O’Brien – descendants of the High King

History of the Irish name O'Brien. Image copyright Ireland Calling
History of the Irish name O'Brien. Image copyright Ireland Calling

O’Brien is the sixth most popular surname in Ireland. The O’Briens were one of the most significant clans throughout Irish history.

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Most O’Briens originally came from Clare, Waterford, Tipperary or Limerick.

History of the Irish name O'Brien. Image copyright Ireland CallingThe Queen of England is descended from the O’Briens. Queen Elizabeth II’s eighth great grandmother on her mother’s side was an O’Brien.

The first recorded spelling of the name was in the ‘Annals of the Four Masters’ which was in the mid-11th century. The motto on the O’Brien coat of arms states ‘Lamh Laidir In Uachtar’ which means ‘The Strong Hand From Above’.

The High King of Ireland

O’Briens are descended from Brian Boru who lived between 941-1014. Boru became the King of Thomond in AD 976 after his elder brother Mathgamain was killed. Thomond was a large area which took in what is now most of Country Clare as well as parts of Tipperary and Limerick.

By AD 1002 all the kings of Ireland were under Boru’s rule as he became the High King of Ireland.

As Boru’s kingdom grew, the O’Briens split into several septs. The Tipperary O’Briens were called The O’Briens of Ara and their most famous chief was Mac Ui Bhriain Ara who ruled in the early 14th century.

The Barony in Limerick was called the Pubblebrien after the O’Briens, there was also a sept in Dungarvan, Co Waterford.

Video of the story of the O’Brien name

Boru died in battle

Brian Boru (High King of Ireland).Boru died in battle after a rebellion led by Melmorda mac Murchada, the King of Leinster. Murchada had support from the Dublin Vikings.

Boru led his army and they met the rebels in the field of Clontarf, which is now in Dublin. Boru’s men were successful in defeating the rebels but Boru was killed in the conflict.

The name means ‘Descendent of Brian’ and there are other variants such as O’Brian and O’Bryan. As well as simply ‘Descendent of Brian’, O’Brien also means high or nobleman thanks to the status of Boru.

O’Briens supported the King Henry III

The O’Briens were offered hereditary titles such as Earl of Thomond, Viscount of Clare, and Earl and Baron of Inchiquin in return for their support during the Tudor conquests of Ireland. Murrough O’Brien who was King of Thomond gave up his Irish royalty to support the English King Henry VIII in 1543.
This made him the last King of Thomond but he became the first Earl of Thomond the same year in return for his support. However, many of the O’Brien clan supported Ireland against English rule.

Fighting O’Briens

Many O’Briens fought for the French army and the Irish Brigade that was founded by the third Viscount of Clare. They fought with the French during most of their battles for 100 years. They were known as ‘Clare’s Dragoons’ and they were led by the sixth Viscount of Clare as France won the Battle of Fontenoy.

There were 213 O’Briens fighting for America during the American War of Independence. Jeremiah O’Brien was renowned for capturing British ships during the first naval engagement of the Revolution.

Famous O’Briens throughout the world

More recently, O’Briens have conquered the world of literature and entertainment. Famous authors include Edna O’Brien and Tim O’Brien.

Silent film stars include Eugene O’Brien and George O’Brien. George successfully crossed over to ‘talkie’ films. Conan O’Brien is a famous American talk show host.


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