavals in Irish history - by far the biggest since the arrival of St Patrick 700 years or so earlier.

      • A big part of the problem with Diarmait was that he got himself involved in a very publicly conducted abduction controversy: because of a love affair between himself and the wife (Dervorgilla) of another provincial king (Tiernán O' Rourke of Breifne). Both of these men were battle hardened Celtic warrior kings, and it is not too difficult to imagine how they went about settling their differences.

      • There was a lot of trouble, and matters were not helped by the fact that a number of close observers on both sides believed the "abduction" was all very cleverly engineered by Dervorgilla herself. Under great pressure "to do something", High King Ruaidrí eventually decided to banish Diarmait from Ireland (a punishment not all that uncommon in those days, and one which a son of King Brian Boru - Donnchad, who died in Rome in 1064 - had earlier accepted). However, Diarmait could not, or would not, accept this judgement: and quickly went to see King Henry ll of England (who was really a Norman, and whose first language was French). Although King Henry was very interested in Diarmait's invitation to invade Ireland (at the small cost to him of reinstating Diarmait), he was too busy taking over other places elsewhere to get directly involved himself. Nevertheless, he gave Diarmait a very supportive letter which later enabled him to enlist the services of a Norman military leader in Wales named Strongbow. Shortly afterwards the Anglo Norman Invasion of Ireland got under way. This was a pivotal moment in Irish history, as the invasion was to have massive consequences for Ireland's future.

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  • With their flair for political guile, the Norman invaders behaved differently from many others in that they were happy from the very beginning to mix socially with the indigenous Celtic people of Ireland. To set the pattern (which in all probability was the first step of a "divide and rule" policy), part of the agreement between Diarmait Mac Murchada and Strongbow was that Diarmuit's eldest daughter (Aoífe) would become Strongbow's wife. (Marriages of this kind, combined with superior Norman military technology - much of which the Irish Celts had never experienced before - appear to have been the main factors in the rapid Anglo Norman take-over of Ireland.)

  • Several others followed the lead set by Diarmait and Strongbow regarding marriage arrangements - but not all.  The Finnertys appear to have been amongst those who choose not to participate, and consequently they had most of their lands taken from them shortly after the Norman invasion. Without delay, the Normans set about building large, well fortified castles in the places they took over - making it extremely difficult for the dispossessed to ever regain control of the land which once was theirs. (Strong castles of the type in question - many still standing in places like Donamon, Athenry, etc., would have been completely new to the Celts of the time in Ireland.)

  • As might be expected, deep divisions arose amongst Irish Celts regarding the matter of (as some would see it) fraternising with the Anglo Norman enemy. In one bizarre incident (around 1307), it seems the "last Finnerty" in Donamon (already living in reduced circumstances), was murdered by his own wife: as part of a political deal involving marriage to a Norman Knight who wanted to get hold of the Clann Conway title (which he later took). The lady in question is now known in Irish history as:

Nuala na Miodoige

  • We have seen mention of a John Finnerty who was Bishop of Elphin around 1354, and after that the name Finnerty appears (to us) to have faded away from the history books for several centuries.

  • Following the severe social turbulence connected with the Anglo Norman invasion, it seems that many of the dispossessed members of the Finnerty family of Donamon moved away from the area and set up homes in several different parts of Ireland, including various places in Counties Galway (e.g. New Inn, which is just one hour's drive or so from Donamon), and Kerry. We have seen references to a printer named Peter Finnerty from Loughrea (1766 to 1822) - who was imprisoned for refusing to give information about the United Irishmen. Many went overseas of course: Galway born John Frederick Finnerty founded "The Chicago Citizen" we understand, while his son Michael J. Finnerty (who died in 1908) was a United States soldier and politician.

  • Finally, and possibly a little irrelevant, we know of a young Finnerty descendant born in 1996 in Australia (whose name does not appear in any history books). Although his parents knew nothing at the time about the ancient link of long ago between the two families, they named him "Connor": and he is the first great grandson of the late W.T. Finnerty (of New Inn, Co. Galway). Was the choice of name coincidence? Or might it have been prompted by hidden memories of ancient events: transmitted in a genetic form which can survive many sequences of life and death? As far as we know, it is entirely possible that such information (or indeed any information which nature chooses) can be passed on through the chemical coding processes on which genetics depends.

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Siobhán Tara Finnerty and Connor
(Melbourne 1996)

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Father James Finnerty (1614 - 1683)

Other "Fionn-Sneachta" web sites:
Morris Fenerty (North America)

Finnerty (et al) Genealogy Site:

More about Irish family names

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Last major update: April 22nd 2000 (Easter Sunday)

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