MacGowan – descended from Ulster royalty

MacGowan is an ancient surname that has origins in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.

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There are several variations including McGavin, McGowan, McGawn and O’Gowan. See the end of the article for a fuller list of variations.

MacGowan is derived from the old Gaelic name Mac or O’ Gabhann. The old name came with either of the Irish prefixes ‘Mac’ or ‘O’. ‘Mac’ means ‘son of’ and ‘O’ means ‘grandson of’ or ‘descendent of’. Gabhann was a personal name which came from the Gaelic word ‘gabha’ which meant ‘blacksmith’ or ‘iron worker’.History of the Irish name MacGowan. Image copyright Ireland Calling

Scottish MacGowans

In Scotland the McGowan derives from the name McGobhann which also meant ‘son of the blacksmith’. Many Scottish people settled in Ireland over the years particularly in the 15th century when the English had defeated the O’Neills and O’Donnells who were the most powerful families in Ulster.

Many Scottish Protestants were placed in Ulster and became lords and landowners. As there was already MacGowans in Ireland it is difficult to determine whether any given person with the name today could trace their family back to Ireland or even further back to Scotland.

Irish MacGowans

In Ireland the MacGowans originated in Co Caven. They were royalty and part of the Dál Fiatach. The Dál Fiatach was a collection of important families that ruled over territory in eastern ulster. The race of people in Ulster at the time were called the Ulaid. Several members of the MacGowan family were kings of the Ulaid.

Shane MacGowan. Photo copyright Masao Nakagami CC2

Shane MacGowan


The MacGowans were eventually forced out of their territories by the English. They left Ulster and settled in Co Donegal. However, they were no longer royalty and lived under the O’Donnell family’s rule.

The surname develops

During the middle ages many Irish families anglicised their name as it was far more difficult to find work for people with an Irish sounding name under British rule. Many dropped the prefix and anglicised the spelling so for example O’ Gabhann became Gowan or Gavin.

In some cases the name even became changed simply to ‘Smith’ which was the English equivalent of MacGowen.

A lot of families reinstated their prefixes in the 1800s. This was due to a surge in Irish patriotism following the 1798 rebellion.

Famous MacGowans

Shane MacGowan is an Anglo-Irish singer and songwriter. He is famous as the lead singer of pioneering Celtic punk band the Pogues. The Pogues’ career spanned four decades and they are best known for their classic Christmas song ‘Fairytale of New York’. More on the Pogues

Rose McGowan is an American actress. She has appeared in several Hollywood movies such as Scream, The Doom Generation and The Black Dahlia. She also played Paige Matthews in the popular TV series Charmed.

Alistair McGowan is an English comedian and impressionist. He has worked on TV and radio since the 1980s and won a BAFTA in 2003. His most famous impressions include David Beckham, Tony Blair and the character Ross Gellar from Friends.

Tom McGowan is an American actor. He has appeared in hit movies such as Sleepless in Seattle, True Crime, Ghost World and The Family Man. He has also appeared in several popular TV series such as Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Desperate Housewives.

Variations of the name MacGowan

The are many variations to the name MacGowan including Gowan, Gowen, MacGowen, Magowan, McGavin, McGawn, McGawne, McGowan, McGowen, O’Gaven, O’Gavin, O’ Gowan and O’Gowen.

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