O’Keefe – noble rulers from Co Cork

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

O’Keefe is an ancient name going back to medieval times and has links to Irish royalty. It is one of the most popular surnames in Ireland.

There are numerous variations of the name including O’Keeffe, O’Keiffe and Keefe.

The O’Keefes are descended from the 9th century chief Art Caomh. Caomh’s father was Fionghuine who was King of Munster until his death in 902 AD.

History of Irish surnames

Gods and royalty

The name O’Keefe is derived from the old Gaelic name O Caomh. The ‘O’ prefix means ‘grandson of’ or ‘descendent of’. So a person with the name O’ Caomh would have been a descendent of Caomh.

Art Caomh’s name comes from the Gaelic word ‘Caomh’ which means noble or gentle. According to an Irish myth, Caomh was married to Clíodhna, who was a goddess of love and beauty.

Caomh’s clan ruled large areas in Munster. Their territory spread from what is now Glanmore and Fermoy, along the banks of the Blackwater River in Co Cork.

They were princes in Fermoy and built several castles.

Duhallow – O’Keefe territory

They were finally forced to travel west in 1170 following the Norman invasions of Ireland. They settled in Duhallow and soon became a dominant family in the area. Duhallow became known as ‘Pobal O’Keeffe’, which meant O’Keefe territory.

The senior branch of the family had a seat at Dromagh in Dromtarriff Parish.

Battles with the British Protestants

King James II
King James II

Domhnall O’Keeffe was prominent in the Irish Rebellion in 1641. The Irish attempted to seize control of the English administration in Ireland. They were worried about Irish Catholic rights being ignored in favour of English and Scottish Protestant forces who were defying King Charles I and heading to Ireland.

The rebellion was part of the Eleven Year War (also known as the Irish Confederate Wars) in which the Irish were eventually defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s army.

Battle of Aughrim

Half a century later, Domhnall’s son Daniel O’Keeffe fought with King James II against William of Orange in the Battle of Aughrim. Daniel was one of over 7,000 who died in the 1691 battle, which was the bloody and decisive end to the Williamite War. It meant that there would never again be a Catholic monarch ruling over England, Scotland and Ireland.

Daniel was the last great O’Keefe chief of Dromagh. The family estates were confiscated in 1703.

Several O’Keefes left Ireland and settled in the Champagne area of Catholic France. Many became officers in the French army. In 1740, Constantine O’Keefe became a member of the French aristocracy following many years of service. As the years passed by, the O’Keefe’s name changed in France and eventually became Cuif.

O’Keefes true to their roots

Back in Ireland, many families were dropping the ‘O’ prefixes to their name during the Middle Ages in a bid to become more Anglicised. This was necessary at the time as the country was under British rule and it was hard for people to find work if they had an Irish sounding name.

However, the O’Keefes were one of the few families who stayed true to their name and the majority of them kept the ‘O’ prefix during the entire period.

Of course some O’Keefes did drop the prefix which is why there are many people in Ireland today with the surname ‘Keefe’. However, O’Keefe is by far the more popular variation of the name.

Famous O’Keefes

Many people with the surname O’Keefe or a variation have excelled in their chosen fields.

Adam Keefe was an American Basketball player in the NBA.

John Keefe is the drummer for American pop-rock band Boys Like Girls.

John O’Keeffe was an actor and dramatist who had success in London’s Convent Garden in the early 19th century. His notable works were ‘Merry Sherwood’ and Tony Lumpkin in Town’.

Michael O’Keefe is an American actor who has appeared in several films such as The Great Santini and Caddyshack and TV shows including M*A*S*H, The West Wing, The Ghost Whisperer.

Miles O’Keeffe – American actor famous for playing Tarzan in the 1981 film Tarzan, the Ape Man. He also played Dracula in the film Waxwork.

Rob Keefe is a former American football player and coach in the AFL. He is the only person to ever win both the ArenaCup and ArenaBowl as both a player and a coach.

Sheldon and Adam Keefe are Canadian brothers. Both are professional ice hockey players.

History of Irish surnames