Though the last name “Byrne” routinely pops up in many countries and cultures across the globe, there’s never so much as a drop of uncertainty regarding the country from which it hails. Coming in variations such as Burn, Burns, Byrnes, and O’Byrne, this name is unmistakably Irish, and we at Shamrock Craic have got etymology aplenty to prove it!
The Anglicized Byrne name stems from the Irish Ó Broin, the Leinster-based family of Bran. As with all Irish last names, the “Ó” can be taken to mean “descendant of.” In this case, it might mean that any Byrnes you know are distant relatives of the ancient king of Leinster, Bran mac Máelmórda, who died in 1052. This Bran was a member of the Uí Dúnlainge dynasty, a series of leaders who ruled the province, and he was based in an area that is today equivalent to Naas, the county town of Co. Kildare. In the time of Bran mac Máelmórda, the clan’s Latin motto was Certavi et vici — simply, “I have fought and conquered.” Its coat of arms was (and remains) a red shield bearing three silver dexter hands, below crest featuring a mermaid holding a comb and mirror.
In the years that preceded the Norman invasion of Ireland, the people of Ó Broin — who were then known as the sept of Uí Fáeláin — lived on the bountiful plains of Kildare, which were previously prized by the Irish patron saint, Brigid, for their beauty and potential. However, as Norman forces began to invade, their territory was driven back towards less fertile lands and harsher, rockier terrain. This area would later come to be known as Co. Wicklow, a mountainous county on Ireland’s eastern coast. Today, many people with the surname Byrne can still be found in this area, along with counties Dublin and Louth.
Of the clans who resisted the foreign invasion of Ireland, the Byrnes were among the fiercest. They continued to inaugurated chiefs within the old Gaelic order right up until the end of the 16th century. These leaders held their posts at Ballinacor, Co. Wicklow, in a territory known as Crioch Branach. The military history of the Byrnes is still regarded highly today, one great example of this clan’s strategic prowess being Fiacha MacHugh O’Byrne, Lord of Ranleigh and resistor against the Elizabethan capture of Ireland between 1529 and 1603.
During the Desmond Rebellions of the late 1500s, Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne played an instrumental role in the freeing of the imprisoned Edmund Butler, who had been caught climbing the battlements of Dublin Castle by English authorities. Later, in 1572, Fiach narrowly escaped with his life when the crown troops launched an attack on O’Byrne territory, burning a total of sixteen villages and slaughtering hundreds in retribution for the murder of one of their own. Soon, it became clear that Fiach was willing to play both sides to achieve his ends: later that year, he turned over the murderer in question in return for an official pardon for himself. In doing so, he walked free, only to later fall under the gaze of English forces once more when he supported his brother-in-law, Rory Oge O’More, in his own acts of rebellion. For his actions, Rory was put to death soon afterwards, though his wife (Fiach’s sister) and child were spared. For his part, Fiach saw the importance of nurturing the next generation of revolutionaries, and took his nephew under his wing, intent on training him to defend himself in an Ireland torn asunder by conflict.
Fiach’s rebel activities continued on for many more years, peaking at the Battle of Glenmalure in 1580, when he lead Irish troops against those of Arthur Grey, the then-Lord Deputy of Ireland. Later, in 1592, he involved himself in an second escape from Dublin Castle: this time, the man on the run was Hugh Roe O’Donnell, who would later go on to become an integral player in the Nine Years War and the Flight of the Earls, signifying an end to the ways of the old Gaelic order in Ireland.
Unlike many of his peers, Fiach lived until a ripe old age — but even so, his passing was far from a peaceful one. Attacked by English army captain Thomas Lee, he was decapitated with his own sword in 1597. For months afterwards, his head was displayed on a pike outside Dublin Castle as a supposed symbol of English triumph; later, it was pickled and brought by an adventurer before the Queen in London. Records show that she was deeply unhappy with this move, voicing her anger that “the head of such a base Robin Hood was solemnly brought into England.”
Interestingly, the tumultuous story of Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne has proven with time to be somewhat symptomatic of those who bear this name. After a little research, it’s impossible not to view this clan as a group of natural movers and shakers, unpredictable and daring until the very last. Another good example of this lies with Joseph Byrne, an Australian ne’er-do-well born in 1856 Victoria to an Irish immigrant family with roots in Co. Clare and Co. Carlow. A close friend of the notorious Ned Kelly, Byrne was a member of the Kelly Gang, and with them strategized numerous raids and bank robberies. However, Byrne wasn’t a typical outlaw by any means — he was also a skilled poet and writer, and penned many bush ballads about the group during their active years. One particularly memorable verse reads:
My name is Ned Kelly,
I’m known adversely well.
My ranks are free,
My name is law,
Wherever I do dwell.
My friends are all united,
My mates are lying near.
We sleep beneath the shady trees,
No danger do we fear.
Despite his bravado, Joe Byrne did not live to see middle age. At the age of 24, he was struck dead by a bullet during a siege, mere moments after loudly declaring “Here’s to the bold Kelly Gang!” for all to hear. Several months later, Ned Kelly himself was hanged for his crimes. Even though the exploits of the Kelly Gang spanned a short about of time, the sheer scale of their achievements have never been forgotten; so much so that one rumor, claiming that Byrne and Kelly had drafted a declaration for the Republic of Northeast Victoria which was later destroyed by the Victorian government, still persists today.
Going by our stories so far, it’s easy to see why one might say the Byrne and Byrne-variants of the world appear to have a unifying talent for rule-breaking. Another account in support of this is that of Mary Burns, an American woman who took the risk of a lifetime during the American Civil War. In an effort not to be parted with he lover, who had been drafted into the 7th Michigan Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, she disguised herself as a man and enlisted under the name of John. However, ten days in, she was recognized by an acquaintance and turned in to the authorities. Stories of Mary’s daring move quickly reached the general public, and her story was immortalized on February 25, 1863 in the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune.
Then, born to an Irish Catholic family in New York some 16 years after Mary’s exploits, there was Lucy Burns, a woman who would grow up to become a driving force in the women’s suffrage and human rights movement. A close friend of Alice Paul, she was an instrumental figure in the founding of the National Women’s Party in 1916.
The following January, the two joined forces to lead dozens of women to picket the White House, demanding equal rights to the men of the United States. They were arrested and taken to Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia, where Burns and her allies were subjected to brutal treatment for their activism, climaxing in several hours of horrific punishment known as the “Night of Terror.” Throughout it all, she remained a brilliant leader, striving to guide the other prisoners through hunger strikes and torture. Eventually, she came to be so loved and respected by the female inmates that, when the guards punished her for insolence by tying her hands above her head to her cell door for the night, the other women mimicked the position in a show of solidarity.
Lucy Burns saw the struggle of women’s suffrage through until the bitter end. Her work has been commemorated in many ways, most notably the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels, which illustrates the ups and downs of the voting rights movement for Burns, Paul, and their comrades, and the Lucy Burns Museum, a suffragist museum currently under construction at the former sight of the Occoquan Workhouse.
Turning our gaze back to the Byrnes based in Ireland, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the media giant status of presenter Gay Byrne, a national treasure best known for his role as the first host of the Late Late Show, the world’s second-longest running chat show. Beginning his work on the show in 1962, he also spent time in Britain, and during this period became the first ever television host to introduce the Beatles live on screen. Over the course of his career, he was credited as a mover and shaker, integral in opening up several essential conversations among the Irish people; topics he publically approached included contraception, homosexuality, and abortion rights.
In 2010, Byrne was referred to by the Irish Times newspaper as “unquestionably the most influential radio and television man in the history of the Irish State,” and has also been written about by the Irish Examiner as “the man who changed Ireland.” Indeed, in 2011, his popularity proved so powerful that he was approached to run for the position of President of Ireland. Despite topping opinion polls, however, he declined to run, preferring to continue his work as an entertainer. Now partially-retired, he plays jazz on public radio and continues to be the subject of much love and respect.
Another lesser-known Byrne of note is beloved Irish musician Hozier, whose full name is actually Andrew Hozier-Byrne. Best known for his 2013 hit single “Take Me to Church,” he has attained global acclaim for his powerfully emotional creative choices, and is considered an ally of many human rights organizations based out of Ireland.
Byrne is the name of the final novel written by English author Anthony Burgess, published posthumously in 1995 after his death two years earlier. The narrative, which echoes the rhyming stanzas employed by Lord Byron in writing Don Juan, is concerned with an Irishman by the name of Michael Byrne, a painter and composer with a far cry less talent than he assumes himself to have: “He thought he was a kind of living myth / And hence deserving of ottima rima / The scheme Aristotle juggled with / Apt for a lecherous, defective dreamer.”
Over the course of the story, Byrne becomes entangled in the early stages of the Nazi regime in Germany. Burgess wrote of the “smash and crash / Of pawnshop windows by insentient beef / In uniform, the gush of beer, the splash / Of schnapps, the joy of being drunk and Aryan, / Though Hitler was a teetotalitarian.” Later in life, Byrne vanishes on a trip to Africa, presumably dead. However, the novel’s final pages come with a twist: in a letter sent to his now middle-aged sons, he reveals himself to be alive, though fading on his deathbed in London, and speaks of his wish for them to hear him read his last will and testament.
Do you have a favorite Byrne we missed out on in this study — perhaps from your own family, friend group, or wider community? Give them a shout-out in the comments below, and make sure all the Byrnes in your life know just how special their rebellious clan is!