Cleary – ancestors of the King of Connacht

History of the Irish name Clery. Image copyright Ireland Calling
History of the Irish name Clery. Image copyright Ireland Calling

Cleary is an ancient surname that originated in Ireland around 1,200 years ago.

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There are several variations to the name including Clearie, Clery, MacCleary, MacClery, McCleary, McCleery, McClery, O’Cleary and O’Clery. Many families anglicised the name to Clarke, which is the English equivalent of the name.

History of the Irish name Clery. Image copyright Ireland CallingIt comes from the old Gaelic surname Cleirigh, which comes from the word cléireach, meaning ‘clerk’. It is one of the earliest hereditary surnames in Ireland. They are said to have descended from a man named Cleirigh who lived in the 9th century. Cleirigh was said to be a relative of Guaire, King of Connacht.

Poets, clergymen and judges

Many people had a prefix in front of the name to indicate that the name had passed from one generation to the next. The most common Gaelic prefixes are ‘Mac’ which means ‘son of’ and ‘O’ which means ‘grandson of’ or ‘descendent of’.

Both prefixes were used by Clearys and the names MacCleary and O’Cleary are still popular today.

The Clearys originated in Connacht and were a significant family in the area that is now Co Galway. Following the Anglo-Norman invasions of the 13th century they were driven out of their land and headed to Ulster. They settled in their new home and became poets, clergymen and brehons. A Brehon was a judge in Gaelic culture and the position was often hereditary.

Name becomes anglicised

In the 17th century, following Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, the country came under British control. Irish Gaelic names became anglicised as the English clerks would write them in an intuitive English spelling that they could understand.

Many families also dropped their Gaelic prefixes such as ‘Mac’ and ‘O’. They needed to be pragmatic as it became more difficult to find work for people with Irish sounding names.

In the early 19th century following the 1798 Rebellion, there was a surge in Irish patriotism and many Gaelic prefixes were reinstated to family surnames. They maintained the English spelling to the name however, as by this point most people spoke English.

Desiree Cleary

Desiree Cleary

This is why today there are many people with the surnames Cleary, MacCleary and O’Cleary.

The name spreads across the world

In the mid-19th century the name spread across the world as millions of people left Ireland to escape the potato famine. As consecutive crops failed to grow, millions of people starved or died from diseases caused by malnutrition.

The people who emigrated settled in places like the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia. Irish names such as Cleary and its variations are common in these countries today.

Sisters Julie and Desiree Cleary were daughters of an Irish merchant. They married the brothers of Napoleon Bonaparte and became Queen of Spain and Queen of Sweden

Famous Clearys

Jon Cleary is an English musician who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is a respected pianist and song writer. He has worked with stars of funk and R&B such as BB King, Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt during his distinguished career.

Beverly Cleary was an award winning American author. She is one of America’s most successful children’s authors and has sold over 90 million books worldwide. She won the National Book Award in 1981 for Ramona and Her Mother.


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